The City of York, in the North of England, is celebrated for its traditional connection with Freemasonry in that kingdom. No topic in the history of Freemasonry has so much engaged the attention of modern Masonic Scholars, or given occasion to more discussion, than the alleged facts of the existence of Freemasonry in the tenth century at the City of York as a prominent point, of the calling of a Congregation of the Craft there in the year 926, of the organization of a General Assembly and the adoption of a Constitution.
During the whole of the eighteenth and the greater part of the nineteenth century, the Fraternity in general have accepted all of these statements as genuine portions of authentic history; and the adversaries of the Order have, with the same want of discrimination, rejected them all as myths; while a few earnest seekers for truth have been at a loss to determine what part was historical and what part legendary.
More recently, the discovery of many old manuscripts directed the labors of such Scholars as Hughan, Woodford, Lyon, and others, to the critical examination of the early history of Freemasonry, and that of York has particularly engaged their attention. For a thorough comprehension of the true merits of this question, it will be necessary that the student should first acquaint himself with what was, until recently, the recognized theory as to the origin of Freemasonry at York, and then that he should examine the newer hypotheses advanced by the writers of the present day.
In other words, he must read both the tradition and the history. In pursuance of this plan, we propose to commence with the legends of York Freemasonry, as found in the old manuscript Constitutions, and then proceed to a review of what has been the result of recent investigations. It may be premised that, of all those who have Subjected these legends to the crucible of historical criticism, Brother William James Hughan of Cornwall, in England, must unhesitatingly be acknowledged as Facile Pr7nceps, the ablest, the most laborious, and the most trustworthy investigator. He was the first and the most successful remover of the cloud of tradition which so long had obscured the sunlight of history.
The legend which connects the origin of English Freemasonry at York in 926 is sometimes called the York Legend, sometimes the Athelstane Legend, because the General Assembly, said to have been held there, occurred during the reign of that king; and sometimes the Edunn Legend, because that Prince is supposed to have been at the head of the Craft, and to have convoked them together to form a Constitution. The earliest extant of the old manuscript Constitution’s is the ancient poem commonly known as the Halliwell or Regius Manuscript and the date of which is conjectured, on good grounds, to be about the year 1390. In that work we find the following version of the legend:
Yn tyme of good kynge Adelstonus’ day
He made tho bothe halle and eke bowre
And hye templus of gret honowre
To sportyn him yn bothe day and nygth,
An to worsehepe hys God with alle hys mygth.
Thys goode lorde loved thys craft ful wel
And purposud to strengthyn hyt every del,
For dyvers defawtys that yn the erayft he fonde
He sende aboute ynto the londe
After alle the masonus of the crafte
To come to hym ful evene strayfte
For to amende these defautys alle
By good eonsel gef hyt mytgth fallen
A semble thenne he cowthe let make
Of dyvers lordis yn here state
Dukys, erlys, and barnes also,
Knygthys, sqwyers and mony mo
And the grete burges of that syte,
They were ther alle yn here degre
These were there uehon algate
To ordeyne for these masonus astate
Ther they sowgton bv here wytte
How they myghthyn governe hytte:
Fyftene artyeulus they there sowgton,
And fyftene poylltys there they wrogton.
For the benefit of those who are not familiar with this archaic style, the passage is translated into modern English.
This craft came into England, as I tell you, in the time of good king Athelstan’s reign; he made then both hall, and also bower and lofty temples of great honor, to take his recreation in both day and night and to worship his God with all his might. This good lord loved this craft full well, and purposed to strengthen it in every part on account of various defects that he discovered in the craft. He sent about into all the land, after all the masons of the craft, to come straight to him, to amend all these defects by good counsel, if it might so happen. He then permitted an assembly to be made of divers lords in their rank, dukes, earls, and barons, also knights, squires, and many more, and the great burgesses of that city, they were all there in their degree; these were there, each one in every way to make laws for the estate of these masons. There they sought by their wisdom how they might govern it; there they found out fifteen articles, and there they made fifteen points.
The next document in which we find this legend recited is that known as the Cooke Manuscript, whose date is placed at 1490. The details are here much more full than those contained in the Halliwell Manuscript. The passage referring to the legend is as follows:
And after that was a worthy kynge in Englond, that was callyd Athelstone, and his yongest son lovyd well the seiens of Gemetry, and he wyst well that hand craft had the praetyke of the seiens of Gemetry so well as masons; wherefore he drew him to eonsell and lernyd [the] practyke of that scions to his speculatyf. For of speculatyfe he was a master, and he lovyd well masonry and masons. And he bicome a mason hymselfe. And he gaf hem [gave theml charges and names as it is now usyd in Englond and in other countries. And he ordevned that they sehulde have resonabull pay. And purehesed [obtained] a fre patent of the kyng that they sehulde make a sembly when thei sawe resonably tvme a [to] eum togedir to her [their] eounsell of the whiehe charges, manors & semble as is write and taught in the boke of our charges wherefor I leve hit at this tyme.
This much is contained in the manuscript from lines 611 to 642. Subsequently, in lines 688-719, which appear to hasc been taken from what is above called the Boke of Charges, the legend is repeated in these words: In this manner was the forsayde art begunne in the land of Egypt bi the forsayd maister Euglat (Euelid), & so, it went fro lond to londe and fro kyngdome to kyngdome. After that, many yeris, in the tyme of Kyng Atdhelstone, whiche was sum tyme kynge of Englande, bi his counsell and other gret lordys of the land bi comin (common) assent for grete defaut y-fennde (found) among masons thei ordeyned a certayne reule amongys hem (them). on (one) tyme of the yere or in iii yere, as nede were to the kyng and gret lordys of the londe and all the eomente (community), fro provynce to provynce and fro countre to countre congregations scholde be made by maisters, of all maimers masons and felaus in the forsayd art. And so at such congregations they that be made masters schold be examined of the articulls after written, & be ransacked (thoroughly examined) whether thei be abull and kunnyng (able and skilful) to the profyte of the lordys hem to serve (to serve theru), and to the honor of the forsayd art.
Seventy years later, in 1560, the Lansdowne Manuscript was written, and in it we find the legend still further developed, and Prince Edwin for the first time introduced by name. That manuscript reads thus: Soon after the Decease of St. Albones, there came Diverse Wars into England out of Diverse Nations, so that the good rule of Masons was dishired (disturbed) and put down lentil the tonne of King Adilston. In his time there was a worthy King in England, that brought this Land into good rest, and he built many great works and buildings therefore he loved well Masons, for he had a sone called Edwin, the which Loved Masons much more than his Father did, and he was so practiced in Geometry, that he delighted much to come and talk with Masons and to learn of them the Craft. And after, for the love he had to Masons and to the Craft, he was made Mason at Windsor, and he got of the King, his Fathers a Charter and commission once every year to have Assembly, within the Realm where they would within England, and to correct within themselves Faults it Trespasses that were done ads touching the Craft, and he held them an Assembly, and there he made Masons and gave them Charges, and taught them the Manners and Commands the same to be kept ever afterwards. And tootle them the Charter and commission to keep their Assembly. and Ordained that it should he renewed from King to King, and when the Assembly were gathered together he made a cry, that 311 old Masons or Young, that had any Writings or Understanding of the charges and manners that were made before their Kings, wheresoever they were made Masons, that they should shew them forth, there were found some in French, some in Greek, some in Hebrew, and some in English, and some in other Languages, and when they were read and over seen well the intent of them was understood to be alone, and then he caused a Book to he made thereof how this worthy Craft of Masonic was first founded, and he himself commanded, and also then caused. that it should be read at any time when it should happen any Mason or Masons to be made to give him or them their Charges, and from that, until this Day, Manners of Masons have been kept in this manner and found, as well as Men might Govern it, and Furthermore at diverse Assemblies have been put and Ordained diverse Charges by the best advice of Masters and Fellows.
All the subsequent manuscripts contain the legend substantially as it is in the Lansdowne; and most of them appear to be mere copies of it, or, most probably of some original one of which both they and it are copies.
In 1793 Doctor Anderson published the first edition of the Book of Constitutions, in which the history of the Fraternity of Freemasons is, he Save, “collected from their general records and their faithful traditions of many ages.” He gives the legend taken, as he says, from “a certain record of freemasons written in the reign of King Edward IV,” which manuscript, Preston asserts, “is said to have been in the possession or the famous Elias Ashmole.”
As the old manuscripts were generally inaccessible to the Fraternity, and, indeed, until comparatively recently but few of them have been discovered, it is to the publication of the legend by Anderson, and subsequently by Preston, that we are to attribute its general adoption by the Craft for more than a century and a half.
Tile form of the legend, as given by Anderson in his first edition, varies slightly from that in his second. In the former, he places the date of the occurrence at 930; in his second, at 926: in the forth, he styles the Congregation at York a General Lodge; in his second, a Grand Lodge. Now, as the modern and universally accepted form of the legend agrees in both respects with the latter statement, and not with the former, it must be concluded that the second edition, and the subsequent ones by Entick and Noorthouck, who only repeat Anderson, furnished the form of the legend as now popular.
In the second edition of the Constitutions (page 63), published in 1738, Anderson gives the legend in the following words:
In all the Old Constitutions it is written to this purpose, viz.:
That though the Ancient records of the Brotherhood in England were most of them destroyed or lost in the war with the Danes, who burnt the Monasteries where the Records were kept- yet King Athelstan (the Grandson of King Alfred), the first anointed King of England who translated the Holy Bible into the Saxon language when he had brought the land into rest and peace, built many great works, and encouraged many Masons from France and elsewhere, whom he appointed overseers thereof: they brought with them the Charges and Regulations of the foreign Lodges, and prevailed with the King to increase the wages.
That Prince Edwin, the King’s Brother, being taught Geometry and Masonry, for the love he had to the said Craft, and to the honorable principles whereon it is grounded, purchased a Free Charter of King Athelstan his Brother, for the Free Masons having among themselves a Connection or a power and freedom to regulate themselves to amend what might happen amiss and to hold an yearly Communication in a General Assembly.
That accordingly Prince Edwin summoned all the Free and Accepted Masons in the Realm, to meet him in the Congregation at York, who came and formed the Grand Lodge under him as their Grand Master, AD. 926.
That they brought with them many old Writings and Records of the Craft, some in Greek, some in Latin some in French, and other languages; and from the contents thereof, they framed the Constitutions of the English Lodges, and made a Law for themselves, to preserve and observe the same in all Time coming, etc., etc., etc.
Preston accepted the legend, and gave it in his second edition (page 198) in the following words:
Edward died in 924, and was succeeded by Athelstane his son, who appointed his brother Edwin patron of the Masons. This prince procured a Charter from Athelstane empowering them to meet annually in communication at York. In this city, the first Grand Lodge of England was formed in 926 at which Edwin presided as Grand Master. Here many did writings were produced in Greek, Latin, and other languages, from which it is said the Constitutions of the English Lodge have been extracted.
Such is the York Legend, as it has been accepted by the Craft, contained in all the old manuscripts from at least the end of the fourteenth century to the present day; officially sanctioned by Anderson, the historiographer of the Grand Lodge in 1723, and repeated by Preston, by Oliver, and by almost all succeeding Masonic writers. Only recently has anyone thought of doubting its authenticity; and now the important question in Masonic literature is whether X it is a myth or a history-whether it is all or in any part fiction or truth-and if so, what portion belongs to the former and what to the latter category. In coming to a conclusion on this subject, the question necessarily divides itself into three forms:
1. Was there an Assembly of Freemasons held in or about the year 926, at York, under the patronage or by the permission of King Athelstan? There is nothing in the personal character or the political conduct of Athelstan that forbids such a possibility or even probability. He was liberal in his ideal, like his grandfather the great Alfred; he was a promoter of civilization; he patronized learning, built many churches and monasteries, encouraged the translation of the Scriptures, and gave charters to many operative companies. In his reign, the faith-giklan, free gilds or sodalities, were incorporated by law. There is, therefore, nothing improbable in supposing that he extended his protection to the Operative Masons.
The uninterrupted existence for several centuries of a tradition that such an Assembly was held, requires that those who deny it should furnish some more Satisfactory reason for their opinion than has yet been produced. Incredulity,” says Voltaire, “is the foundation of history.” But it must be confessed that, while an excess of credulity often mistakes fable for reality, an obstinacy of incredulity as frequently leads to the rejection of truth as fiction.
The Reverend Brother Moodford, in an essay on ache connection of forts with, the History of Freemasonry in England, inserted in Brother Hughan’s Unpublished Records of the Craft, has critically discussed this subject, and comes to this conclusion: “I see no reason, therefore, to reject so old a tradition, that under Athelstan the Operative Masons obtained his patronage, and met in General Assembly.” To that verdict Doctor Mackey subscribed.
2. Was Edwin, the brother of Athelstan, the person who convoked that Assembly? This question has already been discussed in the article Edwin, where the suggestion is made that the Edwin alluded to in the legend was not the son or brother of Athelstan, but Edwin, King of Northumbria Francis Drake, in his speech before the Grand Lodge of York in 1726, was, Doctor Mackey believed, the first who publicly advanced this opinion; but he does so in a way that shows that the view must have been generally accepted by his auditors, and not advanced by him as something new. He says: “You know we can boast that the first Grand Lodge ever held in England was held in this city, where Edwin, the first Christian King of Northumbria, about the six hundredth year after Christ, and who laid the foundation of our Cathedral, sat as Grand Master.”
Edwin, who was born in 586, ascended the throne in 617, and died in 633. He was pre-eminent, among the Anglo-Saxon Kings who were his contemporaries, for military genius and statesmanship. So inflexible was his administration of justice, that it was said that in his reign a woman or child might carry everywhere a purse of gold without danger of robbery-high commendation in those days of almost unbridled rapine.
The chief event of the reign of Edwin was the introduction of Christianity into the kingdom of Northumbria. Previous to his reign, the northern metropolis of the Church had been placed at York, and the King patronized Paulinus the Bishop, giving him a house and other possessions in that city. The only objection to this theory is its date, which is three hundred years before the reign of Athelstan and the supposed meeting at York in 926.
3. Are the Constitutions which were adopted by that General Assembly now extant? It is not to be doubted, that if a General Assembly was held, it must have adopted Constitutions or regulations for the government of the Craft. Such would mainly be the object of the meeting. But there is no sufficient evidence that the Regulations now called the York Constitutions or the Gothic Constitutions, are those that were adopted in 926. It is more probable that the original document and all genuine copies of it are lost, and that it formed the type from which all the more modern manuscript Constitutions have been formed. There is the strongest internal evidence that all the manuscripts, from the Halliwell to the Papworth, have a common original, from which they were copied with more or less accuracy, or on which they were framed with more or less modification. And this original Doctor Mackey supposed to be the Constitutions which must have been adopted at the General Assembly at York.
The theory, then, which Doctor Mackey in preparing this article concluded may safely be advanced on this subject, and which in his judgment must be maintained until there are better reasons than we now have to reject it, is, that about the year 926 a General Assembly of Freemasons was held at York, under the patronage of Edwin, brother of Athelstan, at which Assembly a code of laws was adopted, which became the basis on which all subsequent Masonic Constitutions were framed.
– Source: Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry