There are two different theories for the formation of Freemasonry:
The first theory is that operative stonemasons who built the great cathedrals and castles, had Lodges in which they discussed trade affairs. They had simple Initiations for Apprentices and Fellows and, as there were no City and Guilds certificates, dues cards or trade union membership cards, they adopted secret signs and words so that they could demonstrate 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' who gradually changed these lodges into 'free' or 'accepted' Lodges.
The second theory is that the group who formed Freemasonry (in the late 1500s and early 1600s) were a group who were 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. What they were trying to do was 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 and construction 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 to moralise upon.
It is quite possible that the origins of Freemasonry, as we know it today, are a mixture of both the aforementioned theories. The first record of the 'making' of an English Freemason is Elias Ashmole, the antiquarian and herald, whose collections formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He recorded in his diary that a lodge met at his father-in-law's house in Warrington, Cheshire on 16th October 1646 to 'make him a Mason'. None of those involved was a stonemason.
Organised Freemasonry began with the founding of the Grand Lodge of England on 24th June 1717 when four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House, St Paul's Churchyard, forming themselves into a Grand Lodge and elected Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, as their Grand Master – the first Grand Lodge in the world. Initially the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast for lodges in London but in 1721 John, Duke of Montagu, was elected Grand Master and the Grand Lodge met in 'quarterly communication' and began to establish itself as a regulatory body, attracting to it lodges meeting outside London.
In 1723 the first rulebook – the Constitutions of Masonry – was published and William Cowper, Clerk of the Parliaments, was appointed Secretary to the Grand Lodge to keep minutes of its meetings. By 1730 the Grand Lodge had over 100 lodges in England and Wales under its control and had begun to spread Freemasonry abroad, warranting lodges to meet in Madrid and Calcutta.
For historical reasons separate Grand Lodges were formed in Ireland (1725) and Scotland (1736). Between them the 'home' Grand Lodges took Freemasonry around the globe. From the 1730s lodges were set up in Europe, the West Indies, North America and India.
In the later 18th and the 19th centuries, British Freemasonry was taken to the Mid and Far East, Australasia, Africa and South America, mirroring the development of the British Empire. When those areas eventually achieved nation status, many of the lodges formed independent local Grand Lodges, but other lodges decided to remain with their parent Grand Lodge – resulting in the United Grand Lodge of England still having some 750 lodges overseas, principally in Commonwealth countries.
The premier Grand Lodge of England continued developing in the 1730s and 1740s without any opposition. There had been considerable public interest – meetings were advertised and reported on in the growing number of local newspapers – more especially in what the ceremonies of Freemasonry were. Enterprising journalists and pamphleteers were not slow to produce 'exposures' of what they believed were the 'secrets' of Freemasonry. Publicity increased interest and a growing number of aristocrats, landed gentry and professional men began to seek admission. In 1737 the first Royal Freemason was made - Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales, son of King George II.
The Two Grand Lodges - Unification - Consolidation and Growth
In the 1740s there was a growing number of Irishmen in London, many of whom had become Freemasons before leaving Ireland. For reasons now unknown they appear to have had difficulty gaining entrance into Lodges in London, so in 1751 a group of them formed a rival Grand Lodge. They claimed that the premier Grand Lodge had made innovations and had departed from 'the ancient landmarks' whereas they claimed to be working 'according to the old institutions granted by Prince Edwin at York in 926CE'. For this reason they became known as the 'Antients' and referred to their older rival as the 'Moderns'.
Despite their differences, the two Grand Lodges co-existed both at home and abroad for nearly 63 years, neither recognising the other or considering each others members as 'regular' Freemasons. Even at the centre, however, there were those who were active in both Grand Lodges.
In 1799 Freemasonry almost came to a halt. In the wake of the French Revolution a number of Acts of Parliament had been passed in an attempt to curb trade unions, political clubs and other 'subversive' organisations. The 1799 Unlawful Societies Act banned any meetings of groups which required their members to take an oath or obligation.
The Earl of Moira (Acting Grand Master of the premier Grand Lodge) and the Duke of Atholl (Grand Master of the 'Antients' Grand Lodge) called on the Prime Minister William Pitt (not himself a Freemason) and explained to him how Freemasonry was a supporter of the law and lawfully constituted authority, and was much involved in charitable work.
As a result Freemasonry was specifically exempted from the terms of the Act, provided that each lodge secretary once a year lodged with the local Clerk of the Peace a list of the members of his lodge together with their ages, professions and addresses. That provision continued until 1967 when it was rescinded by Parliament.
In 1809 the rival Grand Lodges appointed Commissioners to negotiate an equable Union. The negotiations took four years to complete but on 27th December 1813 a great ceremony was held at Freemasons’ Hall in London, at which the two Grand Lodges (the Antients and the Moderns) combined to form the United Grand Lodge of England with HRH The Duke of Sussex (younger son of King George III) as Grand Master. The Union was a time of consolidation and standardisation, setting the basic administration of Freemasonry – which continues to this day. Lodges outside London were grouped into Provinces, based on the old Counties, each headed by a Provincial Grand Master appointed by the Grand Master.
A Board of General Purposes was introduced to formulate internal policy and to inquire into and report on any matters referred to it by the Grand Master or Grand Lodge. It had no executive power but could only report to Grand Lodge, which reserved to itself the ultimate power of decision. Standard patterns for regalia and jewels were introduced, which are still in use today.
The 19th century was a period of consolidation and expansion for English Freemasonry. The move away from the country to the growing industrial and manufacturing towns and cities led to a growth in the number of urban lodges. The growth of the railway system led to greater mobility and easier communication between the Grand Lodge and the Provinces. The growth of the number of lodges in urban centres led to the development of imposing Masonic Halls, many of which survive today.
The election of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) as Grand Master in 1874 gave great impetus to Freemasonry. The Prince was a great supporter of and publicist for Freemasonry. He regularly appeared in public, both at home and on his tours abroad, as Grand Master laying the foundation stones of public buildings, bridges, dockyards and churches with Masonic ceremonial. His presence ensured publicity and reports of Masonic meetings at all levels appeared regularly in the national and local press. Freemasonry was constantly in the public eye and Freemasons were known in their local communities. From 637 lodges in 1814, the Grand Lodge had grown to 2,850 lodges when the Prince resigned the Grand Mastership on becoming King in 1901.
Withdrawal After WWII - Re-emergence Into Open Society
Growth was to continue in the 20th century, particularly in the years after the two World Wars. It seemed that after those two great cataclysms were over and as a result of the great social changes they brought about, large groups of men looked to Freemasonry as a calm centre of tradition and certainty in which they could continue the fraternity they had found in the services.
The period leading to the outbreak of the Second World War was to have consequences for today. A great deal of anti-Masonic propaganda came out of Nazi Germany and Franco's Spain in the late 1930s. In both countries Freemasonry was banned and many Freemasons were imprisoned and killed. Plans were laid by the Nazis to seize prominent Freemasons when they occupied Britain.
English Freemasonry turned in on itself and continued to be excessively private after peace came. Allied to that, from the 1950s there was a deliberate policy of not dealing with the media and, more importantly, not correcting factual errors. As a result a mythology grew up of Freemasonry serving its own aims. In effect Freemasonry was taken out of the community of which it had been a very visible part for nearly 250 years. Since 1984 the United Grand Lodge has been actively countering that mythology pursuing a policy of openness on Freemasonry.
The latter part of the 20th century saw two major celebrations. In 1967 over 6,500 Freemasons, including delegations from other Grand Lodges around the world, gathered at the Royal Albert Hall, London, to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of the formation of the Grand Lodge of England. Central to the celebration was the installation of HRH The Duke of Kent as Grand Master, a position to which he has been annually re-elected ever since.
On 10th June 1992 over 12,500 attended a Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge at Earls Court to celebrate the 275th Anniversary of the formation of Grand Lodge and the 25th Anniversary of HRH The Duke of Kent's installation as Grand Master. For the first time, in addition to English Freemasons and delegations from 94 other Grand Lodges, ladies and non-Masons (representing the many Charities which Freemasonry has supported over the years), and the press and television attended the meeting. The meeting was followed by a banquet for 4,000.
From the four Lodges which formed Grand Lodge in 1717, Freemasonry has grown to an organisation of around 6,000,000 members worldwide. Its membership has included men of rank and those who have become distinguished in many fields of human endeavour, but the membership has always been a microcosm of the society in which it currently exists reflecting the social, religious and ethnic composition of our diverse society.
The United Grand Lodge of England has some 270,000 members grouped in 8,322 lodges. Lodges in London (an area within a 10 mile radius of Freemasons' Hall), are organised into groups administered by Metropolitan Grand Lodge of London. Lodges outside London and within England, Wales and the Channel Islands are grouped into 47 Provinces, based on the old Counties, each headed by a Provincial Grand Master.
Lodges meeting abroad are grouped in 33 Districts each headed by a District Grand Master, 5 Groups each headed by a Grand Inspector, with 12 lodges being administered from Freemasons' Hall.
The Grand Lodge publishes a Year Book which can be purchased from Freemasons' Hall, listing all of its lodges with their meeting dates and places, Grand Officers, and senior Provincial and District Officers.
The Book of Constitutions (rule book) has been in the public domain since the first edition was published in 1723 and can be purchased from Freemasons' Hall.