Would the of the two Grand Lodges have gone ahead in 1813 if the Royal Arch had not been recognised? John Hamill takes a whistle-stop tour through Antient history
The earliest documentary evidence for the Royal Arch in England comes in the minutes of the Antients Grand Lodge. At their meeting on 4 March 1752, charges were laid against a group claimed to have been made masons ‘for the mean consideration of a leg of mutton’. Of one of the miscreants it was said that he had not ‘the least idea or knowledge of Royal Arch masonry’. A small detail, perhaps, but over the next 60 years the relationship between the Antients and the Royal Arch was to prove pivotal in shaping English Freemasonry.
1752: Antient recognition
At a meeting on 2 September 1752, the minutes of the Antients Grand Lodge record that ‘every piece of Real Freemasonry was traced and explained: except the Royal Arch’ by the Grand Secretary, Laurence Dermott. An Irishman who had become a mason in Dublin before moving to London, Dermott claimed to have entered the Royal Arch in Dublin in 1746.
1759: Part of the Craft
It was ordered at an Antients meeting on 2 March 1759 that ‘the Masters of the Royal Arch shall also be summoned to meet and regulate things relative to that most valuable branch of the Craft’. Those last few words encapsulate the Antients’ attitude to the Royal Arch. They regarded it as a part of the Craft and considered their lodge warrants as sufficient authority to work the Royal Arch. In later years they often called themselves ‘the Grand Lodge of the four degrees’. Dermott himself characterised the Royal Arch as ‘the root, heart and marrow of masonry’ and ‘the capstone of the whole masonic system’.
1771: Dermott protects
Dermott, who had a positive loathing for the premier Grand Lodge, was clearly far from happy when its members formed the first Grand Chapter in 1766. He had to wait, however, until 1771, when he had become Deputy Grand Master, before he could take action. During that year he engineered a question in the Grand Lodge as to whether or not the Grand Master was Grand Master ‘in every respect’. His successor as Grand Secretary, William Dickey, stated that he had heard it claimed that the Grand Master ‘had not a right’ to enquire into Royal Arch activities. The Masters of the Royal Arch were summoned to discuss this and other Royal Arch matters.
1773: Royal Arch regulates
In November 1773, Dermott got his way when it was agreed that ‘a General Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch shall meet on the first Wednesdays in the months of April and October in every year to regulate all matters in that branch of masonry’. Whether or not the General Grand Chapter ever met it is not possible to say as no minutes for it survive and there is no further reference to it in the Antients Grand Lodge minutes. If it did meet it can have had no greater status than as a special committee of qualified members of the Antients Grand Lodge. Any decisions it might have made would have to have been ratified by the Grand Lodge itself. Certainly there was no separate administration, list of Grand Officers or individual Chapters under the Antients system.
1794: In black and white
It was not until 1794 that regulations for the Royal Arch were printed, and these were incorporated as a supplement to their Book of Constitutions. These regulations would be used within their lodges as and when candidates came forward. Some Antients lodges had, by the 1790s, developed a regular progression of degrees within the lodge. After the three Craft degrees you moved towards the Royal Arch but first went through the Mark Degree, Passing the Chair (if the candidate was not already a Master or Past Master of a Lodge) and the Excellent Mason Degree. After the Royal Arch you could then join the Knights Templar followed by an early version of the Rose Croix, which they termed the Ne Plus Ultra of Masonry.
This progression was often depicted on the aprons worn by members of the Antients, which in addition to symbols of the Craft would include those for the degrees listed above. A very rare example of a multi-degree tracing board turned up some 20 years ago at an auction in Suffolk with other masonic artefacts, which had been in the possession of a local clerical family for more than 150 years. East Anglia had been a stronghold of the Antients and it may well have been commissioned by one of the local lodges.
1813: A very English compromise
That the Antients did much to foster the Royal Arch is beyond doubt. It could also be argued that it was their attitude towards the Royal Arch that preserved it and produced that very English compromise: the of the two Grand Lodges in 1813, by which the premier Grand Lodge acknowledged the Royal Arch as the completion of ‘pure ancient masonry’, provided that it was worked separately from the Craft in chapters rather than in lodges as had been the Antients’ custom.
I think it more than probable that had that compromise not been reached the Antients would have withdrawn from the negotiations, the would not have taken place and the future progress of English Freemasonry would have taken a very different path.