The precise history of Freemasonry is uncertain but it is widely accepted that it originates from the stonemasons’ guilds of the Middle Ages. This at least is where much of the imagery, symbolism and rituals are taken from.
Many professionals and craftspeople were members of guilds during medieval times. These guilds not only sought to improve the skills of its members but shared secrets that were meant only for members. These members decreed to live by certain standards and to uphold a level of professionalism in their work, and the masonic guild was no different. The Regius Poem, published in 1390 is believed to be one of the earliest documented works that makes reference to masons and claims that the craft began with Euclid in Ancient Egypt.
In 1717, four London based Lodges formed the first Grand Lodge. By this point the guilds had started to accept speculative masons into their ranks, meaning that members were not necessarily skilled or practicing masons. It is believed that this was done to try and compensate for the fact that modern building materials like brick and wood were being used in place of stone, therefore reducing available work and subsequently reducing the number of professional masons that existed. However, discord followed and the Grand Lodge of Antients was formed in 1752, a group that had become disheartened by the rituals and ceremonies that were being used. They believed that “the Moderns” had become apathetic and so broke away.
In 1813, the Grand Lodge of Antients and the Grand Lodge of England resolved their differences and formed what became the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE). UGLE still claims jurisdiction over all lodges in England today.
More recently, the end of the First World War saw a considerable increase in the number of Grand Lodges that existed but Hitler viewed the existence of societies like the Freemasons as being counter to his plans for world domination, and an estimated 200,000 masons were killed, forcing many remaining members to go underground and become more secretive. Whilst some secrecy remained following the end of the war, this has been replaced by openness and acceptance to a large degree. King Edward VIII, Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are among some of the fraternity’s notable former members.
Today, there are over 250,000 members meeting in more than 8,000 masonic lodges throughout England and Wales, with a further 150,000 members belonging to the Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland. Estimates place current world membership at around 6 million, with a third of this number located in the United States.
Today the MASONIC CHARITABLE FOUNDATION is one of the UK’s top charities and in 2018 contributed £48.1 million. Kindness has always been a core principle of Freemasonry. Individuals give time and money to help others, whether locally, nationally or globally.