The ‘Obscure’ Origins of Freemasonry

If you search for the date that is given as the founding of Freemasonry, you will be told that it was “formerly” established in 1717 with the founding of the Grand Lodge of England. That would make Freemasonry more than 300 years old, and it’s often the date that Masonic lodges across the world use when thinking back to their origins.

The Painting at the Library & Museum of Freemasonry at Great Queen Street. Credit: BBC
The Painting at the Library & Museum of Freemasonry at Great Queen Street. Credit: BBC

Yet, this date of Freemasonry’s founding is widely contested by Masonic scholars and those that are interested in making sense of the ‘obscure’ origins of Freemasonry. So, if Freemasonry didn’t begin in 1717, when were the first Masonic lodges established?

Related: Where is the Oldest Masonic Lodge in the World?

This is a great question and one that is hotly debated. There is written record of what is considered to be the first ever lodge meeting in Edinburgh in 1599. The minutes taken from the meeting at 19 Hill Street, Mary’s Chapel reveal that Freemasonry began more than 100 years before the 1717 formation of the Grand Lodge south of the border.

That would posit, then, that Freemasonry has its origins in Scotland, not England, with an insightful BBC article emphasizing this point by describing Freemasonry as “as Scottish as haggis or Harris tweed.”

Some people point to the fact that stonemasons had been meeting long before even 1599, and this is also true. Associations of stonemasons existed in both England and Scotland throughout the Middle Ages, and were an opportunity for workers to come together to discuss the operations of their Craft.

However, it wasn’t until the turn of the sixteenth century that these medieval guilds gained an institutional structure and began permitting non-operative Masons as members. This is why the given date of 1599 is widely accepted as the foundation of Freemasonry as we know it today.

So, what should we make of all of this?

Well, there’s little doubting the fact that operative Masons had been meeting regularly throughout the Middle Ages, and the formation of these associations eventually gave birth to Freemasonry as we know it in the present day. Equally, the United Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717, adding more structure and allowing Freemasonry to expand its outreach and grow in different parts of the world.

Whether you consider the real date of Freemasonry’s birth to be 1599, 1717, or any other date in between or before, for that matter, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the centuries-old rituals and traditions of modern-day Freemasonry have been dutifully preserved by generations of Masons since.

As such, it may be better to accept that Freemasonry’s founding was an evolutionary process, beginning in the Middle Ages and culminating in 1717, when the United Grand Lodge of England was officially opened.