Originally posted on October 7, 2021 @ 10:04 am

The Old Charges of Freemasonry

The Old Charges of the Masonic Lodges were papers that described the obligations of the members and to which every mason had to swear on admission. As a result, every lodge kept a copy of its charges, sometimes put at the beginning of the minute book, but more often as a separate manuscript roll of parchment. With the arrival of Grand Lodges, these were generally replaced by printed constitutions, but the Grand Lodge of All England at York, as well as the few lodges that remained autonomous in Scotland and Ireland, kept hand-written charges as their authorization to assemble as a lodge. Woodford, Hughan, Speth, and Gould, all Quatuor Coronati Lodge founders, and Dr Begemann, a German Freemason, published a great deal in the second half of the nineteenth century, collecting, categorizing, and classifying the accessible information. Apart from the odd unearthing of another ancient record, little has been done to update the field since then.

The earliest, the Regius poem, is remarkable in that it is written in poetry. The rest, of which over a hundred have survived, are typically three-part structures. They begin with a prayer, an invocation to God, or a general proclamation, and are followed by a description of the Seven Liberal Arts (logic, language, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), praising Geometry above the others. There is typically a history of the craft and how it arrived to the British Isles, culminating in a grand assembly of masons during King Athelstan’s reign. The last section consists of the lodge’s charges or regulations, as well as the trade of masonry in general, which the members are obligated to uphold.

Evolution of the York Legend

The oldest masonic records come from their first employers, the church and the state. The first, claimed by contemporary Freemasons as the lineal forebears of their own Charges, is about masons self-organizing as a brotherhood with shared duties. Surviving sources indicate the growth of a masonry mythology from the time of Henry VI to the Elizabethan period, that is, from around 1425 to 1550, beginning before the flood and culminating in the re-establishment of the skill of masonry in York under the reign of King Athelstan.

Halliwell Manuscript/Regius Poem

The earliest of the Old Charges is the Halliwell Manuscript, commonly known as the Regius Poem. It is made up of 64 vellum pages of Middle English rhyming couplets. It varies from the prose of all subsequent accusations in this regard. The poem opens by recounting how Euclid “counterfeited geometry” and renamed it brickwork for the use of aristocratic children in Ancient Egypt. It then describes the spread of geometry in “divers countries.” The text describes how the art of masonry was introduced to England during King Athelstan’s reign (924–939). It describes how all the masons of the kingdom came to the King for guidance on how to govern themselves, and how Athelstan, along with the aristocracy and landed gentry, formed the fifteen articles and fifteen points for their rule. This is followed by fifteen paragraphs for the master on both moral behavior (do not harbor thieves, do not accept bribes, attend church on a regular basis, etc.) and the running of a construction site (do not make your masons labour at night, teach apprentices properly, do not take on jobs that you cannot do, etc.). Following that, there are fifteen points for artisans, which follow a similar pattern. Following warnings of penalties for individuals who violate the regulations, there is a provision for yearly gatherings. The tale of the Four Crowned Martyrs is followed by a series of moral aphorisms and, eventually, a benediction.

They were looking for fifteen articles and working on fifteen points. “Fyftene artyculus ey er sowton, and fyftene poyntys er ey wroton,” from Regius Manuscript. (Fifteen items they there sought and fifteen points there they wrought.) —Regius MS (about 1425–50).
The Regius’s origins are unknown. The manuscript was documented in different personal inventories as it passed through various hands until it came into the ownership of the Royal Library, which was presented to the British Museum by King George II in 1757 to form the core of the current British Library. It was only long later that Freemasonry became aware of it, thanks largely to the librarian David Casley, who cataloged it in 1734 as “a Poem of Moral Duties.” In the 1838–39 session of the Royal Society, James Halliwell, who was not a Freemason, gave a paper based on the Regius on “The Early History of Freemasonry in England,” which was published in 1840. The manuscript was dated to 1390, which was accepted by experts such as Woodford and Hughan; the dating of Edward Augustus Bond, the keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, to fifty years later was generally ignored. Hughan adds that it was most likely written by a cleric.

Bond’s dating to the second quarter of the fifteenth century has been verified by modern analysis, and its composition has been located in Shropshire. This date suggests that the document’s construction, particularly its story of a royal authorization for yearly assemblies, was meant as a counterblast to the 1425 legislation prohibiting such meetings.

Manuscript of Matthew Cooke

The Matthew Cooke Manuscript is the second oldest of the Old Charges or Gothic Constitutions of Freemasonry, and the first set of charges written in prose. It has some repetition, but it also contains a lot of fresh content, much of which is repeated in following constitutions. Following an introductory prayer of gratitude, the book lists the Seven Liberal Arts, with geometry, which it equates with masonry, taking primacy. The story of Lamech’s children is expanded from the Book of Genesis. Jabal discovered geometry and rose to the position of Cain’s Master Mason. Tubal Cain discovered metallurgy and the craft of the smith, while Lamech’s daughter Naamah invented weaving. When they realized that the earth would be destroyed by either fire or flood, they wrote all of their knowledge on two stone pillars, one resistant to fire and one that would not sink. Both pillars were found generations after the flood, one by Pythagoras and the other by the philosopher Hermes. The seven sciences were then passed down through Nimrod, the creator of the Tower of Babel, to Abraham, who taught them to the Egyptians, including Euclid, who in turn taught masonry as an instructive discipline to the children of the aristocracy. The skill is subsequently taught to the children of Israel, and it makes its way from the Temple of Solomon to France, and then to Saint Alban’s England. Athelstan was now one of a long series of monarchs who actively supported masonry. His younger son, who remains unidentified here, is presented for the first time as the mason’s leader and mentor. The text concludes in the same fashion as the Regius, with nine articles and nine points.

Unlike most 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 with its original oak covers. The manuscript was edited by Mr. Matthew Cooke and published by R. Spencer in London in 1861, thus the name. It is listed as “Additional M.S. 23,198” in the British Museum’s catalogue and is now dated to 1450 or so, though errors in Cooke’s transcription caused it to be dated after 1482 at first. Cooke interpreted the last word of line 140, And in policronico a cronycle p’yned, as “printed,” prompting Hughan to put the oldest date as 1482, according to Caxton’s Polychronicon. The earlier date was justified by the later retranslation as “proven.” Obvious scribal mistakes show that the text is a copy, and the duplication of parts of Euclid’s and Athelstan’s stories appears to imply two origins. Speth proposed in 1890 that these sources were far older than the manuscript, a claim that stood uncontested for more than a century.

Recent examination of the document’s Middle English dates it to approximately 1450, suggesting that the source or sources from which it was copied were almost contemporaneous with the Cooke and contemporaneous with, or only slightly later than, the Regius poem. It was most likely written in the West Midlands, close to the Regius’s origins in Shropshire. Both the Regius and Cooke manuscripts, according to historian Andrew Prescott, are part of the battle of mediaeval masons to decide their own wage, notably following the 1425 legislation prohibiting mason meetings. Masons attempted to demonstrate that their meetings had royal permission by mentioning that the King’s son had become a mason himself. Line 603 contains “He was a master of speculatyfe, and he adored masonry and masons. And he became a mason in his own right.”

When he published his 1723 Constitutions, James Anderson got access to the Cooke manuscript. In a footnote to his description of the York assembly, he gives the final sixty lines. The Woodford manuscript, a duplicate of the Cooke, includes a notation indicating that it was prepared in 1728 by William Reid, Grand Secretary of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, for William Cowper, Clerk of the Parliaments, who was also Grand Secretary.

The Dowland Manuscript

In 1815, the Dowland Manuscript was published for the first time in the Gentleman’s Magazine. James Dowland, a contributor, wrote “For the benefit of your readers, I am sending you an unusual address concerning Freemasonry that I recently obtained. It is written on a long roll of parchment in a very clear hand, perhaps in the 17th century, and was most likely copied from an older MS.” This older date is nevertheless considered to be approximately 1550, making the Dowland one of the world’s second oldest prose constitutions. The salaries described in the book are consistent with other manuscripts dating from the second half of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, the original is no longer available.

The tale is similar to the Cooke manuscript’s. In this case, we’re told that the initial allegations sprang from Euclid’s advice to the Egyptian Lords’ sons. Avnon, a son of King Hiram of Tyre, is the Master Mason at the Temple of Solomon’s building. Masonry spreads from the Temple once more and penetrates Saint Alban’s England from France. Following Alban’s death, science suffers throughout the wars, but is revived under Athelstan. His son, Edwinne, is the adept geometrician who gets his father’s charter for an annual meeting of masons, which shall be “renewed from Kinge to Kinge.” For the first time, the assembly under Edwin is recognized as taking place in York. The articles and points have been replaced with a series of accusations presented in the form of an oath.

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

Grand Lodge No. 1

This manuscript occurs in Hughan’s Old Charges with an inexplicable date of 1632, which Speth, the following editor, attributed to the awful handwriting of Hughan’s colleague, Rev. Woodford. On December 25, 1583, it is the first of the accusations to contain a date, which is barely visible as 1583. The document is a roll of parchment nine feet long and five inches broad, made up of four parts glued together at the ends. The United Grand Lodge of England purchased it in 1839 for twenty-five pounds from Miss Sidall, Thomas Dunckerley’s second wife’s great-granddaughter. The handwriting is consistent with the year 1583, but the language is older, causing Henry Jenner to speculate that it was copied from an original that was up to a century earlier. With very slight modifications, the contents of Grand Lodge 1 recount the same story as the Dowland manuscript. The allegations, once again, take the shape of an oath on a sacred text.

Within this manuscript and the Dowland, we discover a fascinating mason named Naymus Grecus (Dowland has Maymus or Mamus Grecus), who worked on Solomon’s Temple and taught masonry to Charles Martel before he became King of France, bringing masonry to Europe. Neville Barker Cryer viewed this evident absurdity as a veiled allusion to Alcuin of York, probably resulting from a misinterpretation of one of his poems. The phrase “Et Nemias Greco infundat suo poculo Baccho” from Carmen XXVI expresses Nemias’ request that he fill Alcuin’s cup with Greek wine. Alcuin’s code name for Eberhard, Charlemagne’s cupbearer, was Nemias, or Nehemias. Cryer suggests that a misunderstanding led to Nemias Greco being mistaken for the Yorkshire saint and scholar.

Freemasonry Manuscripts Published Later

The previous charges had reached a common form at this stage. The York Legend had developed in a form that would endure in Preston’s Illustrations of Freemasonry, a 1772 book that was still being reprinted in the mid-nineteenth century. The need that every new admittance be sworn to the Old Charges on the bible now meant that every lodge should have its own manuscript charges, and over a hundred remain from the seventeenth century until their use faded out in the eighteenth. Describing them all is beyond the scope of a single article, and unneeded because the changes are mainly in minutiae, such as occasional poor efforts to deal with the lack of Athelstan’s son, Edwin, from any historical record. Differences also exist in the nature of the accusations and the method in which the oath is administered. A distinct Apprentice Charge appears in just a few texts. Document families have been discovered, and two classification methods exist. A few documents merit particular consideration.

Lansdowne Manuscript

The British Government purchased this document as part of a collection gathered by William Petty, Marquis of Lansdowne. It was found in a bundle alongside documents from William Cecil, a renowned Elizabethan statesman who died in 1598, and was thought to be from the same time period. The handwriting analysis places it a hundred years later, and further documents have been discovered in Cecil’s bundle. Lansdowne is still widely regarded as an Elizabethan text.

York No. 4

Until the final quarter of the eighteenth century, the organization of masons known as the Grand Lodge of All England, which had been meeting in the City of York from Time Immemorial, issued written constitutions to lodges as their authorization to convene.

York manuscripts 1, 2, 4, and 5 are still extant, as are the Hope manuscript and the Scarborough manuscript, which was discovered in Canada. York 4 has been the source of debate since it was originally mentioned in paper. It was the first of the Old Charges discovered to include a distinct Apprentice Charge, or a set of vows just for apprentices. It was dated 1693. The short statement explaining how the oath was to be taken sparked the debate. “One of the elders shall take the Booke, and hee or shee who is to be made mason shall lay their hands thereon, and the charge shall bee delivered.” Woodford and Hughan had no objections to this interpretation, thinking it to be a copy of a much older document and knowing that women were allowed to the guilds of their departed menfolk provided they were able to continue on their craft. Other writers, beginning with Hughan’s contemporary David Murray Lyon, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, claimed that the “shee” must be a scribal error or a mistranslation of the Latin illi (they). Hughan overlooked the fact that the four lines in question are written in a competent hand in letters twice the size of the surrounding text, but he reminded Lyon that the Apprentice charge in York No 4, Harleian MS 1942, and the Hope manuscript describe the apprentice’s obligations to his master or Dame. Modern opinion appears to be resigned to letting York go. Manuscript 4 continues to be a puzzle.

Melrose No. 2

For a century and a half, the Lodge of Melrose successfully avoided the Grand Lodge of Scotland, ultimately entering in 1891 as the Lodge of Melrose St. John No. 1 bis. The original Melrose constitutions have been destroyed, but Andro Mein created a replica in 1674. (Andrew Main). He encloses a copy of a certificate granted to an apprentice by “his master frie Mason, in the Year of our Lord 1581, and in the reign of our Sovereign Lady Elizabeth the (22) year.” Masons are declared to be liegemen of the King of England in two additional Scottish constitutions, the Kilwinning and the Aberdeen. This implies that at least some of the Scottish Old Charges have an English origin.

Constitutions Printed On Paper

As the first Grand Lodge gained traction, Rev. James Anderson was tasked with translating the “gothic constitutions” into a more acceptable form. The outcome was the first printed constitutions in 1723. While manuscript constitutions were still employed in unaffiliated lodges, their consolidation into print caused them to become extinct by the end of the century. Anderson’s opening promised a history of Freemasonry dating back to the dawn of time. As a result, the York tale was still used and survived through reprints, pocket versions, and Preston’s Illustrations of Freemasonry. The second section of the book, Anderson’s rules, were based on a set of charges created by George Payne during his second tenure as Grand Master. Both charges and rules were tailored to the demands of a Grand Lodge, necessitating a departure from the originals’ simplicity. When a new Grand Lodge arose to carry on the ancient rite, which they viewed as having been abandoned by the “Moderns,” its constitutions took a different perspective to history. Ahiman Rezon mocked the craft’s history as well as Anderson’s study. The Antients’ charges and rules were taken from Anderson via Pratt’s Irish Constitutions. After the merger of the two Grand Lodges in 1813, the mythical history almost certainly vanished.

The Old Charges of Freemasonry

References For This Article About Old Charges

1. Andrew Prescott, The Old Charges Revisited, from Transactions of the Lodge of Research No. 2429 (Leicester), 2006, Pietre-Stones Masonic Papers, retrieved 21 April 2013

2. A. F. A. Woodford, preface to William James Hughan, The Old Charges of British Freemasons, London, 1872

3. Pietre-Stones, The Regius Poem, Parallel text with introduction, retrieved 27 July 2012

4. F. L. Quick, A Fantasy of the Regius Poem’s Origin, Transactions of A. Douglas Smith, Jr. Lodge of Research #1949, Vol 3 (1993–1997), pp 11–15

5. William James Hughan, The Old Charges of British Freemasons, London, 1872, pp 2-3

6.  Works related to Matthew Cooke Manuscript at Wikisource “The Matthew Cooke Manuscript with translation”. Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon A.F. & A.M. Retrieved 6 February 2006.

7. Anderson’s Constitutions Franklin’s reprint, retrieved 22 June 2012

8. Ray Sheppard, Ahiman Rezon, Association of Atholl Lodges

9.  UGLE – Book of Constitutions

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