Historical Origins of the Mark Degree

by W.Bro. David Barrett 32°
Past Grand Marshal, Grand Lodge of the State of Israel
Past Master, Lodge Ra’anana 70, Israel
Past Z, Judea Chapter No 4, Ra’anana, Israel
PTPM, Lodge of Perfection King Solomon No. 13, Ra’anana
Grand Chaplain , SGRAC Israel

The Mark is a ceremony or degree [sometimes called the ‘friendly’ degree], conferrable today only to Master Masons and forms part of a hierarchical organization. In Craft Masonry it was quite a late innovation making its appearance during the mid-1700s.  However we do know that Operative Masons, without any kind of ceremony, were taking marks 150 years before the Mark came into use as part of that particular ceremony.

The Mason’s mark featured in long lost degrees or grades, with names such as, Mark Master, Mark Man, Mark Ark Link
and Chain, Fugitive Mark, Cain’s Mark, Christian Mark and Travelling Mark. How and when the Mark degree, as we acknowledge it, began, is still a matter of debate.

The “Mark” referred to in the title of the Degree takes its name from the mark or symbol which the stonemasons used
to identify their own work, so that he may be entitled to receive his wages. These marks can still be found in many Cathedrals [see below] and similar buildings of architectural significance, some of which may be over 1000 years old.

The Mark degree instructs you how that learning can be most usefully and judiciously employed for our own honour.
The themes of the Mark degree include regularity, diligence, discipline and a justifiable, but humble, pride in work well done.

The Mark Degree conveys moral and ethical lessons using a ritualised allegory revolving around the building of King Solomon’s Temple. The events of the degree require the candidate to undertake the role of a Fellowcraft. The degree thus may be seen as an extension of the Fellowcraft Degree and the philosophical lessons conveyed are appropriate to that stage in a candidate’s Masonic development.

REGALIA

The regalia of the Mark degree includes a special Masonic apron.

This was designed and adopted by the Bon Accord Mark Lodge [see later] which was responsible for the adoption of this special Masonic apron, modified from the standard Masonic apron, with a trimming of maroon [ dark red]  and blue. Later, was added a breast jewel showing the keystone.

  

Mark lodges have a special coin, known as a Mark penny, for payment of wages. These are now collector items.

On occasion, a lecture is given using a tracing board [for examples, see end of article], which contains symbols from which lessons can be drawn. The tracing board includes the method of decoding the Masonic cipher.

The earliest Official reference to the Mason’s Mark is the Schaw Statutes dated 28th December 1598.  They were commissioned by King James VI of Scotland [soon to be James I of England] & promulgated by William Schaw, Master of Work to the Crown of Scotland and Warden General of the Mason craft.  From this code of twenty-two regulations, the thirteenth item is of relevance, & I quote, using modern spelling.

Item:… that no Master of Fellow of Craft be received nor admitted without the number of six Masters and two Entered Apprentices, the Warden of that lodge (i.e. the Master) being one of the said six, and that the day of the receiving of the said Fellow or Craft or Master be orderly booked and his name and Mark inserted in the said book with the names of his six
admitters.Providing always that no man be admitted without an essay (test) and sufficient trial of his skill an worthiness in his vocation and craft.

This regulation required that F.C.’s and Masters were to have their names and Marks recorded on the day of their admission to those grades, but the custom was extended to apprentices, for at least the next fifty years.  It seems that the Schaw Statutes were intended to be used as guidelines rather than law, and the minutes of that period reveal that there were innumerable breaches.

At the Lodge Mary’s Chapel of Edinburgh, the first recorded admission of a Fellowcraft was on 17th January 1600; done in the presence of an insufficient quorum of five Masters, and although the candidate had “done his deutie”.to the contentment of  the dekin warden & maistris (which was the customary formula), no mark was taken by the candidate.  This well known old Lodge never kept a ‘Mark’ book but occasional pages were set aside in the Minute Book with appropriate connotations.

For example, the names of entered prentysis and their markes 1648 followed by a list of ten E. A.s who were made E.A. in 1647, 1648, and 1649, with their marks were appended. There are also eight names of F.C.s. whose E. A. date is unknown.  The list then continues with E.A.s and F.C.s from 1652 onwards, with marks.  There are separate lists of this kind for various years between 1646 and 1690.  Very rarely do we find records of the “mark” being paid for.  The usual fee was “one Mark Scots money” approximately equivalent to one day’s wages of a trained mason. We know that the Lodges of Kilwinning and Peebles charged 13s 4d Scots [equivalent then to 1s 1d Sterling] for each mark. Terminology used included the words “given”, “given out”, “chosen”, “taken”, taken out”, received”, “booked” and “paid for”.

The minutes of Lodge Mother Kilwinning also contain a large number of marks for both E.A.s and F.C.s but records of payment for the marks are comparatively rare, e.g.:”20 Dec. 1674. The said day, John Smith. was admitted and entered prentise and has payed to the box his bookeing money.and also has payed for his mark which is al follows.”      Here, at Kilwinning the fee for registering the mark was “one mark Scots money”.

At the Lodge of Aberdeen, a handsome Mark Book was kept from 1670 onwards and in it can be found a list of the names and marks of all the Master Masons and apprentices of the Lodge in 1670, in the order of their admission, followed by a continuous list of later entrants, and a collection of regulations under the heading “Laws and Statutes for masons gathered out of their old writings”.  Here again “one mark piece” is specified as the fee for taking a mason’s mark.  It is important to add that during the 1670’s, the Lodge of Aberdeen already had a substantial non-operative membership, including two noblemen (Earls), a minister of religion, merchants and tradesmen.

It is necessary to emphasise that throughout all the early minutes as well as those quoted above, there, there is never the least hint of any kind of ceremony accompanying the taking of a Mark.  In those days when [even apprentice] brethren attending lodge were expected to sign the Minutes, the Marks were generally used for that purpose.  Doubtless they were also used for marking stones, perhaps for assessing wages for completed piecework, or as a check on spoiled stones, but a large proportion of the brethren never troubled to take the Mark.

The earliest known minuted & documented reference to the Mark Degree in England was in the record of a meeting of the Royal Arch Chapter of Friendship No 3, held at the George Tavern in Portsmouth, on 1 September 1769.  It records that Thomas Dunckerley (a natural, but illegitimate, son of George II- then Prince of Wales) brought the Warrant or Charter for that Chapter and “having lately rec’d the Mark”   [and we do not know from where he got the degree] he made six of the brethren “Mark Masons” and “Mark Masters”. At that same meeting he taught them how to use the Masonic cypher (in which this minute is written) and authorised them to make F.C.s into Mark Masons, and M.Ms into Mark Masons. These minutes were written in code or cipher, and state: – “having lately rec’d the ‘Mark’ he made the bre’n ‘Mark Masons’ and ‘Mark Masters’. Thomas Dunckerley And each chuse their ‘Mark’, viz. … Z (interlaced triangles) … He also told us of this mann’r of writing (code or cipher) which is to be used in the degree.”

Note the mention of a double Mark: Dunkerley acknowledged them first as Mark Men [Masons] and then advanced them as Mark Masters. Both degrees are combined in today’s modern ritual. One becomes a Mark Master when the ‘secrets’ have been communicated. As a Mark Master, the second degree tracing board and aspects of the third degree traditional history begin to make more sense as the operative context is made clear. The ashlars and the lewis [pulley lift], often ignored within a Craft Lodge, may be explained and, above all, the keystone of the Royal Arch Chapter’s mystic arch is of central importance.

I would like to point out that the subject of the Masonic Cipher of squares, angles and triangles, forms a separate lecture. I do however disagree with the import of the pulley [lewis]. In my opinion the word ‘lewis’ is derived from the son of King George 2nd, namely,  Frederick Lewis, 15th Prince of Wales (1707-1751), heir to the throne. This Prince entered the Craft in 1737 at a lodge in the Palace of Kew and became the first Royal Freemason. He introduced all his sons into Freemasonry and from this action, that the term Lewis is almost certainly derived. The word ‘lewis’ did not exist in the Masonic lexicon prior to the above Masonic introductions.

Subsequent minutes mentioned on record from the UK are from the years 1770 onwards. In 1775 we acknowledge the first known Mark Mason certificate which was issued in Ireland. Thus, taking all the above into account, there appears an indication by its widespread observance that this degree was being worked for some time prior to this period.

Around 1965, a copy of the 1723 Book of Constitutions was discovered that had belonged to an unattached lodge at Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Stitched in the book were 28 pages containing manuscript notes, bye -laws, etc. followed by some blank pages.  On the last inserted page, which is the loose end paper, is the following:

“Newcastle, January the 19, 1756-Then Being meet Part of the Body of the Lodge they taking it to their Serious Consideration.  That no member of the Saide Lodge Shall be Made a Mark Masone without paying the Sum of one (e) Mark Scots and that for the propigation of the Pedestal, as Witnessed the aforesaid Date by.Wardens: John Maxwell Master, Tos Provund, Robert McVicear.

The above is the earliest known reference to the Mark as a ceremony.  The final mason’s Mark recorded in the Kilwinning minutes was in 1766.  In Edinburgh Mary’s Chapel, the final Mark was in 1713.

The Fellow-craft degree was not affected by the emergence of the “Mark Degrees”.  It would appear that they were a late speculative innovation, loosely linked to the F.C. degree simply because mason’s marks were originally prescribed for Fellow-crafts.

Charity is one of the central pillars of the whole Masonic structure and the Mark Degree fully embraces this principle. The Mark is the only Order beyond the Craft in Freemasonry that has its own Fund of Benevolence. This is organised by Grand Mark Lodge and makes additional grants to petitioners and to non-Masonic charities, with a focus on relief being given without delay.

A most fitting statement is contained in the closing address at the Ceremony of Advancement that urges: – “Do justice, love mercy, practise charity, maintain harmony and endeavour to live in unity and brotherly love”. These few words can best describe the nature of those Brethren who are Mark Master Masons. Put simply – Mark Well. We are very fortunate that we are able to share the pleasure of being associated with a Masonic Order that encapsulates a happy and friendly spirit and for which it is well recognised.

After the three degrees of Craft Freemasonry, we are requested to “make a daily advancement in Masonic knowledge” as instructed in the Charge after Initiation. Today the United Grand Lodge actively encourages Master Masons to ‘complete the third degree’ by seeking exaltation in a Royal Arch Chapter.

Many masons worldwide will be unaware that the English position of the Mark Degree is somehow somewhat different to ‘pure’ Freemasonry and as such unique as practised under the UGLE and its districts overseas. Such is the end result of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Masonic in-fighting!

In England one may proceed to Royal Arch without contemplating the Mark Degree; Under the Irish Constitution, the Mark Degree is taken in a Royal Arch Chapter, while in Scotland, the Mark can be received in two ways: either within a Royal Arch Chapter, or separately, in a Craft Lodge. However, no-one under Scottish or Irish jurisdictions can be exalted as a Royal Arch Mason without previously having been advanced as a Mark Master Mason.

Indeed the Mark Degree is the most popular degree outside the Craft, there being over 45,000 brethren in over 1,680 Mark lodges in England alone.

In the United States, the Mark is conferred in a Royal Arch Chapter within the eleven degree York Rite as the first of three degrees – Mark, (Virtual) Past Master and Most Excellent Master – which lead to the Chapter; once again, the Mark is an essential preliminary to the Royal Arch.

In Israel, one has to advance via the Mark degree and Excellent Master before attaining the rank of Companion. Bearing in mind the Masonic complexities of additional Degrees from the Scottish Rite I think this is the correct way to go.

The history of the Degree, as you can observe, is a fascinating subject for research in its own right, with the present structure having been established following the adoption of the 1813 articles of the United Grand Lodge of England, which excluded the Degree from being worked by Craft Lodges.

THE GRAND LODGE OF MARK MASTER MASONS

Summary

The Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons was formed on 23rd June 1856. In 1855 senior Freemasons who were involved in the Bon Accord Mark Lodge of London suggested that the Mark degree should be considered part of ordinary Freemasonry. This suggestion failed to win approval from the United Grand Lodge of England at its meeting on 4 June 1856. The Premier Grand Lodge, which had been formed in London in 1717, only recognised the three Craft Degrees, and subsequently wanting nothing to do with any other form of masonry, not even the Royal Arch.

History

Such resolutions had led to the formation of a rival Grand Lodge in 1751 which styled itself “the Antients” on the basis that the masonry they practised predated that of the Premier Grand Lodge, who they dubbed “the Moderns”. Lodges under the Antients were permitted to confer any degree under their Craft Warrant and the Royal Arch and Mark were two such degrees, together with others. In other words we had a polite but political Masonic ‘civil war’! This was finally resolved with the aid of Royalty, namely the Royal brothers Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex and Edward Augustus, the Duke of Kent by the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, following extensive negotiations and huge compromises between the two Grand Lodges. The Duke of Sussex then became the overall Grand Master.

However regarding the supplementary degrees the only one which succeeded in remaining under patronage was the Royal Arch, which, until very recently, was described as the completion of the third degree, although that has all changed now.

The Mark degree began to flourish to the extent that the United Grand Lodge almost recognised it, even passing a resolution to that effect in March 1856. Unfortunately, this was rescinded on a technicality at the following Quarterly Communication as mentioned above.

Following this rejection of Mark Masonry by the United Grand Lodge of England, a meeting of Mark Masons belonging to Craft Lodges and Royal Arch Chapters decided to fight & continued conferring the Mark degree as they had always done, or, alternatively they set up unauthorised Mark Lodges for the purpose. Others sought warrants from North of the border where the Mark had become a prerequisite for admission into the Royal Arch. But never say die!

The Mark enthusiasts were, as we say, ‘on a roll’, & they decided to set up their own separate Grand Mark Master Lodge for England, Wales and the Colonies. Within three weeks of the Grand Lodge’s final rejection of recognition, this was achieved in late June 1856 with Lord Leigh, the then Craft Provincial Grand Master of Warwickshire as its Grand Master.

An aside – the Degree of Royal Ark Mariner [& its Royal Ark Council] operates under the aegis of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons since 1871, even though there is no definitive connection between them. The Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of England and Wales and its Districts and Lodges Overseas, now has over 1,500 Mark and 900 Royal Ark Mariner Lodges situated in 45 different countries throughout the world. There are 41 Provinces in England and Wales, 27 Districts overseas and three groups of Lodges under Grand Inspectors.

Today the Mark Degree is administered from its headquarters at Mark Masons Hall, St James’s Street, near to St James’s Palace, London. The Grand Master is H.R.H Prince Michael of Kent, who is supported by the Pro Grand Master, the Deputy Grand Master and the Assistant Grand Master and with the full backing of his brother, HRH the Duke of Kent, Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.

Today no brother who takes the Mark will see his ‘Masonic career’ cut short, as did happen in the distant past!

I shall now conclude with the following question.

Why should Freemasons actively seek the Mark? An obvious and sensible reason is that Mark Masonry is probably the only tangible link with our operative predecessors; that of each Mason receiving and using a distinctive mark. Secondly the language and symbolism of the Craft revolves around building in general and the construction of King Solomon’s Temple in particular.

Thirdly Mark Masons make a particular pledge to receive a brother’s mark, under certain conditions. And finally there is the message of a brotherhood existing within the Temple bounds.

As a Mark Master Mason he is actively involved in the actual and speculative construction of the Temple, experiencing at the same time both the joys and sorrows of his own Masonic journey, as well as the culpability of man and a need to be humble before God .

We should all ‘mark well’.

Below are two Mark Mason Tracing Boards. Above both arches is inscribed a sentence in Hebrew taken from Psalm 118:  “Even ma’asu haBonim hayeta lerosh pina”, which translated means “The stone the Builders rejected became the corner stone”. Note the working tools of the Degree and the ‘key’ to the Masonic cipher.

Acknowledgements

All available Masonic sites on the Internet

“History of The Lodge of Edinburgh, (Mary’s Chapel, No.1)” by David Murray Lyon; Gresham Pub, Co., 1900