The foundation of the first Grand Lodge in context

Leon Zeldis, FPS

          It is difficult to imagine the way of life of our early Masonic ancestors. It is equally difficult to understand the social milieu in which the founders of the premier Grand Lodge acted, but such understanding is essential if we want to understand the motives that led to the creation of that body and its later development.

          Let us make an imaginary journey back in time to the London of 1717. That was a city without sewers, the streets filled with dung from the thousands of horses and wet with sewage thrown out of the window. The houses were black with the soot blowing out of numberless chimneys. Some children died asphyxiated while being used as live chimney brushes. It was dangerous to walk about in the streets after dark (some street lamps were installed beginning in 1677, but public lighting with gas started only in 1786). Criminality was rampant, punishment brutal, prison for debt was common.

          Witchcraft was still believed. The Scottish teenager Patrick Morton was allegedly bewitched in 1704. [1] The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1712.

          Autos-da-fe were still held in other countries, the public burning of recanting Jews forcibly converted to Christianity. The last burnings in Portugal took place in 1781 (17 persons in Coimbra and 8 in Evora).

          The industrial revolution had not yet started – that would come in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries – but a numerous class of have-nots already existed, homeless, beggars, criminals of every kind.

          This brings us to the marked class differences. The aristocracy and the land owners, generally the same, whose wealth was based on the land, were on top. Below them came the bourgeoisie, merchants, lawyers, doctors, educators, shippers, men of arms. All these constituted a small minority. And then the vast mass, those who would eventually be called the proletariat.     There were no factories as yet, but numerous workshops, craftsmen of many trades, and many, masses of servants, butlers, footmen, cooks, housemaids, porters, gardeners, and also farm workers, shepherds, miners, fishermen, all of them completely separated from the upper classes by their lack of education, their language, customs, with no possibility of moving up the social scale.

          This was also the time when the increase of wealth of the upper classes created the beginnings of what would later be known as the "consumer society". [2]

          There was a parliament, and there were elections, but the vast majority of Englishmen had no right to vote, that would take another hundred years to become true for the men, and two centuries for women (only in 1918). Common law allowed marriage at fourteen for boys and at twelve for girls. Only in 1929 legislation was introduced for the first time, prohibiting marriages under the age of sixteen. [3]

          The Christian religion, which had dominated the life of the people during the Middle Ages, codifying to the least detail the way of life, the practice of trades, the separation of classes, was only now recovering from the sanguinary wars caused by its internal divisions. The various reformers, though rejecting the dominion of Rome, were different, but no more liberal.

          Inside this stratified society, voices began to be heard proposing changes, making appeal to reason instead of subservience to dogma; these thinkers regarded society as a living organism, they were aware of its defects and wanted to find solutions to improve it.

          Science and philosophy, which were then almost indistinguishable, were the tools in the hands of the intellectuals to implement their aspirations. The Rosicrucian manifests, published a century earlier (1613-1615) had made a strong impact on European intelligentsia, announcing the political and social revolution to come. In 1690 John Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, maintaining that all our knowledge is derived from what we receive through the senses, that our will is determined by our mind, guided by the desire for happiness, and defending the possibility of studying the world rationally, without being shackled by dogmas or preconceived ideas.

          This was the "Age of Reason". Rationalism and science would open the way to make a perfect society. The 17th century had marked a turning point in the interests of scholars, who now began to focus their attention on the natural sciences and started researching nature, making experiments in all its areas. Astrology gradually gave way to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry; the study of anatomy and physiology revolutionized medicine, for long the province of barbers and quack doctors. New fields of study opened every day.

          This is reflected in the creation of numerous scientific academies which joined the literary and philosophical ones, such as the French Academy, founded in 1635.

          Already in 1621 Cósimo de Médici established in Florence the Platonic Academy, while in Rome the Academia dei Lincei, dedicated to scientific research, especially astronomy, was founded in 1603; one of its members was Galileo Galilei. And in 1607 Florence saw the creation of the Academia del Cimento, likewise destined to serve as forum for experimenters. Later, in 1666, the Royal Academy of Sciences was created in Paris, while four years earlier, in 1662, the Royal Society had started meeting in London, providing a platform for researchers and scholars. Some of the most prominent founders of the premier Grand Lodge were also active in it.

          The Society of Antiquaries, which had been organized originally in 1572 by Archbishop Parker, and had been disbanded in the reign of James I, was revived in 1717 owing to the efforts of William Stukeley, a prominent Mason. The Society received a charter in 1751. [4]

          We must remember, however, that sciences were in their early stages of development. Robert Boyle died in 1691, Leibnitz in 1716 and Newton in 1727, but Priestly was born only in 1733, Cavendish in 1731 and Faraday seventy years later. Lavoisier was born in 1743 and Alexander Humboldt even later, in 1769.

          England still used the Julian calendar dating from the time of Julius Caesar. The Gregorian calendar was adopted only in 1752, almost 200 years after being established by Pope Gregory XIII.

          European thought was strongly influenced by esoteric thinking, the Rosicrucians, the Cabbala, alchemy and tarot. Hebrew was highly regarded, as the sacred language of the Bible, and also as the language spoken by God when addressing man. Some scholars believed that all other languages were derived from Hebrew.

          In 1684, Knorr von Rosenroth published Kabbalah Denudata (Kabbalah Unveiled), a translation of passages from the Zohar and essays on the meaning of Kabbalah (including portions of Cordovero's Pardes Rimonim) examined from a Christian point of view. Rosenroth's work was the most important non-Hebrew reference book on the Kabbalah until the end of the 19th century and it became the major source on this subject for non-Jewish scholars.

          After Cromwell allowed – unofficially - the return of Jews, a small community began to assemble in England, integrated almost exclusively by Sephardic Jews, mainly immigrants from the Netherlands, where many Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal had found refuge and freedom to practice their religion openly. The strength of the Jewish community in Amsterdam can be judged by the fact that the first Hebrew newspaper appeared in that city in 1728 (5488), edited by a Sephardic Rabbi, Shlomo Salem. It was a religious newspaper called Pri Etz Hayim (Fruit of the Tree of Life). British lodges, too, opened their doors and Jewish Masons appear in lodge registers as soon as the Grand Lodge was founded, and it is almost certain that some Jews were accepted in the lodges even earlier.

          The study of nature was still based on the treatises of the Greek philosophers, which began to be translated. The evolution to more scientific studies was driven by the development of technology and changes in the economic structure of the country. The beginnings of the industrial revolution are linked with the mechanization of the textile industry. For centuries, spinners and weavers worked together at home. Four spinners were required to keep a weaver supplied with cotton yarn, and ten spinners were required to keep a wool weaver busy. In 1733 John Kay patented his "flying shuttle" and suddenly the productivity of each weaver was multiplied several-fold, creating unprecedented demand for more yarn. The first spinning machine was invented as early as in 1738, but it was unsuccessful. In 1764 Hargreaves patented his "spinning jenny" (named, according to legend, for his daughter), a machine based on the spinning wheel but with several spindles working in tandem; the machine, however, was slow and inefficient. Only in 1769 Arkwright built his roller-spinning machine (the "water frame") and the first industrial spinning mill was established, using horses for power, and in 1779 Samuel Crompton patented his "spinning mule" combining the principles of the water frame and the spinning jenny, a ten-yard long machine with hundreds of spindles working simultaneously. These machines, with some improvements, were still in use until the middle of the 20th century.

          In 1712 Thomas Newcomen patented the atmospheric steam engine, designed to pump water from the coal mines. James Watt, the inventor of the double-action steam engine, was born in 1736, when the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster (its original name) was less than 20 years old.

          As we can see, the principal discoveries and inventions of science and technology were unknown in 1717, and only in the course of that century and the next were the developments made which set the foundation for modern science. Explorers, too, were still operating at full sail. Easter Island was discovered only in 1722, by Dutch seamen. Africa was largely unexplored.

          Let us now examine other aspects of society at the time we are studying, starting with the situation of arts and letters.

          In music, string orchestras began to be formed. Stradivarius (1644-1737) was building his famous violins. The clarinet had been invented in 1690, and in 1709 the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano. The Englishman John Shore invented the tuning fork in 1711. Dance masters still played the pochette, the miniature fiddle that could be held in a pocket while not in use.

          Purcell had died in 1695, but Bach, Haendel, and Domenico Scarlatti were 32 years old in 1717 (all three had been born in the same year: 1685). Haendel's Water Music, was played for the first time on July 17, 1717, celebrating the sail of George I's royal barge on the Thames, only a few weeks after the foundation of the Grand Lodge. Corelli wrote his 12 Concerti Grossi in 1712, and died a year later.

          In the theater, Congreve and Racine were the current star playwrights. Molière had died in 1673 and Corneille in 1684. In Japan, the Kabuki theatre was in its infancy, replacing the more conservative No.

          In literature, John Dryden had died in 1700, but the satirist Jonathan Swift, the novelist Daniel Defoe and the poet Alexander Pope were well known and productive. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719. A few years later, some thirty unsigned pamphlets, ballads, plays and other pieces were published about the lives of a criminal called John Sheppard and his nemesis, Jonathan Wild, which can be considered the first popular biographies written about contemporary subjects. Five of the pamphlets were attributed to Defoe, published between 1724 and 1725.

          The poet and artist William Blake was 60 years old in 1717. The novelist Henry Fielding and Dr. Samuel Johnson on the other hand, were only 10 years old.

All the great Russian novelists belong to a later age. In Spain, Calderón de la Barca had died in 1681, and then Spanish letters, after its brilliant Golden Age (17th century), became strangely poor.

          D'Alembert, the immortal creator of the Encyclopedia, was born in the same year as the Grand Lodge, 1717.

          In painting, Gainsborough was born only in 1727, but Hogarth was in his most productive epoch. His etching "Night", published in 1727, is justly famous for showing the tipsy Master of the lodge walking on the street supported by the Tyler while a disgruntled housewife throws water or some other liquid (!) from an upper floor window.

          Rembrandt had died in 1669, closing a brilliant era of Flemish painters. In France, Watteau (1684-1721) and Boucher (1703-1770) enchanted the court of the Sun King, while in Venice, Canaletto (20 years old) and Tiepolo (21) would achieve fame later. Spain, after a 17th century plethoric of great artists had an 18th devoid of masters. An artistic disaster took place in 1718, when a fire destroyed all thirty-nine ceiling paintings by Van Dyck in the Jesuit church in Antwerp. Those were "the only secure touchstone for Van Dyck's work in collaboration with Rubens" [5]

          Let us now turn to the political developments in England. The 17th century was a time of endless struggles and tragedies. The Turks had failed to conquer Vienna in 1683, but the memory of that siege and the threat of Moslem advances in Europe were still fresh in 1717. London had suffered the scourge of the Black Death, the bubonic plague, which reached its peak in 1665; a year later the great fire devastated the city, but at the same time extirpated most of the rats that transmitted the plague. Reconstructing the capital city gave great impulse to the building trades, and was perhaps one of the antecedents for the development of masons' lodges.

          The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants which desolated Europe for a century resulted in England's civil war, the execution of Charles I (in 1649) and the Commonwealth presided by Oliver Cromwell, the "Protector". England then had its single period as a republic, which lasted only 11 years. And then, in 1660, the Stuart king Charles II, son of Charles I, returned to power. He was followed by his brother James II until Parliament, fearing that the Catholicism of the king would result in renewed warfare, deposed him in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, offering the British throne to protestant William, Prince of Orange, born in Holland, but grandson of King Charles I.

          James II did not accept his dethronement with grace. He continued plotting his return, gaining the support of Catholic Spain. His military aspirations, however, suffered a dramatic defeat at the battle of the Boyne, in Ireland, on July 12, 1690. James fled back to France putting an end to the Stuart dynasty.  William III reigned together with his wife Mary II until her death in 1694, and continued ruling alone until 1702.

          The Stuart king and his son, in exile in Europe, continued dreaming of recovering their lost kingdom. In fact, a Spanish force supporting the Stuarts landed in Scotland in 1719 (two years after the foundation of Grand Lodge), but the invaders were roundly defeated in the battle of Glenshiel. That was not the end of Stuart ambitions, which continued plotting throughout the period that interests us.

          Some Stuart supporters, mainly Scots, followed him in exile and were involved in the creation of the first Masonic lodges in the continent. Here they received the influence of the mystic trends current in Europe, and they created the additional degrees which, not surprisingly, were called "Scottish". In later years, after a long evolution, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite was born.

          King William was not much loved by his subjects. He was a Dutchman at heart, and his willful character did not win him popularity. However, he accepted the Act of Consent, which banned any Catholic from ever becoming king. During his reign the first insurance company was formed (1699). At his death was crowned Anne, the second daughter of James II, who ruled only from 1702 to 1714. Her short reign was marked, however, by several important developments. During her reign Scotland and England became finally united in 1707, which for the Scots meant the loss of their Parliament. This situation continued until a few years ago, when Scotland recovered a measure of autonomy. Anne's reign also marked the issue of the Copyright Act (1708-09) which gave absolute control on all printed matter to the Stationers' Company in England, later extended to Scotland, Ireland and the American Colonies, thus abolishing in fact freedom of the press. However, this also gave limited-term protection on the "literary property", for the first time anywhere in Europe. [6]

          A postal system was instituted in England in her time, and a Prime Minister was appointed for the first time (1710).

          This was the "golden age" of piracy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. [7] Roughly between 1716 and 1726 there would be between 1,000 and 2,000 pirates in the Atlantic at any time. "Nearly half of them were English by origin, about a tenth Irish, and another tenth combined from Scotland and Wales. The remainder came from British North America or the West Indies, with a scattering from Holland, France, Portugal and other European countries, and Africa…. Over the ten years on which Rediker focuses, pirates probably captured and plundered about 2,400 vessels…" [8]


          A radical change in the British throne came about in 1714, when George I, ascended the throne. Although he was the son of a German princess, and had only a distant relationship with the English royal line, he was the closest Protestant candidate.

          George I, founder of the House of Hanover, was a stolid German soldier without imagination, who never learned to speak English and preferred to continue living in Hanover rather than London. He allowed his English ministers to run the country, while he devoted himself to hunting and ruling with iron hand his German subjects.

          The British government was left in the hands of ministers like Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of England. During his term of office the financial scandal known as the South Sea Bubble broke out. A stock company established in  1710 called the South Sea Company engaged in triangular trade, sending ships with English merchandise (mainly whiskey, weapons and textiles) to western Africa, buying there African slaves, transporting them to America, and returning  home with goods like sugar and tobacco. This commerce was so profitable that the company could give its stockholders enormous dividends, reaching 100% in a year. Frenzied speculation followed, the company issued additional shares without any control, and many copycat companies were formed, some of them existing only on paper. Finally, the soap bubble burst in 1720, the price of the stock dropped 98.5% and the unfortunate investors were left penniless. It is said that Dr. James Anderson, the author of The Constitutions of the Freemasons (1723, 1738) also invested in the Bubble and lost heavily. The memory of this scandal lasted for many decades.

          France, too, had been rocked by scandal, the rash of accusation and convictions for poisoning which gripped Versailles in 1679-80, culminating in suspicion that the king's mistress, Mme. De Montespan, had made at attempt to poison Luis XIV.

          When George I died of a stroke in 1727, his son George II succeeded him. The young king was a soldier like his father, his morals were uncertain, but his reign lasted longer, until 1760. Canada was conquered during this period, the last rebellion of the Stuart pretender was suppressed, and the foundations of the Indian empire (later developed by Disraeli) were established. These also were the years when Freemasonry flourished amazingly both in Great Britain and in the European continent, especially in France and Germany. A second Grand Lodge was formed in London, known as the "Antients", founded mainly by Irish immigrants who disliked the innovations introduced by the older Grand Lodge, which they designated disrespectfully as the "Moderns". Possibly, another factor leading to the creating of a competing Grand Lodge was the poor reception given by the British to the Irish Masons.

          To conclude this survey, I'll broaden the scope to look at the world in general at the beginning of the 18th century. In France, King Louis XIV, the Roi Soleil governed until 1715. During his reign he revoked the Edict of Nantes (1685), leading to the emigration of many Huguenots, some of whom became active in the creation of the Grand Lodge of London, and in formulating its principles of tolerance. His attempt to annex Spain to create a joint Bourbon kingdom led to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), in which France fought the armies of the Grand Alliance (England, the United Provinces and the Habsburg empire), finally being defeated. He was succeeded by his great-grandson, who was only 5 years old, so France was governed for many years by a regent, starting with the Duke of Orleans.  

          In Russia, Peter the Great was building Saint Petersburg (which celebrated the third centenary of its foundation in 2003). The Turks declared war on Russia in 1711, defeating the Tsar. King Phillip IV, the first Hapsburg, reigned in Spain, while in India the Mogul rulers (descendants from Tamerlan) completed their conquest and Mohammed Shah was the Grand Mogul. In 1722, Pathan tribesmen under Mahmud Ghilzai destroyed the Safavid Empire. In China, Emperor Kangxi was nearing the end of his reign (1662-1722). He was the first of the Three Emperors of the Qing dynasty (1662-1795) of Manchu invaders, who had overthrown the Ming dynasty of Han Chinese. [9]

          Although the great wars of religion of the 17th century had concluded, military spending did not drop; on the contrary, about 1700, countries like France, Austria and Sweden devoted between 75 and 90 percent of total government expenditure for military purposes. Britain became the most highly taxed nation; between 1688 and 1815, taxes increased sixteen-fold and borrowing 240 fold. [10]

          Let us now return to the way of life of London citizens at that time, the early 18th century. Their world lacked any fast means of communication. The fastest transport was by horse. No daily newspapers existed – the first English papers were weeklies, and the first daily was born only in 1769, and had very small circulation. Mass journalism came about only in 1811 when the rotary press was invented.

          High society met at home, of rather, in their mansions. The well-to-do gentry lived mostly in the country, and came to the capital only for the "season" of balls and soirées, focused on the royal court. Garden design was the newest fashion in all Europe. Germans were building Chinese pavilions in 1707, before the English did the same.

          William Kent, born in 1685, was an interior designer and architect. In the 1720's he made popular the Palladian style for the houses of the rich, later he invented the "Gothick", and then caused a revolution in the design of English gardens, freeing them from the straightjacket of formality.

          Which were the public meeting places? The word public indicates it: the pub (from "public house"), an inn where people gathered to drink, eat, sing, and exchange ideas. It was at the same time hostel, restaurant and club.

The clubs played an important role in the social life of the upper classes. One of the most famous, or infamous, was the Hellfire Club, widely believed to be a secluded heaven for secret rituals and orgiastic sex. The club was officially known as The Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, the Monks of Medmenham or The Order of the Knights of West Wycombe. It was organized by Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), who was initiated in a Masonic lodge while sojourning in Florence. [11]

          The first London lodges logically met in pubs, in a separate room or a second floor, where they conducted their ceremonies between one course and another or else, as practiced in some lodges to this day, had dinner after the ceremony. [12]

          According to what we know of the manner of operating the lodges in that period, we can infer that the ceremonial part of the meeting was very brief, symbolism was limited to the lodge panel, the brethren wore gloves and – a very important point –were armed with swords.

          The room where the ceremony was conducted had no special furniture. The symbols of our tools and other lodge implements were drawn on a panel or board, the well-known Tracing Board, or else they were drawn on the floor with chalk and coal, to be erased after the ceremony using bucket and mop. Hogarth's engraving mentioned earlier shows a mop being carried by one of the lodge brothers.

          Masonic meetings were marked by conviviality. As stated, dinner was an important, in fact an integral part of the ceremony. Music and singing were in order. It is only necessary to open the first book of Anderson's Constitutions (1723) to confirm this fact. Sixteen of its 90 pages are dedicated to the songs of the Master, the Wardens, the Fellow-Craft and the Apprentices, all of them with the corresponding music scores.

          The second edition of the Constitutions, of 1738, much more extensive, also has 16 pages of songs, more numerous but only with the words. Apparently the music was too well knows to waste good paper reproducing it.

          More impressive in this connection is the Book of Constitutions of the "Ancients" Grand Lodge, Ahiman Rezon, written by its Grand Secretary Lawrence Dermott; the volume contains almost 100 pages of songs; and probably the most popular Masonic book of the 18th century, William Preston's Illustrations of Masonry – a work that enjoyed numerous printings from the 70's of the 18th until the first decades of the 19th centuries – held no less than 44 pages of odes, hymns and songs.

          A last remark concerning the songs; when mentioning the Master's Song in the first edition of the Constitutions, that of 1723, this refers to the Master of the Lodge, not a Master Mason. As we know, the split of the Second Degree creating the two degrees known today dates from a few years later.

          The Masonic lodge was a refuge of peace and tranquility at a time of political uncertainty, when the memory of religious warfare was fresh in the memory of all men, when the first discoveries and inventions were transforming the economy, and opening new perspectives of progress, when the hope that rationality and humanism would banish from the hearts of men the evils of fanaticism and intolerance. This was the fertile ground on which early speculative Freemasonry germinated and grew, spreading its branches throughout the western world.




[1]  P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, Witch Hunters, Stroud: Tempus, 2003.

[2]  In fact, the term was used only around 1950, and only came into general use in the 1960's.

[3]  Stephen Cretney, Family Law in the Twentieth Century, quoted in a review by Justin Warshaw, Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 2004.

[4]  Stuart Piggott, Ancient Britons, and the Antiquarian Imagination, Historians and Archeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886 (Cambridge University Preess, 1986), p. 33.

[5]    Susan J. Barnes, Noora de Poorter, Horst Vey and Oliver Millar, Van Dyck – a complete catalogue of the paintings, Yale University Press, 2005.

[6]    Ronan Deazley, On the Origin of the Right to Copy, Oxford:Hart.

[7]  See Marcus Rediker, Villains of all Nations, Verso, 2004.

[8]  James Sharpe, reviewing Marcus Rediker, op. cit., Times Literary Supplement, August 27, 2004.

[9]    Review of "The Three Emperors" exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Times Literary Supplement, 16.12.2005, p.19.

[10]  Leandro Prados de la Escosura, editor, Exceptionalism and Industrialisation,- Russian and its European rivals, 1688-1815, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[11]    Mike Howard, "The Hellfire Club", http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~rebis/ts-artic4.htm.

[12]  The first Grand Lodge building was started only in 1775 and consecrated on May 23, 1776.





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