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The History of Royal Arch Masonry

The History of Royal Arch Masonry


Trevor I. Harris

One cannot tell the story of the Royal Arch without first commencing with the history of Craft Freemasonry. Craft or Speculative Freemasonry first appeared in England around the middle of the 16th century. There are reports of earlier speculative lodge meetings, but these cannot be proven to have included truly non-operative masons.

Freemasonry, however, flourished, and soon spread all over the world, mainly by lodges in the British Army, which were generally composed of members from the lower ranks. Military Freemasons from Scotland and Ireland were especially active. It also spread to the continent, where Europeans also became enthusiastic Freemasons, with early meetings being recorded in France , Germany and other countries.

At the time of the formation of Grand Lodge in London in 1717, there were perhaps only about 25 or thirty lodges in the whole of England . However, Freemasonry had spread to France in the 1720’s, and the French were already experimenting with all sorts of weird and wonderful degrees and side orders.

Indeed, there is a French document in the Grand Lodge library from around 1760 listing over 36 different degrees, one of which is the Royal Arch degree. Most of these degrees were extremely short lived. However, the one order which has undoubtedly stood the test of time is The Royal Arch degree.

Due to the lack of definite evidence, as in those early days virtually nothing was written down, it cannot be proven with 100% certainty that the Royal Arch was first practised in France , but all the existing historical records point towards it. However, what is known is that it did not travel to England from France , but arrived in England via Dublin in Ireland , from where it also spread to Scotland .

In the early English records, there are references to Freemasonry being a royal art, and arches supporting Freemasonry, but these are almost certainly simply the use of colourful language describing regular craft Freemasonry.

When it comes to the Royal Arch Chapter, it is first mentioned as a separate institution from regular Freemasonry in Ireland , when there is a newspaper report describing a procession of the Royal Arch in 1743.

A year later, in 1744, a book was published entitled “A Serious and Impartial Enquiry into the cause of the present day decay in Free Masonry in the Kingdom of Ireland.” It was written by Dr. Fifield D’Assigny, and referred to a genuine Royal Arch Mason from London who had visited Dublin in Ireland .

There he attended a Royal Arch meeting, which was presided over by a brother who claimed to be a Master of the Royal Arch Degree from York. However, the brother from London found that he did not possess the true secrets of the Royal Arch Degree, and was duly accused of being a fraud.

The same author further wrote that there was “a assembly of Master Masons who met in York under the title of Royal Arch Masons, whose qualifications and excellencies are superior to others.” A high compliment indeed. Apart from these references confirming the Royal Arch being practised in London, York and Dublin, there are no other references at this time to the Royal Arch degree being practised anywhere else in Britain .

Early Royal Arch member’s medals

(that on the left is the standard Moderns English design, and that on the right favoured by both Scottish and Antients Royal Arch masons).

However, it is a curious fact of history that we often only hear about an event or practise when there is a problem. The Royal Arch degree may well have spread to other cities, but if everything ran smoothly, no mention of that fact was ever needed to be made. It is important to note that at this time, the Royal Arch degree was practised within Craft Lodges, as an extension to the third degree.

In the 1740’s and 50’s, The Grand Lodge of England was certainly not in favour of its members practising the Royal Arch degree, and frequently made its feelings known, although they stopped short of an outright ban.

When in 1759 William Carroll of Ireland , who described himself as a Sojourner in Distress and an Antients Mason, approached the Moderns for charity, their Grand Secretary, Samuel Spencer, made one of the most controversial statements in Masonic history. He replied “Our society is neither Arch, Royal Arch or Antients”, adding that as an Antients Mason he was not entitled to their charity, and that the Antients have a lodge at the Five Bells in the Strand, and their Secretary’s name is Dermott. On going there, received five Guineas charity.

This Faux Pas was going to return to haunt him and the Moderns for many years into the future, although he did show consistency when he wrote to a German Mason in Frankfurt in 1767 “The Royal Arch is a society which we do not acknowledge, and which we hold to be an invention to introduce innovation and seduce the Brethren”.

However, the feelings of the Premier Grand Lodge at this time was that they hoped that with the passage of time this curiosity would simply disappear. That was not going to be the case.

1751 saw the formation of the rival Antients or Atholl Grand Lodge, who in the future were to be the greatest promoters of the Royal Arch. However, and very surprisingly, it was not until 1780, thirty years after the formation of the Antients Grand Lodge, that they accepted it as an integral part of Freemasonry. Even then, that decision could well have been political, as a means of “putting one over” so to speak, on the Premier or Moderns Grand Lodge.

The Antients support of the Royal Arch is well known. What is not so widely known is that prior to 1770, there were only eight recorded exaltations in the Antients Grand Lodge, including one in the colony of America, and between 1770-1780 there were only 20 recorded exaltations.

Even the famous Laurence Dermott, Grand Secretary and the driving force behind the entire Antients Grand Lodge, made no particular efforts to promote the Royal Arch in its early years of existence. In fact, he gave a lecture in 1752 in which, and I quote, “every part of real Freemasonry was traced and explained except the Royal Arch”.

Indeed, a rare copy of the original minutes of the Antients Grand Lodge is in the possession of Neptune Lodge No. 22, and there is no mention whatsoever of Royal Arch Freemasonry.

With the Moderns, the story was quite different, with a meeting at which a brother “Passed the Arch” being held with no less than 34 Companions present.

The Antients had always treated the Royal Arch Degree as part of Craft Freemasonry, actually calling it the Fourth Degree in Freemasonry, as well as the Lodge of the Fourth Degree. The Antients also believed that their Lodge Warrants entitled them to practice any degree or side order of Freemasonry they wished, without a separate charter. Members of the Royal Arch within an Antients lodge treated themselves as part of an inner circle.

When an Antients lodge wanted a Royal Arch meeting, it was usually held on a Sunday, where the lodge would be opened directly into the 3rd Degree, the Royal Arch ceremony would be performed, and then the lodge closed.

The Antients would also hold Mark meetings in a similar way, an Excellent and a Super Excellent Degree, Knights Templar, and a degree called the Ne Plus Ultra, which would become the 18th Degree of Rose Croix.

However, there were many Royal Arch problems which had to be discussed, including a warning by Laurence Dermott that there was a need for the detection of impostors who had not to have the least knowledge of Royal Arch Masonry. This warning, however, was only given after one of the most bizarre occurrences in Masonic History- The Curious Case of the Leg of Mutton Masons.

Early in 1752, complaints started filtering in to the Antients Grand Lodge that some very Unmasonic Masons were operating in London. At this time, there were very few lodges working the Royal Arch degree, which was a complete mystery to the great majority of Masons.

Two enterprising rogues decided to take advantage of this lack of knowledge. They would travel from alehouse to alehouse where they knew Masons met, and for the consideration of a leg of mutton supper, would initiate any Mason present into the secrets of the Royal Arch, to the disgrace of the entire craft.

There were three problems with this. Firstly, their meetings were completely unconstitutional. Secondly Masonry should never be practised for personal gain, but thirdly, and much worse, neither man had any true idea of what the secrets of the Royal Arch Degree actually were! They were also extremely difficult to apprehend, as they would rarely visit the same alehouse twice.

Complains were made by several senior brethren, including Samuel Quay of Lodge No. 2, Richard Price of Lodge No. 3, Henry Lewis of Lodge No. 4, and Thomas Figg and Laurence Folliot of Lodge No. 5.

After many enquiries, the names of these two rogues was discovered to be Thomas Phealon and David Mackey. Fortunately, Grand Lodge ensured that they became known throughout the craft for the frauds they were, and their shenanigans ceased, as they were unable to find any more unsuspecting customers.

However, they had already caused so much turmoil that a warning about them had even appeared in the Antients Grand Lodge minutes, those of the 4th March 1752.

Laurence Dermott himself had been initiated into Freemasonry in Dublin in the early 1740’s and had been Exalted into the Royal Arch in Dublin in 1746. At a meeting of the Antients Grand Lodge in 1752, he gave a lecture on all aspects of Freemasonry, except the Royal Arch, which he described as “the root, heart and marrow of Masonry”.

However, times were also changing for the Moderns, and in 1765, a committee of the Moderns met, and I quote, “in Chapter Assembled”, at the famous Turks Head Tavern in Soho. This would prove perhaps the most important meeting in the history of the Royal Arch, as it would eventually lead to the formation of our own Grand Chapter.

They agreed to hold Chapter meetings monthly. Bye-Laws were formulated, and the Chapter flourished, to the extent that the following year, in 1766, using a Charter of Compact under Lord Blayney who was the Grand Master of the Moderns, The Grand and Royal Arch Chapter of Jerusalem was constituted.

The Charter gave the companions named therein, and their successors, full powers to hold chapters and assemblies, and to make, alter and abrogate laws for better conducting the degree throughout the globe.

It would, however, be a full four years, in 1769, before these powers were used and new Chapters formed, and by 1881 25 new Chapters, mainly in the provinces, had come into existence.

In spite of these monumental events, it was not until 1776 that Grand Chapter was formed, under the title of The Society of Royal Arch Masons under the Excellent Grand and Royal Chapter.

It boasted a full complement of Grand Chapter Officers, starting with the First, Second and Third Grand Principals, three Grand Sojourners, and a full range of other Grand Officers covering most of the offices we know today. The First Grand Principal, or Grand Z, was the Grand Master himself.

This alarmed Laurence Dermott, who saw the initiative being taken away from him by the Moderns.

Attack being the greatest form of defence, he even claimed that the Antients had formed in 1771 their own Grand Chapter, pre-dating the Moderns Grand Chapter by five years. It was one of the greatest Masonic Myths and Bluffs of all times. Laurence Dermott was never going to let the Moderns get the better of him.

There had been an Antients Grand Lodge meeting in 1771 which extensively discussed the Royal Arch, but by no stretch of the imagination could it ever have been considered to have been a Grand Chapter.

However, these were only words, as there was never any reason for the Antients ever to form such an organisation, as all Royal Arch matters would have been looked after by the regular Antients Grand Lodge as part of their dealings in Craft Freemasonry.

However, they did continue to hold Chapter Committee Meetings to discuss Royal Arch Matters. It is important to note, however, that all resolutions made at these meetings had to be confirmed by the Antients Grand Lodge.

This was quite different from the attitude of the Moderns Grand Lodge, who only encouraged the Royal Arch degree as long as it was kept totally apart from regular Craft Masonry. The Moderns Grand Chapter was a separate entity in its own right, and beholden to no-one. Its Chapters even had their own numbering system.

However, 1780 was a watershed for the Royal Arch Degree, as the Antients suddenly realised that they could really gain a significant advantage over the Moderns by actively promoting the Royal Arch Degree.

The Royal Arch ceremony in those days was quite different to what we see today. It was only open to Past Masters, and as these were few and far between, would have meant that exaltations would have been reasonably rare events.

The Antients overcame this by the subterfuge of putting candidates through a ceremony called Passing the Chair, where they would be placed in the Masters Chair and have the words of an Installed Master whispered in his ear, after which for Royal Arch purposes they were treated as Past Masters.

However, in Craft they were still treated as Master Masons, and could not take a seat in an installed Masters Lodge. It is in no way surprising that the Moderns also conducted this ceremony, without which they would also have had a serious shortage of candidates. They did it, however, with a difference.

They invented the ceremony of Previous Lodge. The Candidate for exaltation would be elected Master of this Previous Lodge, placed in the Master’s chair, where he would be presented with the Master’s Jewel and have the words of Master communicated to him.

He would then say that it was not convenient for him to continue as Master, resign the chair to the Principal Sojourner, who would then close the lodge, with the candidate ready for exaltation. Like the Antients, however, he would not be qualified as an installed past master, but remained a Master Mason.

There is also no doubt that the Antients and Moderns also held similar Exaltation ceremonies. This can be proven by the fact that, when the two Grand Lodges joined in 1813, unlike Craft Masonry, there was no need for a Chapter of Reconciliation to be formed.

The main part of a Chapter exaltation was originally a very simple ceremony of questions and answers, followed by a short lecture in three parts, although by the early 1800’s this had grown into something far more complex, with six longer lectures each with its own heading. Most of these lectures would be perfectly recognisable to a Royal Arch Mason today.

The purpose of the ceremony was the discovery of certain long lost secrets during the preparation of the ground for the building of then 2nd Temple. This is quite different from the Royal Arch as practised in Ireland and America , which is based on the repair of the 1st Temple under King Josiah.

However, back to England . Before a brother could be exalted, he first had to pass several tests and hardships, to show that he was a worthy candidate. Without doubt, the early Royal Arch ceremony was of a totally Christian nature, just as the Rose Croix and Knights Templars are today, and no member of any other religion could participate in its ceremonies.

Indeed, in some Chapters, certain prayers were even given in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord, and there were frequent representations of the Trinity, some of which are still with us.

The Chapter was opened by the three Principals only, with all other Companions, including Grand Officers, being excluded. After opening, the Companions would then enter two at a time, giving the password and saluting as they entered.

Once the Chapter was opened, the Candidate could be brought in. In almost every early Chapter, before he could be Exalted, he would have to go through the ceremony of Passing the Veils, which was based on the life of Moses.

Four veils were drawn across the Chapter, through which the candidate would have to pass. Each had its own short ceremony, and we know it was practised, because many early Chapters had bills for rods and veil materials in their Treasurers accounts. The Candidate also received the benefit of Masonic Prayer, which was done on the Gospel of St. John.

After the obligation the candidate was raised a Knight of the Holy Royal Arch of St. John of Jerusalem. He would then be asked to read from the scroll which he had retrieved from the vault, which contained not the first words of the bible, but the first verse of the Gospel of St. John.

A dialogue between the 1st Principal and the Principal Sojourner would then commence, with the Candidate looking on as a spectator. However, when he was invested and rewarded, it was with a jewel and crimson sash only, crimson being the only colour then used in the Royal Arch.

Chapter aprons as such did not exist, except very briefly in the very early Moderns Chapters, which discarded them in 1773. The Antients wore their usual Craft aprons, but with a silk crimson ribbon running round the border to show that they were members of the Royal Arch. Some Craft aprons even had Royal Arch symbolism printed on the front in bright colour.

The Royal Arch continued to flourish, with much of the Christian references disappearing by 1800. The requirements amongst the Antients for a Candidate to be an Installed Master was finally removed in 1807, when the new edition of the Antients Book of Constitutions, the Ahimon Rezon, was published.

It stated that- Antient Freemasonry consists of four degrees, the three first of which are that of Apprentice, Fellow Craft and the sublime degree of Master, and a brother well versed in these three and otherwise qualified is eligable to be admitted to the fourth degree, The Holy Royal Arch. However, Moderns Master Masons still had to go through the ceremony of Passing the Chair.

The union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813 surprisingly had little effect on the Royal Arch, and it was not until 1817 that Grand Lodge got around to re-organising the two groups with the formation of the Supreme Grand Chapter. However, the ceremony of Passing the Chair and many Christian references remained until1834, which was to prove to be most important year in the entire history of the Royal Arch

In 1834, with instructions from the Supreme Grand Chapter and the 1st Grand Principal the Duke of Sussex, a Special Committee was formed to revise and standardise the entire Royal Arch ceremony, and Master Masons of twelve month’s standing were permitted to join.

The candidate himself was finally given an active role in the ceremony, which was greatly enlarged, as previously the ceremony itself consisted almost totally of a series of questions and answers which had been in the now removed catechetical lecture, with the candidate purely a bystander, which was followed by further lectures.

The ritual was completely de-Christianised. However, even today few Jewish companions realise that the opening prayer recited by the MEZ on opening the Chapter is taken word for word from the Christian Communion service, with only the words In The Name Of Jesus Christ Our Lord omitted at the end.

There was also the introduction of new passwords for the candidate on entering the chapter for the first time, in place of the word of an installed Master, and there was no place whatsoever for the ceremony of Passing the Veils, which by this time had died out in many Chapters anyway.

The final Mystical lecture was introduced, with an appallingly bad explanation of several Hebrew Characters which were, in the future, to give so much offence to many orthodox Jewish companions, who thought that the name of the almighty was being taken in vain. Some were even known to walk out of the Chapter, never to return.

Supreme Grand Chapter then ordered that a new ritual be universally used by all Chapters, and a special Chapter of Promulgation was set up to demonstrate this new ritual.

Standardisation was never fully achieved, as it depended on the memory of the representative of each chapter who was sent to view the demonstration. However, these differences to this day can make visiting an early chapter all the more interesting and enjoyable.

Until recently, Supreme Grand Chapter continued to be a completely separate and distinct organisation from Grand Lodge. Even in the 1960’s, there was no formal application form to join, all one needed was a piece of paper with the Brother’s name and details written on it. It even had its own completely separate Book of Constitutions and Chapter numbering system up until the mid-1970’s, when they were finally amalgamated with that of Grand Lodge.

In 1987 a further revision of the ritual was made as a consequence of political correctness, when the penalties were transferred from the main ceremony to the explanation of the signs.

Also the Hebrew words used in the ceremony had lead to accusations by the Methodist and Anglican Churches, and others, that Freemasonry had become a religion with its own pagan god. These words had also led to accusations of blasphemy, still an offence under British law.

After much discussion and a free vote in Grand Chapter, in 1989 it was decided by a large majority to remove the word and the Hebrew letters, as well as the consequent extended lecture, from the ceremony. Private Chapters were given 12 months to comply.

Thus in two years, much of the ammunition used by the detractors of Freemasonry had been removed. Although they did not realise it at the time, these detractors did the Royal Arch a great service, for it removed at one stroke much of which was found to be confusing in the Royal Arch degree, without detracting in any way from a most beautiful ceremony.