The earliest of the old Constitutions. It is in poetic form, and was probably transcribed in 1390 from an earlier copy.
The manuscript is in the King’s Library of the British Museum. It was published in 1840 by James 0. Halliwell, and again in 1844, under the title of The Early History of Freemasonry in England. The Masonic character of the poem remained unknown until its discovery by Halliwell, who was not a Freemason, because it was catalogued as A Poem of Moral Duties. It is now more commonly known as the Regius Manuscript because it formed part of the Royal Library commenced`by Henry VII and presented to the British Museum by George II.
What is said above by Brother Hawkins of this early reference to the Craft does not exhibit as fully as many may desire the peculiar features of the Hall Udell or Regius Manuscript. The book is about four by five and a half inches, the writing being on vellum, a fine parchment, and it was bound in its present cover, according to Brother H. J. Whymper, about the year 1838. The cover bears the Royal Arms stamped on both sides with G. R. II, and the date 1757. In that year the King, George II, b an instrument that passed the Great Seal of England presented the Library containing the volume to the British Museum where the present reviser of this work had the pleasure of personally examining it. Formerly in the possession of Charles They’re, a boox collector of the seventeenth century and listed in Bernards CatulZugous Manuscripts am Anyliac, Oxford, 1697 (page 200), and described in David Casley s Catalogue of the Manuscripts of the Old Royal Library, 1734 (page 259), as a Poem of Moral levities, the contents were mistaken until J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps mentioned it in his paper on the Introduction of Freemasonry into England, read before the Society of Antiquaries during the session of 1838 to 1839. Two small editions of the transcript of the poem were published as Brother Hawkins tells us. The first edition contained a facsimile reproduction of four lines of the manuscript, the second similarly reproduced the first page, and he also gave a glossary which with the transcript was published in a veritable gem of a work in 1889, Spencer and Company with an introduction by Brother H. J. Whymper. Halliwell-Phillipps pointed out that the writer was probable a priest, this evidently from the allusions in line 699 (page LI). He also calls attention to line 143 (page XI), as intimating that a still older manuscript was in existence when the poem was written.
The writing is done in a neat but characteristic style of the earls period and in these modern days far from familiar to us, the English of that generation was also very different from that of our time. Brother Roderick H. Baxter, Past Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge and Past President of the Manchester Association for Masonic Research, has carefully modernized the transcript and permitted us to make use of his valuable labors. Before giving the work of Brother Baxter we ma) submit a transcript of the first eight lines in which may be seen some of the difficulties met in turning such a manuscript into modern English.
Whose wol bothe wel rede and loke
He may fynde wryte yn olde boke
Of grete lord s, and eke ladyysse,
That hade mony chyldryn y-fere, y- wisse;
And hade no rentys to fynde hem wyth,
Nowther yn towne, ny felde, ny fryth:
A counsel togeder they cowthe hem take,
To ordeyne for these chyldryn sake, . . .
In the following transcript Brother Baxter has adhered strictly to the phraseology of the original with all its vagaries of person, tense and mood, and has retained the peculiarities of double and sometimes even treble negatives, the only variation being in the substitution of modern words for those now obsolete. However, where the modern words at the ends of lines could not have been used to preserve the jingle of the verses the old words have been utilized with their present equivalents added in brackets so as to avoid the necessity or referring to a glossary. The Roman numerals on the right of the lines indicate the pages of the manuscript.
The Regius Manuscript Translation
The Manuscript has been discussed at various times by several students. A lengthy and careful examination of it appears in volume i of the Antigrapha of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, 1889, and among the Collected Essays and Papers Relating to Freemasonry by Robert F. Gould, 1913, published by William Tait of Belfast, Ireland. Brother William Begernann published a discussion of it in the German language, which is summarized by Brother George William Speth in volume vii~ Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge.
The name Regius Manuscript was the suggestion of Brother Gould as indicating its pre-eminence as a Masonic document as well as its previous ownership by the Kings of England. The Manuscript, as Brother Baxter well said, is of prime importance to the Fraternity of Freemasons as being its oldest preserved document which affords evidence of a legendary history and an indication of a speculative origin. Brother Baxter read a paper upon the subject before the Lodge of Research at Leicester on November 2S, 1914. From this discussion we take the following comments of Brother Baxter:
I should like to ask you to carefully consider the wording of the poem, and to notice the remarkable number of instances in which the phrases have been introduced although in different terminology into our ritual, and the cases in which its requirements have been incorporated with our Constitutions. Even the last stage of the document, which deals with manners at table and in the presence of superiors, and appears at first sight to be quite irrelevant, may be accepted as evidence that our present custom of celebrating special Masonic events by banqueting and fraternizing was a feature of the Craft at the time of which the Manuscript speaks. You will all be acquainted in some degree with the remarkable series of documents known variously as the Manuscript Constitutions, the Gothic Constitutions, or more commonly nowadays as the Old Charges of the British Freemasons and you will further know that after an introductory prayer, of a purely Christian character, they go on to relate how the science of geometry (or Freemasonry) came to be founded. This same legend forms the first part of the poem we are now considering, and as it clearly states that the story is to be found in old books, abundantly proves that the versifier had access to copies of the Old Charges which are unhappily now lost to us.
I wish to use this legend as the basis of a theory which I shall try to develop. Briefly stated, my idea is that the poem, as well as all the other Old Charges, clearly indicates that architectures the mistress of the arts, which is undoubtedly founded on geometry, was developed in Egypt, the cradle of civilization, and that its early practitioners were, as related in these old Manuscript, of gentle birth. They must have been the actual designers of the structures and have worked, in conjunction so far as the execution of their projects was concerned with the skilled craftsmen and manual laborers who were necessary to their purpose. A gild, composed of different grades of members, would thus be formed, possibly with different secret signs for each class, and from this gild, through different channels of development, would arise the present-day purely speculative form of Freemasonry, with its system of Degrees.
Brothers Speth and Gould have labored hard to establish the fact that prior to the institution of Grand Lodge, and during its early regime, two Degrees only were worked, and I have used the weight of later evidence to back up their assertion. What is more likely than that the higher or Master’s Degree was confined to the skilled geometricians, whilst the simpler artificers had to content themselves with the lower step? All students know definitely, that from the earliest times of which we have any monuments remaining, that architecture was a living art developing along clearly defined lines, and varying in character with the nature of the materials employed, and the climatic conditions existing in the countries where they were used, down at least to the close of the Gothic Era in Western Europe, and its counterpart in Eastern countries. (I am not at all suggesting that the Renaissance effected an arrest of creative design, although it reverted to and made use of forms of a bygone age.) It is therefore not possible to conceive that buildings of any architectural pretensions could have been erected, without carefully thought-out designs having been prepared. Dealing more particularly with the actual time of the writing of the poem, we can only conclude that such a progression of design as commonly proceeded over the whole of England almost simultaneously, could only have been produced by a school of thought and not by individual effort. My firm conviction is that this school was composed of the Master Freemasons of the period.
Commenting on lines 143-G of the poem which (modernized) read:
By old time written I find
That the Prentice should be of gentle kind
And so sometime great lords’ blood,
Took this geometry that is full good.
The late F. J. Furnivall said, “I should like to see the evidence of a lords son having become a working mason. and dwelling seven years with his master ‘his craft to learn.”‘ All contention is that neither the poem nor any other craft document ever suggested that a lord’s son had become a working mason. That they became students of geometry and designers of buildings is in every way likely, and was in no way derogatory to their dignity. I might even point out that the present Lord Ferrers (the successor in the earldom of your own late Provincial Grand Master) was, before his accession to the title, a practicing architect, and that other scions of noble families are at present similarly engaged. There seems to be good evidence of this in the poem, particularly in Lines 279-83, which read: She privities of the chamber tell he no man, Nor in the lodge whatsoever they don; Whatsoever thou hearest or seest them do Tell to no man wheresoever you go; The counsel of hall and even of bower Steep it well to great honor- That these gentlemen were on a different footing from the ordinary craftsmen, and that their labors were conducted. not in the Lodge, but in the chamber, are conditions which I suggest are parallel to the masons’ shed and the drawing office. Reverting now to Henry Yevley, whose name is variously spelled, but always easily recognizable, I find on turning up his name in Ivenning’s Cyclopaedia Said by the Revd. James Anderson, D.D. (in the first edition of the Book of Constitutions, 1723) to have been the King’s Freemason, or general surveyor of the buildings of King Edward III, and employed by His Majesty to ‘build several abbies’ and other edifices. Unfortunately Doctor Anderson was gifted with the imaginative faculty to an undue extent, so that such statements as the foregoing (which are frequently met with in his work) confuse more than they benefit the general reader, and, Masonically speaking, have done much harm. We fail to see why Masonry requires unhistorical statements to render it acceptable in any way.” The Reverend Brother Woodford, who was the author and editor of the encyclopedia, in conjunction with Brother Vaughan, who wrote the articles under the letters U. V, W. Y. and Z. appears, however, to be wrong on this occasion, and the imaginative doctor quite right. Doctor Begemann contributed a note to Transactions. Quatuor Coronati Lodge, xxi, in which he endeavored to prove-and I think with complete success-that the title of Freemason applied to Yevley by Stow in his Survey of London, 1598, had actually been used during the former’s lifetime, and was not a posthumous description. Doctor Begemann’s note inspired an article by Brother E. W. M Wonnacott, of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, and himself an architect in the same volume, in which he conclusively proved from existing documents, that as early as 1362 Yevley was described as a ” deviser of Masonry,” and that William of Wykeham, generally credited with having been a great architect, was merely mentioned as a clerk. In 1381 Nicholas Typerton undertook to build the aisle of Saint Dunstan’s Church in Thames Street ” selon ho devise de Mestre (according to the design of Master) Henry Iveleghe,” and in 1395 works were carried out at Westminster Hall from a model made by the advice of Waster Henri Zeveley. ” Selone be purport d’une fourme et molde fait par conseil de mesttre Henri Zeveley. (According to the style of a form and mold made by counsel of Master Henri Zeveley.) I have not picked out the ease of Yevley as being at all singular, but merely because it has been so fully dealt faith in Masonic writings which are available to us all. tn examination of the list of names in Wyatt Papworth’s paper on the Superintendents of English Buildings during the Middle Ages, and a careful study of their records, could doubtless prove that their duties were in every way analogous to those of the character selected. Surely there can no longer be any doubt that the Master Masons of the Gothic Era at least (and possibly so long as architecture has been practiced), were architects in the truest sense of the word, for when we consider the constructive ingenuity of their buildings, no less than their perfect proportions and beauty, we are compelled at once to admit, that their skill and knowledge of geometry were profound. Thus I think you will agree, I am quite justified in concluding that the legend of the founding of the science of geometry by the children of great lords and ladies, as related in the first part of the poem, is no myth, but is founded on fact, for unlettered working masons could never have produced the temples and churches for the worship of T. G. A. O. T. U., which of all things that excite pleasure to the eye, rank next only to the works of the Great Creator Himself.
– Source: Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry