By Yasha Beresiner, PGStB (UGLE) Hon SGW (GL State of Israel) PSGW (Reg GL Italy) PM Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076 EC
There are many questions in the long history of Freemasonry which perturb scholars and to which there really are no definite answers. For instance, it is now well established that Elias Ashmole was the first English speculative free mason initiated in July 1646. Could he have been initiated in an operative working Lodge? It is also known that he was an intellectual, a wealthy man of standing. Why did he become a Freemason? Furthermore when organised Freemasonry began in London in June 1717 it consisted entirely of ‘gentlemen’ intent on drinking and dining and having a good time in general. What happened in between times? How and why the change, between 1646 and 1717, from an apparently aristocratic institution emerging 70 years later as nothing more than a Gentlemen’s Club at best? The first English Constitutions by James Anderson were published in April 1723, some 6 years after the formation of the Grand Lodge of England. Until then we appear to have been enjoying festive aspects of freemasonry quite happily without minutes, rules or regulations. Why was it found necessary to publish so many restrictive sets of laws for the comportment of freemasons? By their very nature, the answers to these questions remain theoretical only.
Ashmole was born in May 1617 in Staffordshire, England. A talented and ambitious man, he was able to fulfil many of his dreams after his second marriage to the wealthy Lady Mainwaring, 20 years his senior. He retired at the age of 25 and pursued personal interests thereafter. During 1645 and 1646, crucial years in the English Civil War, Ashmole’s political and military careers developed on parallel lines. In March 1646 he was made a Captain in the King’s Army and he witnessed the defeat of King Charles by Cromwell three months later. He returned to Smallwood and on 16 October 1646 Elias Ashmole was made a freemason in Warrington. This is the evidence of the first initiation of an English speculative mason. That is, notwithstanding the fact that those present and listed would have certainly been initiated at an earlier date. It took place at 4.30 in the afternoon. The precise time can be given because he kept a daily diary now housed in the Bodeleian Library in Oxford. But many questions arise regarding his initiation. What was the exact nature of the Lodge in which Ashmole was initiated? In the whole of his extensive manuscript annotations there are only two references to his Masonic activities, dated 1646 and 1682. The names of those present in 1646 as listed by Ashmole in his diary are uncontested. None of those present belonged to the stonemasons' trade. The Lodge, however, will have consisted of several additional members not present at the initiation and who may well have been working operative stonemasons. There are two perennial questions raised with regard to Elias Ashmole’s initiation.
Why did he join? And why is there no other mention of freemasonry in his extensive diaries until his visit to London in 1682? The answer may lie in that freemasonry was not an organisation of particular consequence or sufficient importance for Elias Ashmole to make additional annotations. Ashmole may have joined because by nature he was a joiner. He could not have resisted the temptation to discover the nature of what even then was a mysterious association and he may well have found nothing of consequence in the fraternity for further comment or record. There is the added possibility that in the quite and secretive ambiance of a Masonic meeting he was able to meet with unrecorded intellectual colleagues to discuss those aspects of esoteric and hermetic studies very much experimental in the scientific world at the time. Ashmole was an extraordinarily accomplished man. By 1648 he had extended his studies in Astrology and Anatomy to Botany and Alchemy. This last subject was to occupy him considerably and he wrote several books on the subject, the first in 1650.He was undoubtedly fascinated with esoteric and hermetic studies. He often consulted oracles. Yet Ashmole made a point of not allowing his enthusiasm for alchemy to obscure his historical research and he never saw himself as a practicing alchemist. He may have attended meetings unrecorded in his diary until the summons to the Masons Company in London in 1682.
It is now that he mentions freemasonry for the second and only additional time in the 2000 odd pages of his diaries. The entry is dated 10th March 1682, thirty-five years after his initiation. The same curios questions arise in this instance as they did with regard to the first entry. What ceremony did Ashmole exactly attend in London? He was The Senior Fellow among them thus he was a speculative freemason gathering in an operative environment of the Masons Company of London. What was he doing there? The recorded ceremony of the acception in the Masons Company has yet to be explained. It appears to be a ‘club within the club’ to which selected individuals were admitted as members. Ashmole’s presence here may be seen as evidence, or at least suggest, that Ashmole’s own lodge into which he was initiated in 1646 was of a similar composition. Elias Ashmole, in 1646, may well have experienced in an operative Lodge an aspect of an acception ceremony he was to attend several decades later in London.
So we find that Ashmole may have found access to an esoteric content in some or other aspect of the Craft proceedings. He may have had colleagues similarly inclined. There are interesting hints in the diary annotations at the nature of Masonic activity at the time. Colonel Henry Mainwaring, with whom Ashmole was initiated, was a Roundhead parliamentarian friend, diametrically opposed to the Royalists who Ashmole supported. The implication is that freemasonry, from these very early days, recognised no political boundaries. The structure of the Lodge is also hinted at by the significant reference to Richard Penkett as a Warden. Furthermore Ashmole took his obligation on the Sloane Manuscript, an ancient charge in manuscript, which was expressly composed for the ceremony of his initiation. Thus we see that the structure of freemasonry has been reasonably consistent through the centuries. Thus whilst the structure or format of the institution did not change over the years, the content, the ritual and ceremony and, more importantly, the academic quality of its membership, may well have been diluted. The departure of academics and their replacement by ‘Gentlemen’ may have caused a decline in quality over the years. By 1717 the Society may well have altered completely, emerging finally as just another one of he many London clubs of the period.
Although the Premier Grand Lodge was formed on 24 June 1717, it was not until exactly 6 years later, on 24 June 1723 that the first Secretary to the Grand Lodge, William Cowper, was appointed. It is only after this date that minutes of Grand Lodge began to be kept. There are no records of any kind of the activities of Grand Lodge before June 1723. The historic report of the events that took place on that fateful day in June 1717, are only to be encountered some twenty years later, in Anderson’s second edition, The New Book of Constitutions published in 1738. It is from these Constitutions that we know that on the day at the feast, the Brethren by a Majority of Hands elected Mr Anthony Sayer Gentleman, Grand Master of Masons. Anthony Sayer (1672-1742) proclaimed George Payne (d 1757) as his successor in 1718; these two Brethren were the only two commoners to be elected Grand Master.
Every early indication points at our Society as a fun, food and charity institution from the start. The lack of any minutes and rules or regulations at the start is in line with an organisation not taking itself too seriously. Six years of unregulated activity. At the time there were several dozen other similar institutions. What was it that assured the success of Freemasonry beyond any of the other contemporary organisations? The answer is simple: the Freemasons were able to recruit members of the nobility, and soon, Royalty itself, to join the Craft. There was a price to pay, however: constitutions. Nobility and aristocracy would not join a Society without orderly regulations. This fact, however, leads to the more important and difficult question: what inducement did a member of the aristocracy have at the time to join freemasonry?
Since 1718 the appointment of Grand Master was only afforded to Brethren of great distinction, of the aristocracy, nobility and royalty. The first of these, the third Grand Master to be elected in 1719, was the Reverend John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683-1744). He graduated from Oxford with a Doctorate of Civil Law, having taken his holy orders in 1710. Four years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and became the Curator of this most prestigious scientific institute. Here then, the question already posed has to be repeated. What could have possibly been whispered into the ear of so prominent a man as Desaguliers, the author of books on experimental philosophy, closely associated with the aristocracy and Royalty, as to persuade him to become a freemason? It is my view that Freemasonry and the Royal Society had very little indeed in common at this or any other time. There is no real evidence, beyond the circumstance surrounding Ashmole mentioned above, that we freemasons have had secrets associated with Hermetic philosophy, the Kabbalah or other similar mystical schools of thought. Outsiders have maliciously associated our organisation with a series of tasteless activities, ranging from sorcery and witchcraft to idolatry and devil worship.
The Royal Society, on the other hand, during this early period at the turn of the 18th Century, focused its scientific research on what was then referred to as alternative philosophy the same experimental philosophy in which John Theophilus Desaguliers, our Grand Master to be, excelled. Here were a group of scientists, respected through the world, whose daily research, in simplistic terms, revolved around esoteric and hermetic studies and the secrets of nature. There was a standing understanding that the revelation of the one yet to be discovered secret of nature could transform the scientific world. It would allow the fulfilment of the study of alchemy and convert basic metal to gold. Through the one secret of nature, yet unknown, communication with those who had passed beyond would be possible. It was in this environment of serious study that the Royal Society members would have heard of the formation of a body calling themselves Freemasons, who had a secret known only to them. It is possible that, notwithstanding the conviction that the secrets of any such inconsequential body as the Freemasons, could not be of any scientific importance, someone had to ensure that that was indeed the case. Although Elias Ashmole and his ilk had been both Freemasons and members of the Royal Society before the turn of the Century, their views and outlook of Freemasonry would have been clearly of a different perspective to that of the organised Freemasonry that was launched in June 1717.
John Theophilus Desaguliers, Curator and respected member of the Royal Society, was selected or may have chosen himself to investigate this newly set up organisation. On being initiated into our secrets and mysteries and admitted a member of the Craft, the new candidate, Bro Desaguliers, would have quickly discovered that there were no secrets among the masons, beyond traditional forms of recognition. Here, he would have found the true spirit of brotherly love, relief and truth prevailing. His very high social standing will have certainly induced the Grand Lodge to offer him the highest possible office from the outset, which he may well have accepted. This would explain why there appears to be so little, if any, information about Desaguliers prior to his appointment as Grand Master in 1719.
Enchanted by the camaraderie of our institution and true to his obligation, on his return to the Royal Society, Desaguliers would have rather persuaded his colleagues to join the fraternity than disclose the inconsequential secrets he had learnt and sworn to observe. This then may well have been the beginning of the involvement of the aristocracy in our midst. The Constitutions were written at the instigation of Desaguliers who, no doubt, had the future of the Institution at heart and the Aristocracy, nobility and royalty in his head. He brought with him Lord Montgomery our first Noble Grand Master. Clearly with the presence and membership of such distinguished Brethren some rules and regulations for the comportment of the Brethren became necessary. Thus Grand Master Desagulier instructed James Anderson to compose or ‘digest’ the Constitutions and secure the continued patronage of Nobility and Royalty, which England has enjoyed ever since.
There are an infinite number of unanswered and unanswerable questions in the rich history of freemasonry and they will continue to baffle and delight historians for ever.
Selected Bibliography and Sources:
|Baigent, Michael||Freemasonry, Hermetic Thought and The Royal Society of London||AQC 109, 1996|
|Carr, Harry||Haunch T O and others Grand Lodge 1717- 1967||Oxford 1967|
|Josten C H||Elias Ashmole||Oxford, 1966|
|Page, Bryan F||Elias Ashmole The First recorded English Freemason||Prestonian Lecture for 1988|
|Rogers, Norma||The Lodge of Elias Ashmole, 1646||AQC 65 1952|
|Tuckett J E S||Dr Richard Rawlinson and the Masonic Entries in Elias Ashmole’s Diary||AQC 25 1912|
|Ward, Eric||Anderson’s Constitutions||Oxon 1976|
|Weisberger, William R||John Theophilus Desaguliers: Promoter of the Enlightenment and of Speculative Freemasonry||AQC 112, 2000|