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Masonic manuscripts

Introduction to Grand Lodge Manuscript no 1

The Old Charges of the masons’ lodges were documents describing the duties of the members, part of which (the charges) every mason had to swear on admission. For this reason, every lodge had a copy of its charges, occasionally written into the beginning of the minute book, but usually as a separate manuscript roll of parchment. With the coming of Grand Lodges, these were largely superseded by printed constitutions, but the Grand Lodge of All England at York, and the few lodges that remained independent in Scotland and Ireland, retained the hand-written charges as their authority to meet as a lodge. Woodford, Hughan, Speth and Gould, all founders of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, and Dr Begemann, a German Freemason, produced much published work in the second half of the nineteenth century, collating, cataloguing, and classifying the available material. Since then, aside from the occasional rediscovery of another old document, little has been done to update the field. [1]

The oldest, the Regius poem, is unique in being set in verse. The rest, of which over a hundred survive, usually have a three part construction. They start with a prayer, invocation of God, or a general declaration, followed by a description of the Seven Liberal Arts (logic, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), extolling Geometry above the others. There follows a history of the craft, and how it came to the British Isles, usually culminating in a general assembly of masons during the reign of King Athelstan. The last part consists of the charges or regulations of the lodge, and the craft of masonry in general, which the members are bound to maintain.[2]

Evolution of the York Legend

The earliest masonic documents are those of their early employers, the church and the state. The first claimed by modern Freemasons as the lineal ancestors of their own Charges relate to the self-organisation of masons as a fraternity with mutual responsibilities. From the reign of Henry VI to the Elizabethan period, that is from about 1425 to 1550, surviving documents show the evolution of a legend of masonry, starting before the flood, and culminating in the re-establishment of the craft of masonry in York during the reign of King Athelstan.

Halliwell Manuscript, or Regius Poem

Halliwell Manuscript

The Halliwell Manuscript, also known as the Regius Poem, is the earliest of the Old Charges. It consists of 64 vellum pages of Middle English written in rhyming couplets. In this, it differs from the prose of all the later charges. The poem begins by describing how Euclid “counterfeited geometry” and called it masonry, for the employment of the children of the nobility in Ancient Egypt. It then recounts the spread of the art of geometry in “divers lands.” The document relates how the craft of masonry was brought to England during the reign of King Athelstan (924–939). It tells how all the masons of the land came to the King for direction as to their own good governance, and how Athelstan, together with the nobility and landed gentry, forged the fifteen articles and fifteen points for their rule. This is followed by fifteen articles for the master concerning both moral behaviour (do not harbour thieves, do not take bribes, attend church regularly, etc.) and the operation of work on a building site (do not make your masons labour at night, teach apprentices properly, do not take on jobs that you cannot do etc.). There are then fifteen points for craftsmen which follow a similar pattern. Warnings of punishment for those breaking the ordinances are followed by provision for annual assemblies. There follows the legend of the Four Crowned Martyrs, a series of moral aphorisms, and finally a blessing.[3]

“Fyftene artyculus þey þer sowȝton, and fyftene poyntys þer þey wroȝton.” (Fifteen articles they there sought and fifteen points there they wrought.) —Regius MS, ca. 1425-50.

The origins of the Regius are obscure. The manuscript was recorded in various personal inventories as it changed hands until it came into possession of the Royal Library, which was donated to the British Museum in 1757 by King George II to form the nucleus of the present British Library.[4] It came to the attention of Freemasonry much later, this oversight being mainly due to the librarian David Casley, who described it as “a Poem of Moral Duties” when he catalogued it in 1734. It was in the 1838–39 session of the Royal Society that James Halliwell, who was not a Freemason, delivered a paper on “The early History of Freemasonry in England”, based on the Regius, which was published in 1840. The manuscript was dated to 1390, and supported by such authorities as Woodford and Hughan, the dating of Edward Augustus Bond, the curator of manuscripts at the British Museum, to fifty years later was largely sidelined. Hughan also mentions that it was probably written by a priest.[5]

Modern analysis has confirmed Bond’s dating to the second quarter of the fifteenth century, and placed its composition in Shropshire. This dating leads to the hypothesis that the document’s composition, and especially its narrative of a royal authority for annual assemblies, was intended as a counterblast to the statute of 1425 banning such meetings.[1]

Matthew Cooke Manuscript

The Matthew Cooke Manuscript is the second oldest of the Old Charges or Gothic Constitutions of Freemasonry, and the oldest known set of charges to be written in prose. It contains some repetition, but compared to the Regius there is also much new material, much of which is repeated in later constitutions. After an opening thanksgiving prayer, the text enumerates the Seven Liberal Arts, giving precedence to geometry, which it equates with masonry. There follows the tale of the children of Lamech, expanded from the Book of Genesis. Jabal discovered geometry, and became Cain’s Master Mason. Jubal discovered music, Tubal Cain discovered metallurgy and the art of the smith, while Lamech’s daughter Naamah invented weaving. Discovering that the earth would be destroyed either by fire or by flood, they inscribed all their knowledge on two pillars of stone, one that would be impervious to fire, and one that would not sink. Generations after the flood both pillars were discovered, one by Pythagoras, the other by the philosopher Hermes. The seven sciences were then passed down through Nimrod, the architect of the Tower of Babel, to Abraham, who taught them to the Egyptians, including Euclid, who in turn taught masonry to the children of the nobility as an instructive discipline. The craft is then taught to the children of Israel, and from the Temple of Solomon finds its way to France, and thence to Saint Alban’s England. Athelstan now became one of a line of kings actively supporting masonry. His youngest son, unnamed here, is introduced for the first time as leader and mentor of masons. There follow nine articles and nine points, and the document finishes in a similar manner to the Regius.[6]

Unlike the majority of the old constitutions, which are written on rolls, the Cooke manuscript is written on sheets of vellum, four and three-eighth inches high and three and three eighth inches broad (112mm x 86mm) bound into a book, still retaining its original oak covers. The manuscript was published by R. Spencer, London, in 1861 when it was edited by Mr. Matthew Cooke — hence the name. In the British Museum’s catalogue it is listed as “Additional M.S. 23,198”, and is now dated to 1450 or thereabouts, although errors in Cooke’s transcription caused it originally to be dated to after 1482. In line 140, And in policronico a cronycle p’yned, Cooke translated the last word as “printed”, causing Hughan to give the earliest date as Caxton’s Polychronicon of 1482. Later retranslation as “proved” justified the earlier dating. Obvious scribal errors indicate that the document is a copy, and repetition of part of the stories of Euclid and Athelstan seems to indicate two sources. Speth postulated, in 1890, that these sources were much older than the manuscript, a view that remained unchallenged for over a century.[7]

Recent analysis of the Middle English of the document date it to the same period as the writing, around 1450, implying that the source or sources from which it was copied were almost contemporary with the Cooke, and contemporary with, or only slightly later than the Regius poem. It was probably composed in the West Midlands, near to the origin of the Regius in Shropshire. The historian Andrew Prescott sees both the Regius and Cooke manuscripts as part of the struggle of mediaeval masons to determine their own pay, particularly after the statute of 1425 banning assemblies of masons. Masons sought to show that their assemblies had royal approval, and added the detail that the King’s son had become a mason himself.[1] At line 603 we find For of specculatyfe he was a master and he lovyd well masonry and masons. And he bicome a mason hym selfe.[6]

James Anderson had access to the Cooke manuscript when he produced his 1723 Constitutions. He quotes the final sixty lines in a footnote to his description of the York assembly. The Woodford manuscript, which is a copy of the Cooke, has a note explaining that it was made in 1728 by the Grand Secretary of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, William Reid, for William Cowper, Clerk of the Parliaments, who had also been Grand Secretary.[7]

Dowland Manuscript

The Dowland Manuscript was first printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1815. The contributor, James Dowland, wrote “For the gratification of your readers, I send you a curious address respecting Freemasonry which not long since came into my possession. It is written on a long roll of parchment, in a very clear hand apparently in the 17th century, and probably was copied from a MS. of earlier date.” This earlier date is still estimated to be around 1550, making the Dowland the second oldest prose constitutions known. The wages mentioned in the text agree with other manuscripts known to originate in the second half of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, the original is now lost.[8]

The history is similar to that of the Cooke manuscript. In this case we are told that the first charges proceeded from Euclid’s instruction of the sons of the Egyptian Lords. The Master Mason at the construction of the Temple of Solomon is a son of King Hiram of Tyre called Avnon. Again masonry diffuses from the Temple and enters Saint Alban’s England from France. The science suffers in the wars following Alban’s death, but is restored under Athelstan. His son, now named as Edwinne, is the expert geometrician who obtains his father’s charter for an annual assembly of masons, that should be “renewed from Kinge to Kinge”. The assembly under Edwin is for the first time identified as having occurred at York. The articles and points are now replaced with a series of charges, in the form of an oath.[9]

The emergence of York, and the appearance of the more modern form of the charges after a century of silence in the documentary record, have been linked by Prescott to government policy in from the second half of the sixteenth century, which allowed wage increases for London masons, while attempting rigid wage control in the North of England.[1]

Grand Lodge No 1

This manuscript inexplicably appears in Hughan’s Old Charges with a date of 1632, which Speth, the next editor, attributed to the terrible handwriting of Rev. Woodford, Hughan’s collaborator. It is the first of the charges to bear a date, which is just discernible as 1583, on the 25 December. The document is in the form of a roll of parchment nine feet long and five inches wide, being made up of four pieces pasted at the ends. The United Grand Lodge of England acquired it in 1839 for twenty-five pounds from a Miss Sidall, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Dunckerley’s second wife. The handwriting is compatible with the date of 1583, although the language is older, leading Henry Jenner to propose that it was copied from an original up to a century older. The contents of Grand Lodge 1 tell the same tale as the Dowland manuscript, with only minor changes. Again, the charges take the form of an oath on a sacred book.[10]

Within this manuscript and the Dowland we find a curious mason called Naymus Grecus (Dowland has Maymus or Mamus Grecus), who had been at the building of Solomon’s Temple, and who taught masonry to Charles Martel before he became King of France, thus bringing masonry to Europe. This obvious absurdity has been interpreted by Neville Barker Cryer as a coded reference to Alcuin of York, possibly from a misunderstanding of one of his poems. In Carmen XXVI is the line, “Et Nemias Greco infundat sua poculo Baccho”, expressing the wish that Nemias should fill Alcuin’s cup with Greek wine. Nemias, or Nehemias, was Alcuin’s code name for Eberhard, Charlemagne’s cupbearer. Cryer presents the possibility that a misunderstanding allowed Nemias Greco to be assumed to refer to the Yorkshire saint and scholar.[11]

Later Manuscripts

At this point, the old charges had attained a standard form. What became known as the York Legend had emerged in a form that would survive into Preston’s Illustrations of Freemasonry, a work of 1772 which was still being reprinted in the mid 19th century. The requirement for every new admission to be sworn to the Old Charges on the bible now meant that every lodge should have its own manuscript charges, and over a hundred survive from the seventeenth century until the period in the eighteenth when their use died out. Describing them all is beyond the scope of a single article, and unnecessary since differences are only in details, such as occasional clumsy attempts to deal with the absence of Edwin, Athelstan’s son, from any historical record. Differences also occur in the specifics of the charges and the manner of taking the oath. A very few manuscripts have a separate Apprentice Charge. Families of documents have been identified, and two systems of classification exist.[12] A few documents deserve special attention.


This document was purchased by the British Government as part of a collection amassed by William Petty, Marquis of Lansdowne. It was bundled with papers from William Cecil, a prominent Elizabethan politician who died in 1598, and was assumed to belong to the same period. Analysis of the handwriting places it a hundred years later, and later papers have been found in Cecil’s bundle. Lansdowne is still frequently cited as an Elizabethan document.[1]

York No 4

The group of masons calling themselves the Grand Lodge of All England meeting since Time Immemorial in the City of York continued to issue written constitutions to lodges, as their authority to meet, until the last quarter of the Eighteenth century.[13] Surviving are York manuscripts numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 (3 missing), the Hope manuscript, and the Scarborough manuscript, which turned up in Canada. Of these, York 4 has been the subject of controversy since it was first described in print. It is dated 1693, and was the first of the Old Charges discovered to have a separate Apprentice Charge, or a set of oaths specially for apprentices. The controversy was caused by the short paragraph describing how the oath was to be taken. “The one of the elders takeing the Booke / and that hee or shee that is to be made mason / shall lay their hands thereon / and the charge shall bee given”. Woodford and Hughan had no particular problem with this reading, believing it to be a copy of a much older document, and realising that women were admitted to the guilds of their deceased menfolk if they were in a position to carry on their trade. Other writers, starting with Hughan’s contemporary David Murray Lyon, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, insisted that the “shee” must be a scribal error for they, or a mistranslation of the Latin illi (they). Hughan failed to point out that the four lines in question are written in a competent hand in letters twice the size of the surrounding text, but riposted to Lyon that the Apprentice charge in York No 4, Harleian MS 1942, and the Hope manuscript outline the apprentice’s duties to his master or Dame. Modern opinion seems resigned to letting York Manuscript number 4 remain a paradox.[14][15]

Melrose No 2

The Lodge of Melrose successfully ignored the Grand Lodge of Scotland for a century and a half, finally joining in 1891 as the Lodge Of Melrose St. John No 1 bis. The original Melrose constitutions are lost, but a copy was made in 1674 by Andro Mein (Andrew Main). He appended a copy of a certificate issued to an apprentice by “his master frie Mason, in the Year of our Lord 1581, and in the raign of our Soveraign Lady Elizabeth the (22) year”. Two other Scottish constitutions, the Kilwinning and the Aberdeen, declare that masons are liegemen of the King of England. This suggests an English origin of at least some of the Scottish Old Charges.[16]

Printed Constitutions

As the first Grand Lodge gathered momentum the Rev. James Anderson was commissioned to digest the “gothic constitutions” into a more palatable form. The result, in 1723, was the first printed constitutions. While manuscript constitutions continued to be used in unaffiliated lodges, their condensation into print saw them die out by the end of the century. Anderson’s introduction advertised a history of Freemasonry from the beginning of the world.[17] The York legend was therefore still employed, and persisted through reprints, pocket editions, and Preston’s Illustrations of Freemasonry. Anderson’s regulations, the second part of the book, followed on a set of charges devised by George Payne during his second term as Grand Master. Both charges and regulations were geared to the needs of a Grand Lodge, necessarily moving away from the simplicity of the originals. When a new Grand Lodge sprang up to carry the older rite, which they saw as abandoned by the “Moderns”, their constitutions had a different approach to history. Ahiman Rezon parodied the old history of the craft, and Anderson’s research. The charges and regulations of the Antients were derived from Anderson by way of Pratt’s Irish Constitutions.[18] Almost inevitably, the legendary history disappeared after the union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813.[19]