The Old Charges provide the first written evidence of English Masonic ritual, including passwords and non-verbal signs of recognition, and contain the traditional histories and codes of conduct of mediaeval stonemasons’ guilds. Many documents were (in part) a product of their contemporary context and written to justify illegal negotiation. They also provided for mutual support. The earliest Old Charges date from the end of the fourteenth century when the guilds began to function as local economic pressure groups with the objective of maintaining or raising pay via collective bargaining and restrictive labour practices, although they also had a social and religious function, not least in education and through the sponsorship of Mystery Plays and church livings. These latter aspects of guild life continued their original function as religious foundations.
In broad terms, the Old Charges comprise three sections: an avowal of religious faith – a statement of belief in s Trinitarian God – and a protestation of loyalty to the king and lawful authorities; a Traditional History which placed freemasonry within a historical timeline so as to demonstrate legitimacy, something important where wage bargaining was proscribed and required justification; and a set of regulations governing the organisation of the lodge and the craft of stonemasonry.
The guilds were overtly supportive of Crown and Church and a protestation of faithfulness to God, fealty to the king and his lords, and loyalty to the religious authorities, formed the opening statement. Acceptance of the religious, royal and feudal status quo was a conditio sine qua non of existence. And while such formal statements did not offer legal protection, taken together with traditional histories that referenced St Athelstan and St Alban, iconic figures in mediaeval England, the Old Charges provided a basis to justify wage negotiation.
The Cooke Manuscript makes the point clearly:
whosoever desires to become a mason, it behoves him before all things to [love] God and the holy Church and all the Saints; and his master and fellows as his own brothers.
The Watson manuscript written at York perhaps a century later is similar:
The first Charge is that you be [a] true man to God, and the Holy Church, and that you use neither error nor heresy, according to your own understanding, and to discreet and wise-men’s teaching… You shall be true liegemen to the King of England without any treason or falsehood.
Several examples of early manuscripts (MS) were published by Quatuor Coronati Lodge at the end of the nineteenth century as part of the first six volumes of QC Antigraphas (‘QCA’). Those wishing to explore the Old Charges in more detail can do so by reading or downloading the volumes listed below:
QCA vol. 1 (1889): contains the Regius MS and Halliwell MS.
QCA vol. 2 (1890): Matthew Cooke MS, Lansdowne MS, and Harlelan MS.
QCA vol. 3 (1891): Harleian MS, Sloane MS, No. 3848; Sloane MS, No. 3323; William Watson MS; and Cama MS.
QCA vol. 4 (1892): Grand Lodge MS, No. 1; Grand Lodge MS, No. 2; Buchanan MS; Dodd MS; and Harris MS, No. 2.
QCA vol. 5 (1894): Scarborough MS, Roll of the Constitutions; Phillipps No. 1, MS; Phillipps No. 2, MS; and Phillipps No. 3, MS.
QCA vol. 6 (1895): Inigo Jones MS; Wood MS; and Lechmere MS.