Like the ‘true believers’ in UFOs and the prophecies of Nostradamus, we all revel in the mythic history of Freemasonry. I do too: I think it’s enormous fun, even if research has shown it to be largely an invention of Dr Anderson in the early 18th century. No serious masonic scholar places much credence in these tales of ancient and mysterious origins in Egypt, or in the days of King Solomon, but how we love to speculate! The problem begins when we turn off our critical faculty and start to treat this stuff as historical fact.
Baigent & Leigh’s books build a fantastic circumstantial chain that leads us from the Tomb of Christ and Rennes-le-Chateau, through the Knights Templar, the Cathars, the mysterious Rosicrucians and the Scots Guard, to modern Freemasonry. Sadly, we seem to have lost all inkling of our original great “secret”. According to Baigent & Leigh, this was nothing less than the knowledge that Christ survived the crucifixion (or perhaps never was crucified), married Mary Magdalene, and his descendants became the Merovingian kings of what is now France (question: if Jesus wasn’t divine, but simply a man, why are his descendants such a big deal?).
Everyone knows there’s a fabulous treasure (from the temple in Jerusalem?) buried somewhere nearby, but Baigent & Leigh find this rather too banal to explore in detail. They are much more interested in mysterious secrets and shadowy groups behind the scenes, like the Prieure de Sion. Their convoluted logic and astonishing lack of evidence have been superbly parodied by Umberto Eco in ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’. Once you admit that ‘everything is connected’ (Eco’s fundamental premise), then anything is not only possible, but true!
If we (reluctantly, I am willing to admit!) turn our backs on such fantastical books, and turn instead to the realm of historical facts, we find that Freemasonry is really a child of the Age of Reason. The earliest recorded non-operative initiation was that of Sir Robert Moray, by a group of masons in a Scots regiment at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 20th May 1641. The first Englishman we know to have been made a speculative mason was Elias Ashmole, in 1646, in a lodge at Warrington. Before this, we know virtually nothing.
At first non-operative members constituted a small minority of members of the masons’ associations, but late 17th and early 18th century lodge records reveal a rapid conversion of the guilds of operative workmen into private societies of ‘free and accepted’ gentleman masons. Simultaneously, there was a consolidation of the power of Parliament to govern the nation, the Whigs rose to ascendancy as keepers of the revolutionary heritage of 1688-89, and the economic power of the craft guilds declined.
‘Speculative’ masonry may have developed from the influence of William Schaw in Scotland and later spread to England, but the essence of Enlightenment Freemasonry is characteristically English, and what was re-exported to Scotland in the early 18th century was something new. The emphasis on constitutions, laws and governance originated in London. It is not found in the meagre records of the old operative lodges, but was grafted on by Anderson, Payne, Desaguliers and their like.
At the time of the formation of the first Grand Lodge, the British situation was unique. As a result of their revolutions of 1640 and 1688, they had secured constitutional and parliamentary government. However, Freemasonry neither caused nor participated in these revolutions. To ensure respectability, English Freemasons remained silent on any part their members may have played, and Continental masons carefully constructed the mythic history of origins from Hiram and King Solomon’s Temple, through the Crusades and Knights Templar, up to 17th century England. The mythic history made an admirable smokescreen to protect the lodges from hostility by monarch and church. Now these concealing inventions have come back to haunt us through the likes of Baigent & Leigh!
English Freemasonry possessed distinctive civil and political characteristics shaped by a social context derived from the English Revolution. The goal of government by consent within the context of subordination to ‘legitimate’ authority was vigorously pursued by the Grand Lodge of London and was demanded of all lodges affiliated with it. Thus, the lodges were political societies, not in a party or faction sense of the term but in a larger connotation. The form of the lodge became one of the many channels that transmitted a new civic and political culture, based upon constitutionalism, which opposed traditional privileges and established hierarchical authority. ‘Merit’ was the catch-cry of the new culture.
This new culture, with Freemasonry as its vanguard, is known today as the Enlightenment, a key passage in European development. It began in England, but is strongly identified with France, where events took a more dramatic turn. It argued that people’s habits of thinking were based on irrationality, polluted by religious dogma, and over-conformed to historical precedent and irrelevant tradition. The way to escape was to seek true knowledge in every sphere of life, to study the liberal arts and sciences, to establish the truth and build upon it. Its premises were liberal, pro-science, anti-superstition, and that the State was the proper vehicle for the improvement of the human condition.
However, although the masons spoke of all brothers as ‘equal’, this did not obviate the role the lodges played as places that replicated social hierarchy and order, based not on birth per se but on an ideology of merit. The lodges mirrored the old order just as they were creating a form of civil society that would ultimately replace it. In spite of their rhetoric of equality, the early lodges were elitist, drawing most of their members from the literate and relatively wealthy classes. The leadership was overwhelmingly Whig, and powerful and influential Whigs at that. Originally, the Whigs had been the revolutionary force behind the drive for constitutionalism and liberty: now they had become part of the Establishment, and sought to discourage further revolutionary fervour by emphasising peaceability and law-abiding behaviour.
The late 18th century was a time of political repression in Britain, and the lodges became more circumspect in their behaviour. Conservatism replaced their early reformist zeal, secrecy grew, and the closed, ritual-based form of Freemasonry we are familiar with today was consolidated. Our factual history is an exciting and fascinating one, but the ‘fairy stories’ of Baigent & Leigh and their ilk obviously possess a greater attraction for the bulk of our members. Well, these myths are great fun, and I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of them. Just let’s be aware that they belong to the realm of ‘what if…?’, sharing the same mythical space as Bush’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, rather than the empirical world of reality.