As the bicentenary of the inclusion of the Royal Arch chapter into ‘pure antient masonry’ draws near, John Hamill examines the mystery behind its formation
On 22 July 1766, the first Grand Chapter in the world came into being when members of an independent chapter met in London to draw up what is now known as the Charter of Compact, converting their chapter into the Excellent Grand and Royal Arch Chapter, with Cadwallader, ninth Lord Blayney, at its head. We know this because the chapter’s minute book, which commences with a meeting held on 22 March 1765, stills exists. Until as recently as the late forties, however, masonic historians believed that the Grand Chapter had been formed in 1767.
The mystery can be traced back to the charter itself, which concludes with the statement that it was signed at the Turk’s Head tavern in Gerrard Street, Soho, on 22 July 1767. It wasn’t until masonic historian J R Dashwood examined the document in 1949, while preparing a paper on the first minute book of the original Grand Chapter, that evidence of tampering was discovered. Dashwood noticed that at the top of the document, in the recitals of the styles and titles of Lord Blayney, a capital P (standing for Past) had been inserted clumsily before the words Grand Master of Free and Accepted Masons. At the other end of the document, it was equally clear that the original final digit of the year had been scraped off and been substituted in all cases, except the Anno Lucis (AL) date, with a seven. In the AL date the final digit had become a one.
One explanation is that despite the fact that many of its senior members were involved in the Royal Arch, the Premier Grand Lodge was not well disposed towards it and would not recognise it as part of its basic system. Dashwood argued that it would have been a huge embarrassment to them to have their current Grand Master, Lord Blayney, as a member. As head of the order, Blayney would have been one of the prime movers in turning a private chapter into a governing body as well as being the principal signatory to its founding document. On 22 July 1766, Blayney was still Grand Master, but by 22 July 1767 he had retired from that high office. Hence, Dashwood argued, the alterations were made to suggest that the events all took place after Blayney ceased to be Grand Master.
That theory appeared to meet with general acceptance until, in 1998, Freemason Yasha Beresiner gave a short talk on the charter in Supreme Grand Chapter. He queried whether, as most of them were involved in the chapter, the hierarchy of the premier would have been embarrassed by the events in July 1766. Beresiner theorised that it was more likely that once news got around that a new masonic order had been formed, and the Grand Master was at its head, their members would have flocked to join it.
A pious fraud
Another mystery is the twenty-one signatures on the left of the charter who attested that they accepted the terms documented ‘on the Day and Year above written’. Dashwood described this as ‘a pious fraud’. He had good reason for doing so as of the twenty-one signatories only the Earl of Anglesey was present in the chapter on 22 July 1766, having been exalted that evening. Of the remainder, more than two thirds had not been exalted at that date. The majority of them were exalted between 1767 and 1769.
While it is always satisfying to solve a mystery, in the great scheme of things does it really matter that the document was tampered with? Surely what is important is that the events of July 1766 took place and gave birth to the Excellent Grand and Royal Chapter, enabling members of the premier Grand Lodge to become involved in the Royal Arch.
Had it not existed, it could be argued that the ‘antients’ would not have had the numerical strength to persuade the premier Grand Lodge, in the negotiations leading to the of the two Grand Lodges in 1813, to accept the Royal Arch as a part of ‘pure antient masonry’. Had that not happened we would not have had our indissoluble link between the Craft and Royal Arch. And, very importantly, would have no reason to have a party in October 2013 to celebrate its bicentenary.