Charters and the Old Charges
When King Henry III was in want of money to carry on his war against the Barons he announced to the Prior of the Templars that he intended to commandeer some portions of the riches with which their vaults were crowded (The Templars, the Knights of St. John, and the Church among them owned one-third of England) and in spite of the Charters he had given them, the Prior of the Templars replied: "What sayest thou, O King? Far be it that thy mouth should utter so disagreeable and silly a word. . . Thou wilt cease to be king."
The Prior took his defiant stand on his Charter, the solidest thing in the Middle Ages. Even the Tudor Kings, unafraid of man or devil, were smitten with fear at the mere thought of Charter breaking. There are in modern use contracts, deeds, charters, warrants, and similar instruments through which authority acts, and in which sovereignty resides; but no one of those documents is what a Medieval Charter was. For in the Middle Ages, a Charter was a document which possessed sovereignty, power, authority in itself, not as delegated, but as original. If a town received a Charter (a town might pay the king a large sum for one) it was thereby made a free, independent, sovereign, self-governing incorporation which could levy taxes, conscript soldiers, hold courts, execute criminals, buy, sell, or construct property; subject only to the national sovereignty it was almost a small nation.
The town of Cambridge was such a chartered incorporation; the University of Cambridge, though a school and not a city, and only a short distance from the town, also had a Charter, and therefore had its own courts and peace officers; and in the Town and Gown battles the two were more than once virtually at war with each other. If a gild of craftsmen or churchmen or merchants received a Charter, they became a self-governing unit even though they had no territory or property. Chartered Colonies, chartered trading companies like the East India, West India African Companies, were English governments in pello in foreign places. Medieval England was almost a government by Charters. Magna Carta was epoch making because it was a charter granted to the people of London; it was therefore the guarantee of the liberties named in it, and as against any King or Parliament, because it was a Charter.
It is evident from the Old MSS., the Craft's oldest existing written records, that the Freemasons, a fraternity spread over England, claimed to possess a Charter as a fraternity, and that it had been granted to them by Prince Edwin in the Tenth Century; from this "Great Charter" they claimed authority to constitute themselves as Lodges, to hold assemblies (so often forbidden by the Kings), to hold their own courts, to have their own laws, to make contracts (as often they did), to hold property, to regulate their own hours and wages, to take apprentices under bond, and to regulate their own affairs wherever one Freemason or a Lodge of them might be. When any city, university, or society petitioned for a Charter it usually gave the grounds upon which it felt a right to ask it, and among the more common grounds were a great antiquity, a record of peaceableness, the prestige of names among its members, etc. ; the writer of the original book of the Old Charges (old MSS.), of which nearly two hundred copies have been found, sets out in the first half of his document, though with great brevity, and discontentedly, the grounds upon which the Fraternity of Freemasons had obtained a Charter from Prince Edwin. Freemasonry was ancient, because building went back to Adam; among its earliest founders (men who made the art possible) were such famous and learned men as Pythagoras and Euclid; such great kings as Charlemagne and Athelstan had been among its patrons; Freemasons had always been educated men, not lewd fellows ("lewd" meant illiterate) or churls, but lovers of the Liberal Arts and Sciences (curriculum of the schools and universities);
they had never held unlawful assemblies to conspire against lawful rulers, and it was while holding one of their lawful and peaceable assemblies that Edwin had given them their Great charter. Copies of such a charter, duly authenticated, were sufficient authority for regular Freemasons anywhere to hold local assemblies and constitute themselves into Lodges, nor could local prelates or lords forbid them.
Having thus shown the ground of authority the document then goes on to set down the set of rules and charges which, on Charter authority, the Masonic Fraternity imposed upon its membership.
Boys come to be made apprentices, though of gentle birth, need not expect that they would be in a loose and carefree circle, to act as they wished; they would be governed under strict laws. This grounding of the authority of the Craft on an original Charter is repeated in the records of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the formation of which was not attempted until after the ancient family holding the rights of Masonic Charter had made over those rights to the governing body to be.
It has been assumed by some Masonic writers that the Old charges were a mere "tradition" of legendary Graft ,,history," to be piously believed, and to be read to Apprentices to give them an impression of the Craft's antiquity; and they took the charges and the rules and regulations, to be mere by-laws of a voluntary social Fraternity, or sodality. It is submitted on the basis of facts given above that this is an error. A copy of the old Charges was a Lodge's Charter, its legal right to exist. From its Minute Book it is evident that Antiquity Lodge insisted that it never had surrendered its own Charter to the new Grand Lodge in 1717; when later it believed that the Grand Master had violated Antiquity's Charter, Antiquity withdrew and continued to work in independence for more than ten years. The new Grand Lodge was not to replace the authority inherent in each Lodge but was to supervise only such matters as lay among the Lodges. And it is certain that most of the old Lodges looked upon the Book of Constitutions as a Grand Lodge Charter, and that the old Masons (represented by fourteen members) had insisted on incorporating in it the old grounds on which the original Charter (as they believed) had been given by Prince Edwin ; so that the first half of the Book was not, as Gould and Hughan erroneously believed, a fabulous and pleasing tale or legend but a claim to original Charter authority one thousand years old.
The "new men," the "gentlemen" or "accepted" Masons who followed the Duke of Montague into the Craft in a stream, and who came into control of the Fraternity had only a sketchy knowledge of Masonry and little understanding of its ancient customs and landmarks.
They committed one fateful blunder after another One of the cardinal discoveries, as even the young and green Grand Lodge found out in thirty years was that a Grand Master, privately and personally , and at his own pleasure, could not "make" a Lodge though until 1757 he undertook to do so; for if he could make a Lodge at his own pleasure he could break a Lodge at his pleasure (and often did), could control the making of Masons and decide whom to admit etc., would leave a Lodge no authority or sovereignly of its own, and would reduce it to a number of members meeting under club rules. When the Grand Lodge ordained that Master Masons could "be made only at Grand Lodge, Masons everywhere rebelled Lodges withdrew by the score, and the erection of the Ancient Grand Lodge, no such innovator was one of the consequences.
Come to its senses the Grand Lodge( of 1757, ) began in 1757 following Ireland by two years, to issue no more Grand Master's written consents, for that is what the Deputations or Warrants had been, but Charters, documents possessing original authority in themselfs.
These charters did not create the right of Freemasons to form a Lodge, they recognized it, they were an official evidence that a given Lodge received one was deemed regular by other Lodges and entitled to be represented at Craft Assemblies in the Grand Lodge.
This means that a regular Lodge possesses inherent authority, by time immemorial rights, and not a merely provisional and delegated authority; and it is one that cannot be usurped by any faction among its own members, or by other Lodges, or by the Grand Master or by the Grand Lodge. It was this which he had in mind when Albert G. Mackey stated that Masons right to form and to assemble in Lodges is an Ancient Landmark, as indubitably it is; and it is for the same reason that Lodges are not "subordinate'' to Grand Lodge, mere local branches of it, but are constituents of it, and hence are properly called Constituent Bodies.
Thus it turns out at the end of some eight or so centuries of Masonic history that modern Speculative Freemasonry discovered what the original authors of the Old Charges knew and affirmed, that a Lodge, or assembly of Masons, without a Charter will find in experience that their Lodge and assembly is an empty vanity; and that each Lodge has inherent and alienable Charter rights.
American Masons are separated by the Atlantic Ocean and centuries of time from the Middle Ages : in the nature of things they cannot be expected to have a clear and adequate knowledge of Medieval history. The fact explains the acceptance by many American Masons of the theory, often set out in Masonic periodicals and in Grand Masters' Addresses, that the original and sovereign Masonic authority was the Holy Bible. l. During almost one-half of the total history of the Craft, Masons had no copies of the Bible. In the earliest centuries they did not, excepting only a few, even know of the existence of such a Book. They had from it only a few stories, such as Adam's fall, Noah's Ark, etc., and some portions of the New Testament, and those they had not from any text directly, but only as they were used by the Church, which had modified them out of recognition by accretions of stories and legends.
2. If there had been a Bible available, the Masons could not have been persuaded to use it by any cajolery or the direst threats, because to do so would have meant a march to the stake, or the dreaded excommunication. Holy Church forbade laymen to own or use copies of any Holy Scriptures, and often forbade laymen to read the Scriptures under any circumstances. In the eyes of the Masons It would have been an unspeakable heresy for them to employ the Scriptures in their own Lodges. They left the Church to itself; never intruded upon it or interfered with it, nor permitted it to interfere with Lodges ; they taught no religious doctrines, nor made any theological pronouncements. Masons like other men of the time were men of religion but they incorporated nothing of theology in their own Fraternity, and never have; they did not see that Church and Theology had anything more to do with the Chartered Craft of builders than with a Chartered Company of Hierohants.
3. The "book" on which Apprentices made their oath was in the beginning not the Bible but the Old Charges. In the first years of the new Grand Lodge officers of Antiquity Lodge held a copy of the Old Charges aloft on a cushion and carried it around the Grand Lodge Room, thus exhibiting the authority on which the Grand Lodge was being assembled. In the minutes of the oldest Lodges and in the engravings they printed it is seen that a copy of the Old Charges (not the Bible) is placed on a pedestal directly in front of the Master. The Bible is used in the Lodge not as an original warrant of authority and constitution, but symbolically, like the Square and Compasses, and is one of the Great Lights. Its power and authority in its own place and for its own proper use is none the less for that, but the authority on which every Lodge works is not, and never was, a religious or theological authority, but is in the written, signed, and sealed Charter which hangs on the Lodge Room walls, and which is in essence and meaning as ancient as Freemasonry itself. Whether such a Charter goes back in unbroken succession to a particular sealed document issued by Prince Edwin at York does not matter; it goes back to some written Charter, or Charters, issued to the Freemasons in the beginnings of their Fraternity.
Owned & Operated Exclusively by Members of the Masonic Family
Tradition, Integrity, Trust.
© 2018 The Ashlar Company
“I received my beautiful past masters masonic ring in the mail and I absolutely love it. ”
Brother Brandon, Louisville, KY
You are currently visiting masonicencyclopedia.com