The Official Journal of the United Grand Lodge of England

Pure Ancient Masonry Triumphant: John Hamill's Bicentenary address

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

An address by E Comp J. M. Hamill, PGSwdB at the Convocation of Supreme Grand Chapter held on 16th October 2013 to celebrate the Bi-centenary of “pure Ancient Masonry”

Your Royal Highness, Most Excellent First Grand Principal, and companions, the 27th December this year will see the bicentenary of one of the most important events in the history of the Craft: the union of the premier and Antients Grand Lodges of England to form the United Grand Lodge. It is because of events which took place in the negotiations leading to that event that we are able to hold this celebration today.  Because of those events, which forged an indissoluble link between the Craft and Royal Arch, we now have that uniquely English relationship between the two which we characterise as “pure ancient Masonry”.

Today is not the occasion to go into the origins of the Royal Arch, suffice it to say that evidence clearly shows that it was being worked in England, Scotland and Ireland by the 1740s and from the mid – 1750s there is increasing evidence for the degree being worked in Lodges in England under both the premier and Antients Grand Lodges. The premier Grand Lodge became uneasy with their lodges working the Royal Arch as they did not recognise it as an integral part of their system. That attitude had hardened by 1767 when the then Grand Secretary, Samuel Spencer, wrote to a brother in an English Lodge in Frankfurt that “the Royal Arch is a Society we do not acknowledge and we hold to be an invention to introduce innovation and to seduce the brethren”. Quite how he squared that view with the fact that he himself had been exalted the previous year history does not record! 

It was because of this attitude that in July 1766 senior members of the premier Grand Lodge who had been meeting as an independent Royal Arch Chapter at the Turks Head Tavern in Greek Street in Soho drew up and signed the Charter of Compact by which they turned their Chapter into the Excellent Grand and Royal Chapter of the Holy Royal of Jerusalem, the first Grand Chapter in the world. It was to be completely separate from the Craft with its own regulations, Grand Officers and Chapters. The only link with the premier Grand Lodge was that the Chapters would draw their membership from lodges under that body. Uniquely, the new Grand Chapter was to have a dual existence for in addition to being the regulatory body for the Royal Arch, it continued to meet regularly as a private Chapter exalting new companions.

The Antients Grand Lodge readily embraced the Royal Arch. It had been formed in London by mainly Irish brethren who had been unable to gain admittance into Lodges under the premier Grand Lodge. In addition to the Craft some of them had taken the Royal Arch in Ireland before they came over to London. Their indefatigable Grand Secretary, Laurence Dermott, had taken the Royal Arch in his Dublin Lodge in 1746 and did a great deal to promote the degree within his Grand Lodge. When compiling the Book of Constitutions for his Grand Lodge Dermott described the Royal Arch as “the root, heart and marrow of Masonry” and “the copestone of the whole Masonic system”. The Antients believed that their lodge warrants empowered them to work any of the known degrees of Freemasonry. To do so they would simply call a meeting of the Lodge, often on a Sunday, open it in the third degree and then in whatever degree was to be worked. From extant Lodge Minute Books of Antients Lodges it is clear that by the 1790s they had developed a sequence of degrees to be worked in their lodges beginning with the three Craft degrees followed by the Mark, Excellent Master and Passing the Chair which qualified their members for Exaltation into the Royal Arch.

Clearly two such opposing views on the Royal Arch must have caused discussion during the negotiations leading to the Craft union but few records of those negotiations have survived, if, indeed, they ever existed. That some discussion took place is clear from the second of the Articles of Union agreed between the two parties, which gives the definition of “pure ancient Masonry”. That the discussions continued almost up to the point at which the document was signed is also clear for in the surviving copy of the Articles which was signed and sealed by TRHs the Dukes of Sussex and Kent and three representatives from each of the two groups of negotiators there are three material alterations in Article II. 

In defining “pure ancient Masonry” Article II stated “It is declared and pronounced, that pure Ancient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, viz. those of the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.” In that form the definition has been the preamble to the Rules in the Book of Constitutions since the edition published in 1853. 

In the original manuscript version it is clear that where the word three appears there had been an alteration. Whatever had been there had been scraped of and the word three had been written over it in a rather more cramped style than the rest of the writing. Similarly, the word “including” between Master Mason and Supreme Order has been fitted over some other word or words which had been scraped off and Supreme Order was originally Supreme Degree as the scraping there was not so expert and part of the word degree is still visible.

It seems clear to me that to enable the Craft Union to go ahead both sides had to reach a compromise in relation to the Royal Arch. From the definition we can deduce that the premier Grand Lodge agreed to accept the Royal Arch as an integral part of the system but were not willing to agree to its being seen as a fourth degree but were happy to it being acknowledged as an Order. The Antients were satisfied in that the Royal Arch would continue to be the completion of pure Ancient Masonry but, as events proved when the future administration of the Royal Arch was organised, had to accept that the Royal Arch would be worked separately from the Craft. Whether or not my deductions are correct one thing is certain: by both sides accepting the definition of “pure Ancient Masonry” that “indissoluble link” between the Craft and the Royal Arch was firmly established and the Royal Arch was recognised as the culmination of pure Ancient Masonry.

The definition stating that there were only three degrees and referring to the Royal Arch as an Order has subsequently led to endless discussion as to whether or not the Royal Arch is a degree and why in the ritual it is constantly referred to as a degree if in the definition it is called an Order. It may be that I am of too simple a mind but I have never understood what the argument is about. To me the Royal Arch is an Order comprised of four ceremonies: the degree of Royal Arch Mason and the three ceremonies by which the Principals are installed. Those three installations are not simply to fit companions to rule over a Chapter but, as we inform new companions, a perfect understanding of the Royal Arch can only be gained by passing through those several Chairs.

Having agreed the definition nothing further appears to have been done in regard to the Royal Arch until the union in 1817 of the original Grand Chapter and the remnants of the Antients Royal Arch. It has usually been argued that having secured the place of the Royal Arch within pure ancient Masonry the Duke of Sussex then put all his efforts into ensuring that the Craft Union was a success and only turned to the Royal Arch when the basic form and administration of the United Grand Lodge had been established. I am not sure that that was the case.

Because of the speed in which the Union had been finally settled the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland were unable to send representatives to London to witness the events on 27th December 1813. The Grand Master of Ireland and the Grand Master Mason of Scotland, however, met with the Duke of Sussex in London on 27th June 1814 and together with their aids put together the International Compact, which has governed relations between the Home Grand Lodges ever since. Curiously the final document appears not to have survived and its contents are known only from a draft in the hand of William White, Grand Secretary of UGLE, and a copy in the Minutes of the Grand Lodge of Ireland when its agreement was announced to that body.

That the Royal Arch was discussed at that meeting is clearly shown by its first clause which repeated the definition of pure ancient Masonry, excepting that “Supreme Order of the Royal Arch” was changed to “Supreme Chapter of Royal Arch”. It appears from the document that Ireland and Scotland agreed to the definition and were to put it to their respective Grand Lodges and report back to the Duke of Sussex. In 1814 neither Ireland nor Scotland had a Grand Chapter or any other central body controlling the Royal Arch, their Grand Chapters did not come into being until 1818 in Scotland and 1826 in Ireland. As far as can be traced no record exists of either of the Grand Masters having come back to the Duke of Sussex and it may well be that having waited to see if Ireland and Scotland would act in concert with England, and no answer having come, the Duke had to go his own way and make the arrangements which brought Supreme Grand Chapter and our present administration of the Royal Arch into existence.

There were possibly also legal constraints on settling the actual working of the Royal Arch. Under the terms of the 1799 Unlawful Societies Act Freemasonry was exempt from the terms of the Act under certain conditions but it was believed that (a) only Lodges in existence before 1799 were protected by the Act and (b) the Act only protected Lodges. It was for that reason that brethren between 1814 and 1817 who petitioned for new lodges were granted annually renewable dispensations to meet pending settlement of the terms of warrants to be issued by the Grand Master and former Antients Lodges were permitted to continue working the Royal Arch in their lodges. In 1816 a further Act began its progress through Parliament and was passed in 1817. From its terms Grand Lodge deduced that it was permissible to warrant new lodges but was still concerned about the legal situation of Chapters. It is for this reason, I believe, that on its formation in 1817 Supreme Grand Chapter ruled that for the future Chapters would be attached to the warrants of Lodges and bear the same number and name, and new Chapters would be proposed by the Lodges to which they would be attached, not by existing Chapters – thus giving them protection under the 1799 Act.

Unless long lost papers and records come to light, if they ever existed, I doubt that we will ever know the full story of what happened in 1813. What we do know happened, and we are rightly celebrating today, is the recognition by the Craft in 1813 that the Royal Arch is an integral part of pure Ancient Masonry and the forging of that indissoluble link between the Craft and the Royal Arch which we all hope will never be broken.