The Old Charges and What They Mean to Us

The Old Charges and What They Mean to Us


I have just come from reading an article in one of the more obscure
Masonic periodicals in which an unknown brother lets go with this
very familiar remark: "As for me, I am not interested in the musty
old documents of the past.  I want to know what is going on today."
The context makes it clear that he had in mind the Old Charges. A
sufficient reply to this ignoramus is that the Old Charges are
among the things that are "going on today." Eliminate them from
Freemasonry as it now functions and not a subordinate lodge, or a
Grand Lodge, or any other regular Masonic body could operate at
all; they are to what the Constitution of this nation is to the
United States Government, and what its statutes are to every state
in the Union.  All our constitutions, statutes, laws, rules,
by-laws and regulations to some extent or other hark back to the
Old Charges, and without them Masonic jurisprudence, or the methods
for governing and regulating the legal affairs of the Craft, would
be left hanging suspended in the air.  In proportion as Masonic
leaders, Grand Masters, Worshipful Masters and Jurisprudence
Committees ignore, or forget, or misunderstand these Masonic
charters they run amuck, and lead the Craft into all manner of wild
and unmasonic undertakings.  If some magician could devise a method
whereby a clear conception of the Old Charges and what they stand
for could be installed into the head of every active Mason in the
land, it would save us all from embarrassment times without number
and it would relieve Grand Lodges and other Grand bodies from the
needless expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars every
year.  If there is any practical necessity, any hard
down-next-to-the-ground necessity anywhere in Freemasonry today, it
is for a general clear-headed understanding of the Ancient
Constitutions and landmarks of our Order.

By the Old Charges is meant those ancient documents that have come
down to us from the fourteenth century and afterwards in which are
incorporated the traditional history, the legends and the rules and
regulations of Freemasonry.  They are called variously "Ancient
Manuscripts", "Ancient Constitutions", "Legend of the Craft",
"Gothic Manuscripts", "Old Records", etc, etc.  In their physical
makeup these documents are sometimes found in the form of
handwritten paper or parchment rolls, the units of which are either
sewn or pasted together; of hand-written sheets stitched together
in book form, and in the familiar printed form of a modern book.
Sometimes they are found incorporated in the minute book of a
lodge.  They range in estimated date from 1390 until the first
quarter of the eighteenth century, and a few of them are specimens
of beautiful Gothic script.  The largest number of them are in the
keeping of the British Museum; the Masonic library of West
Yorkshire, England, has in custody the second largest number.

As already said these Old Charges (such is their most familiar
appellation) form the basis of modern Masonic constitutions, and
therefore jurisprudence. They establish the continuity of the
Masonic institution through a period of more than five centuries,
and by fair implication much longer; and at the same time, and by
token of the same significance, prove the great antiquity of
Masonry by written documents, which is a thing no other craft in
existence is able to do.  These manuscripts are traditional and
legendary in form and are therefore not to be read as histories
are, nevertheless a careful and critical study of them based on
internal evidence sheds more light on the earliest times of
Freemasonry than any other one source whatever. It is believed that
the Old Charges were used in making a Mason in the old Operative
days; that they served as constitutions of lodges in many cases,
and sometimes functioned as what we today call a warrant.

The systematic study of these manuscripts began in the middle of
the past century, at which time only a few were known to be in
existence.  In 1872 William James Hughan listed 32.  Owing largely
to his efforts many others were discovered, so that in 1889 Gould
was able to list 62, and Hughan himself in 1895 tabulated 66
manuscript copies, 9 printed versions and 11 missing versions.
This number has been so much increased of late years that in "Ars
Quatuor Coronatorum", Volume XXXI, page 40 (1918), Brother Roderick
H. Baxter, now Worshipful Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, listed
98, which number included the versions known to be missing. Brother
Baxter's list is peculiarly valuable in that he gives data as to
when and where these manuscripts have been reproduced.

For the sake of being better able to compare one copy with another,
Dr. W. Begemann classified all the versions into four general
"families", The Grand Lodge Family, The Sloane Family, The Roberts
Family, and The Spencer Family. These family groups he divided
further into branches, and he believed that The Spencer Family was
an offshoot of The Grand Lodge Family, and The Roberts Family an
offshoot of The Sloane Family.  In this general manner of grouping,
the erudite doctor was followed by Hughan, Gould and their
colleagues, and his classification still holds in general; attempts
have been made in recent years to upset it, but without much
success.  One of the best charts, based on Begemann, is that made
by Brother Lionel Vibert, a copy of which will be published in a
future issue of THE BUILDER.

The first known printed reference to these Old Charges was made by
Dr. Robert Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire, published
in 1868.  Dr. A.F.A. Woodford and William James Hughan were the
first to undertake a scientific study. Hughan's Old Charges is to
this day the standard work in English. Gould's chapter in his
History of Masonry would probably be ranked second in value,
whereas the voluminous writings of Dr. Begemann, contributed by him
to Zirkelcorrespondez, official organ of the National Grand Lodge
of Germany, would, if only they were translated into English, give
us the most exhaustive treatment of the subject ever yet written.

The Old Charges are peculiarly English.  No such documents have
ever been found in Ireland.  Scotch manuscripts are known to be of
English origin.  It was once held by Findel and other German
writers that the English versions ultimately derived from German
sources, but this has been disproved.  The only known point of
similarity between the Old Charges and such German documents as the
Torgau Ordinances and the Cologne Constitutions is the Legend of
the Four Crowned Martyrs, and this legend is found among English
versions only in the Regius Manuscript.  As Gould well says, the
British MSS. have "neither predecessors nor rivals"; they are the
richest and rarest things in the whole field of Masonic writings.

When the Old Charges are placed side by side it is immediately seen
that in their account of the traditional history of the Craft they
vary in a great many particulars, nevertheless they appear to have
derived from some common origin, and in the main they tell the same
tale, which is as interesting as a fairy story out of Grimm.  Did
the original of this traditional account come from some individual
or was it born out of a floating tradition, like the folk tales of
ancient people? Authorities differ much on this point.  Begemann
not only declared that the first version of the story originated
with an individual, but even set out what he deemed to be the
literary sources used by that Great Unknown.  The doctor's
arguments are powerful. On the other hand, others contend that the
story began as a general vague oral tradition, and that this was in
the course of time reduced to writing. In either event, why was the
story ever written? In all probability an answer to that question
will never be forth-coming, but W. Harry Rylands and others have
been of the opinion that the first written versions were made in
response to a general Writ for Return issued in 1388.  Rylands'
words may be quoted: "It appears to me not at all improbable that
much, if not all, of the legendary history was composed in answer
to the Writ for Returns issued to the guilds all over the country,
in the twelfth year of Richard the Second, A.D. 1388."

(A.Q.C. XVL page 1)


In 1757 King George II presented to the British Museum a collection
of some 12,000 volumes, the nucleus of which had been laid by King
Henry VII and which came to be known as the Royal Library.  Among
these books was a rarely beautiful manuscript written by hand on 64
pages of vellum, about four by five inches in size, which a
cataloger, David Casley, entered as No. 17 A-1 under the title, "A
Poem of Moral Duties: here entitled Constitutiones Artis Gemetrie
Secundem." It was not until Mr. J.O. Halliwell, F.R.S. (afterwards
Halliwell-Phillipps), a non-Mason, chanced to make the discovery
that the manuscript was known to be a Masonic document.  Mr.
Phillipps read a paper on the manuscript before the Society of
Antiquaries in 1839, and in the following year published a volume
entitled Early History of Freemasonry in England (enlarged and
revised in 1844), in which he incorporated a transcript of the
document along with a few pages in facsimile.  This important work
will be found incorporated in the familiar Universal Masonic
Library, the rusty sheepskin bindings of which strike the eyes on
almost every Masonic book shelf.  This manuscript was known as "The
Halliwell", or as "The Halliwell-Phillipps" until some fifty years
atfterwards Gould rechristened it, in honour of the Royal Library
in which it is found, the "Regius", and since then this has become
the more familiar cognomen.

David Casley, a learned specialist in old manuscripts, dated the
"Regius" as of the fourteenth century.  E.A. Bond, another expert,
dated it as of the middle of the fifteenth century.  Dr. Kloss, the
German specialist, placed it between 1427 and 1445.  But the
majority have agreed on 1390 as the most probable date. "It is
impossible to arrive at absolute certainty on this point," says
Hughan, whose Old Charges should be consulted, "save that it is not
likely to be older than 1390, but may be some twenty years or so
later." Dr.W. Begemann made a study of the document that has never
been equalled for thoroughness, and arrived at a conclusion that
may be given in his own words: it was written "towards the end of
the 14th or at least quite at the beginning of the 15th century
(not in Gloucester itself, as being too southerly, but) in the
north of Gloucestershire or in the neighbouring north of
Herefordshire, or even possibly in the south of Worcestershire."
(A.Q.C. VII, page 35.)

In 1889 an exact facsimile of this famous manuscript was published
in Volume I of the Antigrapha produced by the Quatuor Coronati
Lodge of Research, and was edited by the then secretary of that
lodge, George William Speth, himself a brilliant authority, who
supplied a glossary that is indispensable to the amateur student.
Along with it was published a commentary by R.F. Gould, one of the
greatest of all his Masonic papers, though it is exasperating in
its rambling arrangement and general lack of conclusiveness.

The Regius Manuscript is the only one of all the versions to be
written in meter, and may have been composed by a priest, if one
may judge by certain internal evidences, though the point is
disputed.  There are some 800 lines in the poem, the strictly
Masonic portion coming to an end at line 576, after which begins
what Hughan calls a "sermonette" on moral duties, in which there is
quite a Roman Catholic vein with references to "the sins seven",
"the sweet lady" (referring to the Virgin) and to holy water.
There is no such specific Mariolatry in any other version of the
Old Charges, though the great majority of them express loyalty to
"Holy Church" and all of them, until Anderson's familiar version,
are specifically Christian, so far as religion is concerned.

The author furnishes a list of fifteen "points" and fifteen
"articles", all of which are quite specific instructions concerning
the behaviour of a Craftsman: this portion is believed by many to
have been the charges to an initiate as used in the author's
period, and is therefore deemed the most important feature of the
book as furnishing us a picture of the regulations of the Craft at
that remote date.  The Craft is described as having come into
existence as an organized fraternity in "King Adelstoune's day",
but in this the author contradicts himself, because he refers to
things "written in old books" (I modernize spelling of quotations)
and takes for granted a certain antiquity for the Masonry, which,
as in all the Old Charges, is made synonymous with Geometry, a
thing very different in those days from the abstract science over
which we laboured during our school days.

The Regius Poem is evidently a book about Masonry, rather than a
document of Masonry, and may very well have been written by a
non-Mason, though there is no way in which we can verify such
theories, especially seeing that we know nothing about the document
save what it has to tell us about itself, which is little.

In his Commentary on the Regius MS, R.F. Gould produced a paragraph
that has ever since served as the pivot of a great debate.  It
reads as follows and refers to the "sermonette" portion which deals
with "moral duties": "These rules of decorum read very curiously in
the present age, but their inapplicability to the circumstances of
the working Masons of the fourteen or fifteenth century will be at
once apparent.  They were intended for the gentlemen of those days,
and the instruction for behaviour in the presence of a lord - at
table and in the society of ladies - would have all been equally
out of place in a code of manners drawn up for the use of a Guild
or Craft of Artisans."

The point of this is that there must have been present among the
Craftsmen of that time a number of men not engaged at all in
labour, and therefore were, as we would now describe them,
"speculatives." This would be of immense importance if Gould had
made good his point, but that he was not able to do.  The greatest
minds of the period in question were devoted to architecture, and
there is no reason not to believe that among the Craftsmen were
members of good families.  Also the Craft was in contact with the
clergy all the while, and therefore many of its members may well
have stood in need of rules for preserving proper decorum in great
houses and among the members of the upper classes.  From Woodford
until the present time the great majority of Masonic scholars have
believed the Old Charges to have been used by a strictly operative
craft and it is evident that they will continue to do so until more
conclusive evidence to the contrary is forthcoming than Gould's

Next to the Regius the oldest manuscript is that known as the
Cooke.  It was published by R. Spencer, London, 1861 and was edited
by Mr. Matthew Cooke, hence his name. In the British Museum's
catalogue it is listed as "Additional M.S. 23,198", and has been
dated by Hughan at 1450 or thereabouts, an estimate in which most
of the specialists have concurred. Dr. Begemann believed the
document to have been "compiled and written in the southeastern
portion of the western Midlands, say, in Gloucestershire or
Oxfordshire, possibly also in southeast Worcestershire or southwest
Warwickshire.  The 'Book of Charges' which forms the second part of
the document is certainly of the 14th century, the historical or
first part, of quite the beginning of the 15th." (A.Q.C. IX, page

The Cooke MS. was most certainly in the hands of Mr. George Payne,
when in his second term as Grand Master in 1720 he compiled the
"General Regulations", and which Anderson included in his own
version of the "Constitutions" published in 1723.  Anderson himself
evidently made use of lines 901-960 of the MS.

The Lodge Quatuor Coronati reprinted the Cooke in facsimile in Vol.
II of its Antigrapha in 1890, and included therewith a Commentary
by George William Speth which is, in my own amateur opinion, an
even more brilliant piece of work than Gould's Commentary on the
Regius.  Some of Speth's conclusions are of permanent value.  I
paraphrase his findings in my own words:

The M.S. is a transcript of a yet older document and was written by
a Mason.  There were several versions of the Charges to a Mason in
circulation at the time. The MS. is in two parts, the former of
which is an attempt at a history of the Craft, the latter of which
is a version of the Charges.  Of this portion Speth writes that it
is "far and away the earliest, best and purest version of the 'Old
Charges' which we possess." The MS. mentions nine "articles", and
these evidently were legal enforcements at the time; the nine
"points" given were probably not legally binding but were morally
so.  "Congregations" of Masons were held here and there but no
"General Assembly" (or "Grand Lodge"); Grand Masters existed in
fact but not in name and presided at one meeting of a congregation
only. "Many of our present usages may be traced in their original

One of the most important of all the versions of the Old Charges is
not an ancient original at all, but a printed edition issued in
1722, and known as the Roberts, though it is believed to be a copy
of an ancient document.  Of this W.J. Hughan writes: "The only copy
known was purchased by me at Brother  Spencer's sale of Masonic
works, etc. (London, 1875), for 8 pounds 10s., on behalf of the
late Brother R.F. Bower, and is now in the magnificent library of
the Grand Lodge of Iowa, U.S.A." This tiny volume is easily the
most priceless Masonic literary possession in America, and was
published in exact facsimile by the National Masonic Research
Society, with an eloquent Introduction by Dr. Joseph Fort Newton in
1916. The Reverend Edmund Coxe edited a famous reprint in 1871. It
is a version meriting the most careful study on the part of the
Masonic student because it had a decided influence on the
literature and jurisprudence of the Craft after its initial
appearance. It appeared in one of the most interesting and
momentous periods of modern Speculative Masonry, namely, in the
years between the organization of the first Grand Lodge in 1717 and
the appearance of Anderson's Constitution in 1723. It is the
earliest printed version of the Old Charges known to exist.

Another well-known printed version is that published in 1724 and
known as the Briscoe.  This was the second publication of its kind.
The third printed version was issued in 1728-9 by Benjamin Cole,
and known as the Cole Edition in consequence. This version is
considered a literary gem in that the main body of the text is
engraved throughout in most beautiful style. A special edition of
this book was made in Leeds, 1897, the value of which was enhanced
by one of W.J. Hughan's famous introductions. For our own modern
and practical purposes the most important of all the versions ever
made was that compiled by Dr. James Anderson in 1723 and everywhere
known familiarly as "Anderson's Constitution." A second edition
appeared, much changed and enlarged, in 1738; a third, by John
Entick, in 1756; and so on every few years until by 1888 twenty-two
editions in all had been issued. The Rev.A.F.A. Woodford, Hughan's
collaborator, edited an edition of The  Constitution Book of 1723
as Volume I of Kenning's Masonic Archeological Library, under date
of 1878. This is a correct and detailed reproduction of the book
exactly as Anderson first published it, and is valuable

Anderson's title page is interesting to read: "The CONSTITUTION,
History, Laws, Charges, Orders, Regulations, and Usages, of the
Right Worshipful FRATERNITY of ACCEPTED FREE MASONS; collected from
their general RECORDS, and their faithful TRADITIONS of many Ages.
To be read At the Admission of a NEW BROTHER, when the Master or
Warden shall begin, or order some other Brother to read as follows,
etc." After the word "follows" Anderson's own version of Masonic
history begins with this astonishing statement:

"Adam, our first Parent, created after the Image of God, the great
Architect of the Universe, must have had the Liberal Sciences,
particularly Geometry, written on his Heart, etc."

Thus did Dr. Anderson launch his now thrice familiar account of the
history of Freemasonry, an account which, save in the hands of the
most expert Masonic antiquarian, yields very little dependable
historical fact whatsoever, but which, owing to the prestige of its
author, came to be accepted for generations as a bona fide history
of the Craft.  It will be many a long year yet before the rank and
file of brethren shall have learned that Dr. Anderson's "history"
belongs in the realm of fable for the most part, and has never been
accepted as anything else by knowing ones.

The established facts concerning Dr. Anderson's own private history
comprise a record almost as brief as the short and simple annals of
the poor.  Brother J.T. Thorp, one of the most distinguished of the
veterans among living English Masonic scholars, has given it in an
excellent brief form. (A.Q.C. XVIII, page 9.)
"Of this distinguished Brother we know very little. He is believed
to have been born, educated and made a Mason in Scotland,
subsequently settling in London as a Presbyterian Minister.  He is
mentioned for the first time in the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge
of England on September 29th, 1721, when he was appointed to revise
the old Gothic Constitutions - this revision was approved by the
Grand Lodge of England on September 29th in 1723, in which year
Anderson was Junior Grand Warden under the Duke of Wharton - he
published a second edition of the Book of Constitutions in 1738,
and died in 1739.  This is about all that is known of him."
In his 1738 edition Anderson so garbled up his account of the
founding of Grand Lodge, and contradicted his own earlier story in
such fashion, that R.F. Gould was inclined to believe either that
he had become disgruntled and full of spleen, or else that he was
in his dotage. Be that as it may, Anderson's historical pages are
to be read with extreme caution.  His Constitution itself, or that
part dealing with the principles and regulations of the Craft, is
most certainly a compilation made of extracts of other versions of
the Old Charges pretty much mixed with the Doctor's own ideas in
the premises, and so much at variance with previous customs that
the official adoption thereof caused much dissension among the
lodges, and may have had something to do with the disaffection
which at last led to the formation of the "Antient" Grand Lodge of
1751 or thereabouts.  The "Anderson" of this latter body, which in
time waxed very powerful, was Laurence Dermott, a brilliant
Irishman, who as Grand Secretary was leader of the "Antient" forces
for many years, and who wrote for the body its own Constitution,
called Ahiman Rezon, which cryptic title is believed by some to
mean "Worthy Brother Secretary." The first edition of this
important version was made in 1756, a second in 1764, and so on
until by 1813 an eighth had been published.  A very complete
collection of all editions is in the Masonic Library at
Philadelphia.  A few of our Grand Lodges, Pennsylvania among them,
continue to call their Book of Constitutions, The Ahiman Rezon.

Anderson himself is still on the rack of criticism. Learned
brethren are checking his statements (see Brother Vibert's article
in THE BUILDER for August), sifting his pages and leaving no stone
unturned in order to appraise correctly his contributions to
Masonic history.  But there is not so much disagreement on the
Constitution.  In that document, which did not give satisfaction to
many upon its appearance, Anderson, as Brother Lionel Vibert has
well said, "builded better than he knew," because he produced a
document which until now serves as the groundwork of nearly all
Grand Lodge Constitutions having jurisdiction over Symbolic
Masonry, and which once and for all established Speculative
Freemasonry on a basis apart, and with no sectarian character,
either as to religion or politics.  For all his faults as a
historian (and these faults were as much of his age as of his own
shortcomings), Anderson is a great figure in our annals and
deserves at the hand of every student a careful and, reverent


In concluding this very brief and inconclusive sketch of a great
subject, I return to my first statement.  In the whole circle of
Masonic studies there is not, for us Americans at any rate, any
subject of such importance as this of the Old Charges, especially
insofar as they have to do with our own Constitutions and
Regulations, and that is very much indeed.  Many false conceptions
of Freemasonry may be directly traced to an unlearned, or wilful
misinterpretation of the Old Charges, what they are, what they mean
to us, and what their authority may be.  In this land jurisprudence
is a problem of supreme importance, and in a way not very well
comprehended by our brethren in other parts, who often wonder why
we should be so obsessed by it.  We have forty-nine Grand Lodges,
each of which is sovereign in its own state, and all of which must
maintain fraternal relations with scores of Grand bodies abroad as
well as with each other.  These Grand Lodges assemble each year to
legislate for the Craft, and therefore, in the very nature of
things, the organization and government of the Order is for us
Americans a much more complicated and important thing than it can
be in other lands.  To know what the Old Charges are, and to
understand Masonic constitutional law and practice, is for our
leaders and law-givers a prime necessity.

(Note: - A study of the Comacine question should have been
published in the Study Club this month, but I was prevented from
writing it by a rather extended illness, and therefore substituted
the present article, already prepared.  I shall hope to include the
Comacine paper next month or the month thereafter.  I ask my
readers to let me hear of any errors detected in order that the
same may be corrected before this article goes into book form.
Also I regret the fact that we were unable to incorporate in the
present number Brother Lionel Vibert's Chart of the Old Charges;
this will appear in a future issue in the form of a two-page
spread, valuable for reference uses and for framing.  I have to
thank Brothers Vibert and R.I. Clegg for a critical appraisal of
this present chapter.  H. L. H.)


Gould's History of Freemasonry, Vol. 1, beginning on page 56;
A.Q.C., I, 127; A.Q.C., I, 147; A.Q.C., I, 152; A.Q.C., IV, 73;
A.Q.C., IV, 83; A.Q.C., IV, 171; A.Q.C., V, 37; A.Q.C., IV, 201;
A.Q.C, IV, 36,198; A.Q.C., VII, 119; A.Q.C., VIII, 224; Hughan, Old
Charges; A.Q.C., IX, 18; A.Q.C., IX, 85; A.Q.C., XI, 205; A.Q.C.,
XIV, 153; A.Q.C., XVI, 4; A.Q.C., XVIII, 16; A.Q.C., XX, 249;
A.Q.C., XXI, 161, 211; A.Q.C., XXVIII, 189; Gould's Concise
History, chapter V; Gould, Collected Essays, 3; Stillson, History
of Freemasonry and Concordant Orders, 157; A.Q.C., XXXIII, 5; The
Masonic Review, Vol. XIII, 297; Edward Conder, Records of the Hole
Craft and Fellowship of Masons; Vibert, Story of the Craft; Vibert,
Freemasonry Before the Era of Grand Lodge; Findel, History of
Freemasonry; Hughan, Cole's Constitutions; Fort, Early History and
Antiquities of Freemasonry; Pierson, Traditions, Origin and Early
History of Freemasonry; Hughan, Ancient Masonic Rolls: Waite, New
Encyclopedia of Freemasonry; Clegg, Mackey's Revised History; Ward,
Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods: A.Q.C., Antigapha, all volumes.

Mackey's Encyclopedia (Revised Edition)

Ahiman Rezon, 37; Antients, 55; Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 80; Arts,
80; Benjamin Cole, 157; Charges of 1722, 143; Congregations, 174;
Cooke's Manuscript, 178; Dr. James Anderson, 57; Dr. Robert Plot,
570; Four Crowned Martyrs, 272; George B.F. Kloss, 383; Gothic
Constitutions, 304; Halliwell Manuscript, 316; John Entick, 246;
Laurence Dermott, 206; Legend, 433; Legend of the Craft, 434; Old
Charges, 143; Old Manuscripts, 464; Old Records, 612; Old
Regulations, 527; Operative Masonry, 532; Parts, 544; Plot
Manuscript, 569; Points, 572; Regius Manuscript, 616; Roberts'
Manuscript, 627; Speculative Masonry, 704.