Freemasonry did not just appear in the year 1717. In fact, according to Robert Plot the famed English Naturalist and first keeper of the Asmolean Museum, in 1686, Freemasonry was being practiced throughout the Nation.
“To these add the Customs relating to the County, whereof they have one, of admitting Men into the Society of Free-masons, that in the moorelands of this County seems to be of greater request, than any where else, though I find the Custom spread more of less all over the Nation;…”1
Robert Plot 1640 – 1696, English Naturalist, first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum
Yet despite this fact, we have inherited the date of our formation from the somewhat unreliable Constitutions of 1738, prepared and written by Dr. James Anderson. The late Lionel Vibert sums it up quite nicely when he explains:
“The Grand Lodge that was brought into existence in 1717 did not find it necessary to possess a Constitution of its own for some years. Exactly what went on between 1717 and 1721 we do not know; almost our only authority being the account given by Anderson in 1738 which is unreliable in many particulars.”2According to Anderson’s Constitutions of 1738, this is his version of how the events that lead to that date took place, written retrospectively, nineteen years after that date:
“King George I enter’d London most magnificently on 20 Sept. 1714 and after the Rebellion was over A.D. 1716. the few Lodges at London finding themselves neglected by Sir Christopher Wren, thought fit to cement under a Grand Master as the Centre of Union and Harmony, viz. the lodges that met,
- At the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul’s Church-Yard.
- At the Crown Ale-house in Parker-Lane near Drury-Lane.
- At the Apple-Tree Tavern in Charles Street, Covent-Garden.
- At the Rummer and Grapes Tavern in Channel-Row, Westminster
They and some old Brothers met at the said Apple-Tree, and having put into the Chair the oldest Master Mason (now the Master of the Lodge) they constituted themselves a Grand Lodge pro Tempore in Due Form, and forthwith revived the Quarterly Communication of the Officers and Lodges (call’d Grand Lodge) resolv’d to hold the Annual Assembly and Feast, and then to chuse a Grand Master from among themselves, till they should have the honour of a Noble Brother at their Head.
On St. John Baptist’s Day, in the 3d Year of King George 1. A.D. 1717. the ASSEMBLY and Feast of the Free and accepted Masons was held at the foresaid Goose and Gridiron Ale-House.
Before Dinner, the oldest Master Mason (now Master of a Lodge) in the Chair, proposed a List of proper Candidates ; and Brethren by a Majority of Hands elected Mr. Anthony Sayer Gentleman, Grand Master of Masons, Capt. Joseph Elliot, Mr. Jacob Lamball Carpenter, Grand Wardens, who being forthwith invested with Badges of Office and Power by the said oldest Master, and install’d, was duly congratulated by the Assembly who pay’d him Homage.”3
The Goose and Gridiron
There are however, two specific issues with the setting up of the first Grand Lodge and Anderson’s account that need to be examined closer. Douglas Knoop and G.P.Jones take up the story with regard to the first issue which concerns the jurisdiction of the first Grand Lodge;
“The events of 1716 and 1717 which led to the formation of Grand Lodge have been referred to as “a resuscitation of English Masonry” and as “the Revival”. These descriptions are somewhat misleading; the events of 1716 and 1717 related not to English masonry in general, but masonry in London and Westminster in particular. There is nothing in the surviving accounts to suggest that the members of the Four Old Lodges had anything more in mind than a gathering or organisation of local lodges. Even six years later, in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723 (but not, it should be noted, in those of 1738) the Charges were stated to be “for the use of the Lodges in London”, and the General Regulations “for the use of the Lodges in and about London and Westminster”. According to the MS. List of Lodges which was begun 25 November 1723, and entered on the first pages of the original minute book of Grand Lodge, the “regular constituted lodges” further afield were at Edgworth (Edgware), Acton and Richmond. The fact that Grand Lodge in 1723 and 1724 passed various resolutions concerning lodges “in or near London”, “within the Bills of Mortality” and “within ten mile o London”, indicates the restricted jurisdiction of Grand Lodge in those years.”4So it is more than evident that the first Grand Lodge of England was in truth, the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster and as late as 19 December 1727, according to Gould, there was still only nineteen lodges that attended the Quarterly Communications.5 This later assertion that the first Grand Lodge was to become the Premier Grand Lodge of England never sat well with Freemasons across England, particularly in a speech delivered by Francis Drake of Yorkshire, in 1726 when he said;
“The Learned Author of the Antiquity of Masonry, annexed to which are our Constitution…that diligent Antiquary has traced out to us those many stupendous works of the Ancients, which were certainly, and without doubt, infinitely superior to the Moderns…the first Grand lodge ever held in England was in York.”6Of course, York were not the only Freemasons upset by the stance of the self-styled Premier Grand Lodge of England and during that century, for during the decade 1779 – 1789, there were no less than four Grand Lodges operating in England.
- The premier Grand Lodge of England, 1717 – 1813
- The York Grand Lodge of all England, 1725 – 1792
- The Grand Lodge of England according to the Old Institutions, 1751 – 1813
- The Grand Lodge of England South of the River Trent, 1779 – 1789
Part One Bibliography
1) Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire, 1686, para.85,
2) Lionel Vibert, Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, published by Kessinger Publishing’s, 1924, p.1, ISBN 0-7661-0073-1
3) James Anderson, The New Book of Constitutions of the Antient and Honourable Fraternity of the Free and Accepted Masons, 1738, p.109-110
4) Douglas Knoop and G.P.Jones, The Genesis of Freemasonry, published by Q.C. Correspondence Circle Ltd., 1978 edition, p.186-187
5) Robert Freke Gould, The History of Freemasonry, published by Thomas C. Jack, 1885 edition, p.383
6) Francis Drake, Grand Junior Warden, Grand Lodge of York, in a speech delivered that Grand Lodge at the Merchants Hall, York, 27 December 1726