Organised freemasonry began with the establishment in London of the Premier Grand Lodge of England on 24 June 1717. The first evidence of the Royal Arch as a degree is to be found in an Irish publication dated 1744.
It is a reference in a pamphlet entitled A Serious and Impartial Enquiry into the Cause of the present Decay in Free Masonry in the Kingdom of Ireland by Dr Fifield Dassigny (1707-1744).
It refers to a Royal Arch Mason from York, discovered to be a fraud by a true Royal Arch Mason, who had become a member of the Order in London. There is, in fact, no evidence of early Royal Arch activity in York.
In London, however, contrary to the wishes of the Premier Grand Lodge, members of the Moderns are seen to be practising Royal Arch Masonry in their Craft Lodges.
On 17 July, 1751 five lodges consisting exclusively of Irish freemasons, founded the Grand Lodge of England According to the Old Institutions, known as the Antients. The Premier and earlier Grand Lodge of 1717 was dubbed 'The Modems', terms that remain in use to this day.
Within a year, Laurence Dermott, a most extraordinary and accomplished freemason, was appointed Grand Secretary and he dedicated his life to the cause of the Antients.
From July 1751 the two competing Grand Lodges continued at loggerheads until December 1813, when the United Grand Lodge of England finally emerged triumphant.
There are a great number of myths and many unanswered questions pertinent to the Royal Arch and its treatment by the Antients. For instance, when exactly, in their 60-year history, did they actually begin to practice the Royal Arch as the Fourth Degree, and how was the authority presumed to have been given to lodges to practice the Royal Arch, conveyed?
Surprisingly, the very first mention of the Royal Arch as the Fourth Degree does not appear in Morgan's Register of 1751, nor does it appear in any other document pertaining to the Antients, until the publication of the Rules and Regulation of 1794.
Morgan's First Register dated 17 July, 1751 comprises the 16 rules and regulations by which the Antients were to be governed. Two additional rules by Laurence Dermott have been added on the margin and are dated 6 April and 1 July, 1752, respectively.
There is not a single word hinting at the Royal Arch in this most important document relating to the Antients. The other degrees, Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason, as well as the installation ceremony, are mentioned in detail.
The minutes of the Antients begin in February 1752, and we come across the Royal Arch, for the first time, in the second minutes of 4 March, 1752. They refer to complaints made against a Thomas Phealon and John Macky, who had apparently initiated many persons for the mean consideration of a leg of mutton for dinner. They became known as 'the leg of Mutton Masons'.
The minutes, written by Dermott himself, continue stating that Dermott had spoken with Macky, and discovered that he had also been conferring the Royal Arch without any knowledge of the degree.
This first mention of the Royal Arch in the minutes of the Antients is a statement negative in its content, as are subsequent mentions of the Royal Arch in later minutes. They support the possibility that Dermott intended temporarily to suppress the Royal Arch, whilst consolidating the standing of his newly established Grand Lodge.
Thus the next reference to the Royal Arch, in the 22 September, 1752 minutes, are an exclusion of the Order. They state that Dermott gave a lecture explaining every part of real freemasonry except the Royal Arch!
There is no mention of the Royal Arch in the minutes of the Antients for the next five years. When the subject arises again, which was on 2 March 1757, it is an invitation to Masters of the Royal Arch to be present at the next meeting on 13 March to discuss aspects of Royal Arch masonry.
Needless to say the minutes of 13 March show no sign of any such discussion of the Royal Arch in any context, in spite of a healthy attendance of 46 named freemasons present from 25 numbered lodges, not one of whom can be identified as a Royal Arch mason.
With one sole exception, that of the petition by William Carroll in December 1759, there are no further references to the Royal Arch in the extensive and detailed minutes until those of 4 December 1771, twelve years later!
The first edition of Ahiman Rezon, the Book of Constitutions of the Antients, appeared in 1756. This is the source used by most enquirers in interpreting Laurence Dermott's approach to the Premier Grand Lodge.
There is surprisingly little material relating to the Royal Arch in this or future editions of Ahiman Rezon. From the start, obvious opportunities to mention the Royal Arch are missed.
The title page, for instance, crowded with detail of content, omits mention of the Royal Arch. In the 200 pages of the first edition of Ahiman Rezon, barely two pages are devoted to the Royal Arch.
The 300-word prayer Ahabath Olam - a prayer repeated in the Royal-Arch Lodge in Jerusalem - has only the title to link it to the Royal Arch. It is here that the oft-quoted statement, so closely linking Dermott and the Antients to Royal Arch masonry, is made by him: "Having inserted this prayer, and mentioned that part of masonry commonly called the Royal Arch (which I firmly believe to be the root, heart, and marrow of masonry) I cannot forbear giving a hint of a certain evil designer..."
This is a bracketed, almost incidental reference to the importance that he places on this additional degree. The two and a half page dissertation that follows is of little consequence, devoted to a complaint of the supposed abuse of the Royal Arch. It is the total and limited mention of Royal Arch masonry in the first edition of Ahiman Rezon.
The implication of all this, as already mentioned above, is that Dermott is eager to preserve the Royal Arch as a 'weapon' against the Moderns. He is adamant that the Royal Arch is to be preserved as an important element in the Antients' masonic tradition, but he is not ready to do more about it than merely mention its existence, whenever a suitable opportunity arises.
The one additional aspect worthy of note in the various editions of Ahiman Rezon is the continued efforts of Dermott to associate the Antients with York freemasonry, thus giving his Grand Lodge a semblance of antiquity.
In April 1760 the exposure entitled The Three Distinct Knocks; or the Door of the Most Ancient Free-Masonry was published. The lengthy and detailed introduction implicitly states that the ritual described is that practised at the lodges pertaining to the Grand Lodge of the Antients. There is no mention of the Royal Arch. Why? This is a most conspicuous historic omission in the development of the Antients Grand Lodge in its early days. The only explanation for this omission of the Royal Arch from such a correct, and detailed exposure of all three degrees and the installation ceremony as practised by the Antients, is that the author was unaware of the existence of the degree.
This is the only viable explanation to what would otherwise be an extraordinary omission, and is the strongest supportive evidence that nine years after the formation, the degree was not yet functional in Antients lodges.
As mentioned, Dermott associated the Antients with York freemasonry. For instance, the opening lines of all the warrants issued by the Antients from 1752 onward, state that their authority emanated from his Royal Highness Prince Edwin, at York, in the year 924.
It is this mistaken association with York that may have confused events that took place in York, which had no connection to the Antients, with early activities of the Antients Grand Lodge. At a meeting at the Sign of the Punch Bowl in Stonegate, York on 7 February 1762, the four founders of the Lodge "petition'd to be raised to the 4th Degree of Masonry Commonly call'd the Most Sublime or Royal Arch". The misleading association between the Antients and the Grand Lodge of York may well have led to events that took place in York in 1762 being erroneously applied to the Antients at a much earlier date than they in fact did. It was not until 32 years later, in 1794, that the Antients were to refer to the Royal Arch as the fourth degree.
It has always been understood that the Royal Arch was practised in lodges under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of the Antients with their authority. There has never been a satisfactory explanation as to where this authority emanated.
One would expect the authority to practice degrees beyond the craft to appear in the warrants granted to the lodges. The text of these warrants, from the beginning, starts with a declaration of the supposed sanction granted to the Antients by Prince Edwin of York in the year 924. It continues with the implicit statement that authority is given to "Admit enter and make Masons according to the Ancient and honourable Custom of the Royal Craft".
There is no indication of authority to practice any more than these three degrees and the ceremony of installation. The Royal Arch does not appear to being practised in the first two decades of the existence of the Antients Grand Lodge.
The explanation as to the implied authority granted by the Antients Grand Lodge to its subordinate lodges emanates from the influence that Ireland had on the Antients. The warrant used by all Irish lodges states that authority is granted to every lodge under the Irish Constitution to make any laws, rules and regulations that the lodge may consider suitable for the well being of the lodge.
The result is that Irish lodges may confer any degrees by the authority of their warrant, having created the necessary rules and regulations in lodge. The close association of the Antients with the Grand Lodge of Ireland may have led to the presumption that similar implied rights had been conferred on the lodges under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of the Antients.
The Antients adopted the Royal Arch, we have been told, from the start of their Grand Lodge in 1751. There appears, however, to be no evidence to support this view. The available evidence indicates that the degree was not taken seriously by the Antients until at least 1766, and probably only from December 1771.
In the intervening period, whilst the Royal Arch was kept on the boil, so to speak, almost single handedly by Laurence Dermott, there is no indication of it being actually practised. Laurence Dermott found in the Royal Arch an excellent tool to use against the Moderns.
He did not, however, implement the Order until the establishment of the Supreme Grand Chapter by members of the Moderns in 1766, which took the Royal Arch initiative away from him.
The Antients were, however, vindicated with regard to the Royal Arch when, at the Union of 1813, at their insistence alone, the oft-quoted opening paragraph to our General Laws and Regulations stated: "By the solemn Act of Union between the two Grand Lodges of Free-Masons of England in December 1813, it was 'declared and pronounced that pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more viz., those of the entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch".
This article is a shortened version of the author's Batham Lecture 2000.