From the records of the Masons Company of London concerning its ‘accepted members’ we find without doubt the earliest authentic evidence of 17th century Freemasonry in England.
“But, by whatever name it was known in this or another country, Masonry has existed as it now exists, the same in spirit and at heart, not only when Solomon built the temple, but centuries before–before the first colonies emigrated into Southern India, Persia, and Egypt, from the cradle of the human race.” Albert Pike 1857ce
In this blog I would like to bring to light the names and lives of six non-operative Freemasons who worked within the craft for decades long before Elias Ashmole was initiated in 1646ce. It my opinion they were the first recorded Speculative Freemasons.
Robert Freke Gould’s ‘Concise History of Freemasonry’ has been the gold standard for Masonic research for over 100 years, but even Gould was human and subject to an occasional error. The problem with Gould making an occasional error is his work is so well respected that no one ever questions it. His is after all the most quoted source for Masonic history.
So what do you do when you stumble across an error which changes some of the most basic understanding of who were the first non-operative or speculative Masons, when this occurred and what documentation do we have to substantiate it?
On page 111 of Gould’s work, it states “Seven persons were received into the ‘acception’ or Lodge in 1620-21, all of whom were already members of the company…” , Who were these Seven men and is there was anything significant about them?
On examining a copy of Edward Conder’s book ‘Records of the Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons’ which Gould had used as his source for the information but when compared they did not come close to agreeing with each other!
Conder’s book states; As early as the year 1620 or twenty-one years before any mention of the society is made by any writers of the 17th century, we find in the first years entered in the account book, which is the earliest document concerning the Guild still remaining in the company’s possession, an entry referring to certain gratuities received from new members in consequence of their being accepted on the livery.
“In the following year occur entries of certain payments made by these new members when they were made masons, doubtless by some ancient ceremony which survived the troublous period of the Reformation.”
Gould says these men were already members of the company and “were received into the ‘acception’ (i.e., the Acception) or Lodge”, but according to Conder the records state otherwise. His book includes copies of the minutes which make it quite clear these men were first Accepted and then Made Masons and not the other way around. He goes on to say the word “accepted” is rarely used throughout the 500 pages of the surviving account book. When it is used, it is always used to describe someone who is admitted into the company upon accepting Masonry. They did not serve an apprenticeship because, if they had, there would have been no reason to accept Masonry in order to join the company.
The words “coming on the Acception” Gould uses are not to be found anywhere in the records for the year 1620ce or 1621ce provided to Conder by the Company of Masons. Nowhere in the records of the Worshipful Company of Freemasons, is there any mention of an ‘acception’ (i.e., the Acception) or of a ‘Lodge’ in 1620-21. However, Conder does make the following statement about Speculative Masonry on page 9:
“This we cannot say for certain, but we can say that as early as 1620 and inferentially very much earlier, there were certain members of the Masons Company and others who met from time to time to form a Lodge for the purposes of Speculative Masonry; and this account given by the records of the Masons Company concerning its ‘accepted members,’ is without doubt the EARLIEST AUTHENTIC EVIDENCE of 17th century Freemasonry in England”
Contrary to Gould’s statement, the only occurrence in the records of the Masons Company of the word ‘acception’ is found in a 1648ce entry made in regards to a Warden paying for “coming on the Acception”. By 1648ce already have separate evidence of at least two other lodges, one in Chester and one in Warrington, being run by Speculative Masons.
Conder states there could be little or no inducement for persons not in any way connected with the building trade to join this small and comparatively poor company. Yet a careful reading of the records of the Masons Company which Condor provides us show these six men, not seven as Gould states, did more than just join, they contributed greatly to the company for more than a decade.
These men were not operative Masons as clearly indicated in the way they joined the company by immediately coming on to the livery. This shows that as early as 1621ce non-operatives were able to gain admission into a guild of operative stonemasons by paying a huge sum of money. It is in direct contrast to the normal way an apprentice gains his freedom of the company. Condor tells us the act of joining on the livery normally comes years after a man finishes his apprenticeship. More importantly we see here in the earliest extant records of the Worshipful Company of Freemasons there is already in existence a set fee for joining the company by acceptance of Masonry. This fact suggests this practice may have predated 1620ce.
Conder quotes from the existing records the account of six men paying “for their gratitude at their acceptance unto the livery”. Livery is the second highest standing in the company. According to the records of the Masons Company it also requires those being elevated to be able to afford the robes of a Gentleman and to outfit one’s servants in robes. It was an expensive undertaking and not one easily affordable to the average craftsman.
So who were these six men? The records identify them as Evan Lloyd, Thomas Preestman, James French, Timothy Townsend, John Hince, and John Kifford. There is a follow-up entry regarding some of these men being ‘made’ Masons in 1621ce. Three of them Hince, Lloyd and French are listed along with four others, who were presumably apprentices. This could account for Gould’s tally of seven persons.
How expensive was it for a man to join the Masons Company by accepting Masonry? To get an idea, compare that cost in comparison with the wages of a Stonemason in the early 1600’s.
At the completion of his apprenticeship a mason would pay one pound, three shillings and four-pence, or about a month’s earnings at Stones wage scale, to become a Journeyman. To advance to Livery a mason would need to pay an additional fee of nine pounds, almost a full year’s earnings. It becomes clear that anyone who can afford to do that were not simple masons but well to do gentlemen.
So why would six well-to-do gentlemen pay so much to join the Worshipful Company of Freemasons? Conder writes, “There could be little or no inducement for anyone not in the building trade to join this small and poor company”. Certainly in view of the cost, there would have to be a compelling reason for them to do so. The question is what was it?
Each of these six men came from long established families. They were not lords of the Shires or the company records would have recorded their titles. So we have six men from established families, not nobles but able to pay a heavy fee to join the guild. More than likely they were members of England’s newly created middleclass, the country’s first capitalists, descendents of Knights and stewards of nobility who had become successful merchants and farmers. While they were not qualified by rank to be included in the privileged 10% of titled Nobility but probably controlled more wealth than their titled relatives.
Knowing who these men were and what class of English society they belonged to identifies them as prosperous but still doesn’t tell us why they chose to join this small and poor company. What did they expect to gain from joining?
The answer might have a lot to do with the social and political environment in western Europe in the early 1600’s. The transition from a insular country to a worldwide empire would be both cruel and bloody. In the process, a monarch would be executed and another dethroned.
If we look at the literature of the time, William Shakespeare produces plays with definite moral lessons. This type of literature goes back as far as the Norman Conquest. Stories of Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable had been told for centuries before the 14th century epic ‘The Green Knight’ appeared. It is clear that the search for enlightenment was underway, but literature and the realities of life in 17th century England have little in common.
Governments and universities were not open to progressive thought in the late 16th and early 17th century. The Church, once open to the heliocentric theory of the universe, suddenly collapses inwards retreating to the Ptolemaic theory propounded in 150 AD which views Earth as a stationary center of the universe.
Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) is published and placed in his hands the very day he dies in 1543ce. However, it would be printed with a preface written by Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander stating the heliocentric account of the earth’s movement is a mere mathematical hypothesis, not an account which contains truth or even probability.
There can be no doubting the rabid fervor of the still powerful Inquisition which brought the greatest inventor, scientist and mathematician of the era Galileo, to his knees. After inventing the telescope he used it to observe the four satellites of Jupiter. Only Galileo’s fame saves him from the stake.
By this time Europe was being ripped apart by a bloody religious war and those who thirsted after knowledge, who wanted to study the sciences and philosophy risked their freedom by discussing their work in public.
It is difficult today to comprehend the level of fear and frustration existing in Europe and particularly in England in 1620ce. Scientists, philosophers, and astronomers were forced to work in secret to avoid being branded as heretics. Some, like the men who would later form the Royal Society, met quietly in locations around Oxford. There were few places in England where one could speak his mind in safety.
The harsh realities of early 17th century life belied the stories of chivalry. There are no declarations of support for the Stuart King in the existing Worshipful Company of Freemasons records but they did record their feelings about the execution of their lawful king. On January 30, 1649ce there is a note in the records of the company, which read, “King Charles murdered at Whitehall”.
The age of enlightenment had yet to dawn.
The masons of the 17th century understood that mathematics and geometry are not restricted to the building trades but expand into the fields of navigation and astronomy. They were among those who sought knowledge, kept their trade secrets, and by adhering to the ancient charges of their craft, each man was committed to the protection and support of his fellow mason. These would have been valid reasons why these six men might have sought the sanctuary offered within the lodge rooms of The Worshipful Company of Freemasons.
No matter their reasons for joining, these six men left their mark on the company. Out of the original six, at least three became Wardens of the company and two or three, would actually serve as Master. John Hince served as Warden in 1626ce and in 1628ce while he served as Master of the company, Thomas Priestman was one of his wardens. The kings’ architect, Nicholas Stone served with Timothy Townsend as a Warden in 1630ce. Thomas Priestman would be elected Master of the company in 1636ce. Lloyd only appears in the records twice, one of which is in connection to being fined for having an argument in the company.
By the 1640’s the word “Accepted” had begun to be replaced with a new description. Ashmole uses the word “Freemason” in his description of his initiation into the society. In Ashmole’s description of those present at the time there is a striking example of the tremendous pull of the growing fraternity of men who would lay aside their religion and politics to meet as Brothers. There, in a small room in Warrington in 1646ce, with the civil war still raging, Roundhead sat down with Royalist, Catholic with Protestant; each man trusting the others enough to risk their life in the pursuit of light, just as six other men had done 21 years before.
- Based on an Original article by W. Bro. Jack Buta Paradise Valley Silver Trowel Lodge #29, Arizona
- Records of the Whole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons by Edward Conder
- The Concise history of Freemasonry by R.F. Gould
- The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 by Christopher Hill
- Royalists and Patriots Politics and Ideology in England 1603-1640 by J P Sommerville
- A Brief History of British Kings & Queens by Michael Ashley