On 15 February 2018, more than 200 guests gathered in London’s Freemasons’ Hall to hear four speakers at a symposium hosted by Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076, called ‘1717 & All That’. Questioning the accuracy of historical records from that time, the debate centred around whether the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, with two speaking against, and two supporting, the historical consensus
Andrew Prescott, Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Glasgow
Andrew Prescott was first to take the lectern, arguing against the historical consensus that Grand Lodge was formed in 1717.
His argument centred around the reliability of historical sources as well as the honesty, or otherwise, of some of those masons who chronicled the early history. In particular, Prescott drew attention to the ‘unscrupulous’ James Anderson, who wrote The Constitutions of the Free-Masons in 1723, which was contentiously updated in 1738.
Acknowledging that historical sources are complex things that historians have to continually revisit, Prescott focussed on the earliest written record on the founding of Grand Lodge. This included the announcement that describes the installation of the Duke of Montagu as Grand Master in June 1721, when other lodges gave up their separate rights to create a Grand Lodge. He contended that if this occurred in June 1721, then, logically, Grand Lodge could not have existed before.
Prescott argued that, given that Grand Master George Payne’s regulations dated to 1721, three of the most important elements of Grand Lodge Freemasonry – the surrender of powers by other lodges; the approval of Payne’s regulations; and the installation of Montagu – all took place in 1721. While Prescott accepted that Grand Lodge Freemasonry must have grown from somewhere, he noted that it wasn’t unheard of for 18th-century clubs to spring up almost overnight.
Prescott went on to question the traditional narrative. He noted that many references that support the 1717 origin story were written in the 1730s or later and are now believed to be unreliable and arguably invented.
The issue of honesty was highlighted, with Prescott suggesting that Anderson was inspired to create a fictitious history of Freemasonry in 1738 for his own gain and that he altered some of the early minutes to support the story. Prescott also noted that the story of 1717 was a minor feature of Anderson’s grand redrawing of the masonic narrative.
‘Historical sources are complex things that historians have to continually revisit’
Susan Sommers, Professor of History, Saint Vincent College
Susan Sommers focussed on the specific historical, social and political context of James Anderson’s background.
Her central thesis stressed the importance of undertaking a comparative study of Anderson’s theological and masonic writings to understand his character and how Constitutions came into being.
Sommers introduced Anderson as a ‘complex and conflicted character’. She then explored his early life and his education in Scotland and discussed some of the wider historical events of this tumultuous era, including the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Detail was then given on the specific nature of Anderson’s religious beliefs against this political-religious backdrop, exploring and explaining the meaning behind some of the particular phrases he later came to employ in the expanded 1738 edition of Constitutions.
With Anderson slipping into debt and then losing his position as minister of the Presbyterian church in Swallow Street, he undertook the 1738 rewrite of Constitutions ‘primarily for financial reasons’, Sommers noted. He was paid by the page, which may explain the great length of the book, but he never escaped his debts, dying in Fleet Prison in 1739.
Sommers explored the religious language used by Anderson in Constitutions, while also looking in detail at the differences between the 1723 and 1738 editions, which included the decision to anoint 1717 as the founding date of Grand Lodge for the very first time.
Noting the importance of recognising and understanding Anderson’s religious background to see why he used some of the language that can be read in Constitutions, Sommers argued that it was necessary to compare Constitutions with Anderson’s theological writing, specifically Unity In Trinity.
Constitutions, she suggested, cannot be seen as a reliable historical study of the origins of Freemasonry as much as a rather over-lengthy continuation of Anderson’s theological arguments, written for profit and without a sole or even primary masonic meaning.
Richard Berman, Visiting Research Fellow, Oxford Brookes University
Richard Berman’s talk in support of 1717 as the founding date for Grand Lodge began with the admittance that he felt ‘sorry for Mr Anderson, as the chap’s not here to defend himself’.
Berman went on to offer a wider perspective on the surrounding religious and political context in which early Freemasonry developed, exploring how and why masonry took the form it did.
Berman explained that he was interested in looking at the drivers that led to the creation of a Grand Lodge. Masonry sprang from the need for Protestantism to defend itself against the threat of Catholicism following the Glorious Revolution. This was a danger that confronted England on many fronts. The Duke of Montagu and other leading masons were very concerned by the Catholic onslaught, as were the Protestants and Huguenots, and diplomats and politicians. Many of these individuals met at the Horn Tavern, the most important and socially connected lodge of the four founding lodges.
The Horn Tavern lodge had over 70 members, more than the other three put together, and these included members of the aristocracy, as well as leading military and judicial figures. These men used the other three lodges ‘as a veil’ with the explicit intention of creating an organisation that could be used as an instrument to promote Whig and Huguenot interests.
Berman also touched on the conundrum of the Apple Tree Tavern in Charles Street, Covent Garden, one of the founding lodges and the stated location of an early meeting of the four lodges in 1716. Although it is now accepted that the Apple Tree Tavern was not located on Charles Street, Berman points out there was an inn with this name only 40 yards away at White Hart Lane. Anderson, he suggests, might have made a simple error, but in so doing inserted the sort of small mistake that allows people to question an entire narrative.
John Hamill, Director of Special Projects, UGLE
John Hamill, the final presenter, agreed that historical researchers should not be afraid to challenge preconceived evidence regarding the origins of Freemasonry.
Hamill contested Andrew Prescott’s central claim that Grand Lodge must have post-dated 1717, as there was no evidence for this date other than Anderson’s work, written 20 years after said event.
While Hamill accepted that the date of 24 June 1717 appears to be Anderson’s alone, he pointed out that when Anderson wrote the 1738 Constitutions there were many leading masons who would have been able to prevent such a simple error. Moreover, there was simply ‘no convincing reason’ for him to lie. Hamill said that it was no great surprise that no press reports from 1717 mentioned Freemasonry, as there was no interest in the Craft until the arrival of the Duke of Montagu as Grand Master.
Hamill looked at reports that named the three Grand Masters who preceded Montagu. Chief among these was a letter written by the Duke of Richmond, Grand Master in 1724, in which he spoke unequivocally about the three Grand Masters who came before Montagu. The letter, Hamill suggested, shows that Grand Lodge existed before Montagu, but it was only the politically motivated appointment of Montagu that enabled Freemasonry to grow into something far bigger.
Hamill stated that Sommers’ and Prescott’s arguments relied upon a ‘major conspiracy involving many people’. He questioned why evidence that dated to later in the 1700s should be considered suspect simply because of when it was written, and posited that this was essentially ‘a semantic argument about what constitutes a Grand Lodge’.
The concept and some of the traditions of a Grand Lodge were clearly already in place, even if it had not yet embraced George Payne’s regulatory principles. In that sense, said Hamill, 1717 was the beginning of something that, even now, continues to evolve.
‘There was simply no convincing reason for James Anderson to lie’
The speeches can be watched in full on YouTube via www.quatuorcoronati.com/meetings/past-events