The Origins of Freemasonry
by W.Bro. Don Barry

24/9/2005, substantially updated October 2008

The precise origins of Freemasonry may well be lost in time. The Order was, until 1717, truly “secret” and as a result, only a limited amount of verifiable historical evidence has survived for the use of Masonic historians. For example, it is recorded that there were several early histories of Freemasonry authored by two early, speculative (as opposed to operative) Freemasons.

One history was by Elias Ashmole (pictured left), the sponsor of the famous and eponymous Ashmolean museum which is attached to Oxford University. Ashmole is possibly the earliest initiate into Freemasonry (in 1646) for whom we have documented evidence. He wrote a history of Freemasonry which has since been lost.

A second was by Sir Robert Moray, who was entrusted by Charles II with gathering prominent scientists to form the Invisible College which, in turn, became the Royal Society. He also was a prominent Freemason and in the seventeenth century wrote a history of Freemasonry which has also been lost.

When the Royal House of Hanover sought to purge English Freemasonry of any Jacobite tendencies, it may well be that it’s chosen agent, the Duke of Sussex, the then Grand Master, had these histories hidden or even destroyed. Whatever happened, the result was that the official line of the United Grand Lodge of England, the premier grand lodge of the world, became that the true origins of Freemasonry are basically unknowable. This is, to say the least, rather vague and unsatisfying, and as indicated above, may be due, in part, to a desire to obscure the issue.

Recent scholarly research has provided some tantalizing evidence linking the origins of Freemasonry to the Knights Templar, the Legends of the Holy Grail and a Hermetic, Gnostic, even Kabbalistic tradition.

Before we consider this evidence, it is worth noting that anyone who is remotely familiar with the practise of Freemasonry, will have observed, that as well as the obvious allusions to operative stonemason symbols and practices, there are unavoidable aspects of the Craft (speculative or symbolic Freemasonry as opposed to operative masonry), which are surprisingly militaristic. There are also penalties for breaching the brotherhood’s solidarity and oaths of secrecy which seem surprisingly harsh, even barbaric, for what was, if one believes the conventional wisdom, basically a craft guild.

Both these apparent anomalies may be satisfactorily explained by the propositions that, firstly, the Craft inherited traditions from a military order and, secondly, that the harsh penalties for breaking oaths of secrecy, were consistent with the punishment which a member of an underground and heretical organization (e.g. Knights Templars after their disbanding in 1312) could expect if betrayed to the authorities.

Thus, the most likely such organization is the Military Order of the Knights Templar which was forcibly disbanded between 1307 and 1312.

Some Masonic traditions and certain historical evidences suggest that remnants of the Knights Templar may have continued in secret, “underground” cells or lodges until some four hundred years later after the full-flowering of the Enlightenment, when their existence and heterodox practices were no longer considered a threat to the Church and State.

In England this, as suggested by John Robinson(2), was around about 1715 after the convincing defeat of the Jacobites following the so-called First Jacobite Rising in 1715 and again, following the Battle of Culloden and suppression of the Second Jacobite Rising in 1745.

This saw, consequently, the emergence into public view of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717.

The Templar influence, therefore, is additional to the stonemason symbolism and tools borrowed from the operative Masonic tradition (i.e. the stonemasons). According to historians such as John Robinson (2), this latter source was adopted partly as a result of Templar association with the building of the great medieval Cathedrals and partly as a ploy to mask the Templar/Hermetic origins of the Craft. It also facilitated the teaching of adherents by using readily understood symbols in the times when most were illiterate.

There is also a third and more subtle influence which implies that Freemasonry is heir to great and momentous secrets (or “sacred knowledge” – see below), but as, during the course of progression through the various degrees and orders, they are supposedly, gradually revealed to the initiate, for many, these secrets never seem quite to measure up to expectations.

What exactly is this other, more subtle heritage? That must be the subject of another discourse, but for the moment let’s continue with the evidence for the involvement of the Knights Templar.

Some of this evidence is well explained in the following extract from "The Templar Revelation" by Picknett and Prince (1):

“Recently, several commentators have presented persuasive evidence that Freemasonry had its origins in Templarism; both The Temple and the Lodge by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (3), and Born in Blood (2) by the American historical writer-researcher, John J.Robinson have come to that conclusion even although approaching the subject from entirely different viewpoints."

Author’s note:
In The Hiram Key (4) and its sequel, The Second Messiah (5), Knight and Lomas come to similar conclusions, including suggesting, in agreement with Baigent and Leigh, that Freemasonry really originated in Scotland. A cynic might suggest that this could explain UGLE’s insistence that the true origins of the Craft are unknowable. Nevertheless, the situation is complex and the truth may lie somewhere between the two extremes; i.e. Masonry originated at similar times in similar but subtly different ways in both England and Scotland.

More recently, Lomas has published in “Turning the Hiram Key” evidence that the Lodge of Aberdeen has minute books dating back to 1515. This Lodge appears already to have aspects of speculative as opposed to purely operative or trade members. This evidence relates to the Kirkwall Scroll which has been radiocarbon dated to the mid 1400s. Interestingly, one version of the ancient charges of Freemasonry, the William Watson version (1687) is written in the style of English typical of the 1400s (Naudon, 1991).

"The Temple and the Lodge traces the Templar continuity through Scotland while Born in Blood depends more on working back from modern Freemasonic ritual to its origins – and once again, ends up with the Templars. So these major books effectively complement each other, providing a more or less complete picture of the link between the two great occult organizations.

The only major point of disagreement between Baigent/Leigh and Robinson is that the former see Freemasonry as developing from isolated Templars in Scotland, then going to England in 1603 with the accession of the Scottish king, James VI to the English throne and the ensuing influx of Scots aristocracy. Robinson, on the other hand, believes that the Templars developed into Freemasons in England. He argues persuasively that the Templars were behind the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which specifically attacked the property of the Church and of the Knights Hospitallers – the two main enemies of the Templars – although it went to great lengths to avoid damaging the former Templar buildings."

They are not alone in the belief that the Knights Templar influenced early Freemasonry. Two recent books are explicit in this belief.

One is "The Secret History of Freemasonry – Its Origins and Connections to the Knights Templar" by Paul Naudon originally published in French in 1991 but only published in English in 2005. This is a scholarly, referenced work authored by a law scholar who specializes in the history of civil law and institutions.

It presents much evidence about the connections between the Templars and the Francs Metiers – the free craftsmen on the Continent, particularly France – which is quite interesting and not apparently known by some English/American/Scottish Masonic writers. These francs métiers received many advantages from being associated with either the Templars or the Cistercians – freedom from many taxes and obligations (such as serving on the Paris Watch for example). Masons were a major segment of these franc métiers or free craftsmen and were clearly closely associated with various monastic institutions including the Templars and Cistercian priories.

Naudon lists the following historically verifiable roles attributable to the Templars in the formation of freemasonry:

  1. The Templars formed monastic builders associations possessing Graeco-Roman traditions passed down from the Benedictines and Cistercians
  2. The Templars had close ties to the Christian and Muslim architecture associations in the East and were subject to their operative and initiatory influences.
  3. In Europe the Templars were the source of the creation and development of builders associations that long enjoyed specific exemptions. The terms francs métiers and freemasonry are derived from these associations.
  4. Following the dissolution of the Templar Order, a certain number of Templars were incorporated into the mastery associations of builders. The best example of this is the Paris commandery of Templars.

Another, less scholarly work is "The Knights Templar of the Middle East – The Hidden History of the Islamic Origins of Freemasonry" by HRH Prince Michael of Albany and Walid Amine Salhab.

The authors make many bald, unreferenced assertions and one would be inclined to ignore them but for two factors – firstly, Prince Michael of Albany is a scion of the Stewart/Stuart dynasty of Scotland/England and presumably a claimant to the British throne. He and his “henchman” Laurence Gardner have written much about this topic and claim to have access to the private papers and files of the House of Stuart. If this were true, it might make their assertions more credible. Secondly, much of what he says about the Templars and Islam and the Templars and masonry is echoed in the more scholarly work of Naudon mentioned above.

These authors are unabashed in stating baldly that masonry is the creation of the Templars and the Cistercians and that the Ramsay Oration and connections to Jacobite causes and the origins of Freemasonry are absolutely factual. While I personally believe that there is some connection between the Knights Templar and the formation of early Freemasonry, there are some influential masons who think that such beliefs are delusional.

One such person is Robert L. D. Cooper, the Curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum and Library in Edinburgh. According to his book "The Rosslyn Hoax", not only is Rosslyn Chapel not what it is claimed to be by writers such as Robinson, "Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry", Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s "The Temple and the Lodge", and Tim Wallace-Murphy’s "Rosslyn: Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail", but the many claims of Templar involvement in Freemasonry's formation and the building of Rosslyn are rubbish.

While I have not yet read this book and a similar one called "Cracking the Freemason's Code: The Truth About Solomon's Key and the Brotherhood" (both are on order, Oct 08), they apparently debunk everything but the conventional wisdom of the United Grand Lodge of England and its premier lodge of research, Quator Coronati.

Whatever the truth of either position, it is likely, subject to reading these books when I obtain them, that, like the arguments between atheists and believers, neither position is provable beyond reasonable doubt.

To many outsiders Freemasonry is simply a quaint old boy’s club, an insider’s network that provides lucrative business contacts and influence for its members. Its ritual side is perceived as being ludicrous – with brothers rolling up one trouser leg and uttering archaic and meaningless oaths. Things may have changed, but in its earliest days, Freemasonry was a mystery school with solemn initiations that drew on ancient occult traditions, and which were specifically designed to bring transcendental enlightenment, besides binding the initiate more closely to his brothers.

Originally it was an occult organization, explicitly concerned with the transmission of sacred knowledge. Much of what we would now call science actually came out of that brotherhood – as one can see from the formation of the Royal Society in England in 1662, which was and is concerned with the gathering and promulgating of scientific knowledge. It was the official establishment of the original “Invisible College” of the Freemasons that had been formed in 1645. (And just as in Leonardo’s day, occult and scientific knowledge – far from being antithetical – were seen as one and the same.)

Although no doubt many modern Freemasons do undertake their initiations solemnly and with a sense of spirituality, the overall picture is one of an organization that has forgotten its original meaning. In fact, today’s mainstream Freemasonry is that of Grand Lodge, which was only formed relatively recently, on John the Baptist’s Day (24th June) in 1717. Before that time Freemasonry had been a true secret society, but the emergence of Grand Lodge marked an era when it had already become a glorified dining club and which had gone semi-public because it no longer had any secrets to keep to itself.

So just how old is Freemasonry? The earliest reference acknowledged by some is 1641, but if there is a link with the Templars it obviously goes back further. John J.Robinson cites evidence of Masonic Lodges possibly existing in the 1380s and an alchemical treatise dated from the 1450s explicitly uses the term “Freemason” (Author: – a carved scene in Rosslyn Chapel – which is on the Sinclair estate near Edinburgh and on which construction commenced ca. 1440 – depicts, according to some, an accurate representation of a “Masonic” initiation – see "The Hiram Key" by Lomas & Knight .)

The Masons (i.e. United Grand Lodge of England) themselves claim that they emerged from the English medieval stonemason’s guilds – which had developed secret gestures and codes of recognition because they possessed the potentially dangerous knowledge of sacred geometry. But, as John J.Robinson’s extensive and meticulous research has shown, against all expectations, these guilds were conspicuous by their absence in medieval Britain. Another Freemasonic myth is their claim that the stonemasons inherited their secret knowledge from the builders of the fabulous Temple of Solomon. If so, however, why did they ignore another group with more obvious links with that Temple? They appear to be avoiding the most obvious link of all: the group whose full name was the Order of Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon – in other words, the Templars.

Yet before the formation of Grand Lodge, the Freemasons actually promulgated the same kind of information about sacred geometry, alchemy and hermeticism as did the Templars. For example, the early Masons were very concerned with alchemy: a mid-fifteenth-century alchemical treatise alludes to Freemasons as “workers in alchemy” and one of the first Masonic initiates was recorded as being Elias Ashmole (inducted in 1648), founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who was an alchemist, hermeticist and Rosicrucian. (Ashmole was also the first person to write approvingly of the Templars since their suppression.)

A jewel in the crown of Freemasonry is the curious and compelling building called Rosslyn Chapel (pictured right), a few miles out of Edinburgh. From the outside it looks so dilapidated as to be almost in danger of collapsing completely, but the interior is eye-openingly robust – as indeed, it would have to be for Rosslyn Chapel is the acknowledged focus for today’s Freemasons and many Templar organizations.

Built between 1450 and 1480 by Sir William St Clair, Laird of Rosslyn, it was originally intended to be simply the lady chapel of a much larger building that was supposed to be based on the design of the Temple of Solomon, but in the event it was to stand alone throughout the centuries. The St Clairs (later their name became Sinclair) were to be the hereditary protectors of Freemasonry in Scotland from the fifteenth century onwards: surely it is no coincidence that before that time they served the same function for the Templars.

From its very beginnings the Templar Order was connected with the Sinclairs and Rosslyn: founding Grand Master Hugues de Payens was married to Catherine St Clair. (Author's note: Prince Michael of Albany and Salhab (9) dispute this claim saying it comes from Pierre Plantard's discredited Dossiers Secret; they say de Payens was married to a woman called Elizabeth of unknown family name). Originally of Viking descent, the St Clairs/Sinclairs are one of the most intriguing and remarkable families in history, and were prominent in Scotland and France from the Eleventh Century (Interestingly, their family name came from the Scottish martyr Saint Clair, who was beheaded). Hugues and Catherine visited the St Clair estates close to Rosslyn and established there the first Templar commandery in Scotland, which became their headquarters. (As we have seen, Pierre Plantard adopted the name “de St Clair”, thereby deliberately linking himself with the French branch of this ancient family. Several commentators have wondered whether he is entitled to use this designation, but there is at least good reason for him to do so.)

The knights certainly made Scotland one of their major havens after their official suppression – perhaps because it was very much the land of Robert the Bruce, who had himself been excommunicated, so that the Pope for the moment held no sway in Scotland. And Baigent and Leigh argue persuasively that the missing Templar fleet turned up on Scottish shores.

One of the critical historic events of the British Isles was undoubtedly the Battle of Bannockburn, which took place on 24th June, (St John the Baptist’s Day) in 1314, when Robert the Bruce’s forces decisively overcame the English. However, the evidence suggests that they had formidable help – in the form of a contingent of Knights Templar who saved the day at the eleventh hour. Certainly, that is what today’s Scottish Knights Templar (who claim to descend from the fugitive knights) believe, as they commemorate the Battle of Bannockburn in Rosslyn Chapel on its anniversary as being the occasion when ‘the Veil was lifted from the Knights Templar’. One of the knights who had fought alongside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn was (another) Sir William St Clair, who died in 1330 and was buried at Rosslyn in a characteristic Templar Tomb.

The Rosslyn Chapel itself contains some apparent anomalies in its decoration. Every square inch of the Chapel’s interior is covered in carved symbols and the building as a whole is designed to accord with the high ideals of sacred geometry. Much of this is undeniably Masonic. It boasts the ‘Apprentice Pillar’, (pictured below), an explicit parallel with the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, and the apprentice depicted on it is known as ‘The Son of the Widow’, a highly significant Masonic term (which is also important in this investigation). The lintel next to the Pillar bears the inscription:

“Wine is strong, the King is stronger, women are strongest, but TRUTH conquers all”.

But while much of Rosslyn’s symbolism is clearly Masonic, at least as much is definitely Templar; the floor plan of the chapel is based on the Templar cross, and there are carvings that include the famous two-men-on-a-horse image from their seal. And an ancient nearby wood was planted in the shape of a Templar cross.

All this is most curious, for according to standard history texts, Freemasonry dates from no earlier than the late 1500s, and the Templars were no longer a force to be reckoned with after 1312. Thus the imagery in the chapel, which dates from around the 1460s, should be too early for the former and too late for the latter...”

The Templar love and preservation of knowledge meant that at Rosslyn we also find the “Rosslyn-Hay Manuscript”, which is the earliest known work in Scottish prose. It is a translation of Rene d’Anjou’s writings on chivalry and government and on its binding are found inscribed “JHESUS (sic) – MARIA – JOHANNES” (Jesus, Mary, John). As Andrew Sinclair says in his "The Sword and the Grail" (1992)(5):

"The addition of the name of St John to that of Jesus and Mary is unusual, but he was venerated by the Gnostics and the Templars…..Another remarkable feature of the binding is the use of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God….In Rosslyn Chapel, the Templar Seal of the Lamb of God is also carved.

Earl William and Rene d’Anjou were close, both being members of the Order of the Golden Fleece
(Author: my italics) a group whose avowed intent was to restore the old Templar ideals of chivalry and brotherhood.

It is clear that the Templars survived in Scotland and continued to operate openly, not just at Rosslyn but in several other locations. However, in 1329 their charmed life was once again under threat when Robert the Bruce’s excommunication was lifted and the shadow of the Pope’s authority returned to haunt them. At one point there was even the distinct possibility that a crusade would be launched against Scotland and although this did not materialise, the Scottish Templars thought it prudent to go underground like many of their European brothers and it was this, it is claimed, that gave rise to the beginnings of Freemasonry.”

So there is substantial evidence of Masonic ritual dating back to the mid-fifteenth century in the murals/carvings of Rosslyn Chapel. What other early evidence is there?

Preston, one of the early historians of post-1717 Freemasonry published his history in 1778. According to Robert Lomas in his book, "The Invisible College", there were early, now “lost” histories, which as mentioned earlier, were produced by Sir Robert Moray and by Elias Ashmole (he of the Oxford Ashmolean Library fame) probably a hundred years earlier than Preston’s. On his website, Lomas has published “Illustrations of Masonry by William Preston, Past Master of the Lodge of Antiquity, Acting by Immemorial Constitution, Blacklock The Ninth Edition; with considerable additions. London: Printed for G and T Wilkie; No 57 Paternoster Row, MDCCXCV To the Right Honourable Lord Petrie, Past Grand Master of the Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons. This Treatise is, with the Greatest Respect, Inscribed by His Lordship's Most Obedient Servant and Brother, William Preston”.

In this remarkable document, Preston records, albeit without documentation, some astonishing early events in Freemasonry, which if true, transform the history of the Craft.

For example, he states:

”On the 24th June 1502, a lodge of masters was formed in the palace, at which the King (Henry VII) presided in person as Grand Master; and having appointed John Islip, Abbot of Westminster, and Sir Reginald Bray, Knight of the Garter, his Wardens for the occasion, proceeded in ample form to the east end of Westminster Abbey, where he laid the foundation stone of that rich masterpiece of Gothic architecture known by the name of Henry the Seventh’s Chapel…..Henry VIII succeeded his father in 1509, and appointed Cardinal Wolsey, Grand Master…..Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, succeeded the Cardinal in the office of Grand Master and employed the fraternity in building St Jame’s Palace, Christ’s Hospital and Greenwich Castle…..the Masons remained without any nominal patron till the reign of Elizabeth, when Sir Thomas Sackville accepted the office of Grand Master. Lodges were held during this period in different parts of England, but the General or Grand Lodge assembled in York where the Fraternity were numerous and respectable.

The following circumstance is recorded of Elizabeth: Hearing that the Masons were in possession of secrets which they would not reveal, and being jealous of all secret assemblies, she sent an armed force to York with intent to break up their annual Grand Lodge. This design, however, was happily frustrated by the interposition of Sir Thomas Sackville who took care to initiate some of the chief officers which she had sent on this duty. They joined in communication with the Masons and made so favourable a report to the queen on their return that she countermanded her orders and never afterwards attempted to disturb the meetings of the Fraternity.

Sir Thomas Sackville held the office of Grand Master until 1567 when he resigned in favour of Francis Russel, Earl of Bedford and Sir Thomas Gresham, an eminent merchant distinguished by his abilities and great success in trade. To the former the care of the Brethren in the northern part of the kingdom was assigned while the latter was appointed to superintend the meetings in the south where the society had considerably increased in consequence of the honourable report which had been made to the queen.”

Is this all fantasy, or was there evidence, now lost, on which he based his claims?

  1. The Templar Revelation, Picknett, L & Prince, C. (1998) Corgi Books
  2. Born in Blood, The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry, John L.Robinson. (1989) M.Evans & Co, New York.
  3. The Temple and the Lodge, Baigent, M & Leigh, R. (1990) Corgi Books
  4. The Hiram Key, Pharoahs, Freemasons and the Discovery of the Secret Scrolls of Jesus, Knight, C & Lomas, R. (1996) Century Publishers, UK.
  5. The Second Messiah, Templars, the Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry, Knight, C & Lomas, R (1997) Century, UK.
  6. The Sword and the Grail, Sinclair, A. (1993) Century, UK.
  7. Illustrations of Masonry by William Preston -
  8. The Secret History of Freemasonry – Its Origins and Connections to the Knights Templar by Paul Naudon - English ed.2005
  9. The Knights Templar of the Middle East – The Hidden History of the Islamic Origins of Freemasonry by HRH Prince Michael of Albany and Walid Amine Salhab - 2006
  10. Turning the Hiram Key by Robert Lomas - 2006
  11. The Rosslyn Hoax? by Robert L.D. Cooper - 2006
  12. Cracking the Freemason's Code: The Truth About Solomon's Key and the Brotherhood by Robert L.D. Cooper - 2006

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