OPERATIVE AND SPECULATIVE MASONRY, THE GUILDS AND LIVERY COMPANIES

by BROTHER ALLEN EXLEY, O.B.E., F.R.S.A.

(A paper read originally to the Lodge of Silent Temple, No. 126(E.C.), Burnley, Lancashire, on 21st September 1976) 

Thank YOU, Brethren, for the privilege given me of presenting this paper to your Lodge. My qualification for writing it is that as a member of a very old Lodge that could originally have sprung from OPERATIVE MASONRY, and as a Liveryman of a LONDON COMPANY, I am naturally interested in the subject.

 No one, of course, can be very precise in trying to trace a relationship between Speculative and Operative Masonry and their connection with the Trade or Craft Guilds and the Worshipful Livery Companies of London.

There is so little written evidence on the subject that we can only speculate as to how Masonry, as we now know it, came into existence.

Many Masonic historians claim that Masonry originated in the East -probably Egypt or China - and made its way gradually through Asia Minor, Constantinople, Greece and Cyprus to Rome. It is interesting to note that a Chinese philosopher called Mencius wrote these words three centuries Before Christ:-"A man should abstain from doing unto others, what he would not they should do to him, this is called the principle of acting on the square."

He also wrote:-"A Master Mason, in teaching his apprentices, makes use of the Square and Compasses. Ye who are engaged in the pursuit of Wisdom, must also use the Compasses and Square."

That Masonry travelled westward is suggested in the questions familiar to us:-

"Brother Junior Warden, Whence come you?"

"The East." "Brother Senior Warden, whither directing your course?" "The West."

There is no written evidence to support the idea that Speculative Freemasonry is directly linked with those days, but when the Romans came to this country they brought with them a full complement of craftsmen and artificers, among them the "Brotherhood of Masons".

They had their own constitutions in both their religious and secular matters, and their organisation was a close facsimile of a modern Masonic Lodge. They had bound themselves together for various reasons - for mutual aid and assistance in times of sickness and trouble; for the proper training of apprentices; to set and maintain a very high standard of craftsmanship and to prevent unscrupulous people from entering the trade or craft.

They travelled in "colleges" or "lodges" far and wide, building temples and, later, cathedrals, and to make it possible for a craftsman to transfer from one lodge (or college) of masons to another, secret signs, tokens, words and mason's marks were used to prove their bona fides.

Each lodge was presided over by a Magister or Master, two Deacons (or Wardens) and other officers - a Scrive (or Secretary), three Boxmasters (or Treasurers) and a Prelate (or Chaplain). The membership consisted of apprentices and journeymen (fellowcrafts). They used as their Masonic symbols the tools of their trade – the square and compasses, the chisel, the plumb-rule, the level, etc.

Before each day's work, they assembled for instruction, and as they usually employed local labour for the rough and unskilled work of excavating and "random walling", draining, etc., they appointed an Outer Guard to keep off all "cowans" - this being a Scottish or North Country word for "dry dykers" or "dry wallers" - one who builds rough stone wails or fences without mortar and therefore not a true mason.

For their own protection, these local workmen too formed themselves into Guilds as did the other native craftsmen. Thus we find in medieval England the Guild of Masons (not Freemasons), for this latter term only referred to the Roma Collegiates, who were FREE to travel about the country at will, whilst the local men were regarded, during Roman occupation, as bondsmen and were not allowed to move out of their own districts.

Hence the first question then (and now in our modern Lodges) 'Are you a free man and of the full age of twenty-one years?" Many cities and towns at this time had their own Guilds of craftsmen, the Weavers, Gold and Silver-smiths, etc., who controlled and regulated their respective crafts in their own locality, but were not able to extend their influence beyond their own boundaries, unlike the Roman Collegiates or Craftsmen who were able to travel as they wished.

Few ordinary people in those days could either read or write, and all information had to be passed on by word of mouth, and as they could only recognise shapes and colour, a great deal of information as communicated by signs -shops, inns and public institutions had to adopt symbols so that people could tell what they sold or what service they provided - the barber's pole, the three balls of the pawnbroker, and mortar and pestle of the chemist are relics of that practice.

As young workmen learnt their craft processes from older workers, they graduated from apprenticeship to journeyman status. But however well qualified by experience and in most cases by making "test" pieces or doing what were called "essay" work, it was little use giving them indenture documents or any written certificate, because neither they nor many of their potential employers could read them, even if they could find a scribe to engross them. And so, in order that a craftsman, attaining journeyman status, could be easily recognised by anyone similarly qualified, they were given certain signs, tokens and words by which they could be recognised both by day as well as by night. As the Craft Guilds have always recognised and associated themselves with the Church, each having its own Patron Saint, it was natural that the symbolism of Operative and, later, Speculative Masonry, would be based on Biblical characters.

The early Craft Guilds and Operative Masons' Lodges not only made themselves responsible for the training and examination of apprentices, maintaining standards of craftsmanship and ethics, and generally regulated the trades they represented, they also looked to the welfare of their members and dependants in time of sickness and unemployment, and took care of the widows and orphans. This work of benevolence which is such a feature of modern Freemasonry has been handed down from Operative days.

But to continue the story of the Roman Operative Masons, their successors continued to flourish during the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Being held in high estimation because of their reputation of being superb craftsmen and because cathedral and church building was their main speciality, they were on excellent terms with the clergy and in order perhaps to pay a compliment to their patrons, we find a gradual intake of Accepted or Speculative Masons, among them high Church dignitaries, Bishops and Canons, some of whom, in fact, were quite experienced in the art of ecclesiastical architecture - indeed some were good craftsmen in their own right, but the majority merely interested in the traditional and social aspect of the Craft and their work of benevolence.

At the end of the fourteenth century came the decline of Operative Masons' Guilds. The country had become impoverished by Civil War and with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Abbeys and Cathedrals, the Masons lost their best supporters. A few truly Operative Lodges remained working for the nobility, building what we now call the Stately Homes of England, but gradually Lodges became more Accepted or Speculative than Operative, and at the end of the seventeenth century only a handful of truly Operative Lodges remained, the majority of which were in northern England and Scotland. Those of you who may be particularly interested in Operative Masonry could well read the histories of the oldest Scottish Lodges - Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel), No. 1, 1599 to 1949, or Mother Kilwinning, No. 0, for, in their earliest days, they were truly Operative and in fact controlled the trade of the stonemason, the training of apprentices and the standard of work.

On 24th June 1717, the first Grand Lodge was formed in London. There was some objection to the proceedings, leading eventually to the formation of two separate bodies, the Antients and the Moderns, and it was not until 1813 that these two combined to form the United Grand Lodge of England.

Let us now trace, very briefly, the history of the Craft Guilds.

Records show that they existed in Anglo-Saxon days. Their object was to bring together people with a common interest, both operatives and employers, for self-preservation and for social intercourse. In some areas, the Guilds continued to flourish until the eighteenth century and in some towns in Scotland (in a modified form) even to the present time. Like cathedral builders, they were monopolies. No one except apprenticed and skilled craftsmen were allowed to operate. They regulated prices, imposed fines for inferior workmanship, assisted the bereaved or those of their members in trouble. They evolved codes of ethics which were strictly enforced. The various Trade Guilds in a city or town were often formed into United Guilds, who elected the Mayor (or REEVE), the Sheriffs and Aldermen who ruled members and non-members alike. They were in fact forerunners of our City and Town Councils. Because of their power, they could punish those craftsmen who disobeyed their rules by refusing to allow them to follow their calling. This Municipal aspect of the Guilds is perpetuated to this day in the City of London where the Lord Mayors and Sheriffs are elected purely on the votes of the Liverymen of the City Companies - indeed any candidate for those offices must be a Liveryman of a City Company himself.

There was, however, one feature of the Guild of Masons which made it unique. Unlike other craft guilds, the Masons' Guilds were not permanent. When a building was completed, the workmen passed on to employment in other localities. The secrecy, fidelity and obedience they owed not to a local group or Guild, but to the Craft as a whole. To ensure that strangers, claiming the privileges of masons should not deceive, signs, tokens and words of recognition were communicated under vows or concealment, that the mysteries of their art might be guarded and preserved.

From 1000 A.D., from small beginnings, the influence and power of the Guilds gradually extended until in the fifteenth century they had acquired almost absolute control of the trade of the country To these Guildsmen can be attributed the credit for all the beautiful work carried out in medieval days which will probably never again be equalled.

But their power and influence became their weakness - their monopoly and exclusiveness brought with it its own condemnation. Their tyranny killed all private enterprise and gradually trade was driven to places like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, which were not hampered to the same extent by the rigid protection of the Guilds.

l537 saw the final dissolution of the Guilds and their properties confiscated by the Crown.

The Guilds gone, the Lodges of Operative Masons, weakened by loss of their patrons, what more natural as the outcome of all this than the spontaneous growth of Speculative Freemasonry? Sponsored by men who had been admitted as Accepted members of Operative Lodges and supported by Guildsmen who felt the lack of social intercourse provided by the Guilds, Speculative Masonry attracted men of high ideals, who could meet together in peace and seclusion without being trammelled by conflicting religious creeds or the selfish clamouring of trade rights and monopolies.

Both the Operative Lodges and the Guilds had a long tradition of self-help, caring for their members and dependants in time of need. What more natural then, that this charitable work should be continued in the gradual transition from these Operative to Accepted or Speculative organisations.

If I may digress from the general to the particular: when I was writing the history of my own Lodge, Royal Lancashire, No. 116, in 1960, to mark the Bi-centenary, I found in our archives an old account dated 1757 called "The Articles of Freemasons or Friendly Society holden at the Hole in the Wall, Colne in Lancashire".

Actually, they are the rules of a Sick and Burial Society which, in the days before the Welfare State, was about the only insurance a man of limited means could take out, to give some sort of security for his family in time of sickness or unemployment, and to make sure of enough to bury him decently. Reading these Articles, it is obvious that some form of Masonry was being practised along with this work of benevolence, for many of the terms, officers, fines and customs have a familiar ring. We also have written evidence that Masonry was being practised in Colne as early as 1732 -30 years before the Lodge was warranted. In addition, Royal Lancashire Lodge possessed two Old Charges of Masons engrossed with the Arms of the Fraternity of Masons on which, in 1717, the Arms of the premier Grand Lodge of England was based. Eminent Masonic historians, who have studied them, consider that these Old Charges were used as part of the ritual of an Operative Masons' Lodge, a special feature of which would be simplicity. There was probably little more to these ceremonies than the reading or; more likely, the reciting to the apprentice or Fellowcraft, of these ancient Charges and the entrusting of the appropriate sign, token and word. In reading them, one realises that they are, in effect, the somewhat wordy and flowery version of the Charges we now give to our initiates: what we call the Long Charge - "The duties you owe to God, to your neighbour and to yourself." It is reasonable, I think, to suppose that this old Lodge in Colne was originally an Operative Masons' Lodge, the transition being bridged by the Sick and Burial Society.

But to resume the story of the Guilds. Whilst in most parts of the country, the Guild spirit died or the best side of it was absorbed in Speculative Freemasonry, London retained the Guild tradition in the Livery Companies. The Worshipful Livery Companies of London are unique and I would require much more time than is at my disposal to do justice to their history. Those of you who may be particularly interested are recommended to read George Unwin's excellent book The Guilds and Companies of London, or a book called London's Livery Companies by Col. R. J. Blacknam.

The London Livery Companies (so called from the traditional costumes worn on ceremonial occasions) were in many respects similar to the Provincial Guilds, except that they took an even greater interest in municipal matters, for as I told you earlier, even to this day, we who are Liverymen elect the Sheriff and the Lord Mayor, and a man cannot occupy either of these offices unless he is a Liveryman himself.

The London Livery Companies exercised an even greater influence on the trade and commerce of the City than did the Guilds, and even extended their scope to world trade. The Honourable East India Company left us the Indian Empire, and the Hudson Bay Company played a very prominent part in building up the Dominion of Canada.

To carry on business in Old London, it was essential for a tradesman to be a Freeman of the City. Without this, he had no status as a  citizen and the only way of being a Freeman up to 1835 was to be a Liveryman of a City Company.

You will be particularly interested, I am sure, to know that the Honourable Artillery Company, whose Charter was granted by Henry VIII, is a true Livery Company and the oldest armed force in the country.

Troops cannot pass through the City of London without the permission of the Lord Mayor. The Honourable Artillery Company, the Royal Fusiliers, the Grenadier Guards, the Buffs and, more recently, the Royal Marines, are the only armed forces to march through the City of London with bayonets fixed, colours flying and bands playing.

Most Companies set examinations for their apprentices, and this tradition is carried on today by the City and Guilds of London Institute. In the old days, they demanded what were termed "proof pieces" or "essay work" from their applicants for the Freedom. In short, they ruled the crafts and the business of the City with great firmness. They enforced good workmanship and honest dealings by fines and even, in some cases, by imprisonment.

It is significant to note that the first Grand Lodge of 1717 originally assumed a jurisdiction of only seven miles radius from the centre of London, exactly following Guild practice and, in particular, the Masons' Company of London, whose jurisdiction was seven miles from its Livery Hall, which stood near the Guildhall.

Like the Guilds, however, their very strength was their downfall, and they were disbanded as active authorities Over trade in the nineteenth century, but retained their cultural, charitable, educational and social interests, a new spirit of assistance and encouragement in the Livery Companies has arisen. Besides encouraging in every possible way the education and training of the apprentices and pupils in their own particular trade or profession by awarding prizes, scholarships and endowing Chairs at various universities, the Companies take a very real interest in such famous public schools as Oundle, Christ Church Hospital, St Paul's, all originally Livery Foundations, whilst the Merchant Taylors have schools at Tonbridge and Great Crosby.

Typical of the activities of so many Companies today is that of my own Livery Company the Painter-Stainers, whose Charter dates back to the thirteenth century, when they controlled the craft of painting on wood, the staining of leather and the rendering of armorial bearings in London. At the present time, in addition to its patronage of Great Tichfield Technical College, it awards valuable prizes and scholarships for drawing and the decorative art, and gold, silver and bronze medals to City and Guilds students in their final examinations. The Gold Medallist is elected a Freeman of the City and a Liveryman. We also contribute substantially to the blind (blindness was once an occupational hazard for painters) and provide for poor people within the craft, and we make an annual grant to the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy, marking the close relationship that has always existed between the Companies and the Church.

Whilst I said earlier there is little written evidence to prove any direct relationship between the Guilds, the Livery and the Craft, there are so many areas of similarity that it is difficult to imagine the contrary.

In conclusion, therefore, let me draw attention to just a few of the customs, ritual and aims that are common to all four institutions.

The proclaimed aims of the Livery Companies, for example, are what they term the Five Great Points of Fellowship: Charity, Citizenship, Commerce, Comradeship and Conviviality. The Poulterers Company's ancient motto is "Remember your Oath'; whilst that of the Plaisterers is "Let Brotherly Love Continue" In investing a Liveryman, the Warden says "In the name of the Worshipful Company of. . . and by command of the Master, I invest you with the Livery of this Company" When we consider that the apron of the Speculative Freemason is itself a form of Livery, the similarity is complete.

Indeed, whilst the Livery of most companies are robes of various colours, the Livery of the Mason's Company was, up to the sixteenth century, an Operative Masons' apron.

Although Grand Lodge dues are now paid annually, they are still called "quarterages" - an old Guild term which made attendances at the Livery or Guildhall compulsory on Quarter Days for the purpose of paying their subscription. Grand Lodge today meets each quarter and its transactions (or records) are called Quarterly Communications.

Both Operative and Speculative Masonry, in common with the Guilds and Livery Companies, have always had very close ties with the Church. The early minutes of my own Lodge, Royal Lancashire, tell us how, on St John's Day, the Brethren went in procession to Colne Parish Church, accompanied by a band of musicians, there to hear the Special Sermon, preached by the Rector, and then processing round the town, returned to the Lodge, then held at the sign of the Hole in the Wall, to dine with the Rector.

This is what the Secretary reported:

St JOHN DAY, 1801 The Brethren assembled at the Hole in the Wall at 10 a.m. and opened the Lodge. Accompanied by a Brass Band, the Brethren, in full Masonic regalia marched through the town calling at the Red Lion for refreshments.

They then processed to Colne Field and on returning called at the Angel for rest and refreshments. They then proceeded to the Market Cross where they were joined by the Rector and on to the Parish Church to hear a special sermon preached by the Rector, the band in the meantime adjourned to the Parkers Arms.

After the Service and having got the band out of the Parkers Arms, we then proceeded back to the Hole in the Wall to dine with the Rector. The rest of the day we spent in doing those things as is usual on St John Day and later with much conviviality.

The Lodge was closed with hymn and solemn prayer at 10 minutes to Midnight when we all went home like good Christians.

The following is an extract of the Box Masters' accounts for that date:-

To the Ringers (for ringing the church bells) 5d. each
Parson for a special sermon 5/-
His dinner 1/-
25 dinners at 1/6 each
Hire of Band 13 players at 1/- each
Beer for the Band 1/17/6.

Incidentally, in common with the ancient Guilds and Livery Companies, there used to be two Installations of Masters per year, one on St John the Baptist's Day (24th June) and the other on St John the Evangelist's Day (27th December). The ancient Guilds and Livery Companies each had their own Patron Saints and, today, the Installation of a new Master of a Company is always preceded by a service conducted by the Company's Prelate or Chaplain at a City Church to which the Livery is attached.

The word "degree" is often found in Guild records, and it would seem that modern Freemasonry continued to use the word in the ritual, implying a rank or advancement.

If I may again refer to my own Lodge, one of our oldest documents is a small book called the "Forfitts Book'; which is a register of fines imposed on members for varying offences: being absent on Lodge night; being late; being drunk; swearing in Lodge or other unseemly conduct, and this system of fining, common to many other old Lodges, continued until the early nineteenth century. It is significant that the system of fining was also carried on in our Sick and Burial Society in the early eighteenth century, a link that I earlier suggested connected Operative Masonry with Speculative Freemasonry in Colne. There is little doubt that this custom of fining comes from the Guilds who, in order to maintain discipline among their members and ensure a high standard of craftsmanship and ethics, imposed penalties and fines. Relics of this fining system still linger in the present-day rules of some of the Livery Companies. In 1623, for example, my own Livery Company fined a member for refusing to serve as Master, and today the fine is £100 for refusing the office and £75 for refusing to serve either as Upper or Renter Warden (the fines go to our charities).

In the days before banks and strong-rooms, money and other valuables had to be locked up in heavy iron- bound chests or boxes. For extra security, the funds of the corporate bodies like the Guilds were stored in such boxes with three strong locks, and the three keys entrusted to the care of three Officers who were called "Box Masters" - each responsible for one key, making it essential for all three to be present at the opening or closing of the chest and, of course, to avoid the possibility of anyone absconding with the funds.

In common with many old Lodges, the minutes of my own Lodge refer to our earlier Treasurers as "Box masters" exactly in the same way as did the many Livery Companies up to the eighteenth century. 'Almoner"; one who looks to those in need, is another office common to the Guilds, Operative and Speculative Masonry and the Liveries.

The ancient office of "Beadle" is similar in every respect to that of Lodge Tyler or Outer Guard - "His place is outside the door of the Hall, to see that none but Liverymen or duly qualified visitors enter and to announce special guests:' Like the Lodge Tyler of many years ago, the Beadle of a Livery Company had to deliver, by hand, the summonses, collect quarterages and keep the hall clean. In my own Company, the Beadle is actually the caretaker of Painters' Hall in Little Trinity Street, and sends out the summonses for meetings in the name of our Learned Clerk. In the eighteenth century, the minutes of Royal Lancashire Lodge record "The Tyler shall be paid 1/- per meeting for calling the Brethren, lighting the fire, cleaning the Lodge and serving the ale. He is to provide his ownsword, cleaned and sharpened at his own expense."

And here is a very significant extract from the records of the Cutler's Company, "Ordered that henceforth, the Beadles shall sit at the Outward Door until they shall be called in and to come in to attend the will of the Court at the knock of the hammer."

And so, Brethren, one could go enumerating the many customs, practices, terms and traditions, common to all these four institutions. The language of much of the ritual, the procedure and the ceremonies are so familiar to us as Freemasons that it is difficult not to trace the connection between them.

Of course, one of the most important links is their work of looking to those less fortunate than themselves, for running through the annals of all of them is the golden thread of Brotherly Love and Charity, the cornerstones of the whole Masonic Structure. 

This Paper is reprinted by kind permission of the Author and the Manchester Lodge of Masonic Research. No. 5502 (EC)) At the 250th Anniversary Celebrations of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Ayrshire on 13th October 1989.

A most interesting paper I am sure that you will agree but it is important that the reader bears in mind that the content nearly all relates to England. At the same time this paper was being prepared Prof. Emeritus of the University of St. Andrews was finalising his research of the situation in Scotland which proved to be quite different. His books are: The First Freemasons and The Origins of Freemasonry both originally published in 1988. (Ed.)