Celebrating 300 years

Discovery of manuscript at Freemasons' Hall could reveal hidden secrets

Thursday, 06 June 2013

Something old, something new

The discovery of an old manuscript could reveal elements about Royal Arch ritual that have remained hidden for almost two centuries, as John Hamill discovers

As we prepare to celebrate the bicentenary of the acceptance by the whole Craft of the Royal Arch as being both an integral part and the completion of ‘pure ancient masonry’, a significant discovery has been made about the development of Royal Arch ritual.

In a large box full of old files and papers, in a strongroom at Freemasons’ Hall, was found a packet containing a slim, foolscap-size volume, bound in red leather with a Royal Arch symbol blocked in gold on its cover. Bound into it were fourteen sheets of paper closely written on both sides.

What immediately caught the eye at the top of the first page was the word ‘Approved’, followed by the florid signature of HRH Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, First Grand Principal 1810-1843, and the letters GMZ. The letters stand for Grand Master Zerubbabel, an alternative title for the First Grand Principal in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At the foot of many of the pages the Duke’s initials appear, followed by the letters GMZ, and on the last page he had written ‘Approved. Newstead Abbey Nottingham November 2 1834’, followed by his full signature.

Newstead Abbey, once the family home of the poet Lord Byron, had been sold to Colonel Thomas Wildman, Provincial Grand Master for Nottinghamshire 1823-1859, and the Duke of Sussex was staying there as his guest.

The manuscript proved to be an introduction covering the testing of a candidate for membership of the Royal Arch and the ritual for the opening of a chapter, the admission of a new companion (including the Principals’ lectures) and the closing of the chapter. Having been approved and signed by the Duke of Sussex, it leaves no reason to doubt that the manuscript was the work of a special committee he set up in 1834 to establish what were the ceremonies of the Royal Arch. And herein hangs a tale.

Striving for unity

In 1813 the original Grand Chapter gave its First Grand Principal, the Duke of Sussex, full authority to make whatever arrangements he deemed necessary and proper for the Royal Arch once the of the two Grand Lodges had taken place.

The Grand Chapter did not meet again until 1817 – I suspect because the Duke was concentrating all of his efforts on ensuring that the Grand Lodge was successful – but its administrative officers continued to keep in contact with its chapters, who continued sending in their returns and their fees.

The so-called Antients Grand Chapter, which had never been more than a committee of qualified members of the Antients Grand Lodge, ceased to exist once the Craft was achieved, but its former lodges continued to work the Royal Arch as part of their lodge business.

In 1817, the Duke of Sussex summoned the original Grand Chapter and the members of the Antients’ former Royal Arch and ‘united’ them into the United Grand Chapter, a name that lasted a very few years until the present title of Supreme Grand Chapter was adopted. The administrative links between the Craft and Royal Arch were put into place but little else was done.

Reforming ritual

In 1834, there being some doubt as to what the proper ceremonies were, the Duke of Sussex set up a special committee to investigate and recommend to the Grand Chapter what they should be. This they did and their deliberations were approved by both the Duke and the Grand Chapter. It was ordered that they should be adopted by all of the chapters then in existence and those that might come into being in the future.

‘had it been known that the Grand Chapter had a written version of the agreed 1834 ritual, a fine storm would have ensued’

The special committee was given a time-limited charter as the Chapter of Promulgation, its remit being to give demonstrations of the ceremonies in London to which chapters were invited to send representatives. Therein lies the possible reason why this manuscript disappeared from view for so long.

At that time, ritual was passed on by rote and it was a heinous masonic crime to write down or print ritual material. Indeed, a number of characters, such as William Finch and George Claret, were charged with breaking their obligations by printing portions of the ritual or catechetical lectures. Were it to have become known that the Grand Chapter had a written version of the agreed 1834 ritual, a fine storm would have ensued.

With the seeming absence of any formal record of the special committee’s 1834 instructions, a certain degree of mythology has grown up. The discovery of this manuscript will enable us to establish what did happen and will greatly increase our knowledge of how Royal Arch ritual developed.

ugle logo          SGC logo