The earliest official English documents to refer to masons are written in Latin or Norman French. Thus we have “sculptores lapidum liberorum” (London 1212), “magister lathomus liberarum petrarum” (Oxford 1391), and “mestre mason de franche peer” (Statute of Labourers 1351). These all signify a worker in freestone, a grainless sandstone or limestone suitable for ornamental masonry. In the 17th century building accounts of Wadham College the terms freemason and freestone mason are used interchangeably. Freemason also contrasts with “Rough Mason” or “Layer”, as a more skilled worker who worked or laid dressed stone.
The adjective “free” in this context may also be taken to infer that the mason is not enslaved, indentured or feudally bound. While this is difficult to reconcile with medieval English masons, it apparently became important to Scottish operative lodges.
Lodge and the Guild:
The historical record shows two levels of organisation in medieval masonry, the lodge and the “guild”. The original use of the word lodge indicates a workshop erected on the site of a major work, the first mention being Vale Royal Abbey in 1278. Later, it gained the secondary meaning of the community of masons in a particular place. The earliest surviving records of these are the laws and ordinances of the lodge at York Minster in 1352. It should be noted that these regulations were imposed by the Dean and Chapter of the Minster
Earliest Masonic History:
The earliest masonic texts each contain some sort of history of the craft, or mystery, of masonry. The oldest known work of this type, The Halliwell Manuscript, or Regius Poem, dating from between 1390 and 1425, has a brief history in its introduction, stating that the “craft of masonry” began with Euclid in Egypt, and came to England in the reign of King Athelstan. Shortly afterwards, the Cooke Manuscripttraces masonry to Jabal son of Lamech (Genesis 4: 20-22), and tells how this knowledge came to Euclid, from him to the Children of Israel (while they were in Egypt), and so on through an elaborate path to Athelstan. This myth formed the basis for subsequent manuscript constitutions, all tracing masonry back to biblical times, and fixing its institutional establishment in England during the reign of Athelstan (927-939).
Shortly after the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, James Anderson was commissioned to digest these “Gothic Constitutions” in a palatable, modern form. The resulting constitutions are prefaced by a history more extensive than any before, again tracing the history of what was now freemasonry back to biblical roots, again forging Euclid into the chain. True to his material, Anderson fixes the first grand assembly of English Masons at York, under Athelstan’s son, Edwin, who is otherwise unknown to history.Expanded, revised, and republished, Anderson’s 1738 constitutions listed the Grand Masters since Augustine of Canterbury, listed as Austin the Monk. William Preston’s Illustrations of Freemasonry enlarged and expanded on this masonic creation myth.
In France, the 1737 lecture of Chevalier Ramsay added the crusaders to the lineage. He maintained that Crusader Masons had revived the craft with secrets recovered in the Holy Land, under the patronage of the Knights Hospitaller. At this point, the “history” of the craft in Continental Freemasonry diverged from that in England.
Following the Union of the Antients and Moderns Grand Lodges and the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, the articles of union stated that there would be three Craft degrees only, including the Royal Arch, excluding the Mark degree. For this reason, while in the rest of the world Mark Masonry became attached to Royal Arch chapters, in England it was actually proscribed from the Union until the 1850s. It was a group of Scottish masons who procured an illegal warrant from Bon Accord Chapter in Aberdeen to set up a Mark lodge in London. An attempt to add Mark Masonry to the approved craft workings was defeated in 1856, and a Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons was created in response.
As Freemasonry spread around the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mark Masonry became well established and now has a worldwide presence, with six daughter Grand Lodges and the degree being worked under alternative administrative structures elsewhere. In England, the current Mark Grand Master, HRH Prince Michael of Kent, is the younger brother of the Craft Grand Master, HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.
Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas speculate in their 1996 book The Hiram Key that the construction of the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland (1440–1490) provided the interface between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry. Accordingly, the first degree and Mark Masonry was introduced by William Sinclair, whom they claim was the first Grand Master and founder of Freemasonry.
Modern Day Freemasonry:
Many twentieth century totalitarian regimes, both Fascist and Communist have treated Freemasonry as a potential source of opposition due to its secret nature and international connections (not to mention its promotion of religious and political tolerance through its symbolism). It has been alleged by Masonic scholars that the language used by the totalitarian regimes is like that used by some modern critics of Freemasonry.