Opening Remarks: While conducting research on Masonic lineage, I came across a book of particular interest, which I would like to use as a springboard of sorts. The book is called, The History of the Worshipful Company of the Drapers of London (Arthur Henry Johnson, 1914). I hope the word “Worshipful” gives the reader of this article some indication of the subject matter. Well, I know it caught my eye; enough so that I went ahead and read the book in its entirety.
However, before I get started, I would like to make a distinction about the guilds of Britain. The word “mystery” is generally defined, “a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand,” which is how most people might interpret the word. Nevertheless, it should also be stressed that there are other definitions to consider, like “a private secret” or even a “specialized practice.” Therefore, when you hear the word “mystery,” it may not be wholly religious or speculative in nature; like a craftsman who made leather shoes, which meant the secrets of a shoe maker might still be considered a mystery or a specialized practice. The mystery guilds of Britain were for the most part operative; yet they still held a speculative component which they called mystery or miracle plays; but this was about as far as these guilds went with regard to the speculative mysteries. Although, it should also be mentioned that the Roman Catholic Church had speculative guilds called parish fraternities; as well, Masonry, or Free-Masonry, also held both speculative and operative components, but were not directly aligned with the common council mystery guilds. All of which will be explained in this article.
Moreover, a clarification should also be addressed before starting the article. The words guild, fraternity (confraternity) and Collegia (college) have the same meaning regarding this discussion:
“There are known fraternal organizations which existed as far back as ancient Greece and in the Mithraic Mysteries of ancient Rome. Analogous institutions developed in the late medieval period called confraternities, which were lay organizations allied to the Catholic Church. Some were groups of men and women who were endeavoring to ally themselves more closely with the prayer and activity of the Church; others were groups of tradesmen, which are more commonly referred to as guilds.” Also, “Collegia could function as guilds, social clubs, or burial societies; in practice, in ancient Rome, they sometimes became organized bodies of local businessmen and even criminals, who ran the mercantile/criminal activities in a given urban region, or rione. The organization of a collegium was often modeled on that of civic governing bodies, the Senate of Rome being the epitome.“ And, “These later confraternities evolved into purely secular fraternal societies.“
Mystery Guilds of Britain: Simply stated, the mystery guild system was introduced to the British by the Romans, by way of its Collegia structured system, and became an instrumental part of the islands culture well into the 16th century; thereafter, it started its decline as a dominative power. In time these craft guilds actually became apart of municipal governance (Johnson, p. 1). But first a charter had to be obtained from the central authority; in Britain’s case a charter was normally issued by a King, and in return fees and taxes were paid in order to operate the monopoly mystery guild in a particular town or region. Johnson explained,
“Thus the municipal unity granted by the charter is ‘of the same sort as that of the county and hundred’. But as in the shire, the churches, the barons, the citizens, retain their ‘sokes’ or jurisdictions and their privileges; and the city is only as yet ‘a bundle of communities, townships or villages, parishes and lordships’. Nevertheless the privileges which the city had obtained by the Charter of Henry I was great, and on his death we find them even claiming the special right of electing a new King” (Johnson, p. 3-4).
For example, obtaining a royal charter during the 12th century gave a mystery guild special privileges regarding a particular craft; especially with regard to taxation (fees), and control of a local government. In time, and at the behest of the King, these powerful mystery guilds would in fact become central to local governance and regional trade; especially by the end of the 12th century (Johnson, p. 13-14). Keep in mind though, regardless of the dates used in this example, the Roman Collegia model, or mystery guild system, used by the British certainly predated this particular period of expansion.
We can also see that the British attached religious instruction to their mystery guild system, similar to the Roman Collegia system; in this case, by way of the Roman Catholic Church (before the Protestant Reformation). Johnson wrote, “thus connecting crafts with religious fraternities was that they thereby gained, not only the sentimental bond which religion gave, but also a religious sanction for the enforcement of the oaths administered to the members…” (Johnson, p. 19). Take note of the term “religious fraternities” (parish Fraternities), which were speculative in nature; as opposed to operative guilds. This topic will be discussed again later on in this article.
The 13th century marked “the rise of what has been called the system of Town Economy” (Johnson, p. 19). Based on the mystery guilds, towns became self-supporting employment centers that replaced the poor manorial agricultural system. In essence, young men left the farm to join a mystery guild, where they learned a valuable craft as an apprentice. In return for employment, they took an oath to uphold the brotherhood mystery guild, paid their fees and maintained the religious tenets of the particular fraternity, which included ritual plays. These plays, although public, held a moral message endorsed by the Church; much like the moral messages in contemporary Masonry today. These mystery plays will be discussed in more detail later on in this article
Each town or territory was, as well, very protective of its mystery guild, which meant unless a man was a member of the mystery guild and lived within the town’s limits, he was excluded; especially foreigners. And as one might expect, this special arrangement sometimes led to violence between competing mystery guilds. Like in 1268, when some 500 people participated in a violent quarrel between the goldsmiths and tailors, and the cloth-workers and the cordwainers (Johnson, p. 20). This type of violence eventually led to more centralization through what became known as the common council.
Also, by the fourteenth century, the mystery guild system began to come under scrutiny by royal authorities and others who were concerned with economic inequality. The general feeling by opponents of the mystery guild system felt that these royal charters benefited the wealthy masters far more than the poor journeymen and apprentices. Nevertheless, despite these complaints, for the time being, the mystery guilds continued to operate because it benefited the King economically through fees and taxes, and wealthy masters by giving them privileges and protection from competing industries and foreign markets (Johnson, p. 23).
It should also be mentioned that throughout Johnson’s book the word guild was interchanged with the word mystery or mysteries, like on page 27, “The notable advance in the position of the guilds or mysteries during the reign of Edward III and the fact that the mayors, and sheriffs, and the aldermen were now practically, though not necessarily, members of the more important mysteries, had increased the pretensions of the guilds.” Thereby giving credence to the term “mystery guilds,” which was used in this article.
Furthermore, on page 27, the author mentioned that thirteen mystery guilds had formed a common council in 1347 to help govern themselves; here is a list of the thirteen guilds:
- The Grocers
- The Mercers
- The Fishmongers (Pessoners)
- The Drapers
- The Goldsmiths
- The Woolmongers (Laners)
- The Vintners
- The Skinners (Pelleters)
- The Saddlers (Celers)
- The Taylors
- The Cordwainers
- The Butchers
- The Ironmongers (Ismongers)
Do you see anything missing? Yes, there was no mystery guild for the Mason or stone worker. I wonder why? This obvious absence could easily lead to several speculations; like perhaps the Masons of Britain did not participate in the mystery guild system, or at least how it operated with regard to the common council mystery guilds? You see, it became immediately evident that the British mystery guilds had become corrupt, which stands in stark contrast to Masonic instruction and long-established traditions. Also, it should be mentioned that the Roman Catholic Church in Britain became so concerned with corruption within the mystery guilds that they eventually instructed their priests to not participate in the mystery or miracle plays, which were a central part of moral instruction for these mystery guilds and their followers.
Also, the word “common,” when referring to common council, stands out and should be addressed; it means “
Moreover, on page 47, Johnson mentioned some thirty different mystery guilds in Britain had gained their royal charters between 1393 and 1515; but none were Mason related. Again, I ask the question, why were there no Mason mystery guilds among this list; just like the other list mentioned earlier on page 27?
With this unanswered question in mind, I therefore decided to do a word search of the book, which discovered the following statement on page 388, “N.B. – The wages are the same as in 1481-82; a tiler, a mason, a carpenter 8d. a day, a labourer 5d. a day. The number of tenements vacant is striking. Probably due to the sweating sickness, which was severe about that time.” This notation about a Mason’s pay rate came from a rental ledger, but there was no mention of any related mystery guild, which is yet another puzzle that needs to be reconciled. Keep in mind, these mystery guilds were allowed to own property and collect rents accordingly. So hiring a Mason to do brick work, like building or repairing a chimney, etc., was perhaps very common for a landlord (guild owned). In fact, the word “mason” was mentioned seventeen times in the book, all of which had to do with either a persons last name or Mason related labor; but nothing was ever mentioned about a governing mystery guild for the craft. Furthermore, there were zero hits for the words “Masonry,” “Freemason” or “Free-Mason.” This led me to only one obvious conclusion, that for whatever reason, Masons did not have a common council mystery guild, and therefore did not participate in the common council mystery guild governing body set up to maintain order between these competing mystery guilds. But rather, Masons must have had a separate type of organization, which was not affiliated with the common council mystery guild crafts, thereby making Masons “uncommon;” which negates the argument that Freemasonry sprang from the loins of the British guilds. I comfortably state this because it appears there was no association between the common and uncommon guilds. This will be discussed further in my summation.
And, as mentioned previously, the Roman Catholic Church was initially an active participant in the British mystery guild system, and remained active until it became evident of its overt corruption, and the expansion of the Protestant faith. In truth, by the close of the 15th century, these mystery guilds, which were once numerous, continued to dwindle in mass due to disendowments from the Roman Catholic Church (Johnson, p. 50).
The book also revealed what Freemasonry has suspected for a very long time, which is that the word “free” had been added to a related mystery guild (Free-Mason) because it meant a man was free to travel, and that he had completed his apprenticeship, “But to be a freeman of a ward it was necessary to be a guildsman who had passed his apprenticeship…” (Johnson, p. 51). Furthermore,
“The privileges of a freeman included the right to reside within the city walls, to engage in wholesale trade throughout the realm, and by retail in the goods of the mystery to which he belonged, to enter any town without payment of toll, to be exempt from the jurisdiction of courts without the city except in certain specified cases” (Johnson, p. 54).
The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and these mystery guilds was further exposed in an interesting footnote on page 90,
“1332. A chantry in honour of Corpus Christi at the Church of St. Laurence in Chadwick street, which was subsequently enlarged to form a college for a master, thirteen priest, and four choristers… 2. To the collegiate chapel of Corpus Christi 6s. 8d. and all his tenements and rents in London…” (Johnson, p. 90).
Therefore, in 1332 the Church of St. Laurence honored Corpus Christi by setting up a college (Collegia) for a master, priests and choristers. As I have maintained previously on the blog, Masonry (both operative and speculative) was apart of the Roman Collegia system, and when the Roman’s left Britain, the Roman Catholic Church, which had adsorbed most of the old Roman Empire, continued the Roman Collegia tradition on the island, although with a Christian twist. As such, we can see the Church forming a college (or Collegia) for the purpose of governing an area and an associated craft. Also, notice the need for thirteen priests and four Choristers; these were needed not only for Church services, but mystery plays as well, which was an instrumental part of educating an illiterate society ~ a Collegium tradition that dates back to Rome, Greece and possibly even Egypt.
Furthermore, although the book did mention mystery and miracle plays, it did not delve into the subject matter at length; nevertheless, here are a few excerpts to prove these mystery guilds did operate and participate in these plays, which some pundits have claimed otherwise, “In some cases, as in those of the skinners, the goldsmiths, and the parish clerks… The parish clerks were not clerics. Apparently they were often employed to sing in dirges and at feasts, and to act at miracle plays” (Johnson, p. 47); “also the drapers of beverly who paid special reverence to the virgin, the baptist, St. Michael the Archangel, and acted a miracle play of the Dooming Pilate on the Feast of Corpus Christ…” (Johnson, p. 94); “and the mystery play was presented by the company of shearmen and tailors” (Johnson, p. 100); “Stow says that Simon Eyre the draper, mayor in 1446, was translated from the upholders… The play by Dekker, who wrote in Elizabeth’s reign, makes him a cordwainer or shoemaker” (Johnson, p. 108).
It should also be mentioned that there were parish fraternities, which were far more religious, or speculative, in nature; and were also controlled by the Church. Yet, these parish fraternities were not a skill orientated guild; rather they were purely speculative in design. This maybe where many of the more religious mysteries were taught, similar to contemporary Freemasonry? Johnson wrote, “In 1353 the right of electing common council was temporarily restored to the wards, a triumph which was very possible due to the increase in the number of parish fraternities not connected with any craft” (p. 27). Think about it, why would parish fraternities be competing with mysteries guilds? And what would these parish fraternities be teaching that was different from the common council mystery guilds? The logical conclusion is that since the parish fraternities were not teaching or developing any direct craft skill or physical product, they must have been creating something more on the spiritual realm, like that of contemporary Masons, or speculative Masonry. Yet, these parish fraternities, like the other mystery guilds, also fell out of favor with the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, as was mentioned previously (Johnson, p. 50).
It must be stressed, I have no proof that modern Freemasonry sprang out of these parish fraternities, nor would I be so presumptuous to say they did; all I am saying is there were competing bodies that taught speculative mysteries, similar to Freemasonry today. It will take a great deal more research to determine if any relationship between parish fraternities and Freemasonry did exist. Although, it is a comfort to know that there were other related bodies that were more than likely teaching speculative mysteries.
Furthermore, Johnson’s book also had a long chapter entitled, “The Oath Book Or Book Of Ordinances No. 795,” which started in page 242 and ended on page 282. Take note of this particular chapter, only because many of the ordinances that were listed were similar to those of the 1723 Constitution of Free-Masons, a subject of which I have written about previously on this blog site. These included being loyal to the mystery guild, government (King) and of course God and his laws, as well as good conduct, grievances, obeying the master, etc.
My Summation: The first thing I learned about the British mystery guilds, in which many Masonic pundits inappropriately claimed contemporary Masonry ascended from, is these guilds simply copied the Collegia system used by the Romans. And to be honest, at the time it more than likely made sense for the Roman Catholic Church to follow the mystery guild system established by the Roman Empire. However, once the Protestant Reformation gained control of Britain, financial support for the British mystery guild system left with the Roman Catholic Church, which essentially started the decline of the guild system.
Nevertheless, despite the popularity of the British mystery guilds, one glaring mistake has been missed by Masonic historians regarding the relationship between these mystery guilds and modern Freemasonry; that is, there appears to be no record of a Mason related mystery guild associated with the common council, which started in the 14th century. Therefore, the question has to be asked, why was there no Mason mystery guild on this powerful ruling council? There were 13 mystery guilds on the initial common council, which eventually rose to thirty, none of which were Masons. Was it because the Masons were not powerful or prevalent enough? If that is the case, why did Masonry continue to exist and even flourish well after the abolishment of this particular common council, and the advancement of the Protestant Reformation? It seems apparent that there was no related common council Mason mystery guild, at least according to Johnson and his book, The History of the Worshipful Company of the Drapers of London (1914), which did an extensive study on the history on these mystery guilds from the 11th century through the 16th century; and in some cases well into the 18th century. But that does not mean Masonry did not coexist in Britain during this period.
You see, in support of this idea, we know there were Scottish Masonic Lodges operating in Britain (Scotland) in the 12th century (2); and according to the 1723 Constitution of Free-Masons, as an institution, Masonry has existed on the island since Roman rule, a topic I have written about previously on this blog. I therefore can come to no other conclusion. I now personally believe Masonry (Free-Masonry) did not align itself with the governing common council; but existed and operated parallel to the common council mystery guild crafts. This belief is confirmed in the following statement,
“The statutes which forbid combinations among the masons… The masons, or free-masons, were probably regarded with peculiar disfavor on account of its solemnities, which were often declared blasphemous… but their growth was nevertheless fostered by the Church” (Amos Griswold Warner, Three Phases of Cooperation in the West, 1888, p. 97).
Therefore, it seems plausible that “masons,” or “free-masons,” as maintained above, were restricted from cooperating with each other by royal decree, which would account for the rise of the common council mystery guilds and the absence of the Masons on this powerful council. Furthermore, Warner maintained that Masons held certain solemnities, which refers to a “mystery of faith.” This too may account for the restrictions against Masons, and not other guilds, about gathering and cooperating. It should also be mentioned that Warner confirmed what many Freemasons today already know, “In 1429 a lodge of free-masons was initiated by archbishop of Canterbury himself” (p. 97). This of course confirms the relationship between Free-Masons and the Roman Catholic Church, and Masonic activity during the period. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church had parish fraternities that taught speculative mysteries, as has been mentioned and will again be mentioned in this summation. And with the rise of the Protestant Reformation, and the departure of Roman Catholic influence in the 16th century, it seems apparent that Freemasonry became the sole remaining speculative guild, which flourished after the reestablishment of a Grand Lodge in 1717, perhaps because it was no longer beholding to Church and royal rule.
I also now believe the British mystery guild system used the structure of the Roman Collegia system to give itself credibility with the population, which was, for the most part, ignorant and illiterate, and loyal to Church teachings on matters of not only religion, but on many aspects of life; a common way of thinking during the time period.
While imitating or copying the Roman Collegia, these mystery guilds used terms like “mystery,” “worshipful master,” “apprentice,” etc; common words used in Masonry. They also aligned themselves with the Roman Catholic Church in order to further give themselves credibility, and in doing so, they performed rituals they called mystery plays or miracle plays, thereby adhering to the tenets of the Roman Collegia structure.
Furthermore, although the most powerful mystery guilds had voting seats on the common council, there were other groups called parish fraternities that also existed, but held no voting seats, like Masons. This maybe because these parish fraternities had nothing to do with commerce, rather they were devoted to religious or speculative training and the teachings of the mysteries, and were also aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. So I beg the question, were these parish fraternities similar to contemporary Freemasonry? We honestly don’t know, and further research will be required to see if any relationship existed, if at all. Nevertheless, these parish fraternities, like the commerce related mystery guilds, were also financially supported by the Roman Catholic Church, which pretty much ran the British mystery guild system for a time.
Moreover, I learned that the British mystery guild system had pretty much been around since the Roman army left the island and the Roman Catholic Church took over; thus there is no date for its initial formation. Although, history does tell us that as Britain grew economically between the 11th and the 16th centuries, this guild system became an instrumental part of the country’s development.
In conclusion, the British mystery guild system, a system pundits claim proves Masonic lineage, has no direct relationship to the development of contemporary Freemasonry. Therefore, any claims made by well-intentioned historians that state Freemasonry originated out of the British guild system should no longer be accepted as a fact. The theory that Freemasonry sprouted from these guilds has many faults within it, most notably, why was there no Mason related mystery guild on the all-powerful common council that ruled the British mystery guilds? I must readily admit, there are striking similarities between these mystery guilds and contemporary Freemasonry, but there are no direct facts supporting this claim; only more questions. In fact, Masons were restricted from forming any cooperative activity, like the common council, because of their solemnities or private mystery teachings, unlike the far more public common council mystery guilds. Therefore, I am left with the belief that these mystery guilds were nothing but copies of the original, or “Imitation is the Sincerest form of Flattery.”
So Mote It Be!
And finally, here is list of articles from this blog, which support the general theme of this article:
- First Grand Lodge of England 926 AD, or even the 7th Century, not 1717 AD.
- Dating the Foundation of English Masonry to 557 AD.
- Chronological List of English Grand Masters and Patrons from 557 AD to 1843 AD.
- The Roman Collegia were Ancient Masons of the Mysteries.
- In a 1726 Speech, Francis Drake Claimed First Grand Lodge of England was Formed in the 7th Century.
- Charles Martel, Hammer King Of The Franks, And Masonry In 732 AD.
- Dissecting The 1723 Constitutions Of Free-Masons; Dispelling Revisionist Myths.
- Masonry’s Link To The Roman Religion Of Mithraism.