Origins of Freemasonry: Britain
The history of the Freemasons is generally divided into two subcategories:
- the period of time prior to the foundation of the Lodge of England, which occurred in 1717
- the period of time following the foundation of the Lodge of England
The period of time prior to the inception of the Lodge* of England is marked by relative obscurity. Knowledge of the development of the Freemasons during this timeframe is limited, and many theories and myths exist with regard to the origins of Freemasonry.
Some evidence exists that Masonic lodges were formed in Britain as early as the fourteenth century. The Regius Manuscript, written in 1390, is believed to be the oldest authentic record of Freemasonry. This document contains many important Masonic usages, and is believed to be the basis for the Freemasonry Constitution written by Reverend James Anderson, a constitution that encompasses both the regulatory structure of the Freemasons, as well as its main principles of fraternity, charity and truth.
The establishment of the Lodge of England in the early eighteenth century marks a shift in the history of the Freemasons, as the year 1717 signaled the establishment of hundreds of Grand Lodges throughout the world, as well as an increase in the documentation of the Freemason culture.
The Grand Lodge of England was formed when four extant London Lodges merged, thereby creating a regulatory body. Nearly all London Lodges joined this Grand Lodge.
In the 1750s, two competing England Grand Lodges, known as the Moderns and the Ancients, struggled bitterly for supremacy until the two lodges united in 1813, a merger which signaled the establishment of the United Grand Lodge of England.
Freemasonry was exported to the British colonies of North America in the 1730s and, following the American Revolution, led to the inception of independent American lodges. The dispersal of British settlers, merchants and the British military also led to the rise in popularity of the Freemasons throughout the world.
It is believed that of the estimated 2 million Freemasons existing in the world today, approximately 1 million of whom live in the British Isles.
*NB: A Masonic Lodge is the basic unit of organization within Freemasonry. Each new lodge must be accepted by the Grand Lodge, which oversees all Masonic lodges under its jurisdiction. However, the lodges are subject to direction by the Grand Lodge only with regard to the enforcement of the Constitution of Freemasons. Each lodge must hold regular meetings at a certain place and date, during which minutes must be kept; in addition, members must elect, initiate and promote its members.