Auri Spigelman

THE Masonic poet, Rob Morris, romanticized the tyler in his immortal poem:

God bless the Old Tyler! How long has he truged
Through sunshine and storm with his "summonses due"
No pain nor fatigue the Old Tyler has gruged
To serve the great Order, Freemasonry, and you.

God bless the Old Tyler! How oft he was led
The funeral procession from Lodge door to grave!
How grandly his weapon has guarded the dead
To their last quiet home where Acacia boughs wave.

God bless the Old Tyler! How oft he has knocked
When, vigilant, strangers craved welcome and rest!
How widely your portals though guarded and locked,
Have swung to the signal the Tyler knows best!

There's a lodge where the door is not guarded or tyled,
There's a land without graves, without mourners or sin,
There's a Master most gracious, paternal and mild
And he waits the Old Tyler and bids him come in!

And there the Old Tyler no longer outside,
No longer with weapon of war in his hand,
A glorified spirit, shall grandly abide
And close by the Master high-honored, shall stand.

Historically, we know that the medieval operative craft guilds jealously guarded their trade secrets. They would post a sentry outside the meeting place to protect it from inspection or intrusion by the uninitiated. He was known as an "outer guard", "guarder" or "doorkeeper" and often was the most junior apprentice, who was not eligible to attend the trade discussions.

From a Masonic perspective, the tyler continued this "guarding" tradition. In the 1723 "First Book of Constitutions", Dr. James Anderson mentioned "another brother to look after the door, but shall not be a member of it" and in Regulation XXVI charged the use of "porters or doorkeepers." The English Grand Lodge, in 1728, ascribed him more importance as an "officer who kept the door" and in its minutes of June 8, 1732, initially referred to his specific title as "the Tyler." In 1738 he was described as "brother the doorkeeper to lock up all aprons." The word "tyler" first appeared in print in new Regulation XXVI of the 1738 "Second Book of Constitutions." Here Anderson recalled "Old Regulation XIII" of the first Grand Lodge of 17l7, which required that "another brother and Master Mason, should be appointed the Tyler, to look after the door." And so our ritual today tells us that he is "a brother without the door."

The early tylers wore very colorful clothing. The Grand Lodge Tyler of 1736, for example, was described as wearing a red waistcoat under a dark blue coat trimmed with gold lace, yellow trousers and a large triangular hat. He even wore this uniform in public, as when delivering summonses or in processions, and was often subject to ridicule.

The ritual tells us that he is "armed with the proper implement of his office", not only to ward off potential intruders but also to symbolically guard the Book of Constitutions from alteration. This was described as "a sharp instrument', initially a pointed trowel and later a sword. It gave him such great authority that even our military brethren of yesteryear were required to relinquish their swords before entering the lodge room. Today our tyler uses only an emblem of his position, a single unsheathed sword. However in other jurisdictions it may be crossed swords, right over left. Before opening some English lodges, a sword lies on the Master's pedestal. At the proper moment, the tyler is summoned into the lodge and must answer certain questions as to his place and duties. Then the Master hands him the sword, investing him with the power to ward off intruders and "suffer none to pass but such as were duly qualified." It is interesting that English, Irish and Scottish lodges have an "Inner Guard" posted within the lodge room door, under the direction of the Junior Warden. He shares responsibilities with the tyler, monitoring member's entry and exit, announcing visitors and advising entrants as to which degree the lodge is working on.

Who is this tyler and what are his duties? He is appointed to his office and compensated for his duties and "lonely position." He is a Master Mason, usually a Past Master, who is respected and well-informed in Masonic law and custom. His qualities must include a good memory, trustworthiness, dignity, geniality, understanding, sympathy, patience and dedication. He need not be a member of the lodge, but if so, has the right to debate and vote. He recognizes and greets the brethren, assuring that they are "duly qualified" by being clean, not inebriated and properly clothed with aprons. He is a "one-man welcoming committee' for visitors, giving them the first and most important impression of his lodge. He assures that members and visitors sign the "Tyler's Register." In the old days, when taverns and other non-permanent places were used, it was the tyler's charge to "form" or "draw" the lodge with chalk and charcoal. Within a rectangle he displayed various Masonic emblems of the proper degree level. His classical duties included the preparation and service of notices and summonses. He had the key to the "apron box" and was in charge of the lodge's possessions, arranging them properly for upcoming meetings and securing them afterwards. He gave notice of the times of "calling on" and "calling off", oversaw the proper preparation of candidates and even collected visitor's dinner fees! The special "Tyler's Knock" signals the lodge already in-session that a qualified brother requests admission. He will refuse entry to anyone whom he does not personally recognize or who cannot be "properly vouched for" by another brother. If this visitor is subsequently cleared by an ad-hoc examining committee, he will administer the "Tyler's Oath." This will ascertain that the brother was "regularly" initiated, passed and raised in a "just and legally-constituted lodge", that he stands not suspended or expelled from his own lodge, and that there is no other reason why he cannot hold Masonic communication with the brethren of this lodge.

The tyler is specifically warned to "observe the approach of cowans and eavesdroppers" and not allow their entry into the lodge. What is a "cowan"? Theories abound in the Masonic literature about the word's derivations from one of several languages, with diverse meanings such as "dog", "wretch" or "silly fellow." It probably was a sixteenth-century Scottish operative term of contempt, given to the ignorant or partially instructed laborer, who hadn't completed the proper period of apprenticeship and who was perhaps skilled in only one facet of masonry. He was also known as "rough mason" or "dry-diker", who built structures with unhewn stones and without mortar, the stones keeping in position only by their own weight. His exclusion from guild membership was a necessary means of trade protection from competition by unskilled laborers. Some "cowans", though, were Master Masons who had been expelled or moved to another area without joining the local lodge. The old Lodge of Kilwinning warned that, under penalty, a Master Mason should not employ a "cowan" unless a regular craftsman was not found within fifteen miles of the building site. In later times, though, they were employed by the guilds for their specific skills, at lower compensation rates. Speculatively, the term "cowan" refers to one who is not yet a Master Mason, a Master Mason dropped for cause, or one who has unlawful Masonic knowledge, having been initiated or having communication with an "irregular" or "clandestine" lodge. The "eavesdropper", however, is a more suspicious character. "Eaves" describes the space between a building's wall and the line where the rain-water "drops" of the roof. Here the surreptitious listener could position himself, monitoring conversations in the lodge from which he might learn some of its secrets or gather material to create slanderous tales. 'The modern eavesdropper receives his information from various sources and then masquerades as a Mason in order to obtain charity or other means of help.

The spellings "tyler" and "tiler" are interchangeable, with the former an older usage. The Masonic application of the word, subject to much uncertainty and speculation as to its symbolism, may somehow derive from the interdependent working relationship of the operative masons and tilers. Indeed, their regulations and ordinances, called "poyntz", were quite similar (these survive today in such expressions as "arts, parts, and points", "points of entrance" and "five points of fellowship"). The most prominent etymologic theory is that "tile" was derived from the Latin 'tegula', meaning "to cover". With the Roman occupation of Britain, bricks and tiles were introduced as permanent building materials. But after the Romans' withdrawal, the style reverted to wooden buildings covered with reeds and straw. Unfortunately, these combustible buildings were set quite close together. After a series of devastating fires in London an ordinance was passed in 1212 requiring that roofs be covered with tiles, lead, shingles or plastered straw. The operative Tiler Guilds were formed at about that time (and existed until the mid-1800's). So, it was thought, that as the operative tiler covered the roof of a building with tiles to conceal its interior and protect it from the elements, so the Masonic tyler figuratively "covers" or protects the secrets of the lodge by guarding it from inspection or intrusion by the uninitiated. The strange Masonic word "hele" had a relation to the word "tile", in that the Latin 'helan' also meant "to cover or conceal." Tradesmen known as "helyers" (equivalent to "roofers") thatched with reeds, heled with tiles, or daubed with plaster to cover a building. To "heal" a wound, with modern spelling, is to "cover it". 'Hele' does not mean 'accost" or "salute".

Another theory comes from a book entitled "Proces de Templier", which discussed early French knighthood. While Chapter meetings were being held, a sentry known as the "Tuiller" was posted on the roof, on the tiles. From this lofty position he could easily observe the approach of any unauthorized person. It is thought that the English adopted this French custom for the craft lodges. Although their functions are similar, it seems somewhat far-fetched that our "guarder of the door" was derived from the "sentry on the roof"!

I would like to propose a new theory about the tyler's origin, having nothing to do with tiles or its craft. Consider that the word "tiler" was derived or misspelled from the word "tiller"! Even if spelled with a 'y', 'tyller', the phonetics of the 'y' need not be 'eye' but rather 'ih', like the first 'y' in the words 'sympathy' or 'tympany' The tiller of a boat is defined as a lever that steers the rudder and a tiller of the earth describes one who properly cultivates it. From the first meaning, we can make the speculative analogy that as the boat's tiller properly sets its course to a proposed destination guiding it to avoid obstacles and thereby guarding it from harm, so our tyler cares for each worthy brother and candidate. In his ante-room he registers, clothes and then directs him on a proper course into the lodge room. From the second meaning, we learn about proper preparation by the dispersion of impeding growth conditions. We may speculate that as the tiller plows and hoes, uprooting the weeds and loosening or removing the stones, and then fertilizes and sows the earth, so our tyler protects the lodge from intrusion of improper influences and correctly prepares each brother and candidate. Then, the analogy continues, as the earth has thus become receptive to plant growth, so may the brother or candidate be considered qualified to undergo a symbolic passage or transition from the mundane physical world to an environment conducive to spiritual growth within the lodge. Our tyler, therefore, can be thought of as a "tiller of men." Although I have no historical evidence to substantiate this etymological insight, I believe that the theory well describes the position and duties of our tyler

Since we learn the value of proper preparation and the virtue of caution from him, then each of us should, in a way, be our own tyler. Let us tyle ourselves when recommending and investigating candidates. Let us tyle our discussions about the ritual. Let us tyle the business discussed in lodge, especially that which relates to our members and candidates. Let us tyle our words and actions to foster harmony, as this will not only preserve our own integrities and reputations, but also that of our beloved Fraternity.


  1. Carr, H. "The Freemason at Work" Lewis Masonic, London 1981. pp. 86-89, 282-283, 396-397.
  2. Carter, C. J. "The Inner Guard and Deacons". Lewis Masonic, London 1990. pp. 1-17.
  3. Coil, H.W. "Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia" Macoy Publishing, New York 1961. pp. 149, 216, 654-655.
  4. DePace, M. "Introducing Freemasonry" Lewis Masonic, London 1988. pp 67- 68.
  6. Haywood, H. L. "Symbolical Masonry" Southern Publishers, Kingsport, TN 1923. pp. 292-293.
  7. Jones, B. E. "Freemason's Guide and Compendium" Harrap, London 1956. pp. 387-393, 420-425.
  8. Macbride, A. S. October 1929.
  9. Ibid. "The Sword in the Craft" Short Talk Bulletin, 8:1 January 1930.
  10. Ibid. "Old Tyler Oddities" Short Talk Bulletin. 21:2 February 1943.
  11. Ibid. "Tylers Operative and Speculative" Short Talk Bulletin, 69:8. August 1991.
  12. McNulty, W. K. "The Way of Craftsmen" Arkana, London 1988. pp 39-40, 96.
  13. Murray, A. A. "Freemason and Cowan" Ars Quatuor Coronatorum: 21 1908. pp. 195-203.
  14. Ward, E. "The Tylers" Ars Quatuor Coronatorum: 74 1961. pp. 73-86.
  15. Wells, R. A. "The Tyler or Outer Guard (Prestonian Lecture for 1977) The Collected Prestonian Lectures, 1975-87 (Volume 3) Lewis Masonic, London 1988. pp. 34-33.

AUTHOR NOTE: Auri Spigelman is Senior Warden of Composite Lodge No. 595. Los Angeles of the Grand Lodge of California. He is also a member of the Grand Lodge Education Committee. (04/17/93)

Source: California Freemason, Spring 1993