Is the Mark Degree older than the Craft Degrees? A four-part article by Mike Lawrence. Part Three

To begin the third section, I will just touch briefly on the subject of assemblies. Surviving records do seem to indicate that not only were there some kind of organisation for masons, but that the organisation covered a much larger area which seems directly opposed to the town based “Craft Gilds” or Mysteries.

We certainly find records of the minstrels, who like the itinerant masons had to wander about the country to find work, were subject to wide territorial jurisdictions.  Certainly, John of Gaunt established a court at Tutbury in 1381 to enact laws for minstrels and to determine controversies affecting them which covered five neighboring counties.

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It is not therefore implausible to consider that masons may have had a similar system and that is exactly what the Regius MS seems to indicate. The Cook MS also refers to annual or triennial congregations of Masters and Fellows which were said to have been established by Athelstan. That Stone workers and Freemasons had customs is not in doubt as we find in the building accounts of Sandgate Castle in 1539, a jurat or member of a municipal body was paid his expenses while riding to communicate with the Controller or Master of the Works “…concerning the use and customs of freemasons and hewers…”

So just to recap where we are at the moment, firstly we took a look the start of the squared stone building industry in England and then we looked at the development of the organisation of Masons.

Now we need to examine that period which modern day Masonic historian’s call the “transition” which is in fact, the reasons that made men, who were not involved in the building trade or craft, want to become non-operative or Accepted masons and to join a lodge or working masons.

The end of the late middles ages was a period of outstanding importance in the history of the building trade, because it was marked with four great events or movements: the dissolution of the monasteries, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the opening up of the New World.

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Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII gave gifts of monastic lands and estates to his friends and supporters.  As you know many of the buildings were razed and in many cases the materials used to build fine residences for these Lords, Earls and Barons.

The effects of the Reformation caused the decline in the importance of the Church, particularly as an employer, coupled with the Renaissance which saw the emergence of planning and design being carried out by gentleman or scholars not Master Masons. Its more immediate effect during the Renaissance was the change in architectural styles which saw the introduction of the more classical style. The Reformation introduced new employers as the religious building program slowed considerably and the emphasis moved to the building of Palaces, Stately homes and municipal or official buildings.

The effects on the building industry of opening up the new world were also calamitous and the great influx of the new trade in materials, precious metals and various other commodities led to a redistribution of existing wealth. These “Nouveau riche” who became known as the “Gentry” caused considerable expansion in private building, a change in the employment conditions of masons and as you would expect, a change in the old-time customs and usages.

The Reformation with its movement from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism had already reduced the status of the cathedral craftsman and the sudden great rise in prices for which there was not a proportionate rise in wages, left masons impoverished, but stimulated building activity by the lowering of wages and real building costs.

Collectively, this led to major changes in the industry ranging from, as explained, the introduction of gentleman architects, to the masons loss of status and that once great industry with its usages, customs, practices and legends, was now in decline as new employers, who imposed new conditions, took the place of Church and Crown.

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In his exposure “Masonry Dissected” published in 1730, Samuel Pritchard quotes the catechetical question, “What do you learn by being a Gentleman Mason?” Answer: “Secresy, Morality and Goodfellowship.”

And it is to Gentleman or Accepted mason that we now look, not the Speculative Mason as this term was not properly introduced into our Masonic speak until about 1757.

But we must ask: “What induced gentlemen to join a lodge?”

In a similar sense, religious historians have the same dilemma seeking to explain why men became Quakers or Methodists while others remained in the mainstream Church of England. Some might argue it was an accident, for example being in the right place at the right time.

No doubt George Fox or John Wesley had great persuasive testimonies which effected people’s beliefs, other may have joined because of a family connection, following in father’s footsteps for example. However, the trouble with Masonry is why would men join a body whose fundamentals were in part, secret at the time of joining, and whose rites and secrets were not known until he had bound himself by an oath.

In the 17th century more than any other period, men were definitely preoccupied with the pursuit of secrets we have for example: Alchemy, Astrology, Rosicrucianism, the biblical Apocalypse, to name but four. However, 18th century poet Goronwy Owen expected his membership would help himto find the “hidden wisdom of the ancient druids”, while William Stukeley states in his autobiography that “curiosity led him to be initiated into the mysteries of masonry, suspecting it to be the remains of the mysteries of the ancients.” So, if curiosity was one reason we have at least three others.

The first suggests they had an interest in Architecture and we have already learnt how Master Masons now became gentleman architects, while in the 1723 Constitutions Anderson himself commented on the Gothic style saying it was “a barbarous product of the Dark Ages” and praised the various Italian architects of the Palladian style.

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In in York, antiquary Francis Drake and his contemporary Edward Oakley, both leading Freemasons of the 1720’s commented on the giving of lectures on architecture and geometry in the lodge. In fact, Drake claimed that in London lodges and other parts of the kingdom, lectures on the same were given at every meeting.

Evidence of one such lecture delivered in 1723 by Dr. William Stukeley still survives in the British museum and is entitled, “The Roman Amphitheatre at Dorchester” While other contemporary lodge minutes tell us that at the Old King’s Arms Lodge, Master Martin Clare read part of the “Architecture of Palladio”  “to which the Society were very attentive.” Similarly, George Payne presented a lecture about the “Manner of Building in Persia.”

So even if we consider that Drakes assertion that lectures “on the same were given at every meeting” were an exaggeration, his remarks do at least suggest that architecture played a somewhat small part in the early Grand Lodge meetings. This is somewhat confirmed as late as 1735 when William Smith in his book “A Pocket Companion for Freemasonry” stresses the importance of a knowledge of architecture by Freemasons.

The second reason might have been an interest in the antiquity of Freemasonry like Sir William Dugdale who believed that Freemasonry derived from a company of Italian masons in the time of Henry III who was commissioned by the Pope to travel across Europe building cathedrals and churches. Elias Ashmole, whose third wife was the daughter of Dugdale and a name to whom you are all familiar with collected much historical material pertaining to the building of Winsor castle. While Randle Holme clearly states in his famous work, “Accademie of Armory” of 1688, “I cannot but honor the Fellowship of the Masons because of its antiquity…”

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The third reason was of course was the desire for convivial company and apart from the dining clubs and fraternities I mention in my Cornwallis Lecture of 2009 there were other such as:

The Order of Jeopardy,

The Friends of Awakening Nature

The Order of Noah

The Society of Bucks

The Jerusalem Sols

The Salamanders

So there is in fact little doubt that during this period of time, “conviviality” appears to have been a prominent characteristic of lodges and in 1722, Freemasons had the dubious honor of being included in the English version of “The Praise of Drunkenness” which obviously prompted the previously mentioned Francis Drake of York to declare in a speech, “…the pernicious custom of drinking…which we of our nation too much indulge…I wish I could not say that I have frequently observed in our own Most Amicable Brotherhood.”.

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This ends the third part.

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Filed under Freemasonry, Masonic History, Masonic Traditions

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