History of Freemasonry

In the ceremonies, Freemasons are told that Freemasonry was in existence when King Solomon built the Temple at Jerusalem and that the masons who built the Temple were organised into Lodges.

Freemasons are also told that King Solomon, King Hiram of Tyre and Hiram Abif ruled over those lodges as equal Grand Masters. The ceremonies, however, are built up of allegory and symbolism and the stories they weave around the building of the Temple are obviously not literal or historical facts but a dramatic means of explaining the principles of Freemasonry. Freemasonry neither originated nor existed in Solomon’s time.

There are two main theories of the origin of Freemasonry. According to one, the operative stonemasons who built the great cathedrals and castles had lodges in which they discussed trade affairs. They had simple initiation ceremonies and, as there were no City and Guilds certificates, or trade union membership cards, they adopted secret signs and words to demonstrate that they were trained masons when they moved from site to site. In the 1600s, these operative lodges began to accept non-operatives as “gentlemen masons”. Gradually these non-operatives took over the lodges and turned them from operative to ‘free and accepted’ or ‘speculative’ lodges.

The other theory is that in the late 1500s and early 1600s, there was a group, which was interested in the promotion of religious and political tolerance in an age of great intolerance when differences of opinion on matters of religion and politics were to lead to bloody civil war. In forming Freemasonry, they were trying to make better men and build a better world. As the means of teaching in those days was by allegory and symbolism, they took the idea of building as the central allegory on which to form their system. The main source of allegory was the Bible, the contents of which were known to everyone even if they could not read, and the only building described in detail in the Bible was King Solomon’s Temple, which became the basis of the ritual. The old trade guilds provided them with their basic administration of a Master, Wardens, Treasurer and Secretary, and the operative mason’s tools provided them with a wealth of symbols with which to illustrate the moral teachings of Freemasonry.

 
  

We do know the earliest recoded ‘making’ of a Freemason -  Elias Ashmole, the Antiquary and Founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, records in his diary for 1646 that he was made a freemason in a lodge held for that purpose at his father-in-laws house in Warrington. 

Although it is not yet possible to say exactly when, why or where Freemasonry originated it is known where and when it became organised. On 24 June 1717 four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St Pauls Churchyard, formed themselves into a Grand Lodge and elected a Grand Master (Anthony Sayer) and Grand Wardens.   This was the first Grand Lodge in the World.


For the first few years the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast at which the Grand Master and Wardens were elected, but in 1721 other meetings began to be held and the Grand Lodge began to be a regulatory body.  In 1723 The Grand Lodge published its first rule book, The book of Constitutions of Masonry.   This book has been in the public domain since the first edition was published, the current edition can be downloaded from the website for the United Grand Lodge of England.

By 1730 it had more than one hundred lodges under its control (including one in Spain and one in India), began to operate a central charity fund, and had attracted a wide spectrum of society into its lodges.

The Grand Lodge of Ireland was established in 1725 and the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736. 

In 1751 a rival Grand Lodge appeared, made up of Freemasons of mainly Irish descent who had been unable to join lodges in London. Its founders claimed that the original Grand Lodge had departed from the established customs of the Craft and that they intended practicing Freemasonry according to the Old Institutions. Confusingly they dubbed the original Grand Lodge ‘Moderns’ and called themselves the Grand Lodge of Antients.  The two rivals existed side by side, both at home and abroad, for 63 years, neither regarding the other as regular or each other’s members as regularly made Freemasons.

Attempts at a union of the two rivals began in the late 1790s but it was not until 1809 that negotiating committees were set up. They moved slowly and it was not until His Royal Highness Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex became Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge and his brother, His Royal Highness Edward, Duke of Kent, became Grand Master of the Antients Grand Lodge, both in 1813, that serious steps were taken.

In little more than six weeks the two brothers had formulated and gained agreement to the Articles of Union between the two Grand Lodges and arranged the great ceremony by which the United Grand Lodge of England came into being on 27 December 1813. This union led to a great deal of standardisation of ritual, procedure and regalia.

All regular Grand Lodges throughout the world, whatever the immediate means of their formation, ultimately trace their origins back to one, or a combination, of the Grand Lodges within the British Isles.

The United Grand Lodge of England has been in Great Queen Street since 1775, the present Hall being the third building on the site.  Built between 1927–1932 as a memorial to the Freemasons who died in the First World War, it is one of the finest Art Deco buildings in England, and is now Grade II listed internally and externally. In addition to the Grand Temple (seating 1700) there are 21 Lodge Rooms, a Library and Museum, Board and Committee Rooms and administrative offices. The building is fully open to the public.