18th Century Facsimile of London’s Medieval Livery Companies?
I recently visited the museum at Freemason’s Hall, and watched a documentary series on Netflix entitled Inside the Freemasons (which appears to be reasonably factual, and reasonably well researched). The similarities between freemasonry and the older livery companies are striking.
Freemasons claim their roots in the medieval craft of stonemasons, and, more cautiously, to times biblical. Despite the certain risk of being condemned for flimsy scholarship and premature prognostication, I’d like to suggest an alternative hypothesis: that freemasonry was set up in the early 1700s, consciously modeled on London’s medieval livery companies.
Freemasonry is a fraternal organization. Roughly speaking, it’s men who like to get together, wine and dine together, and support worthy causes together, accompanied by a variety of ritual ceremony. There are now around five million freemasons world-wide.
Freemasons are divided into companionably-sized groups called lodges. These are grouped together hierarchically. The first such grouping, the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster, was formed in 1717. This later became the United Grand Lodge of England. The majority of lodges are defined by a geographical area.
It’s not hard for a group of people to put a lodge together, based on some shared interest. For example, my grandfather (also a Vintner), was a keen member of the Pickwick lodge number 2467, founded in 1870, which had members who were big Dickens fans and who included Dickens memorabilia in their ceremonies. A recent lodge was set up for football fans.
Members progress though freemasonry by developing qualifications known as degrees. Ceremonial and pageantry is important: you see plenty of processions and unusual bits of clothing and supporting regalia at lodge meetings.
Not a Load of Fuddy-Duddies
The practices vary considerably. For example, in the UK and USA, membership usually requires belief in a god, and is limited to men; while in some European countries these constraints do not apply.
It would be easy to dismiss such limitations as the foibles of a load of fuddy-duddies. This isn’t fair: freemasonry is a broad church. Most masons, when you meet them, are as liberal or illiberal as the public at large. Furthermore, there’s flexibility in the rules, which evolve with the times.
Modern Britain is increasingly a world of atheists, and one in which discrimination against women is gradually eroding. Thus it is quite conceivable that before long, the anyway nebulous requirement of “belief in a Supreme Being” will be dropped, along with the prohibition of women. Indeed in some ways, the United Grand Lodge of England is ahead of public opinion: it allows a male freemason to have a sex change operation and remain a freemason, and it allows women who have become men to become freemasons.
Similarities to London’s Medieval Livery Companies
The similarities are striking, and mostly obvious:
Mutual assistance. In case of hardship, fellow lodge members eagerly provide material and spiritual support; other freemason organizations will also assist. Mutual insurance was a key element of the medieval guilds, when social security was minimal.
Support for the public good. Freemasons support a wide variety of charities. Charitable work was also key to the medieval guilds. For example, providing free education, or almshouses for the indigent.
Spiritual Services. Another important function of medieval guilds was to provide for members’ eternal souls; for example, by paying for masses on the anniversary of a member’s death, or ensuring a decent funeral. Although religious interest is waning in line with that of society as a whole, religion still has an important role in freemasonry.
Governance. Officers of a masonic lodge are appointed annually, and every lodge has a Master and two wardens, a secretary and a treasurer. The usual progression is for a lodge officer to spend one or two years in each position, until he becomes Master.
This approach is precisely that of the medieval guilds. For example, at the Vintners, new court members advance a year at a time. Their first key role is that of the Swan Warden, then after a year they become the Renter Warden, then they become the Upper Warden, and finally they become Master for a year. The first three roles are very much part time, while the Master is expected to maintain a full-time presence at the Hall, working with and overseeing full-time staff.
Roles. Aside from their Master and wardens, specialized titles abound among freemasons, many of them reminiscent of the world of medieval guilds: Grand Sword Bearer, for example.
Language/Terminology. Again and again, you hear the same charmingly archaic expressions as are found in the medieval guilds. For example:
- Apprentice members, who may progress until they become Master
- “Worshipful” titles
- “Installation”, referring to the ceremony in which someone, especially the Master, assumes their alloted role
Ceremonial & Ritual. Both have lots of processions, bowing, robes, chains and badges of office, special songs, special toasts, placing of swords of office, and so on. And, famously, in the case of freemasons, aprons of many designs which reflect their putative stonemason origins.
Secrecy. Freemasons are far less secretive than they’re often thought to be, and my sense is that the secrecy exists primarily to build esprit de corps. Although most guild members are not aware of it, oaths of secrecy exist in the medieval guilds–in my estimation, probably not to build esprit de corps, but to protect against the predations of rent-seeking monarchs1.
For example, Vintners’ court members annually pledge never to discuss court proceedings with anyone else, including any other members of the company. The majority of court members take the oath seriously, and don’t even discuss it with non-court members. Thus out of around 550 Vintners, probably only the 20-odd members of court, plus the author, are aware of the oath’s existence. Er, unless they read these paragraphs.
“IT IS ORDAINED that no Freeman of the said Mystery or Corporation of Vintners or any other shall utter or disclose by Words, Letters, Signs or Tokens any manner of speech, conference or Counsel at any time or times hereafter, to be had or used by any person or persons in the Counsel-house of the said Corporation, in the time of holding the said Court of Assistants for the said Mystery, for or concerning any affairs or business of the said Mystery or Corporation or of any Freemen or Member thereof, upon pain to loose and forfeit for every such offence of uttering or disclosing, the sum of forty shillings to the said Master Wardens and Freemen and Commonalty of the said Mystery for the time being.” 2Vintners’ Oath of Secrecy: understood to mean that court members must not discuss court business with anyone else
Interest in royalty. Masons are drawn from all walks of life, as are members of the medieval guilds. Both groups enjoy having members with royal titles, and the closer they are to the royal family, the better; such members are typically accorded senior positions in the guilds and masonic hierarchy.
Cameraderie. There is a delightful sense of camaraderie at both guild and masons’ gatherings, and this is, I think, the crux of being a mason. With guilds, there are often additional key motivations. Either way, you have a lot of fun, and good companionship, at both.
For an excellent and more detailed discussion of the similarities see the City and Livery website. This also identifies the ways in which the livery companies and masonic lodges differ.
Speculations About the Origin of Freemasonry
Masonic historians have sought to place the origins of freemasonry in the craft of stonemasons. Were this the case, it would be entirely understandable to find so many similarities between freemasonry and the medieval guilds of London.
A Simpler, More Plausible Hypothesis?
A simpler and more plausible explanation of the origins of freemasonry might be along the following lines:
- The livery companies ended their trade and religious roles in the 1500s5
- Their policing and punitive power were generally revoked during the 1600s
- By 1800, they had mostly turned into clubs for gentlemen
- The rules of admission by patrimony entailed (and still entail) that membership places were always limited for outsiders. This is because children of existing members are automatically entitled to join the guild
- Speculation: By around 1700, membership of these guilds had some prestige attached, and people wanted to join
- Speculation: Because places were limited, would-be guild members created fraternal organizations they could join, closely modeled on the medieval guilds, and founded upon a trade myth (that of stonemasonry)
This would explain why:
- There are no historical records of freemasonry prior to the early 1700s. For example, it explains why the first printed version of masonic regulations appears only in 17236
- Freemasonry and London’s medieval guilds have such striking similarities
Further Information Sought
Many members of London’s livery companies are also freemasons. Perhaps the most prominent is City high-flyer Sir David Wooton. On the freemason side, he has been Senior Grand Warden and Grand Sword Bearer of the Metropolitan Grand Lodge of London, and Assistant Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England. On the guild side, his resume includes senior roles at 10 livery companies. Oh, and by the way, he was a Lord Mayor, and alderman.
Hopefully knowledgeable readers will bring further information to bear upon this topic, by posting to the discussion at the foot of this article. In this way we can either:
- Quickly dispose of the hypothesis (while concurrently imposing egg upon the author’s face), or
- Should it turn out that the idea has some merit, bash it into better shape
About the Author
David Ferris has had a strong interest in the City of London and its traditions since his youth. As a teenager, he worked in his family’s bar in the City (The Capataz, on Old Broad Street), and was proud that the bar was one of the last to exercise the Vintners’ privilege whereby a trader could sell wines without a license. At 21 he joined the Worshipful Company of Vintners as an apprentice, the fifth generation of his family to do so.
Instead of entering the wine trade, however, he was diverted to academia by a post-graduate scholarship to Stanford University, California, with a view to being a professional philosopher. After being diverted again by a successful high tech career in Silicon Valley, he returned to active involvement with the Vintners Company in 2000, becoming a liveryman shortly thereafter.
David has spent many hours conducting original research into the history of London’s guilds, and of the Vintners in particular. Since 2001, his interests have included ways of securing the future of the guilds and the City, in particular lobbying for increases in charitable donations and public good works, the adoption of more efficient approaches to charitable donations, the revocation of oaths of secrecy to enhance governance, and the revocation of admission by patrimony to increase diversity.
David often takes informal snaps and videos at City events, and uses them in his articles. He beseeches readers to tolerate their poor quality in the light of their, ahem, ingenuousness and authenticity.
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- Royal Commission on the City of London Livery Companies, 1884, Volume 1, pp7-20, “State and civic burdens”
- 3rd June 1594 Bye Law
- Royal Commission on the City of London Livery Companies, 1884, Volume 1, pp57-71, “Cessation of connection with trades at the end of the 16th century” and “Cessation at about the same period of connection with religion“
- Masonic Manuscripts, “Printed constitutions”