How did the Operative Mason become a Freemason?

Bernard E. Jones

The word ‘free’ has many meanings. A man can be independent and enjoy his liberty, be free from bondage; he may have particular privileges, or may gain privileges by being ‘free’ of a company or of a city; he may be free of or from certain restrictions; he may be free, or generous, in the expenditure of money, time, or effort.

The word ‘free’ is of Germanic origin, but not so ‘freemason’ (a word not known in Germany until after the formation of England’s Grand Lodge). Through the German we get the Anglo-Saxon freo, which originally meant ‘loving or beloved’ and was closely related to the word ‘friend.’ A craftsman speaks of certain materials as working in a ‘free’ or ‘kindly’ even in a ‘friendly’ manner.

Which of all these meanings is implied in the ‘free’ of ‘freemason’?

Was the Mason ‘Free’ of Certain Liabilities and Restrictions? The suggestion has often been put forward that the mason in the early medieval days became ‘free’ by being freed from the operation of certain restrictive laws and rules—that is, he was not obliged to do this or that by some particular body. (This does not mean freedom from serfdom, or bondage—a matter dealt with later.) In particular, he was free, it is said, because, having to move about as his work required, he was not tied to the land.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term ‘free’ perhaps refers to the medieval practice of “emancipating skilled artisans, in order that they might be able to travel and render their services wherever any great building was in process of construction.” General opinion among scholars does not favour this view, although G. W. Speth put forward years ago the idea that (using the wording of the Oxford English Dictionary) the itinerant mason was called ‘free’ because he claimed exemption from, and we suppose had to be free from, the control of any trade bodies of the towns in which he temporarily settled. Speth has stated his emphatic opinion that freemasons were masons attached to monasteries and ecclesiastical orders, and therefore not under the control of mason guilds; in other words, they were “free from” those guilds. It is to this, apparently, that the Oxford English Dictionary refers. It is unlikely, however, that there were any mason craft guilds at this period, and the suggestion begs a very large question in taking for granted as a fact something that had been and still is the basis of much discussion, and, further, ignores the fact that the building of abbeys and churches was at its height at a time when the number of town mason guilds, if indeed there were any, must have been very few indeed and could not have even attempted to control the masons in country districts.

A related idea is advanced by the Rev. Dr Cunningham, who thinks that “free” men were originally free from the tolls that were levied on those who were ‘foreign’—that is, they were free from paying certain taxes. In effect, freemasons were originally those masons, he thinks, who were free to work in any place, without restriction or obstruction from local bodies. By the Speth suggestion the mason was “free from interference by the guild”; by the Cunningham suggestion the mason was “free from obstruction from the local body”—much the same thing and subject to the same objection.

Some students, including G. W. Bullamore, believe that originally freemasons were a guild of church and chapel builders controlled by the Church and free of the control of the building trade. Free carpenters, they think, would be carpenters engaged in building churches; free fishers would supply the fish to the monasteries; free vintners would supply the wine, and so on. But from what building-trade organization of country-wide authority were the church-builders alleged to be free? G. W. Bullamore, continuing his argument, thought that the Free Sewers (sew-ers) would be engaged in the making of clerical vestments, etc., and would also be free from interference the local trade guilds. But almost everything we know of the Free Sewers is that in the fourteen-hundreds they were licensed workpeople employed by members of the Guild of Tailors of Exeter, evidence hardly weighty enough, or even apt enough, on which to base such a special argument.

A highly fanciful account was offered as far back as 1740 by a writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, who has been much quoted and who succeeded in mixing together some fact and much falsehood. It purported to show that masons impressed in many parts of the country by the authority of King Edward III for work in church building and in enlarging Windsor Castle entered into a combination not to work, unless at higher wages. To achieve their end they agreed upon tokens, etc., to know one another by and to assist one another against being impressed, and they agreed further not to work unless free and on their own terms. Hence they called themselves ‘freemasons’! History tells us of the troublous days following the Black Death when many or all the crafts sought to raise themselves from their lowly condition. It tells us also of the restrictive laws passed to hold them down in their original poverty, but it says nothing of workmen in any one trade who were so strong that they could defy the King, challenge impressment, and insist on working on their own terms! No such derivation can be accepted for a moment.

Was the Mason ‘Free’ by Papal Bull? Here we return to one of the hoariest morsels in the legendary history of freemasonry. Very simply, the suggestion raised in the query amounts to this. Masons—chiefly Italian, but some French, German, and Fleming—joined together to constitute a Fraternity of Architects, which, styling themselves freemasons and possessing a secret mode of recognition, travelled under the authority of Papal Bulls—that is, of documents issued by the Pope and bearing his seal, or stamp (whence the word ‘bull,’ from the Italian bulla or bolla). The legend is more fully dealt with on other pages. The story was set going with the alleged authority of Sir Christopher Wren, but nowadays is accepted by very few students. Search at the Vatican has failed to produce any documentary evidence in support of the story, which, by the way, is not the only one of its kind.

A German historian, writing on architecture, related the tradition that the Byzantine builders in the sixth and seventh centuries formed themselves into guilds and associations, travelled under the blessing and authority of the Pope, and called themselves freemasons. Now those early centuries, representing a period of almost complete architectural darkness so far as England is concerned, bridge the days of Ethelbert, King of Kent, and Edwin, King of Northumbria a time when the Saxons buildings of England were built of wood and thatch, and when the skilled stonemason could have had no place in the craft-life of such an undeveloped country. So far as England is concerned, therefore and it is in England alone of all the civilized countries that we look for the rise of the ‘freemason’—the whole suggestion is an absurdity (see also p. 27)

Did Geometry, a Free Science, make the Mason Free? One of the strangest suggestions is put forward by W. J. Williams (A.Q.C. vol xlviii) who quotes this allusion in the “William Watson MS.”: “vij sciens or craftys that ben fre in hem selfe the which vij lyuen only by Gemetry.” As in all the old manuscripts of masonic interest, the word ‘geometry’ is a synonym for ‘masonry.’ W. J. Williams asks whether, if masonry was one of the seven liberal sciences, its professors were free-masons. The author is satisfied that geometry, one of the seven liberal sciences, is ‘free’ in itself; it is ‘free’ geometry; further, it is ‘free’ masonry; therefore, masters of the art or science of geometry are ‘free­masons.’ The theory is ingenious, but works the curious old idea of the synonymity of geometry and masonry so very hard as to be quite unconvincing.

Did Le Frère Maçon become the Freemason? The argument has been seriously advanced that the syllable ‘free’ is simply a corruption of the French frère (brother). We call a Brother a “Brother Mason” (frère maçon), and by a process of mispronunciation over a period of years arrive at ‘freemason’! W. J. Chetwode Crawley demolished the argument as being so

exquisitely untenable, from the philologist’s point of view, that it would require an unbroken chain of historical proofs to bring it within his powers of belief. It would constitute a class all by itself. It could derive no aid from history or from analogy. It would stand without precedent, parallel or congener.

The argument is undoubtedly just one more of the attempts to explain a masonic term by taking its present-day meaning and fitting it up with a plausible and purely fanciful derivation.

Was the Mason made ‘Free’ by Secret Instruction? At one time it was suggested that the syllable ‘free’ in a compound word, such as freemason, signified that the craftsman enjoyed special knowledge and skill and had received exceptional teaching and training, largely of a secret nature. Thus it was deduced that a freemason was a mason who had been taught the secret arts and hidden mysteries of his craft, artistically and theoretically as well as practically, and that he had been initiated into the theoretical and probably symbolical teachings of his art. But the theory sets the known facts at defiance and need only be mentioned to be dismissed.

Was the Mason ‘Free’ because he worked in Freestone? It has already been shown that the English masons of the highest operative skill worked largely in freestone (sometimes called broadstone), an even­grained, soft-cutting sandstone or limestone, highly suitable for mouldings and other special shapes. (Many old city pavements were laid of it.) We first hear of freestone in the year 1212. The Caen stone of Normandy was largely imported in medieval times into England. St Augustine’s, Canterbury, was built from Caen stone, imported ready-worked. There are many English freestones (for example, those quarried at Portland), and in 1543 the townspeople of Coventry contracted with a freemason to rebuild their cross of “good, sure, seasonable free-stone of the quarries of Attilborough, or Rounton, in Warwickshire.”

Probably the first-known reference (it is in the French of the period) to the mason in freestone is in a year very soon after the Black Death (1348). Half the population of England had perished, and the great shortage of manual labour had led naturally to a demand for higher wages. This demand was strongly resented by the Crown and Parliament, who in 1350 passed a statute prohibiting carpenters, masons, tilers, and “other workmen of houses” from taking “by the day for their work, but in such manner as they were wont, that is to say, a master carpenter IIId. and another IId.; a master free-stone mason (mestre mason de franche pere) IIIId. etc.

Now, this French term became in the course of a few years a definitely English one, for we find the words ‘free-stone mason’ on record in 1375. A moment’s thought will show that this term, given time enough, would almost inevitably become shortened to a compound word—namely, ‘freemason.’

Readers with preconceived notions will be reluctant to accept this evidence; but they will, surely, find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the freemason was originally a skilled worker in freestone, although, as we shall see shortly, there came a time when the original significance was almost entirely lost, and a mason was thought to be ‘free’ from quite a different cause.

Let us glance at some words in Gould’s History of 1885:

The point indeed, for determination, is not so much the relative antiquity of the varied meanings under which this word has been passed on through successive centuries, but rather the particular use or form which has merged into the appellation by which the present Society of Freemasons is distinguished.

Study of the manner in which the mason became a freemason is indeed fascinating, but the real point at issue, as Gould has said in other words, is not (1) how he originally earned the appellation, but (2) what that appellation meant when the speculative freemason succeeded to it some time in the seventeenth century or perhaps earlier, and further (3) what it meant early in the eighteenth century when the ritual was beginning to take the shape we recognize to-day.

It is quite likely that the word ‘freemason’ represents at least three distinct meanings, each having respect to a different century. We believe it originated in the mason’s use of freestone, but was its second meaning derived from the freedom of a corporation or city? Let us try to answer the question.

Did Freedom of a Corporation make a Mason Free? We know that in the City of London, and possibly in one or two other big centres (not in many), a mason could become ‘free’ by achieving freedom—that is, membership—of his company; as could, of course, other craftsmen of their guilds. It must be remembered that the medieval masons were not necessarily congregated in towns, as most craftsmen were. They were often learning or plying their trade in remote country districts, where it is difficult to imagine the existence of an organized body powerful enough to enforce highly restrictive regulations. Consequently we must conclude—indeed, we know for certain—that the membership of the Mason Company in London was small in comparison with that of the craft guilds, and it is hardly likely in the circumstances that the mason originally became a ‘freemason’ because he was ‘free’ of a company. For, if he did, we should expect there to be Freetallowchandlers, Freedistillers, Freefeltmakers, Freepewterers, Freehatters, etc., etc., but we have none of these, although we do have, or have had, Free Sewers, Free Tylers, Free Vintners, Free Fishers and some (a very few) others.

When the word ‘free’ is used in connexion with other trades it is only as an adjective, and not as a part of a compound noun. Thus the Free Butchers were incorporated in 1606 as “The Art or Mistery of Butchers of the City of London.” There have been Free Scriveners (writers and printers) and Free Carmen (known from as early as 1668). Free Journeymen Printers are referred to in a publication of 1666, and Free Sawyers are mentioned in the records of the Carpenters’ Company in 1651. Free Vintners, established in 1437 as the Freemen of the Mistery of Vintners of the City of London incorporated in the preceding century, were free to sell wine in London and were exempt from certain financial liabilities.

The Free Sewers (pronounced ‘so-ers’), already mentioned, were subsidiaries of the Exeter Guild of Tailors. In this guild, by the way, there was a regulation that every Apprentice that is enrolled and “truely serveth his ‘cownand’ [covenanted time] shall pay a spone of selver wayying a nonsse” [an ounce] and provide a breakfast to the Master and Wardens, before he can be a freeman of the City. Watermen, or Lightermen, and Free Fishers, the last-named being ‘free’ to catch or obtain their fish as they could, and ‘free’ to sell it in their town. And, as already noted, there have been Free Tylers.

The peculiar fact is that of all the trades and crafts achieving freedom only one of them incorporates the word ‘free’ in a compound name—the freemason. We must assume, then, that where many crafts had the advantage of freedom of a guild to a considerably greater extent than was ever possible with the masons, it is extremely unlikely that masons became freemasons simply and only because they were made free of a livery company.

But—and here enters a somewhat baffling consideration—in spite of all we have said, there certainly does seem to be a good case for assuming that the mason, already for a couple of centuries a freemason by the then-forgotten virtue of having originally worked in freestone, was maintained in that designation by the fact that city masons found a new title to freedom in the membership of a company, and in so doing strengthened their hold of their former title. They were helped, no doubt, by a craft custom (of which we have already shown evidence) of regarding the freemason as superior to the ordinary mason, and allocating to him the parts of the work calling for the greater skill. So, although freedom of a company would not in itself have produced the compound designation, it did apparently serve to help to strengthen its use.

In the light of this, we can understand that, at the time of the Acception in the London Company of Masons and in the minds of some or all of the ‘four old lodges’ that founded the first Grand Lodge, the syllable ‘free’ was almost certainly associated with the freedom of a guild or company or city. Members of the lodge of the London Company of Masons were themselves largely freemen of the Company and of the City of London, while their associates and personal friends would be the freemen of other companies. Many writers, indeed, have insisted that the idea in forming the first Grand Lodge was to bring into existence a body on the lines of a City Company.

The London Company had originally consisted of both freemasons and masons, but in its thriving days it preferred to call itself a Company of Freemasons, the change of name to ‘Masons’ not being made until 1655-56. If the freemason was at first a freestone mason, it is a question whether, in the course of centuries, he might not easily have lost his special designation but for the existence of the freemasons’ Company in London.

Was the Mason ‘Free’ because he was born Free? It is quite idle to ignore the fact that the freedom which most of our Brethren in the lodges associate with the word ‘freemasonry’ is the physical freedom denied to the slave or serf. It is inevitably so in view of the stress laid on physical freedom in masonic ritual and lectures, and in the much earlier manuscript Charges. There must have been good reasons for this particular stress. Everybody knows that until late in the eighteenth century human slavery was a very real and ugly thing which had existed from ancient days, and was known throughout the world. Legally slavery was abolished in England in 1772, but full emancipation did not come until 1833; in France, not until 1848; in Russia, in 1861; while in the United States it was finally abolished as a result of the Civil War, which ended in 1864.

If we look at the conditions of feudal economic life we shall be able to understand why the old manuscript Charges laid such great stress on the mason being a free man and not a serf. It is safe to say that in early medieval days most working people living outside the towns were serfs of one degree or another. G. M. Trevelyan tells us that the

peasant cultivators, in relation to each other, were a self-governing community; but in relation to the lord of the manor they were serfs. They could not leave their holdings. They must grind their corn at the lord’s mill. They owed him field service on certain days of the year, when they must labour not on their own land but on his, under the orders of his bailiff.

And even in the towns, apparently, in the days of William the Conqueror, labouring men were serfs, except in the City of London.

The serf could not sell or give away his own goods and cattle. He could not make contracts, could not take an office of dignity, and could not bear witness without leave of his lord. A free man marrying a woman in bondage became himself a ‘bond,’ and their children were born in bondage. The serf paid his lord a fee for permission, or a licence, to allow his daughter to be married. He found it well nigh impossible to apprentice his sons to any trade or craft. “All such as have been wont to labour at plough or cart, or other work or service of husbandry up to the age of twelve years had to abide henceforward in the aforesaid labour, and any covenant of apprenticeship entered into was null and void. Any man or family not owning land producing 20s. a year at least could not set their son or daughter as apprentice to any trade or work in the cities. A statute of Henry IV says, “Let the children be set to serve at the same labour as their parents have used, or to other labours as their estates reqmre, under pain of a year’s imprisonment, and fine or ransom at the King’s will.”

Education was almost out of the question for children of a serf. In 1391 the Commons besought the King to prevent any serf or villein putting his children to school in order to procure their advancement by clergy, their excuse being “the maintenance and salvation of the honour of all free men in the kingdom.” Fortunately the King rejected the plea. The Church justified the condition of servitude, recognized it, and enforced it. Monks were among the richest holders of serfs, and St Anselm at an early date had no difficulty in believing that, if a man and wife were reduced through their own fault to servitude, the children born to them after their condemnation should be subject to the same servitude. Even pious people in medieval days made over their serfs to other owners. Ancient records show that a widow bequeathed to the monks of Eynsham certain land “which Roger the Palmer of Eston held of me, together with the same Roger and all his brood.” To the same monks some one left “Richard Rowland of Wealde, who was my born serf, with all his brood.” It looks rather as though “all his brood” was a useful technicality with which the lawyer-monk was always ready.

Any serf buying his liberty with his own money could be recalled to villeinage by his lord. There was intense feeling against any man who had been born a serf and afterwards achieved his freedom. A man could make his serf free only from his own person and his own heirs. The freed serf was not a complete freeman in the eyes of the community. He could not make suit in court against any other man if his former state of serfdom were objected to and proved against him, “even though the man thus freed from villeinage had been dubbed a Knight.” A freed serf afterwards behaving ‘unkynde’ (not to the lord’s liking) could be brought back into thraldom.

In Chaucer’s century, the fourteenth, the lords of the manors found it worked better to commute, for money rents, the forced services due on their estates, and, although this did not make the serfs free men in the eyes of the law, it was in this century that the demand by the English peasant that he should be a free man was first heard in clear tones.

A serf could gain legal freedom by escaping to a chartered town and there living as a citizen for a year and a day. It was necessary that he should be in “scot and lot” for that period, which we may take to mean, either that he should duly pay any taxes demanded of him, or that he should to all intent and purposes perform the duties of a burgess. It is difficult at this long interval to guess how he was able to do those things, but we may conclude that, if the town needed the men, some way or means would be found of regularizing their presence within its boundaries. Towns and cities varied in their attitude to the matter, and it is thought that some of them gave up the serf to his lord if and when so demanded.

‘Scot’ was an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘tax’ or ‘payment’; persons paying ‘scot and lot’ were taxed according to their ability, and not uniformly Our modern ‘scot-free’ perpetuates the word.

We are left in some doubt as to the attitude of the town guild to the escaped serf. There appears to be evidence that he was not accepted as an apprentice; nor, in many trades, were his children, unless born after his redemption, most of the guilds insisting that an apprentice be not only free but free-born. The freedom of the townsman himself, by the way, even of the skilled craftsman, did not amount to so very much, for, although technically he was not a serf, his life was hedged in by most rigid observances and restrictions. He had, more or less, to stay in the town he was born in, dress as he was told, and had generally to bring up his sons to his own occupation. If he dared to disobey the city authorities in these and other matters he was liable to be imprisoned. If he got his living as a mason he was liable to impressment by the King and taken to work elsewhere for months at a time.

It was once suggested that the original freemasons were country masons, serfs on a lord’s estate, who had achieved their freedom by escaping to the town—in other words, that they were ‘freed-masons.’ But many other artisans besides masons escaped from country servitude, and it would indeed be odd if the only craft to retain evidence of this in its designation should prove to be that of the freemason! The suggestion can safely be dismissed.

An extraordinary idea, which has gained a hearing in some quarters, and which some masonic after-dinner speakers have advanced with an air of complete conviction, is to the effect that the medieval mason, when meeting a stranger purporting to be of his craft, forthwith gripped his right hand and in the course of doing so explored it to ascertain whether one of his fingers was missing. (He could not trust his eyesight!) For, if it were missing, then the stranger was a bondman and no freemason, there being, it is alleged, a custom of removing two joints of a particular finger of a serf’s right hand as a permanent indication that he was of the slave class. How can anyone believe for a moment that any such custom ever did exist, of ever could have existed, in feudal England? History, silent on the matter, could not fail to provide a hint or suspicion of such a horrible barbarity. Such an idea could be put forward only by those who not appreciate that the villeinage, or serfdom, of the early medieval worker was the natural product of economic conditions. The serf’s job was to work arduously and for long hours. Even so, when in the fourteenth century the lords began the custom of taking a rent in money in the place of forced service, there was a section of the serfs who actually preferred the old system. So say G. M. Trevelyan. No estate owner in his senses would have reduced by wilful maiming the ability of a serf to render him fully efficient service. Were there the slightest truth in the story, history would afford hundreds of instances of a practice which would have left the great majority of rural workers with one finger “short.”

Obviously the Old Charges were written in full consciousness of the existence of feudal serfdom. Our ritual borrowed from those Old Charges, and all through the century in which the borrowing took place the air simply echoed with discussions of the slavery question, for although feudal serfdom had long been left behind, there were other serfdoms everywhere. There was extensive slavery in the coastal districts of North Africa, fed by white captives sent there by Algerian corsairs. In many countries of the Old World and the New the slavery of the Negro was a common fact. In America that particular slavery was yet to grow into a great and terrible vested interest. In the first half of the eighteenth century British children—white children—could legally be sold into slavery in America. But the world was ceasing to be quite complacent in the matter, and, particularly in England, there arose a clear call that the whole dreadful business should be brought to an early end. This, alas, did not prevent Englishmen taking a leading part in the shipment of African Negroes across the Atlantic.

No slave could exist in England after 1772, although, as already said, complete emancipation by Act of Parliament did not come until 1833. Near the end of the eighteenth century any slave reaching the soil of Scotland was a freeman; but, as we are reminded by G. M. Trevelyan’s English Social History, until as late as 1799 the Scottish miner, who together with his wife and children carried up the coal to cut, was transferable with the pit on any change of proprietorship. Both in the coal­mines and salt-mines of Scotland at that time any worker running away from the mine could be caught and punished. Trevelyan tells us that: “The hereditary bondsmen in the mines were treated by their masters as chattels, and were spoken of by the rest of the population with a kind of pitying terror, as ‘the brown yins’ or ‘the blackfolk.’”

It can be well understood, therefore, that not only the ecclesiastics who composed the old manuscript Charges but the editors and re­arrangers of the masonic ritual throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries were well aware of the debasement which bondage brought to its victims, and they were absolutely determined that there was no place in freemasonry for any man who was not physically free.

The first Constitutions, those of 1723, make the matter clear. “The Persons admitted members of a Lodge must be good and true Men, free­born, and of mature and discreet age, no Bondmen.”

In the version of the Ancient Charges prefacing the book of Constitutions of the United Grand Lodge of England we are told that the persons “made masons or admitted members of a lodge must be good and true men, free-born, and of mature and discreet age and sound judgement, no bond-men, no women, no immoral or scandalous men, but of good report.”

Of course, it must always be remembered that all the guilds and trade fraternities, not only those of the mason, united in insisting upon the qualification of freedom from bondage. From which it will be readily understood that the word ‘free’ did not get into the term ‘freemason’ merely because the mason exclusively was a free man. The regular member of every craft was equally free. It was simply a case of our early speculative Brethren finding the word ‘freemason’ already made, and, ignoring what it had meant in the past, placing the current interpretation upon the first syllable.

One point still needs to be made. The early editions of the book of Constitutions (those of 1723, 1738, etc.) all through the eighteenth century insisted that every Candidate for freemasonry be not only a free man, but free born. At the Union in 1813 this qualification was confirmed, the Candidate being required to declare that he was ‘free by birth.’ Long after an Act of Parliament had brought to an end Negro slavery in the British Dominions it was agreed to substitute for the words ‘free by birth’ the words ‘being a free man,’ and the Candidate in English lodges declares accordingly to-day. Naturally, there have been masonic authors who have regarded the alteration as an interference with a landmark of the Order. They based their view chiefly upon the old writer, Dr George Oliver, who gave it as his opinion that “a free man born of a free woman . . . was originally considered to be an unchangeable landmark.” Fortunately the question no longer arises.

And now a smile at human inconsistency! Lodge Goede Hoop, Cape Town (Nederlandic Constitution), owned two or more slaves in the 1770’s, their work being to assist the Serving Brothers!

Source: Bernard E. Jones. Freemasons’ Guide and Compendium, (Revised Edition, 1956) pp. 147-158.