The Secret Society of the Freemasons
It is claimed that Freemasonry is the oldest secret society in the world, but its obscure and uncertain beginnings have led to speculation about its origin. One of the leading theories is that it was started by medieval stone masons organising themselves into groups. There were two types of stone mason: those who worked with hard stone, and cut rough stone, and those who worked with soft stone, such as chalk or sandstone, and were more skilled at carving facades into a type of stone called freestone. These elite masons were known as freestone masons, or freemasons for short.
Unlike most workers at that time, masons were not tied to the land so could seek work anywhere, and it’s thought that they formed an association to support each other. The exclusivity of this society was maintained by developing a system of secret signs and rituals, which gained entry to meetings.
Once the bible became available in written English, Freemasons would read it when they met at lodges set up near their workplace. This unprecedented access to the bible meant that they could read sections that were of interest to them rather than being led by church sermons.
The Second Book of Chronicles became a favourite of the Freemasons because, in it, God gives Solomon detailed measurements of how to build a temple in his honour. Hiram Abiff was the principle architect of The Temple of Solomon, said to be ‘filled with wisdom and understanding’, and is central to Masonic ceremony and culture.
Hiram supposedly possessed ‘genuine secrets of a Master mason’. Three junior masons who worked on the Temple tried to get Hiram to divulge the secrets but he refused, saying that they must be earned through personal development and sacred trust. The masons, angered, struck him in the head. Falling to the ground onto his left knee, Hiram still refused to share the secrets. Another blow to his temple sent Hiram down on both knees. Resolute to the end, a final blow was dealt to the centre of Hiram’s temple which killed him.
When Hiram’s body was found, his hand was the first part to be seen. It was decided that this would be the sign that represented the secrets of the master mason. Solomon demanded the murderers be brought to justice. All three, known in Masonic law as the Juwes (pronounced Joo-ees), admitted their crimes and were sentenced to death. Those who attended the funeral of Hiram wore white aprons and gloves that served as symbols of their innocence. This symbolism is still used in modern Masonic rituals.
In the 1838, an early Masonic text called The Regius Poem was found in the Kings Library of the British Museum. It contains 64 pages of poetic verse and is thought to date to between 1390-1445. It starts ‘Here begin the constitutions of geometry according to Euclid’ and describes how masonry was founded in Egypt by Euclid, known as the father of geometry, and introduced to Britain during the reign of King Athelstan (924 - 939 AD). It laid out fifteen points on how the society should be governed and provided guidelines for Mason assemblies.
The popular but controversial theory that the Freemasons were linked to the Knights Templar was first put forward by Andrew Ramsey in 1737. Ramsay was a Jacobite living in exile in France and became chancellor of the French Grand Lodge. In Britain, Freemasonry was open to all; artisans, aristocrats, professional men and middle-class traders. In France, however, they didn’t want to belong to a club that had working-class beginnings. Instead, Ramsay romanticised the society, telling potential French members that the stonemasons had also been knights fighting in the Holy Land.
Ramsay claimed that the crusaders had attempted to restore the Temple of Solomon, devising secret rituals and signs in an attempt to protect themselves against their Muslim enemies. Ramsay was careful not to explicitly mention the Knights Templar, probably to avoid angering the French church and monarchy following events surrounding the Templar’s demise in 1307. In a book published after his death, however, Ramsay declared that ‘every Mason is a Knights Templar’. Freemasonry had been turned into an ancient, chivalrous and secret society.
There are obvious parallels between the two societies: their links to the Temple of Solomon, from which the knights took their name; the Templars wearing white gloves while consecrating the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the Freemasons wearing white gloves at Lodge meetings; and the Templars wearing tight, sheepskin breeches as a sign of chastity and Freemasons wearing white lambskin aprons to symbolise innocence.
Another similarity is the Templars’ battle banner, known as the Beausant. The Beausant is made up of two blocks of colours, one of black and one of white. The black represents the world of sin and the white represents the ‘light’. In modern Masonic rituals, candidates for initiation are said to move from a state of darkness toward the light of the society. Modern lodges also have chequerboard floors and members are required to wear black suits with white shirts to meetings.
After their downfall, it’s believed that Templars made their way north to Scotland. Robert the Bruce of Scotland, who had been excommunicated by the Pope, was not inclined to follow orders from the Church. It is thought that Templars found sanctuary in Scotland and influenced the development of Scottish Freemasonry. Some Masonic degrees, which are no longer in use, are said to have referred to events from Templar history and the Grand Commander of the Temple told of the false condemnation of the Templars. By the late 18th century, in the age of Romanticism, it was difficult for lodges to reject the Templar myths.
Whatever their true beginnings, Freemasonry changed once Speculative Masons were allowed to join. Speculative Masons are members that are not stone masons by profession. One of the first recorded Speculative Masons was in Scotland, in 1600, when Lord Boswell of Auchenleck was initiated into a Scottish lodge. A year later, in 1601, it’s believed that King James VI of Scotland, at the age of 35, was initiated into the Lodge of Scoon and Perth, although this claim is unconfirmed. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, James became King of England, uniting the English and Scottish thrones, and is credited by some with introducing Freemasonry to England.
In 1717, four lodges in London merged to form one Grand Lodge, to preside over all other lodges in England and, in 1723, Dr James Anderson produced the constitution of the Freemasons, which shifted away from religious emphasis and a Christian doctrine towards a more generalised concept of a universal God, or Great Architect.
Today, Freemasonry is a culmination of different historical traditions and is practised across the globe. Each country has its own Masonic organisation, governed by its own Grand Lodge, although they all mutually recognise each other. Candidates may become Freemasons and join a lodge by invitation only. Prospective members must be nominated and vetted by existing members, and are required to believe in a single, supreme being. They then progress through a series of ceremonies, steps in the Masonic system known as degrees, in which the mysteries of the Craft are revealed to them.
The first of the three degrees is the Entered Apprentice. The initiate is typically blindfolded and all money and metal objects are removed from them. Their left leg is bared to the knee, a hangman's noose is fitted loosely around their neck and a dagger is held to their left breast, which is exposed. They undertake a vow of secrecy and are led around the lodge in a ‘state of darkness’. The initiate is then asked to be shown the ‘light’ and is brought before the Worshipful Master, who stands to the west of the lodge. The blindfold is removed and the initiate looks upon the bible, the square and the compass. They will then be presented with a white apron made from lambskin. The second and third degrees are the Fellowcraft and Master Mason, in which the murder of Hibram is taught. There are many other higher levels of degree above this.
An important aspect of Freemasonry is that its members should contribute actively towards charitable causes. They are taught that they must strive to perfect themselves and contribute to a wider society. The principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth are at its core.
Royston Cave and the Freemasons?
Royston Cave was first connected to the Freemasons in the 1990s by ex-manager Peter Houldcroft (1923-2020), having identified possible links between Freemason practises and the carvings on the cave wall.
Houldcroft suggested that the cave’s depiction of St Laurence, for example, related to the St Laurence the Martyr degree of Freemasonry, and that the arm of the figure below him, thought to be King David of the Psalms, bends to form a perfect square, said to be featured in Masonic Craft rituals. By the main crucifixion scene there are also carvings of hands with hearts in them, a symbol of charity in modern Freemasonry. At the bottom of the crucifix stands a St Andrew cross, a link perhaps to Masonic Degree 29, known as the Knight of St Andrew, which is dedicated to charity and tolerance.
The cave’s structure also helped form Houldcroft’s theory. He believed that the cave has Masonic geometry which corresponds to the octagonal step and the joining of certain points to form a five-pointed star. Ritual recesses found in some masonic lodges have been likened to the shallow depression in the cave’s north-eastern end, known as ‘the Grave’. A moon symbol above the depression could represent a state of darkness, from which an initiate enters the waters of the ‘Grave’ before emerging, enlightened, beneath the light that hung above the eastern end of the cave. In the upper cave, there are possible symbols of equilateral triangles, the sign of the Masonic Master Overseer, and a sun, the symbol of the Supreme Being.
Houldcroft concluded that Royston Cave was designed as a stage to conduct complex rituals; an early Masonic lodge, born from Templar use, and created, perhaps, during the reign of James I, who often resided at his palace in Royston. If this were true, Royston Cave would stand as the earliest example of a Freemason’s lodge in England.
Perhaps the cave is a Chamber of Reflection, used in Freemasonry for initiations as a test of isolation. Present within these chambers are symbolic objects including a skull, representing mortality, and a candle, representing enlightenment and knowledge. A small figure carved in the south-eastern end of the cave holds a skull in their right hand and a candle in their left and might depict a candidate for initiation.
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Houldcroft, P.T. (2008). A Medieval Mystery at the Crossroads. Royston: Royston and District Local History Society.
Haag, M. (2008). The Templars: History & Myth The Templars.
Neville, M. (2012). Sacred Secrets: Freemasonry, the Bible and the Christian Faith. The History Press.