A Brief History of Freemasonary
When did it all begin?
Freemasonary, as a society, is so ancient that its origins are lost somewhere in the mists of time. What we do know, however, is that it had links to the stonemason fraternities of old, who were responsible for the building of great cathedrals, castles, and fortresses.
The word 'Lodge', where Freemasons meet today, derives from that time, when stonemasons would build a place "on site' where they could all meet and sleep.
During the mid 1500's, Freemasons' Lodges first appeared in London and these closely followed the structure and hierarchy of the trade guilds which had been created a century earlier as a way of regulating the qualifications of their craft.
Freemasonary today retains and follows the three accepted grades of skill that originated within the medieval stonemason's guild. These are Entered Apprentice, The Fellowcraft and the Master Mason.
The Origins of the Handshakes
As the written word in medieval times was restricted to the privileged few, a stonemason's qualifications had to be communicated in some other way. These took the form of handshakes that demonstrated the knowledge and skill of the individual. For example, an Apprentice couldn't pass himself off as a Fellowcraft until he had completed his training in that level. Similarly a Fellowcraft couldn't pretend to be a Master Mason until that level was complete.
The Lodges Come Together
By 1717 there were four separate Lodges in London. These Lodges combined to become known as the Grand Lodge. Differences of opinion led to a rival Grand Lodge being created in 1751, but by 1813 the two were reconciled and the United Grand Lodge of England was formed - the governing body of modern Freemasonry.
Freemasonry Continues to Grow
Throughout the 19th and 20th Century, new Lodges were formed as membership grew and grew, and Freemasonry became and integral part of the local community. For example, the ceremony of laying a Foundation Stone for a new building would be preceded by a procession of Freemasons through the streets in their full regalia.
The Sudden Need for Secrecy
In the years building up to the World War II, the Communist Soviet Union and Hitler's Nazi Germany began to heavily persecute Freemasons. Masonic meetings were outlawed and members of the Lodges were arrested, imprisoned and executed. It is estimated that over 200,000 Freemasons lost their lives during this time. After the fall of the Channel Islands, Hitler's plans to invade Britain also included a list of Freemasons who, if his invasion had been successful, would have also met the same end. It is thought that this was the beginning of the now perceived, secret society. Freemasonry began to be more inward looking and private, and the silence only added to strengthen the myth. By failing to deal with the media and not speaking up to correct factual errors, rumour took over from fact and false reports replaced the truth.
A New Spirit of Openness
Today, Freemasonry is once more committed to becoming an open, more integral part of the local community, with 47 separage Provinces active throughout Britain.
The Masonic Province of Oxford has over 2,000 members active in 55 Lodges at 8 different centres.