Vol. XXIV No. 8 — August 1946

The Regius Manuscript

Much of Freemasonry’s ancient usages and customs, some of her ritual and romance, come from the old manuscript constitutions of which some seventy are in existence.

The oldest document of Freemasonry is the Regius, so named because it formed a part of Royal Library of England, commenced by Henry VII and later presented to the British Museum by George II.

It is also called the Halliwell Manuscript because in 1840 Mr. James O. Halliwell, not himself a Freemason, discovered its Masonic character and then first published it. Previously to that date it was cataloged as “A Poem of Moral Duties” and under the misleading title had been in one library or another for nearly five hundred years.

It is not, accurately speaking, a “Constitutions,” although it has within it much that is found in those manuscripts. It appears to be more a document about Masonry than for Masons. It is discursive, rambling, wordy and parts of it are copies of contemporary documents, notably Urbanitatis and Instructions to a Parish Priest. Within the Regius, thirty-eight lines are devoted to “The Four Crowned Martyrs” which are not referred to in any of the manuscript Constitutions.

The book is approximately four by five and one-half inches, the pages fine vellum, the letters in red and what was probably once black but is now a rather drab greenish brown color.

Its most curious feature is the fact that it is written in verse, which is why it is often called the Regius Poem, although it is much more doggerel than poetry.

Modern eyes find great difficulty in reading it; indeed, no one but a scholar familiar with Chaucerian English can make sense out of it, as may easily be understood by “reading” (if you can!) the first eight lines:

Whose wol bothe wel rede and loke,
He may fynde wryte yn olde boke
Of grete lordys, and eke ladyysse,
That hade mony chyldryn y-fere, y-wisse;
And hade no rentys to fynde hem wyth,
Nowther yn town, ny felde, ny fryth:
A counsel togeder they cowthe hem take,
To ordeyne for these chyldryn sake, . . .

However, many learned men have “translated” the English of the times of Chaucer (The Regius Poem is dated approximately A.D. 1390). These same eight lines in readable English are:

Whoever will both well read and look,
He may find written in old book
Of great lords and also ladies,
That had many children together, y-wisse; [certainly]
And had no income to keep them with,
Neither in town nor field nor frith: [enclosed wood]
A council together they could then take,
To ordain for these childrens sake, . . .

Internal evidence satisfactory to experts indicates that the manuscript was transcribed by a priest; that it is probably a copy of an earlier manuscript. One expert (Robert Freke Gould) believed that the manuscript as a whole was written not for working Masons but for “the gentlemen of those days” which if it could be proved, would be of immense importance, as indicating the existence of “speculative” Masons at so early a date. Few doubt that there were “speculative” Masons in those days, but the proof of the fact is not to be found in the Regius Poem, unless the phrase “Of Speculative he was a Master” in the poem be accepted as such proof.

However that may be — and the discussion has been going on ever since Gould proposed his theory — there is no question that the writer of the original manuscript, of which the Regius is a copy, was thoroughly familiar with the craft of Masonry. Much of the poem is devoted to setting forth fifteen “articles” and fifteen “points,” which the manuscript states were the result of a great assembly called by King Athelstan, attended by “divers lords” and

Dukes, earls and barons also
Knights, squires and many mo [more]

According to the poem

Fifteen articles there they sought
And Fifteen points there they wrought

The fifteen articles develop many practices of a high moral nature. The Master Mason must be trusty and true, pay fair wages, take no bribe nor allow workmen to do so, judge fairly and honestly. A Mason must attend the general assembly provided he is told when and where it is to be held, unless he has a good excuse, such as illness. (This seems to be the first mention of a practice which today is the summons from lodge.)

The Master is instructed to take no “prentice” without assurance he will serve seven years and to make sure he is of “gentle kind.” He must be of “lawful blood” and not deformed;

To the Craft it were great shame
To make a halt man and a lame
The Craft would have a might man
A maimed man, he hath no might.

The Master must instruct the ’prentice, so that he may be enabled to gain a higher rate of pay. He must not harbor thieves nor murderers “nor the same that hath a feeble name” (a halfwit). If by any chance the Master does get a man who “be not so perfect as he ought” he is instructed to change him for a more perfect man. The Master must not undertake a piece of work he cannot finish; he must be sure of the ground on which he builds; this work must be done at a profit to his lord.

It is most interesting to modern Masons to find:

There shall no master supplant another
But be together as sister and brother
Nor he shall not supplant no other man. . . .

The Mason is not to work at night and must not decry the work of his fellows, but praise it when it is well done. The Master must so teach the prentice that eventually he may know the craft well “wheresoever he go under the sun” (in more modern words that he “may travel in foreign countries and receive masters wages”).

And finally the Master must countenance no false oaths lest the craft be put to shame if he “maintains his fellows in their sin.”

The fifteen points set forth that the fellow must work truly and well and earn his hire; he must love God and holy church and his fellow workmen. He must keep his Master’s counsel and his fellows’ also. He is to keep the secrets of both lodge and chamber;

Whatsoever thou hearest or seest them do
Tell it to no man wheresoever you go
The counsel of hall and even of bower.

The fellow must not be false to his craft, nor have prejudice against master or fellow and this must apply also to the ’prentice. He must take his pay “full meekly” but the Master must not fail to warn him before noon if he have no further need for his services. He must not enter into argument through envy or hate, or make holiday until the work day is done; on a holy day he must take leisure. The Mason is not to make love to his Master’s wife, nor his fellow’s concubine; “no more thou wouldst he didst by thine.” All are to be stewards in turn and serve each other in the hall and all must share in the cost and all must honestly pay each his part. Masons must live amiably together, give each other no false excuses, slander no man. If someone lives a wicked life he is to be constrained and taken before the next assembly — if he refuses, he must forswear the craft and be punished “after the law.”

If one workman find another about to ruin a stone by incorrect work he is to show him how (“in the most friendly manner,” doubtless!). The assembly shall decide together upon the necessary ordinances and no one shall be a thief nor “succor another in his false craft.” He is to swear loyalty and fealty to his fellows and to his lord and to the king, to be true to him and to all the points of the Craft, under penalty that the sheriff shall “put their bodies in deep prison” and take his goods and cattle for the king for as long as the king shall decide.

It is very easy to see how many of the teachings of our ritual may have had their beginnings in such instructions.

Practically all of the old constitutions make much of the seven liberal arts and sciences: in the Regius Poem they are set forth quaintly;

Grammar forsooth is the root
Whoever will learn on the book
But art passeth in his degree
As the fruit doth the root of the tree:
Rhetoric measureth with ornate speech among,
And music it is a sweet song,
Astronomy numbereth my dear brother
Arithmetic showeth one thing that is another,
Geometry the seventh science it is,
That can separate falsehood from truth, y-wis, [I know]
These be the sciences seven,
Who useth them well he may have heaven.

The latter third of the poem is devoted to such subjects as manners at the table, and in the presence of superiors; to holy church and worship of God; in general to manners and morals. It has a distinct priestly content:

For Christ himself he teacheth us
That holy church is God’s house
In holy church leave trifling words
Of lewd speck and foul hordes [jests]
When thou hearest the mass knylle [toll]
Pray to God with heart still

The poem ends:

Christ then of his high grace
Save you both wit and space
Well this book to know and read
Heaven to have for your mede [reward]
Amen, amen, so mote it be
So say we all for charity.

The great London lodge of research, Quatuor Coronati in 1889 published a facsimile of the Regius, together with Instructions to a Parish Priest and Urbanitatis from which parts of the Regius were taken. No one can struggle through the old English (or even read the modernized words and spellings as set forth by Mackey in his Encyclopedia) with less than conviction that whoever wrote the Regius, most certainly had before him some constitutions of the Freemasons. Despite the rambling of the document, which includes not only the fifteen articles and fifteen points, a reference to the Four Crowned Martyrs, some early apocryphal history, the seven liberal arts and sciences, but also so much morality and discourse on manners, the Masonic intent of the whole is evident; it follows in pattern to some extent, if not in words at least in the arrangement of many others of the Constitutions family.

Speculation can go as far as it will; where scientific inquiry and the researches of students leaves off, “just suppose” and “I wonder if” can begin! But it is truly difficult for anyone with even a small fragment of imagination to look at the beautiful facsimile above mentioned, and not let his mental inquiry go far a field.

Who was the priest who set down the verse? In copying, did he copy verses of another, or did he copy the sense of some constitutions, himself putting them into the doggerel verse of which the Chaucerian age was so fond as a manner of teaching? Did he write for his own pleasure or for someone ‘prentice, or fellow, or even Master? What wage if any did he get for the painstaking job of hand lettering? Was vellum so precious he could get it only in small sheets, or did his fancy run to a small book. Perhaps it was a book for a pocket — well, then, whose pocket?

It required some time and energy to write such a poem; it was not done in an hour or a day or in many days. Scholars have pointed out where every day’s work ended; where careless writing indicated a tiring hand, or a blunted pen showed much use. What drove the writer to finish? Love of him for whom it was done? Pay? Or are the authorities wrong and was it other than a priest who wrote? So few there were in those days except the priests who had the skill to write. . . .

The reader is quite right if he thinks that speculation will get nowhere — except as all flights of the imagination expand the mind’s horizons. At least the poem itself, the vellum, the ink are actual.

And they are a bit more than that — they are a sure source of pride to the thinking Freemason, who can find hidden between the old words and woven into the quaint instructions the spirit of a Craft not so different from that of today that today’s need hang its head in shame, and thus find a renewed pride in Freemasonry’s gentle boast that her essentials have changed not since “time immemorial.”

The Masonic Service Association of North America