Little is known of Masonic activity between the mid 17th Century and the early years of the 18th Century except that in London it became very popular. On St John The Baptists Day, 24 June 1717ce, four London lodges formed The Premier Grand Lodge of England.
In 1723ce the Constitutions were written by Anderson whose father was Past Master of a lodge in Aberdeen. Clearly, the Scottish brethren had a lot to contribute towards the initial development of English Freemasonry.
Interestingly, it has been suggested that Premier Grand Lodge only came about as a result of the threat by the Jacobite revolt in 1715ce. Anti-Scottish sentiment in those days might have prompted nervous London Freemasons to disassociate themselves from their Scottish roots, hide their history and strategically create a governing body allied to the Hanoverian Crown. If so, little wonder that Freemasonry now prohibits discussion of religion and politics at its meetings!
In 1730ce, an exposure entitled Masonry Dissected was widely published revealing for the first time Masonic Ritual. The Ritual prior to that point followed a two-degree system and took the form of a combination of catechisms, some simplified symbolism and the Old Charges. Some historians believe that this two-tier degree system was expanded when Grand Master Desaguliers wrote the Third Degree in 1719ce and grew again when Laurence Dermott introduced the Fourth or Royal Arch Degree in 1752ce.
It seems reasonably clear that by this time (ie the period between 1690ce and 1725ce), owing to a spate of exposures, that numerous current Masonic usages, customs and ritual were already in practice:
- The words “hele” and “conceal” and “points of fellowship” are both found in the Edinburgh Register House Manuscript of 1696ce
- The Square Compass and Bible are mentioned together in the Dumfries MS No. 4 of 1710ce
- A London newspaper in 1723ce described the five Noble Orders of Architecture
- Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth, made its appearance in print in a pamphlet printed in London in 1724ce.
- The word Tyler probably came into usage around this time and is thought to be derived from the French Tailleur, meaning one who cuts.
The popularity of Freemasonry grew with great speed throughout the British Isles and around the world from 1717ce following in the wake of British settlers, merchants and the military. In 1731ce the first American Grand Lodge obtained its Constitution, The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
n 1736ce the Grand Lodge of Scotland was formed as a counter to London expansionism. William St Clair of Roslin was made the First Grand Master Mason of Scotland and he immediately signed away his family’s hereditary rights in favour of elected officers.
Over the next 100 years, Freemasonry attracted many leading lights forming the cream of the intellectual and scientific establishment including Sir Robert Walpole, Robert Burns, Mozart, Darwin, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington.
However, initial successes in England were followed by a bad patch. This was caused by Premier Grand Lodge making drastic changes to the ritual and passwords and the creation of a third degree out of the previous two-degree ritual system. The reason for this change is unclear. One explanation might be Premier Grand Lodge’s exasperation with increasing requests for alms from poor and distressed immigrant freemasons arriving in increasing numbers from Ireland and Scotland prompted by the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
Fraudulent claims exploiting Masonic charity from information gleaned from the recent media “exposures” probably also upset them. Either way, the changes in the ritual effectively barred most Scottish and Irish Freemasons because they no longer had the right passwords; however, what they saved in misappropriated charity was lost in the goodwill of the established membership. Some traditionalists were so upset, they broke away and set up splinter groups.
The minor splinter groups included the “Grand Lodge of All England held at York”. They claimed roots from the Saxon King Edwin who supposedly presided over masons meeting at York. Other freemasons simply never recognised Premier Grand Lodge in the first place and remained on their own.
The next and much more significant group broke away in 1751ce and was called The Grand Lodge of England, nicknamed The Antients, Those whom they left behind in The Premier Grand Lodge of England were nicknamed The “Moderns”. The break-away group called themselves “Antients” because they felt they were adhering more faithfully to the old ritual, passwords and customs. They also welcomed and heard numerous charitable petitions from Scottish and Irish Freemasons which contrasts markedly with Premier Grand Lodge priorities.
The Antients met initially in the Turks Head Tavern, Soho, London. Their Constitutions, predominantly written by in 1756ce by their Grand Secretary, Laurence Dermott were entitled Ahiman Rezon and it is commonly believed that under his influential regime, the Royal Arch ritual was augmented to include new esoteric texts now delivered by the three Principals.
From this time onwards, new degrees and rituals proliferated which fuelled fierce argument between the “Antients” and the “Moderns”. Indeed, French Freemason, JM Ragon estimated that at one point, there were over 1400 separate Masonic degrees complete with additional invented or regionalised symbolism. Consequently, sixty years of bitterness followed after the Antient and Modern schism. An example of dispute between these two Grand lodges would be that the Antients worked a four-degree system whilst the Moderns only recognised a three Degree system. To the irritation of the Moderns, they often found their members sympathetic to the fourth or Royal Arch Degree, to the point where it became regarded as an extension to the Third Degree.
Eventually a compromise was negotiated and on St John The Evangelists Day, 27 December 1813ce, United Grand Lodge of England was formed, largely though the combined efforts of the Earl of Moira. The unification of these two bodies had enormous consequences for the ritual which had to be hurriedly reconciled, mainly in favour of the “Antients”. Most of the regulations and ritual determined then still apply to this day, with the exception that in 1832ce, the Triple Tau and new banners were introduced into the Royal Arch degree as the symbols of that order.
More recently of course, certain colourful parts of Royal Arch and Craft texts have been toned down to satisfy the politically correct lobby.
There is another aspect of the history of Freemasonry that should not be completely overlooked: The objection to Freemasonry by the Catholic Church. Freemasonry has been banned by the Catholic Church three times
- 1738ce issued by Pope Clement 12th
Finally these Bulls were rescinded in 1974ce and the Vatican has since adopted a more tolerant stance towards Freemasonry.
The reasons the Vatican gave for their objections were varied. Howeverthe reason for the first Papal Bull was not based on any ideological objection to Freemasonry as is often supposed. Indeed in the wake of the 1738ce Bull, the Popes brother, Cardinal Corsini wrote stressing that Freemasonry in England was merely an innocent amusement. The main objection, according to Corsini, was that a lodge in Florence founded by Freemason Baron Von Stosch had become corrupt. Stosch, it should be noted, was employed by the Foreign Office in London and was possibly using Freemasonry as a cover to spy on the exiled Stuart cause in Rome, of whom Pope Clement was sympathetic. The ensuing ban caused widespread misunderstanding for centuries with the assumption being that it was based purely on theological grounds.
Indeed, it is recorded that such was the ill feeling towards freemasons in some Catholic countries that in Portugal in 1810ce, the Duke of Wellington had to curtail his officers public Masonic activities whilst stationed there for fear of public unrest. In more recent times most dictatorships (including those of Hitler, Franco and Mussolini) and certain zealous politicians have shown aggression towards bodies of men, including Freemasons, who might frustrate their fanatical plans by upholding freedom of thought, law and order and tolerance for ones neighbour.
In modern times, it is therefore somewhat gratifying that the EU has now drafted legislation that coincides with and to a degree protects Masonic principles, namely Articles 9 (right to freedom of thought), 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention which are maintained by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.