The title deeds of the Craft
Director of Special Projects John Hamill traces the origins of the Antient Charges and what they reveal about masonic values
On the first occasion on which a brother is installed as Master of a lodge he is required to give his assent to a Summary of the Antient Charges and Regulations, read out to him by the Secretary. This summary first appeared in print in the second edition (1775) of William Preston’s Illustrations of Masonry, in which he outlined the installation ceremony and since 1827 has formed part of the Book of Constitutions.
For something to be called a summary begs the question: ‘Of what?’ The charges and regulations are predominantly based on The Charges of a Freemason, first published in the first edition of the Constitutions, compiled by the Rev Dr James Anderson in 1723 and printed in every subsequent edition of the Book of Constitutions. They are divided into six sections: Of God and Religion; Of the Civil Magistrate; Supreme and Subordinate; Of Masters, Wardens, Fellows and Apprentices; Of the Management of the Craft in Working; Of Behaviour (with six subsections).
Anderson stated that he had ‘digested’ them from a series of old documents relating to masonry in England, Ireland, Scotland and ‘lodges overseas’. The latter was something of a pious fiction as there were no lodges overseas until the late 1720s.
These documents used to be known as the Old Manuscript Constitutions and are now, collectively, the Manuscript of Old Charges. More than 130 versions of them have survived (many now in the Library and Museum of Freemasonry) and more than 20 other versions have disappeared. Many of them are parchment rolls almost six feet in length and up to nine inches wide.
‘Some of the versions from the late 1600s in the final section begin to give us our first glimpses of ritual.’
The two oldest versions – The Regius Poem circa 1390 and the Cook manuscript circa 1420 – are in the British Library and their content applies only to stonemasons. The next oldest is the Grand Lodge No. 1 manuscript, which carries the date 1583 and includes elements relating to speculative masonry. The majority of the extant versions can be dated to the 1600s when we begin to get evidence of speculative lodges, and a small group are from the 1700s and appear to have been copied out of antiquarian interest.
There are differences between the surviving versions, but they have a common tripartite form. They begin with an invocation to God, followed by a history of the mason Craft, and end with a series of charges, that is the duties that a mason owed to God, the law, his employer, his family and society in general. Some of the versions from the late 1600s in the final section begin to give us our first glimpses of ritual and ceremonial.
Making a mason
In the custom of the times during which they were written, the historical section is an amalgam of legend, biblical stories, folklore and some facts tracing masonry almost back to Adam in the Garden of Eden. It includes many biblical, historical and legendary figures as at least promoters of masonry, if not in fact Grand Masters. When Anderson digested his version of the history he made no difference between operative and speculative masonry, giving birth to the idea that Freemasonry was a natural outgrowth from the operative Craft, an idea that has been much disputed by masonic historians over the past 50 years.
It is clear from some of the later versions of the Old Charges that reading of them was a part of the original ceremony of making a mason. Indeed, some masonic historians have characterised them as the ‘title deeds’ of the Craft. Their importance to us today is not only that they are the originals of the Antient Charges that we all subscribe to, but as evidence that the fundamental principles and tenets of the Craft are truly time immemorial, immutable and unchangeable.