British Freemasonry – A Brief Introduction (Part 2)

Richard H. Ryder, 2018

In part one of this British Freemasonry introductory series you received a brief overview of the Craft in England, Scotland, and Ireland; and an introduction to early British lodges.  This second installment describes the grades of membership and the events leading up to the formation of the Grand Lodge of England.

Membership Grades


References to the term “apprentice” did not appear in Britain until the early 18th century, probably due to its position at the bottom of the worker hierarchy. Given most building projects were large scale it should come as no surprise that the position of apprentice would not receive the same attention as the grades above it.  The work of this lowly grade was as significant as any, and yet, this worker grade was not mentioned in general writings until it appeared in the British Book of Constitutions in 1723.  After working seven years as an indentured apprentice a man could become eligible to become an Entered Apprentice within his lodge.  Where the indentured apprentice could not work unsupervised or employ subordinates, the Entered Apprentice enjoyed these privileges.


It was the norm that after his 14 years as an apprentice the worker could be admitted into the lodge as a Fellow of the Craft.  He could now take on contracts and employ workers. Prior to the grade being referenced in the Book of Constitutions, the term “fellow”, like that of apprentice, had not been used for centuries.  Originally, it just indicated a man was part of a fraternity, with no significance of being part of a worker grade. This changed in the 14th century.


Toward the end of the 14th century references to Warden also appeared in print, by which time it reflected a worker who took an oath of loyalty to the Master and the regulations.  By the end of the 15th century Wardens were also responsible for managing the lodge’s finances.

Master Mason

Prior to the 18th century the grade of Master Mason referred to a man responsible for a building project. It was not uncommon for a Master Mason to be referred to as Deacon, Warden or Preses (i.e. presiding officer).

The Layer

Also known as a setter, the layer was a less-skilled worker that was proficient with the trowel, which he used to build up stones laid by more experienced masons. Upon completion of a structure, unemployed masons might take work as a layer to feed himself and his family. Likewise, a layer might obtain employment as a mason during times of worker shortages.  Nevertheless, there was often friction between these two sets of laborers, resulting in regulations to govern their work.


As with any profession, imposters tried to pass as legitimate masons. These ‘cowans’, first mentioned in Scotland in 1598, had served their apprenticeship.  They were trained and proficient but had not yet been admitted into a lodge. As such, they were not part of the fraternity and thus were avoided by those already admitted into the lodge. In fact, cowans were prevented from working. This was according to a statute in place in 1598, which reads as follows: “Item, that no master or fellow craft receive a cowan to work in his society, or company, nor send any of his servants to work with cowans under pain of twenty pounds so oft as any person offends in this respect.” In 1738, the term cowan was first found in English Freemasonry, appearing in the Second Book of Constitutions.

The First “Accepted” Masons

References to British Freemasonry go back to at least the 15th century, with the first record of an initiation of an “accepted” mason appearing in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1600.  In 1641, it is believed that Alexander Hamilton and Sir Robert Moray, Scottish generals leading their armies in England, were initiated at Newcastle-on-Tyne by members of Edinburgh lodge.

Over time, English men of importance became honorary members and were referred to as accepted Masons.  One such person was a lawyer named Elias Ashmole. According to his diary he was initiated in 1646 at Warrington in Lancashire and thought to be the first non-operative mason to be accepted into an English lodge.

To this day the dispute still exists as to which country introduced accepted Masons into the fraternity. Nonetheless, for the new “accepted” Mason, symbolism and allegory helped paint a mental image of an architecturally strong, well-build structure of body and mind.

Grand Lodge Rises from the Ashes of Revolt

Elias Ashmole was initiated during the height of the English Civil War, when the Royalists, of which he was one, were opposed by the Parliamentarians. Different political and religious viewpoints and opinions divided communities; freedom of speech was denied; and Catholicism was under attack from Protestants who were at odds among their different denominations.  Due to his views, Ashmole was taken prisoner by the Parliamentarians. And yet, he recognized that brotherly love, relief, and truth could weather the tumultuous storm and that the mason’s tools could serve as metaphors for how man should live.  Men began gathering within a fraternal order, guided by God, to bring civility, tolerance, and reason into harmonious forums of discussion.  The Age of Reason and the scientific method began to prevail over religion thought. The seeds of today’s speculative Masonry were thus sown when accepted Masons outnumbered operative stone masons. Then, in 1715 the failure of the Jacobite Rebellions to replace parliamentary government with absolute monarchy made a more open political and religious landscape ripe for the formation of a grand lodge.


In the next and last installment of English Freemasonry – A Brief Introduction, The Grand Lodge of England becomes a reality and Provincial Grand Lodges are formed.


Christopher Hodapp, Freemasons for Dummies, (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005)
Robert Gilbert and John Hamill, Freemasonry: A Celebration of the Craft, (J. G. Press, 1993)
Michael Johnstone, The Freemasons: The Illustrated Book of an Ancient Brotherhood, (Arcturus Publishing, 2012)
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