Your guide to the Freemasons

What do we know about this fraternal organisation, and what does it have to do with the master craftsmen of the Middle Ages?

Painting of Masons building a pillar in a church

When and where did Freemasonry originate?

There is still a great deal of speculation about how the fraternal organisation of Freemasonry originated. The earliest known texts relating to masonry date to 1390–1425, and state that the craft of masonry began with the Greek mathematician Euclid, in c300 BC Egypt, arriving in England during the reign of King Athelstan in the 10th century.

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The earliest English documents on Freemasonry also date to the 14th century and appear to refer to a worker in freestone – a type of sandstone or limestone that was used to create ornamental masonry. Some historians have interpreted the word ‘free’ to mean that the mason was not enslaved or bound to a master, but the truth of this is unclear.

What was a mason?

Highly skilled, a Master Mason combined the skills of architect, builder, craftsman, designer and engineer, using a set of compasses, a marked rope or staff, and a set square to create the magnificent cathedrals and castles of the Middle Ages. The size and scale of the projects undertaken and the scarcity of the tools used led many to believe that Masons possessed some sort of magical secret.


Historian John Dickie, author of  The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World, sifts fact from fiction in the history of a much misunderstood organisation on HistoryExtra podcast. Listen here, or on Spotify or Apple podcasts


What were Masonic lodges?

Workshops based at the site of major building work were originally referred to as ‘lodges’, a word later used to refer to a community of masons in one place. From the 1660s, we see gentleman joining nonoperative lodges and becoming ‘masons’ – it was this ‘speculative freemasonry’ that evolved into the organisation we see today. In 1717, the first Freemason Grand Lodge was formed, when four London lodges met at a tavern in St Paul’s churchyard and declared themselves to be a Grand Lodge – the world’s first.

The movement was designed to allow men to socialise together, avoiding the topics of religion and politics. The Grand Lodge of Ireland was subsequently formed in 1725, followed by the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736.

Mirroring the expansion of the British Empire, Freemasonry, too, expanded greatly overseas, and by 1900, some 2,800 Grand Lodges had been formed across the globe, including North America and Europe. Well-known individuals such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Edward Jenner, Walter Scott and William IV were all members of the organisation.

The movement was designed to allow men to socialise together, avoiding the topics of religion and politics

What was the status of women in Freemasonry?

Masonic lodges were, and still are, restricted to men, as were the stonemason guilds of the Middle Ages, but during the 1740s, Lodges of Adoption began to appear in France, attached to the traditional men-only lodges and operating under their direction.

The first mixed Grand Lodge, Le Droit Humain, was formed in France in 1893, open to women and men who were “just, upright and free, of mature age, sound judgment and strict morals”. Co-Masonry was brought to England in 1902 by social reformer and campaigner for women’s rights, Annie Besant, who was herself initiated in France. A women-only order was formed six years later, and by 1935, it was an exclusively female organisation.

Have any women ever joined a men-only lodge?

There are some alleged cases. In the 18th century, Elizabeth Aldworth is said to have secretly watched the proceedings of a lodge meeting. On discovering the breach of their secrecy, they were obliged to admit her and she was seen in public wearing her Masonic regalia.

A 16th-century painting of the Tower of Babel

What about the Masonic conspiracy theories – and are they real?

Conspiracy theories have followed the Freemasons since the 18th century. Among them are claims that the Freemasons are connected to the Illuminati; that they worship the Devil; and even that they faked the Apollo Moon landings.

Symbols, images and ritual remain an important part of the Freemason movement, the learning and performing of which takes place behind closed doors in member-only ceremonies.


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This article was first published in the January 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed. Read more of our history explainer series, including guides to the Luddites, the Silk Road and the Punic Wars