The Eight Grand Lodges of England 

An investigation of the eight Grand Lodges that have been formed in England               - some more ‘Grand’ than others.

   A Grand Lodge is a Lodge that has the power to form other Lodges and which regulates the Lodges under its authority. There have been a number Grand Lodges of Craft Freemasonry in England.

   Let’s start with one that never existed; the Mythical History. The earliest references to the history of Craft Freemasonry come from surviving copies of the Old Charges. A copy of this document had to be present in a Lodge for an Entered Apprentice to be correctly initiated, or an Entered Apprentice made a Fellow Craft on completing his apprenticeship. The Regius Poem was written in around 1386, and the Cooke Manuscript around 1450, but parts of it are believed to be taken from much older documents.

   The story of the secrets of building, geometry and architecture leads us from Noah, through to the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, to the building of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. It takes us to France, and on to England where Saint Adhabelle converted Saint Alban to Christianity. St Alban is credited with giving Masons a set of regulations. King Athelstan of England’s younger son, Prince Edwin, was said to be a Mason, and he obtained the King’s patent for the holding of a gathering every year, or at least every three years, the first of which was held at York in 926 CE; This is of some significance in the development of Grand Lodges.

   It is clear from the context of the Old Charges that these assemblies were for the benefit of regulating apprenticeships and for the better operation of the stonemason’s craft.

   The Premier (or first) Grand Lodge was formed in 1717 by four Lodges, of which three have survived and are known as the Time-Immemorial Lodges. This Grand Lodge was originally intended only to have supremacy in the Cities of London and Westminster.
Its main initial purpose appears to have been to organise an annual feast!

   A small group of enthusiasts then set about turning it into something altogether grander. The most prominent was the Rev. Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a Huguenot with a strong interest in what we now call science; George Payne, a senior civil servant; and Martin Folkes. They improved the Grand Lodge’s organisation, made it more respectable and encouraged more Lodges to join it.  Payne was the second Grand Master, and he requested the Brethren to bring to the Grand Lodge any old writings and records relating to the craft of Masonry they may have.

   The Rev Dr James Anderson was appointed to write the first Book of Constitutions of the Grand Lodge, which incorporated the Mythical History mentioned earlier. The first edition was published in 1723, and a second in 1738, in which the Mythical History was expanded and brought up to date by the addition of many stories and tall tales invented by James Anderson.

   The efforts to improve the Grand Lodge’s respectability were so successful that its first nobleman Grand Master, the 2nd Duke of Montagu, was installed in 1721. However, the position of Grand Master became regarded as influential and attracted some unsuitably ambitious candidates, one of whom, the 1st Duke of Wharton, managed to force himself on the Grand Lodge as Grand Master in 1722. To secure the Lodge’s continuity, Desgauliers was appointed as Wharton’s deputy. At the end of his year of office, Wharton left the Grand Lodge in high dudgeon. He was a notorious rogue, and King George I had made him a Duke (previously he had been an Earl) to draw him away from the Jacobite cause, to which he later reverted and was exiled. He was also President of the Hellfire Club, which was devoted to ‘wining, dining and whoring’. The following year, respectability returned with the appointment of the Earl of Dalkeith (later 2nd Duke of Buccleuch). The project was back on track, and the Premier Grand Lodge’s success is shown by the creation of Grand Lodges in Ireland (1725) and Scotland (1736) based on its model.

   One side effect of the rising popularity of Freemasonry was that a number of ‘exposures’ were published, claiming to reveal the content of Masonic ritual, ceremonies and secrets. Some claimed to be Masons who were not, and some were irregularly made Masons. To prevent the admission to its Lodges of those not properly qualified, in 1750, the Premier Grand Lodge decided not to admit those who had been made Masons in Ireland, and to change some of the signs of recognition. This decision was to have a significant impact on the development of Freemasonry.

   The Grand Lodge of England According to the Old Institutions (the Antients’ Grand Lodge)

   This was formed in 1751 by a group of Irish Masons in London who were excluded from the Lodges operating under the Premier Grand Lodge.  A series of failed harvests in Ireland had led to much hardship there and had led to mass Irish emigration to England, especially to London, where the Irish immigrants took menial jobs. Snobbery among the members of the English Lodges led them to reject applications to join from the Masons among these immigrants. A group of the disaffected Irish Masons, along with some others, met and formed a Grand Committee in 1751, and two years later it became the ‘Grand Lodge of England according to the Old Institutions’.

  Its first Book of Constitutions, subtitled Ahiman Rezon (meaning ‘Help to a Brother’) stated: ‘... there were numbers of Old Masons in and adjacent to London from whom the present Grand Lodge of Antient Masons received the Old System free from innovation’. These words were written by Laurence Dermott, an Irish Mason who was central to the success of the Antients’ Grand Lodge. He was its Grand Secretary from 1752 for nearly twenty years and later Deputy Grand Master. Over the years that followed, many of the Irish Masons returned to Ireland, and the membership of the Antients’ Lodges tended to be drawn from tradesmen and professionals rather than the gentry and nobility. Supporters of this Grand Lodge were known as ‘Antients’ because they used the ‘antient’ (ancient) signs of recognition that had been replaced by the Premier Grand Lodge, disparagingly nicknamed the ‘Moderns’ by the Antients (though, confusingly, the Antients were formed after the Moderns). The Antients were also sometimes known as the ‘Atholl Masons’ because the 3rd Duke of Atholl served as Grand Master from 1771–74 and the 4th Duke from 1775–81 and 1791–1812.

   There was considerable rivalry between the Antients’ and the Moderns’ Grand Lodges. After a while, rules were introduced banning members of an Antients’ Lodge from attending Moderns’ Lodges and vice versa, and forcing initiated members of an Antients’ Lodge to undergo initiation again if they wished to join a Moderns’ Lodge and vice versa. These rules were generally ignored, but sometimes led to bizarre proceedings, such as in the case of Thomas Harper, the silversmith who made many of the jewels still in use by some of the oldest Lodges. In 1796, he was appointed Grand Steward in the Moderns’ Grand Lodge, having previously served as Junior and Senior Grand Warden and Assistant Grand Secretary in the Antients’ Grand Lodge. Shortly after his appointment as Grand Steward he was denounced and called before the Committee of Charity, where he asked for time to attempt a reconciliation between the two factions. He failed in this and was expelled from the Moderns. Subsequently he became Deputy Grand Master and principal negotiator for the Antients in the run-up to the Union.

The United Grand Lodge of England

   In 1813, the Moderns’ and the Antients’ Grand Lodges came together after much negotiation and the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) was formed. One of the sticking points had been the signs of recognition, but the Moderns backed down; perhaps because some of its Lodges, including the Lodge of Antiquity, had never adopted the changes.

Following the union, a new Ritual was created which removed most Christian references to make it more universally acceptable. The Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge, HRH the Duke of Sussex, became the first Grand Master of UGLE and served from 1813 to 1843. UGLE continues to thrive and celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2017.

The Grand Lodge at Wigan

   The changes to the ritual and ceremonial made by the United Grand Lodge of England were not universally popular. In 1821, an issue arose in Lancashire (a province that had been rather neglected by its Provincial Grand Master) and, as the Book of Constitutions did not give the answer, UGLE was asked to rule on the quorum of members for a valid Lodge meeting. UGLE’s response seems to have been rather terse and led to an argument that expanded into a general questioning of the changes to the ritual and even the legality of UGLE. As a consequence by 1823 six Lodges in Lancashire were erased from UGLE and 26 Freemasons were expelled for insubordination.

   In response, the six Lodges formed the ‘Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of England According to the Old Constitutions’, which held its first meeting in Liverpool in July 1823. The meeting was adjourned, and reconvened in December, when the newly written Magna Charta of Masonic Freedom was read and approved. It was in essence, an attempt to revive the Antients’ Grand Lodge. The new Grand Lodge moved to Wigan in March 1824, where it continued to meet until 1866. It never constituted any new Lodges and, one by one, its six Lodges gradually rejoined UGLE; the last one joined in 1913.

The Grand Lodge of Stockport

This appears to have been another Northern breakaway Grand Lodge formed by Masons unhappy with the changes made the United Grand Lodge of England. It is said to have been formed in the 1830s, but no records have survived, apart from references to it in the Minute Books of the Lodge of Sincerity, the largest Lodge under the Wigan Grand Lodge.
By 1843 it had disappeared.

   Masonic Orders exercise central control under their jurisdiction over the ritual practiced by the Lodges, councils, conclaves or whatever the unit may be called. Because of the way that the Craft developed from very early times, there was considerable diversity of practice from one part of the country to another, and particularly between the Lodges under the two rival Grand Lodges, the Premier and the Ancient Grand Lodges.

   To pave the way for the union of these two Grand Lodges, a Lodge of Promulgation was formed in 1809 under the Premier Grand Lodge (or Moderns) to examine the ritual and make recommendations. Following the union in 1813, a Lodge of Reconciliation was established to complete the rationalisation of the ritual into a form acceptable to both parties forming the newly constituted United Grand Lodge. Its other main function was to demonstrate the unified ritual. Representatives of Lodges in London and the Provinces were invited to attend special demonstrations organised by the experts from the Lodge of Reconciliation, which completed its work in 1816.

 However, because it was forbidden to print the ritual or even produce written manuscripts, so the communication of the work to the various Lodges relied heavily on the ability, not to mention the memory, of those attending the demonstrations. Their task was then to instruct their own members in the approved practices. In addition to the difficulty of interpretation, doubtless there would also have been the desire to improvise - a trait, dare one say, recognised in some present day Preceptors.

   In view of these hazards, it is surprising how much uniformity was achieved. All present rituals are derived from the Lodge of Reconciliation ritual and, apart from a few Lodges in Bristol and the North of England, which retains more of the earlier practices, the degree of variation is quite small.

   Ironically, most of our knowledge of ritual before the union comes from the early anti-Masonic exposure in England and France. The first ritual was probably a simple ceremony of admission, which developed into two degrees and, at about the time when the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, into a system of three degrees. These early ceremonies were mainly delivered in catechetical form and were evidently briefer and less well structured than the later ceremonies. 

   Early ritual was also Christian in content - indeed the Premier Grand Lodge met on St. John's Day (24th June). The work of the Lodge of Reconciliation between 1813 and 1816 included demonstrations of the opening and closing ceremonies, the obligations and the perambulations. It was probably also when most of the Christian references were removed (although some remain in the present ritual).

Since that time, and until recent years, Grand Lodge has kept clear of involvement in ritual and has never officially recognised any particular working. Lodges were then, and are to this day, free to teach and practice whatever ritual they wish, provided the landmarks are not breached.

   Private Lodges of Instruction were already in existence in the 18th century. However, the earliest one still in existence was that founded by the Lodge of Stability in 1817. This was followed by the Emulation Lodge of Improvement in 1823. Soon after this, two very important figures in the development of Craft ritual emerged, namely Peter Gilkes, who joined Emulation in 1825, and George Claret, both of whom had attended the Lodge of Reconciliation on a number of occasions.

© UGL of E 2019Solomon – Fostering Curiosity, Developing Understanding