The Freemasons: A History of the World's Most Powerful Secret Societyby Jasper Ridley
What did Mozart and Bach, Oscar Wilde and Anthony Trollope, George Washington and Frederick the Great, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt have in common? They were all Freemasons, a subject of endless fascination. To the layman, they are a mysterious brotherhood of profound if uncertain influence, a secret society purported in some popular histories to have its roots in the fabled order of the Knights Templar, or in the mysteries of the Egyptian pyramids. They evoke fears of world domination by a select few who enjoy privileged access to wealth and the levers of power. The secrecy of their rites suggests the taint of sacrilege, and their hidden loyalties are sometimes accused of undermining the workings of justice and the integrity of nations.
Though not a mason himself, Jasper Ridley nonetheless refutes many of the outrageous allegations made against Freemasonry, while at the same time acknowledging the masons’ shortcomings: their clannishness, misogyny, obsession with secrecy, and devotion to arcane ritual. In this much-needed reassessment, he offers a substantial work of history that sifts the truth from the myth as it traces Freemasonry from its origins to the present day.
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The masons were different. In the Middle Ages, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, in England, France and Central Europe, there was a general feeling that the masons were different from other people. Most of the population were serfs, working on the lands of their feudal lords, and they never travelled beyond their native village, except to walk along the King's highway to the nearest market town; but some of the more enterprising among them travelled much longer distances, going on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury, or to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, or occasionally going to France to serve the English King in his wars against the French.
In the towns, craftsmen made things, and traders bought and sold them. Weavers made cloth, goldsmiths made rings and jewellery, and carpenters built wooden houses for the local inhabitants or the town council. But the masons were different. They worked in stone, and very few buildings were built in stone. Only the castles of the King, and of those noblemen to whom he gave permission to 'castellate' and build castles, and the cathedrals, abbeys and parish churches, were built of stone. So the King, some of his nobles, and the Church were the masons' only employers, though occasionally an important bridge would be built of stone.
London Bridge, which until the eighteenth century was the only bridge over the Thames below Kingston, was originally built of wood; but after it was destroyed in 1176 it was decided torebuild it in stone. The people made up a song about it:
London Bridge is falling down.
How shall we build it up again?
Build it up with silver and gold,
Dance over my lady lea;
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
With a fair lady.
Build it up with iron and steel,
Dance over my lady lea;
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
With a fair lady.
Build it up with wood and clay,
Dance over my lady lea;
Wood and clay will wash away,
With a fair lady.
Build it up with stone so strong,
Dance over my lady lea;
Then 'twill last for ages long,
With a fair lady.
It did indeed last for ages long. After they had finished building it in 1209, it lasted 623 years, and when it was demolished in 1832, it was not because of any fault in the structure, but because the stone pillars on which the bridge was built were too close together to allow the larger ships of the nineteenth century to pass beneath.
And who was the 'fair lady', the 'lady lea' over whom the people danced when they crossed the bridge or entered the houses which were built on both sides of the bridge? Everyone knew all about her. She was a young virgin who had been walled up alive in one of the stone columns of the bridge by the masons when they were building the bridge, as a human sacrifice to appease God's wrath and induce Him to preserve the bridge from destruction by gales or floods. It was one of many lies about masons which people have spread and believed for more than 800 years, from 1176 t0 1999.
The masons travelled all over the country building cathedrals in the county towns, castles at strategic points, and abbeys sometimes near towns and sometimes on the Yorkshire moors and in other places in the depths of the country.
The building of cathedrals provided the masons with a good deal of work. In France, 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches, and many more parish churches were built between 1050 and 1350. In England, the building of cathedrals often took more than a hundred years. The work required a considerable amount of labour, both skilled and unskilled. Unskilled workers were needed to clear away the rubble for the building of the foundations, and to bring the stone and mortar to the site. The French regulations for the building of cathedrals of 1268, which were drawn up after consultations with the craftsmen's guilds, laid down that 'masons, mortar-makers and plaisterers may have as many assistants and valets as they please, provided they teach them nothing about their trade.' Three masons might have five assistants working for them.
Many serfs seized the opportunity to escape from the lands where they were forced to work for their lords and go to a town where a cathedral was being built, knowing that if their lord did not recapture them within a year and a day they would be free from serfdom. Some gentlemen and noblemen came as volunteers to do the unskilled work as an act of piety. In some places, Jews were compelled to do the work as a penance on Holy Saturday.
The masons were skilled workers. There were two kinds of masons the 'hard hewers' or 'rough masons' who laid the ordinary hard stone from Kent and elsewhere of which the cathedrals were built; and the more highly-skilled masons, who carved the fine façades on the cathedral face. They worked in the softer, chalky stone which was found in many parts of England between Dorset and Yorkshire and in other countries of Europe. This softer stone was called 'freestone', and the skilled masons who worked with it were called 'freestone masons', which was often shortened to 'freemasons'.
Near the place where they were working, they erected a hut which they called their 'lodge'. They kept their tools in the lodge, and ate their dinner there during the time they were allowed for their dinner break in the middle of the day. But they did not sleep in the lodge. They took rooms in an inn, or other lodgings, in the town, and often stayed there for several years.
The freemasons, though they travelled from all over the country to their place of work, were not a bunch of unemployed tramps going everywhere to find employment. They were known for their skills, and were invited to come by the bishops and deans of chapters who were undertaking the building of the cathedral. While they were working on a cathedral they sometimes received offers from other parts of England, or from France or Germany, to leave the job and come, for higher rewards, to work on another cathedral. The bishops and deans who employed them tried to prevent this by imposing a term in their contract which prevented the freemasons from leaving to seek employment elsewhere until the work was finished; but the freemasons often refused to agree to such a condition.
When the King was building a castle or essential fortifications, he used his powers of impressment to force masons to work for him. In the 1540s, Henry VIII built fortifications on the Kent coast to guard against a possible French invasion. Masons from as far away as Somerset and Gloucestershire were obliged to come and work there, and masons from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire were forced to help build Henry's magnificent new palace of Nonesuch, near Esher in Surrey. Sometimes masons in Kent were ordered to go to Berwick to work on fortifications against the Scots, and were sent twelve shillings and eightpence (63p) to cover the expenses of their 304-mile journey from Maidstone. Sometimes the authorities did not trust the masons to turn up to work as directed, and arrested them and forcibly carried them to the required destination. Cardinal Wolsey adopted this method to obtain masons to build his Cardinal College at Oxford, which after his fall was renamed Christ Church.
But usually the conscription of masons and other workers was undertaken, not directly by the King or the government, but by a corporation, or trade guild, to which the King had granted a charter and instructions to regulate the craft. The guild was composed of the leading employers in the trade, but was sometimes directly controlled by a royal official. In the case of the masons, they were under the control of the Masons' Livery Company in London, which was almost certainly already in existence by 1220. There was a guild of masons in Chester, Durham, Newcastle and Richmond in Yorkshire.
In Scotland the masons' guilds were even older than in England. The Masons' Company of Glasgow was granted a charter, and the power and duty of regulating the trade, by King Malcolm III Canmore in 1057, the year in which he won the throne by defeating and killing Macbeth. There was a guild of masons, or joint guilds which included masons, in Edinburgh, Elgin, Irvine, Kirkcudbright, Rutherglen, and probably also in Aberdeen and Dundee.
Medieval Europe was a highly disciplined and regulated society. In England, Parliament laid down the maximum wage which every class of workers was permitted to receive and the number of hours a day which they were required to work in summer and winter; the fabric and colour of the clothes which dukes, earls, gentlemen and the common people were allowed to wear; the number of courses which they were permitted to eat at dinner; the fast days on which they were not allowed to eat meat or eggs; and the games that they were allowed to play.
Life was regulated for the masons too. Their duties were laid down in directives from their controlling guilds, which were known as 'Charges'. First of all came the mason's duty to God; he must believe in the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and must reject all heresies. Next came his duty to the King, whose sovereignty and laws he must obey. Third was his duty to his master, his employer, the mastermason for whom an apprenticed mason worked. He must not betray his master's secrets; he must not seduce his master's wife, daughter, or maidservant; he must not 'maintain any disobedient argument' with his master, his dame, or any freemason. Then there were the general moral duties: not to commit adultery or fornication, not to stay out late at night after 8 p.m. frequenting inns and brothels, and not to play cards except during the Twelve Days of Christmas. In this the Charges repeated the provisions of Acts of Parliament which laid down the rules about playing cards for every class below the rank of noblemen.
The masons' wages and working hours, like those of other workers, had been laid down in the Statutes of Labourers which were passed after the series of plagues, which became known as the Black Death, reached Western Europe from the East in 1348, and in some parts of England killed between one-third and one half of the population. The result was a shortage of labour which increased the bargaining power of the survivors. Parliaments consisting of peers in the House of Lords and a House of Commons for which only gentlemen, merchants and employers had the vote, passed Acts which laid down, not a minimum, but a maximum wage. Employers and their workmen could agree that the workman should work for as little as the workman was prepared to accept; but it was made illegal for the employer to pay his workmen more than the maximum laid down in the Act. Employers and workmen who paid and received more than this were fined. The fine of 20 shillings for each offence imposed on the workman amounted to nearly six months' wages.
The wages of a mason for a working day of fourteen hours in summer, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a total break of two hours for meals and rest, were sixpence a day. In winter the working day was from dawn to half-an-hour before sunset.
These working hours, which were the minimum laid down by the statutes, did not apply when Henry VIII's officials rounded up the masons from all over England and forced them to work on the King's fortifications and palace. Then the masons worked for the hours that they were ordered to work, and sometimes worked throughout the night.
But masons and other employers often made secret illegal agreements under which the masons were paid more than sixpence a day. The labour shortage was so acute, especially in the case of skilled workers, like the freemasons, and their bargaining power was so great, that they and their employers were prepared to risk the consequences of breaking the law. The masons formed trade unions, whose members agreed that they would not work for less than wages which were well above the legal maximum. These trade unions were illegal, and their meetings, and the decisions taken at the meetings, had to be kept very secret.
The law about the maximum wage for masons was so widely ignored and broken that it became virtually unenforceable, and usually no serious attempt was made to enforce it. Henry Yeveley, who was one of the most famous master-masons between 1356 and 1399, earned on an average well above sixpence a day. He became wealthy enough to buy two manors. His great contemporaries, William Wynford and Richard Beke, the chief mason of London Bridge from 1417 to 1435, became equally wealthy.
In 1425, when the Duke of Bedford was Regent for his three-year-old nephew King Henry VI, the government and Parliament made an attempt to enforce the law. A statute was passed which declared that masons had been violating the law, and had formed illegal combinations to force their employers to pay them excessive wages. More severe penalties were imposed by the Act on masons who attended meetings of illegal trade unions; but within two or three years the Act, like the earlier statutes, was no longer enforced.
In France, as in England, the masons, especially those who did the ornamental carvings in freestone, were the élite of the labour force employed in building cathedrals. They joined an organization which had no parallel in England, the Compagnonnage. The Compagnons who belonged to it welcomed workmen from nearly all the various trades, including masons, and organized their travels to their different places of work. The surviving records all refer to the journeys of the Compagnons in central and southern France; but the Compagnons were probably also active in the Paris area and the north of France. They tried to negotiate for all the workers of the different trades, and were the nearest medieval equivalent to a modern Trade Union Congress.
The French kings and governments did not approve of this. Laws and royal decrees against the Compagnonnage were issued in 1498, 1506 and 1539; and local bylaws banned them in Orleans in 1560, in Moulins in 1566, and in Blois in 1579. A statute of 1601 forbade the Compagnons to greet one another in the street or for more than three of them to go together to an inn; and in 1655 the doctors of the Sorbonne, the divinity college of the University of Paris, proclaimed that the Compagnons were wicked men who were offending against the laws of God. But the Compagnons continued to work secretly for the interests of their members.
In Germany and Central Europe, the Steinmetzen (stonemasons) were likewise the élite of the labour force employed in building cathedrals. Their activities were regulated by their trade corporations. They developed a national organization which covered the whole of Germany and Central Europe. There were important lodges of the Steinmetzen in Vienna, Cologne, Berne and Zurich, but they all accepted the leadership of the stonemasons of Strasbourg. In 1459 the Emperor Maximilian I issued a decree giving legal effect to the code of conduct drawn up by the leadership of the masons in Strasbourg. The control of Strasbourg over the German masons continued until 1681, when Strasbourg was captured by the armies of Louis XIV of France and annexed by France.
The freestone masons were less successful in Scotland than in other countries in maintaining their privileged position in the building trade. As there was no soft freestone in Scotland, the freestone masons were unable to carry on their skilled work there. The regulations about apprenticeship were modified in Scotland by the 'entered apprenticeship' system. In England and other countries, no one was permitted to carry out the work of a master-mason until he had served a fixed period of apprenticeship. In Scotland an apprentice could become an entered apprentice after a much shorter period of apprenticeship; and an entered apprentice was allowed to perform most of the work of a master mason.
The Scottish freestone masons tried to strengthen their position by having a code word which they revealed to all qualified master masons, but not to entered apprentices or anyone else. This enabled the master masons to recognize each other, and as far as possible to exclude the entered apprentices from carrying on the work of a master mason. The code word became known as the 'Mason Word'. It was probably 'Mohabyn', which has links with the word 'marrow', meaning 'mate' or 'comrade', which was in use in Scotland until the nineteenth century.
The weight of evidence suggests that the Mason Word originated in about 1550. It spread across the Border into the most northern counties of England, but it was unknown south of Durham, or in any other country in Europe. The English masons had their secrets which they discussed at their illegal trade union meetings; but they had no need of any word or sign to disclose their identity to each other. In England, France and Central Europe, everyone knew who was a freestone mason.
Excerpted from THE FREEMASONS by Jasper Ridley. Copyright © 2001 by Jasper Ridley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Jasper Ridley’s many works include Napoleon III; Eugenie, Garibaldi, and Mussolini; and The Freemasons. He lives and works in London, England.
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