The Old Charges

Bro. J. R. Clarke

The expression 'Old Charges' has a double significance. It can be regarded as having reference to certain 'Articles' and 'Points' which state the duties and responsibilities of masons of former times, and it may be used to denote documents which preface a legendary history of the Craft to a statement of the 'Articles' and 'Points'. The first mention of such a document in Grand Lodge Freemasonry was when the Grand Master was George Payne in 1721, and it is to be found in the diary of William Stukely:

June 24. 1721. The Masons had a dinner at Stationers Hall, present Duke of Montagu ... The Grand Master George Payne, produced an Old MS. of the Constitutions which he got in the West of England, 500 years old.

Stukeley made a transcript of part of this and it has enabled the document to be identified with the Cooke MS., so called because it was first published by Brother Matthew Cooke in 1861; it is now in the British Museum. Payne had asked for the production of other early documents to assist the preparation of a statement of the usages of former times. A comparison of the 1723 Book of Constitutions with the Cooke MS. shows that Anderson made use of the manuscript when he 'digested' the material available to him. Since then more than one hundred similar documents have been brought to light. Of one of them, the Sloane MS. No. 3808,1 it can be said that it was written in 1646 to be available for the meeting at which Elias Ashmole was made an 'Accepted Mason' in that year. This verifies the surmise that a copy of the Old Charges, as well as the Bible, was necessary for the ceremony of admission, as a proof of the regularity of the meeting before a Warrant served that purpose. The subsequent versions are not identical; there are differences between them which cannot be attributed to copyists' errors. These differences have enabled students of them to classify them into 'Families', the members of which have resemblances to each other, and have assisted in dating them. For example, the 'Spencer Family', written after 1726, make mention of the third degree, which was introduced shortly before that date. It is not possible in a paper such as this to enter further into this study but a small book, The Old Charges by Rev. H. Poole, published in 1924, affords an introduction to it.

A very important re-discovery of a copy of the Old Charges was made in 1839 by J.M. Halliwell when he found in the British Museum a manuscript which he published under the title of The Early History of Freemasonry in England; it is now known as the Regius MS. because it was for a long time in the library of King Charles II. This and the Cooke MS. stand apart from the others because they are the only pre-Reformation versions we have. A classical study of them was made in 1938 by Knoop, Jones and Hamer of the University of Sheffield under the title The Two Earliest Masonic MSS., hereafter cited as 2EMM. Both these manuscripts were written in the dialect spoken in the West Midland area of England in the latter part of the fourteenth century. This area covers Gloucestershire and West Oxfordshire. The authors add:

The Cooke MS. contains more southern forms than the Regius MS. and clearly in a region in contact with the Midlands and West Midlands.

They consider that the Regius MS. was written in 1390 and the Cooke in 1410.

There are notable differences between these two early versions of the Charges: the Regius is written in verse and the Cooke in prose; the legendary history given in the former is very brief; and it left no descendants, whereas the Cooke is the first of a long line. On the other hand the Regius incorporates two old documents: John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests (Mirk being an Augustinian Canon and the Prior of Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire), and an anonymous poem 'Tractus Urbanitatis '. The differences between the Regius and the Cooke were discussed at length in 2EMM, in notes and on page 59, and there will be further discussion in this paper. It must now be stated however that they have a common ancestor, in existence in 1360 though alas no longer, but the Cooke was also influenced by another document written between 1350 and 1390. In order that there may be some comparison of these Old Charges with Anderson's Constitutions, without reference having to be made to other publications, summaries of these are given here.


There are many variations of both the long and the short histories. For example, the Cooke opens with thanks to God for all the good things he has vouch safed to mankind. It then switches suddenly to say how Geometry first began, it being understood that Masonry and building have their roots in this science. The usual medieval definitions of the seven liberal arts are given but the writer maintains that Geometry is fundamental, being 'the measure of the earth' and hence the basis of all study of Masonry. He then names the descendants of Adam and states that Cain built the first city and that Jabal, the son of Lamech, was his first master mason, though seven generations away. Jabal's brother was Tubal (hence Tubal Cain), the first worker in metals, and he was also the founder of music. The brothers had foreknowledge that God would take vengeance for sin either by fire or flood, and built two pillars, one of marble which would not burn and one of 'lacerus' (?burnt brick) which would not sink in water. On these they inscribed all the knowledge they had.

So we come to Noah and the flood, and his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth. After the flood one of the pillars was found by Pythagoras and the other by Hermes the philosopher; they passed on the knowledge written thereon. Ham is stated to have been the father of Nimrod, who became King of Babylon and built the Tower of Babylon (confused with Babel). He 'cherished' builders and taught them the craft of masonry. He also sent masons to Assur to help him to build his capital, Nineveh. He 'gave charges' to them also, and these have some resemblance to the 'Articles' discussed later.

The next great personage in the story is Abraham, 'who was a wise man and a great clerk'; he taught Geometry to the Egyptians, among whom was Euclid. Euclid, in turn, taught the Egyptians how to build walls to control the Nile floods He also taught the sons of great lords the science of Geometry; and he 'gave them Charges'. In this way the children of Israel learnt the craft of Masonry. In due time King David learnt the craft and he gave masons charges, which were confirmed by Solomon to his builders.

From Jerusalem the worthy science of Geometry spread to France and other regions. In France there was a king, Charles the Second (not Charlemagne as in other versions), who was a mason before he became king. He loved masons and also gave them charges; he also ordained that they should have a yearly Assembly and be ruled by Masters and Fellows.

Soon afterwards St Amphibalus came to England and converted St Alban to Christianity. Alban also loved masons and gave them charges. At a later date (c. 895-939) Athlestan was king of England and he did much building. His youngest son 'loved well the science of Geometry' and he became a mason himself. He, in turn, gave charges to masons 'as it is now in England'. Moreover he obtained a patent from the king that they should 'make assembly when they saw reasonable time to come together'.

At this point there seems to have been an addition to the Cooke MS. In a shorter version of the history it re-tells the story of Euclid but the geometer's name is 'Euglat' and he is no longer a pupil of Abraham, which was one of the difficulties of the former story. As before, the knowledge of the science spread from country to country and congregations (assemblies) were held. In some variations of the history the distinction of bringing Masonry to the west is given to Charlemagne who was, in fact, a great builder; one of his works was the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle, the design and some of the stones for which he took from the east. In another story it is the curiously named Naymus Graecus who brought Geometry to the west. He was said to have worked in King Solomon's Temple. Much has been written about him but he has not been satisfactorily identified.


After the history down to the reign of King Athelstan has been set out, there are statements that at the congregations those who wished to be made master masons are to be examined as to their ability to serve their employers by attending to the following 'Articles'. When this has been done, those who wish to 'come to the state of the aforesaid Art' are to attend a number of 'Points'. The Regius MS. gives fifteen Articles and fifteen Points while the Cooke has only nine Articles and eight Points, but it adds some unnumbered paragraphs written in the style of the Points. For this reason the arrangement of the Regius MS. is summarized here.

The first Article requires that a master mason shall deal fairly with his employers, for example in respect of the wages claimed to have been paid to his men. The second that he shall attend the congregation. The next four concern him and his apprentices: a man shall not be bound for less than seven years; he shall not be a bondsman; he shall be whole of limb and lawful blood; he shall not be claimed to have been paid more than he deserves. Then the master is told that he must not harbour a thief or a robber and that a less skilled man may be replaced by a better, but no man shall supplement another who has begun his work. He is to be certain that he can carry out any work he undertakes. The rest of the Articles in the Regius are not in the Cooke and they supplement a master mason's responsibilities. No man shall work at night except for study and no man shall disparage the work of another. The master shall not claim maintenance for more men that he employs; he shall be responsible for instructing his apprentices and shall not take an apprentice unless he can be sure of giving him proper instruction.

There is a notable difference between the two manuscripts in the first Point. The Cooke says: 'He shall love God and Holy Church and All Hallows (Saints) and his master and his fellows'. The Regius omits the saints and so do all the post-reformation manuscripts. Anderson looses the requirement further: he shall be 'of that religion in which all men agree', thus opening the Craft to all who believe in God the Creator of the Universe. The next Points are: that the newcomer shall deserve his hire; he shall keep secret his master's teaching and whatever he sees or hears in lodge; he shall not be untrue to the Craft nor do anything to the prejudice of his master and fellows; he shall take his pay from his master without dispute and shall not question his master's orders. Then he is told that if a mason quarrel with another the investigation of the dispute shall be postponed to the next holiday, so as not to interfere with the progress of the work. He shall not lie with nor covet his master's wife nor his daughter nor lie with his fellow's concubines: the Cooke forbids masons to have concubines. The eighth Point is that if a mason is appointed warden under his master he shall be true to his task and mediate fairly between the master and fellows. The Cooke gives no further numbered Points. The ninth Point in the Regius is that the Steward of the Hall is to serve the Craftsmen willingly and keep accounts. The tenth is that if a mason leads a bad life or is a bad workman he shall be ordered to appear before the Assembly. The next is that is a mason sees a man about to spoil a stone he shall assist him. The last four are among the unnumbered Points in the Cooke. The first of them deals with the Constitution of the Assemblies. Then there are three about the oath which the apprentice is to be called upon to swear: he shall be ordered to appear before the Assembly. The next is that if a mason sees a man about to spoil a stone he shall assist him. The last four are among the unnumbered Points the Sheriff shall imprison him. Finally it is stated that an Assembly shall be held every vear or every third year, the time and place being known beforehand, and every mason shall attend.

In some versions of the Changes there is a more explicit statement of the method of making the promise. The newcomer is called upon to take 'the Boke' (i.e. the Bible) in his hands and swear his oath upon it.

In the Regius MS. the Articles and Points are followed by a moralizing, not given in Cooke, on the virtue of the Quatuor Coronati. After this there is an anachronistic transition to the building of the Tower of Babel, which again is confused with Babylon, and a statement that Nebuchadnezzar built it. Then there is a definition of the seven liberal arts. The whole of this part reads as though the writer felt that he had omitted something that should have been included; it has no relevance to what follows it.


In a posthumous paper (AQC 94, pp.166-8), Douglas Hamer returned to the problems set by the Regius MS. and propounded four questions about them: by whom and where was it written, why was it written in verse and why it had no successors, as had the Cooke MS.? He gave answers to the first two: it was written by an Augustinian canon in Lantony Priory near Gloucester; but he did not find answers to the other two questions. I have two more questions to add to those of Hamer: why should a learned man, such as a canon, make a copy of masonic Articles and Points from an older manuscript; and why should he tack on to it two Tracts by fellow Augustinians, both written in verse? That decision to incorporate the Instructions written by his Superior in the Order (Mirk) originally in Latin and subsequently translated into English verse, was made by the writer of the Regius before he started his work is made clear by the fact that it induced him to write his own contribution in verse. The decision to 'borrow' Urbanitatis may have come later. The answer to the first of my two questions became apparent only when I had received from my Roman Catholic relatives some information about the Order of Augustinian Canons. They were based on priories and abbeys but it was their function to go into the parishes, to cooperate with the clergy and, by precept and example, persuade the laity to live a good life. They might, for example, do 'welfare work' such as the establishment of dispensaries.

From 1377 to 1402 there was a band of masons working on the buildings of Lantony Priory. The older manuscript to which I have referred, the common ancestor with the Cooke, held much good advice for masons in its Articles and Points. At the same time, as they were to be on the building for some time, a copy of the Old Charges would be needed so that they could admit apprentices to the craft and promote them to be fellows The canon would learn this by moving among the masons, fulfilling his function. He would have facilities for borrowing the old manuscript from a source at present unknown, possibly another monastic library. He would not be interested in the legendary history, so he would omit nearly all of it and start his copy with the Article and Points. When he had finished his task as helpful scribe, he resumed his mantle as a religious teacher with the words (line 577) 'Now dear children', a form of address entirely different from that used in the Charges when writing about the masons' reponsibilities to each other. He uses these words to introduce Mirk's Instructions,2 which he changed by writing them in the second person instead of the third, so that they applied not to parish priests but to masons; thus he points out their duties to God. They start with an admonition to go to church regularly and not to be late 'because of idle conversation on the way'; other admonitions concern reverent behaviour in church, and so on. The 'borrowing' is only of some hundred lines of Mirk's total of about two thousand. The remainder of it deals with the manner of confession and the tenets of faith, including the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, and ends with sermonettes on the seven deadly sins. There are no specific allusions to Masonry but it is of interest that he introduces a couplet not in Mirk: 'Amen Amen, so mote it be, Now sweet lady, pray for me'. After this he again speaks for himself: 'I have yet more to preach to you, so that you may teach it to your fellows', an indication that he is still writing to the masons.

The 'Tractus Urbanitatis' which follows this provides intruction in social behaviour. 2EMM says 'there is evidence to suggest that masons might benefit greatly from such instruction' but it has no masonic import. It also closes with the couplet 'Amen Amen, so mote it be, So say we all for charity'.

These three poems, all written by Augustinian canons, and the information given about the function of the canons, show clearly that some of the minor clergy in the latter half of the fourteenth century were concerned to free the church from the state described in Moorman's History of the Church in England in the Thirteenth Century when the learning and piety of both clergy and laity were at a low ebb. This led me to try to ascertain whether any of the higher clergy were also writing reforming poems, in the hope that light might be thrown on the reason for Regius MS. being versified. I found from The Dictionary of National Biography that the Archbishop of York, Robert de Thoresby, issued in Latin to his Convocation in 1357 a directive of which the title translated into English was Instruction and Lay Folks Catechism. The approval given to this by Convocation would percolate through to the parishes and priories. There are editions of this also, with English translations, in E.E.T.S. collections. One of them, No. 118 in the Original Series, contains the following:

Thorseby was evidently anxious that his catechism should be as widely disseminated as possible ... and he told his clerk, John de Taystek, to cast a translation of it into the form of English verse (unpoetical though it may be), the more easily to be committed to memory. As Prior of Lilleshall Abbey, John Mirk would have known about Convocation's approval of Thorseby's Instruction and Catechism and also of Taystek's versification of it (which is fourteen hundred lines long). Nevertheless I was surprised to find that a number of years later Mirk should have written his Instructions which covered precisely the same ground and so closely resembled it, even to the sermonettes at the end. There can be no doubt that the Lay Folks Catechism, Mirk's Instructions and Urbanitatis are linked together by being written in Latin and translated into English verse 'the more easily to be committed to memory', and that the Regius MS. provides a final link in the chain, being versified for the same reason.

This gives the answer to Hamer's third question. It also makes clear why the manuscript left no successor. When the buildings at Lantony were finished in 1402, this band of masons would leave the site. The manuscript having been written by a member of the priory, it would be placed in its library. It remained there until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1559 when the last Prior, Robert Hart, took it away with him. Its history since then is known. It is interesting, though perhaps useless, to speculate whether the masons who left Latony in 1402 moved southwards to another Augustinian foundation, perhaps to Cirencester or Oxford or Dorchester, and persuaded another canon to write the Cooke MS.

After the section of this paper on Mirk's Instructions had been written, a member of the staff of the Sheffield University Library drew my attention to a recent acquisition, a book by G. Kristensson, John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests, published in 1974. This is based not only on the manuscript Cotton Claudius A H (which was available to Peacock and to Knoop, Jones and Hamer), but also on six other manuscripts of Mirk's work. It includes inter alia a length discussion of the dialect in which Mirk wrote, and considers that there is evidence of northern influence as well as that of the West Midlands. It concludes that it is a versified translation of parts of William de Pagula's Oculus Sacerdotus. There is a reference to the 'borrowing' in the Regius MS. but Thoresby's Catechism is not mentioned. It may be of course that this also derives from Pagula's work; there was much unacknowledged borrowing in those days. This does not conflict with my option that Mirk knew about the directive and that his versification resulted from that of Taystek. Kristensson does not mention that any other of Mirk's works was versified.


There remains the problem 'how does it come about that these two versions of the Old Charges were written in very similar dialects at this particular time?' In the west of England there is a magnificent chain of cathedrals without parallel elsewhere: Exeter, Wells, Gloucester, Worcestershire and Hereford, as well as many abbeys and castles, on which building was carried out almost continuously during the five centuries before A.D. 1500. It is not strange that both the manuscripts in question should say that Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great gave charges to masons for he was the King of Wessex before he became King of All England, and he is reputed to have been the founder in 932 of the monastic house which was the fore-runner of the cathedral at Exeter. In the middle of this chain there developed a Gloucester School of Masons whose outstanding figure was Walter of Hereford. In the middle of the fourteenth century, after the Black Death, Edward III decided to rebuild Windsor Castle. He impressed masons from all parts of the country for this work. In view of the development of the Gloucester School, it is not surprising to find that John of Sponlee was put in charge of the work in 1350, that William of Wynford was 'made chief Architect at Windsor joint with John of Sponlee in 1351' and took over from him in 1357; Robert of Gloucester was named as 'Warden of the Masons' there in 1357: all were from the West Country (Henry de Yvele, J.R. Harvey, 1944).

Moreover the second Article in both Charges states that every master mason shall attend the congregation unless he has reasonable excuse for absence. My perusal of a large number of versions of the Old Charges (albeit a fraction of the whole) shows that our two earliest versions are the only ones which allow 'reasonable excuse'; the great majority require attendance within if within fifty miles of the place of meeting, although a minority lower the requirement to a walking distance of ten miles or less. The greater distance is unrealistic because it would entail an absence from work for many days. I cannot remember that any allowance was made for this in the building accounts studied by Knoop and Jones in the Mediaeval Mason.

As a matter of fact, for a large part of the time after 1400 the question of the Assemblies would not arise. At the beginning of the reign of Henry VI, in 1425, a ban was placed on holding them on the ground that they contravened the Statutes of Labourers. The masons protested that they were as loyal and law-abiding as other trades and objected to being singled out for attack. Condor (The Hole Craft and Fellowship of Masons, p.77) observes that 'we do not hear of this Act being put into force' and he gives high legal opinion that it was repealed in 1562. It may be a coincidence but it was about this time that the earliest extant post-reformation versions of the Old Charges appeared. After this it was permissable to hold Assemblies but there is only one statement that one was held. The Roberts MS. of 1722 avers that an Assembly was held in 1663 but there is no supporting evidence. There is substance in Anderson's claim that the function of the Assembly was taken over by Grand Lodge, though copies of the Charges were made for some time after 1723.

However this may be it is evident that, while it would be possible to hold a full Assembly of masons during the building of Windsor Castle, this could not be done thereafter. I suggest therefore that the common ancestors of our two manuscripts, from which the requirement of Assemblies would be taken, were written at this period. They would remain in the hands of the chief masons when this work was finished and would be carried by them back to the West Country. This speculation agrees with the date suggested for the two sources in 2EMM, page 59.

I conclude with the lines written about six hundred years ago:

Amen, Amen. So mote it be,
So say we alle for charyte.
  1. Not to be confused with the Sloane MS. No. 3329, which is a catechism reproduced in Conder's Records of the Hole Craft and Fellowship of Masons (1894), p.227.
  2. Both the Instructions and Urbanitatis are reprinted in the collections of the Early English Tract Society. Original Series. Vols. 31 and 32 respectively.