Vol. XXIII No. 12 — December 1945

The Legend of the Craft

Some fifty or sixty old manuscripts, the “Old Charges” or “Manuscript Constitutions” of Masonry are extant. Many if not all of them appear to be copies of an older original, as yet unrecovered. Almost all of them tell the story of Freemasonry as it was believed by those who wrote, apparently, as it was known and believed by all Masons of those times.

This story is what Freemasons of this day know as “The Legend of the Craft.”

It is a curious mixture of fact and fancy. Because there is so much which is obviously mythical, for a time historians scoffed at the whole. But a wiser and more critical scholarship which applied to these old documents the same careful tests which secular historians use in evaluating evidence, brought to light much that is true in the ancient tale.

In doing so they have added immensely to the romance and the color of the background of the Fraternity. A study of their work makes it a matter for regret that this most delightful illumination of times and peoples of an older day is not better known and understood by present-day Masons.

The Legend of the Third Degree must not be confused with the Legend of the Craft. The latter is that curious mixture of history, fancy, fairy tale and fact, with its perversions of names and impossible chronology, which has come down to us in those precious old manuscripts which have been patiently unearthed from their hiding places, published by students, and which are now cherished in museums, old English and Scottish lodges and in the hands of some individuals.

It is a matter of never-ending sorrow to the historian that shortly after the formation of the Mother lodge in London in 1717 some zealous but ignorant brethren burned a large number of old manuscript constitutions, fearful that they contained “secrets” which, given to the world, would destroy Masonry!

However, enough escaped to provide students with a focus for study and an inspiration to look for others.

Of these, the principal examples are as follows; the dates for the earlier manuscripts are approximations but indicate the united judgment of the most learned of Masonic students.

First, of course, is the Regius Poem, or Halliwell Manuscript. It is different in character from the others, inasmuch as it is verse and also in that it gives only a partial version of the Legend which is so voluminously set forth in the rest.

The more important manuscripts are: Cooke, 1450; Dowland, 1550; Grand Lodge Manuscript No. 1, 1583; Landsdowne, 1600; York Manuscript No. 1, 1600; Thorpe, 1629; Sloan Manuscript No. 3838, 1646; Taylor, 1650; Harleian Manuscript No. 1942, 1650; Sloan Manuscript No. 3323, 1659; Harleian Manuscript No. 2054,1660; Edinburgh-Kilwinning, 1665; Aitcheseon-Haven, 1666; Stanley, 1677; Tew, 1880; lodge of Antiquity, 1686; Watson, 1897; Alnwick, 1701; and Papworth, 1720.

All but the Regius commence with an invocation, and continue with a description of the seven liberal arts and sciences which runs into a traditional history of Masonry in which its development is traced through Egypt and France into England, culminating with a description of the revival of Masonry in York at the instance of King Athelstan and concluding with a series of “charges” or regulations for the government of an operative Craft.

There is so much similarity in the manuscripts that their differences stand out sharply; the general consensus is either that the younger are copies of the older, the variations being due to carelessness or editorial fancy, or that all have a common ancestor which has not yet been found.

The whole Legend is too long for these pages and the old English in which the documents are written and the awe-inspiring spelling make them difficult reading. Yet their study has resulted in a body of information, a foundation on which rests much of our ritual and tradition, a romantic sidelight on our ancient brethren of time immemorial which well repays the time spent.

That readers may have some feeling of the quaintness of these old documents, a paragraph is here given in the old language and spelling which are characteristic of the older documents of Masonry; this is from the Grand Lodge Manuscript of 1583.

The mighte of the father of heaven and the wysedome of the glorius sonne through the grace and goodnes of the holy ghoste yet been three p’sons & one god be wth at or beginning and give vs grace so to gou’ne vs here in or lyving that wee maye some to his blisse that neur shall have ending Amen.

(The might of the father of heaven, and the wisdom of the glorious son, through the grace and goodness of the holy ghost, it being three persons and one god, be with us at our beginning and give us grace so to govern us here in our living that we may come to his bliss that never shall have ending. Amen.)

The noted Masonic scholar, Robert Freke Gould, condensed the Legend into some six hundred words and managed to preserve much of the quaint character of the manuscripts while modernizing the spelling and the old English sufficiently for easy reading. His handling of the subject, which cannot be improved upon, is here given in full:

The Legend of the Guild opens with a recital of the seven liberal sciences — Grammar, Rhetorick, Dialectic (or Logick), Arithmetic, Geometry (or Masonry), Musick, and Astronomy — all of which, however, are declared to have either been founded by, or to be comprehended in, one science — that is to say, Geometry.

It then proceeds to narrate that before Noah’s flood, Lantech (the son of Methusael), took unto himself two wives, one of whom was called Adah, and the other Zillah. The former bare two sons — Jabal and Jubal — and the latter a son and a daughter — Tubal-Cain and Naamah. These four children founded all the crafts and sciences, and being forewarned of the impending destruction of the world, wrote their discoveries on two distant pillars, which possessed such peculiar properties that one would not sink, nor the other burn and so were equally capable of resisting the action of either fire or water. After the flood, one (or both) of these pillars was found by Hermes the son of Cush, who was the grandson of Noah — and is known as the father of wise men. The knowledge thus acquired he taught to others, and at the building of the tower of Babel it came into great request under the name of Masonry. Nimrod, the king of Babylon, was himself a Mason, and sent sixty Masons, to whom he gave certain charges, to assist in the building of Nineveh.

After this Abraham and Sarah his wife went into Egypt, where they taught the seven sciences to the Egyptians; and Abraham had a worthy scholar who was called Euclid.

In his days the sons of the lords and great people, both lawfully and unlawfully begotten, had become so numerous that there was no competent livelihood for them. Therefore a proclamation was made offering a reward to any person who could find a way of maintaining them; wherefore Euclid said to the King and his lords, if you will give me your children to govern, I will teach them one of the seven sciences, whereby they may live honestly like gentlemen, provided you will grant me the power to rule them. Then his commission being granted and sealed, the worthy clerk Euclid took to him these Lords’ sons, and taught them the science of Geometry. And he gave them charges to which he made them swear a great oath that men used in that time. Thus was the science founded there, and Euclid gave it in the name of Geometry, or as it is called throughout the land, Masonry.

Long after, King David began the Temple of Jerusalem, and he loved Masons well, and gave them charges, and at his death Solomon finished the Temple that his father had begun, and sent for workmen into many countries, there being a king of another region, Iram (or Hiram), who supplied him with materials, and whose son, Aymon (or Aynon), was chief Master of the work.

At this time curious craftsmen walked about full wide in divers countries; some to learn more craft and cunning, others to teach them that had but little cunning. So it befell that there was one curious Mason called Naymus Grecus, who had been at the building of King Solomon’s temple, and came to France, where he taught the science of Masonry to Charles Martel.

England in all this season, stood void of Masonry until St. Albans time, who loved Masons well, and made their pay right good, and got them a charter from the King and his Council to hold a General Council, and gave it the name of Assembly, thereat he was himself, and made Masons, and gave them Charges.

After the decease of St. Alban the good rule of Masonry was destroyed until the time of King Athelstan, who loved Masons well, but whose son Edwin loved Masons much more than his Father did. And for the love he had to Masons and the Craft, he was a Mason himself, and got of the King, his father, a Charter and Commission to hold every year an Assembly or Council, wheresoever himself, with the Masons, would, within the Realms of England, to correct the faults and trespasses that were done in the Craft. And he held himself an Assembly at York, and made Masons and gave them charges. And when the Assembly was met, he made a cry that all Masons, old or young, who had any writings or understandings of the Charges and the Manners concerning the science, that were before in this land, or in any other land, they should bring them forth, and some were found in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, English, and other languages. These were all to one intent, and a book was made thereof, showing how the Craft was founded, and he bade and commanded that it should be read or told when any Mason was made, and to give them the Charge.

The third and last section of each version of the old charges or manuscript constitutions, consists of the regulations and observances which every newly-admitted Mason was required to swear on the ‘Booke’ that he would maintain and uphold. These are generally divided into paragraphs, and the first in order invariably is the injunction — “To be true to God and the Holy Church.”

William Preston is credited with much of our formal dissertations on the seven liberal arts and sciences. Undoubtedly he had much to do with the conception of Freemasonry as a source of knowledge for intelligent men, but the mention of the seven in all of the Old Manuscripts including the Regius makes evident where from he received his inspiration.

The curious will note the similarity of the names Jabel and Jubal with certain Masonic cognomens and the inclusion of Tubal-Cain.

“The two distinct pillars” of which one was impervious to fire and the other to water will strike a responsive chord in the minds of all who know the stair or middle chamber lecture of the Fellowcraft’s degree. Of course these two pillars are not to be confused with those which stood in the porch of King Solomon’s Temple, as chronicled in first and second Kings, but the references to the preservation of records in our rituals seem obviously descended from these pillars of the Old Charges.

“The worthy clerk Euclid” comes curiously into the picture and, with no regard whatever to chronology, is associated with Abraham. Euclid survives in modern Freemasonry only as the father of the Forty-Seventh Problem, and even here Pythagoras is credited with its discovery.

Again chronology is set at naught by “Naymus Grecus” who carries the science of Masonry to France and teaches it to Charles Martel. Martel was of the twelfth century, so that it is impossible that anyone could have learned Masonry “at this time” (that of Hiram) and taught it to France in the twelfth century. Yet there is a well-substantiated theory that Freemasonry reached England by way of France. The allusion is curious and thought provoking.

The story of St. Alban, of Edwin and his father King Athelstan and the meeting at York (A.D. 926) is the father and mother of the “York Rite” as a division of Masonry is known in this country. The earliest of the manuscript constitutions or old charges is at least five hundred years younger than this “Assembly.”

Historians, however, consider that there is much weight to be given to myth and legend, even when unsupported by documentary evidence. Not all myths or legends have truths hidden within them, of course. But when possibility is evident, and a legend is repeated sufficiently often in a number of different ways, places and times, historians are inclined to credit it as at least founded in, if it does not actually chronicle, a fact.

Moreover, when a legend or myth is partly supported by contemporary statements, and no historical chronicles contradict it, historians give added weight to the credibility of the Legend.

The York and Athelstan story does have some support from history. It is known that Athelstan was a patron of many arts, as practiced in his time. He brought rest and peace to his country. He paid much attention to building, and adorned England with abbeys, towns and buildings.

That he gave a charter to form a guild of Masons is traditional. History is silent on the subject. But history is also silent on the formation of the mother grand lodge in 1717! In other words, historians did not think the formation of the grand lodge in 1717 worth mentioning in a history of England. That does not mean that the event did not take place. Neither does the fact that no historian mentions the meeting in York in 926 mean that it did not take place. It is wholly in keeping with what history says of King Athelstan, and in the face of so many assertions in so many Old Manuscripts, even the most critical of Masonic historians does not deny its probability even while refusing to affirm its actuality.

The Legend of The Craft is no fairy story. It is not a series of absurd fictions, even though its misspelling, its confusion of people of similar names with others, its impossible chronology, have brought it the ridicule of the uncultured. Mistakes in spelling and in names, errors in chronology, confusion of persons are easily to be understood when it is considered that the story was written in an uncultured age by people of little learning, and copied and recopied, doubtless edited and reedited, by men who lacked skill.

It is obviously a history in which fact is mixed with legend, in which truths are told symbolically, in which verity is to be found if not in the whole, the in the parts.

As such the Legend of the Craft is to be cherished and venerated by all those to whom the antiquity of Freemasonry is one of the chiefest jewels in its crown.

The Masonic Service Association of North America