Ancient Masonic Texts, Historic Freemasonry Texts
The Matthew Cooke Manuscript
The Matthew Cooke Manuscript was written by a Speculative Mason c1450 and was a transcript of a yet older document. It was most certainly in the hands of Mr. George Payne, when in his second term as Grand Master in 1720 when he compiled the General Regulations, and which Anderson included in his own version of the Constitutions published in 1723. Anderson himself evidently made use of lines 901-960 of the MS.
THE REGIUS MANUSCRIPT (1390)
One of the oldest Masonic Documents.
The text of the Regius Manuscript states that Freemasonry was brought to England during the reign of King Athelstan from 924 to 939 but this connection was not realised until 1840 when it was translated and featured in an article on Freemasonry by James Halliwell.
The Old Charges, it was believed, were used in ‘making a Mason’ in the previous operative stonemason times. Referred to by many as; "Antient" (archaic word for Ancient") Manuscripts, they were also known as Old Masonic Manuscripts, Ancient (or Antient) Constitutions, Old Constitutions, Legends of the Craft, Gothic Manuscripts and Old Records.
Some of the Old Charges in these ancient documents that have come down to us date from the 14th century. Some of their rules, legends, and regulations are now incorporated into traditional Masonic history.
Normally these documents are in the form of handwritten paper and parchment rolls, each one comprised of hand-written sheets which have been sewn or pasted together or bound in book form.
Incorporated into the Minute Books of lodges some of these Old Manuscripts range from 1390 until 1714. While a few are in Gothic script, most are in the British Museum, United Grand Lodge of England and the Masonic Library of West Yorkshire, England.
Freemasonry's Old Charges - 1390 through 1714
Much of the modern Masonic Constitutions are based on these Old Masonic Manuscripts or Old Charges, establishing the ‘genealogy’ of the Masonic Institution through a period of more than six centuries, and, it is believed, much longer. As such these written documents form the basis of Masonic ritual which no other Craft based organisation is able to do.
Forming a traditional and legendary link with today’s Masonic ritual these Old Charges, are in a format not normally read by the amateur or layman due to their arcane Olde English wording. Also, many of the words written 600 years ago now have a different meaning in today’s language
To assist us historians have ‘translated’ them. This has brought forward more evidence that these old Legends of the Craft were used in ‘making a Mason’ during the old Operative days. Some even served as the constitution of lodges during that time.
With 19 major Old Charges or old records there are over 100 in total, which have survived over the centuries. All are very similar in content and historians presume that they are copies of some earlier documents. Some were lost through wars, required book-burnings and the destruction and chaos. Others were added to but it is truly amazing that any of them survived.
With 794 lines of rhymed verse the 600 year old Halliwell Manuscript or Regis Manuscript believed to have been written during the operative stone mason times of the late Middle Ages is regarded as being the oldest Masonic document in existence
Of special note is the fact that each of these Old Constitutions begin with an invocation to the "Mighty Father of Heaven".
19 of the Old Masonic Manuscripts
Below, are listed 19 of the approximately 100 Old Charges, (also called the Old Records), their approximate date of origin (to the best of our historian's abilities) and where they currently reside.
Halliwell Manuscript - Supposed - 1390
Housed in the King's Library, British Museum
Cooke Manuscript - Supposed 1490
Dowland Manuscript - Supposed 1500
Landsdowne Manuscript - Supposed 1560
York Manuscript, No. 1 - Supposed 1600
Harleian Manuscript, No. 2054 - Supposed 1625
Housed in the Archives of the Grand Lodge of England
Grand Lodge Manuscript - Supposed 1583
Housed in the Archives of the Grand Lodge of England.
Sloane Manuscript, No. 3848 - Certain 1646
Housed in the British Museum
Sloane Manuscript, No. 3323 - Certain 1659-
Harleian Manuscript, No. 1942 - Supposed 1660
Aitcheson-Haven Manuscript - Supposed 1666
Housed in the Grand Lodge of Scotland
Edinburgh-Kilwinning Manuscript - Supposed 1670
Housed in the Mother Lodge Kilwinning, No. 0, Scotland
York Manuscript, No. 5 - Supposed 1670
York Manuscript, No. 6 - Supposed 1670
Lodge of Antiquity Manuscript - Certain 1686
York Manuscript, No. 2 - Certain 1693
Alnwick Manuscript - Certain 1701
In possession of the Newcastle College of Rosicrucians
York Manuscript No. 4 - Certain 1704
Papworth Manuscript - Supposed 1714
These old charges are the foundation of Freemasonry today and not texts rescued from dark and musty shelves in ancient libraries. They form the basis of speculative freemasonry and partly explain why Freemasons respect the past traditions and look upon the passwords, or secrets to the critics, as something to br upheld and respected. Something a non Mason would have difficulty in understanding.
These old charges can be seen to ‘thread’ their way through the Masonic constitution, and the way in which Freemasons perceive their responsibilities to others; Freemasons or not.