The York Legend

Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, ruled England from 924 to 940 A.D. He completed the subjection of the minor kingdoms in England, begun by his grandfather, and has been hailed as the first King of all England. The Regius Poem and other ancient legends relate that Athelstan was a great patron of Masonry, and that he constructed many abbeys, monasteries, castles and fortresses. He studied Geometry and imported learned men in these arts. To preserve order in the work and correct transgressors, the king issued a Charter to the Masons to hold a yearly assembly at York. He also reputed to have made many Masons. The legends proceed to relate that Athelstan appointed his brother, Edwin, as Grand Master and that the first Grand Lodge was held at York in 926. The accounts state that the Constitutions of English Masonry were there established and were based upon a number of old documents written in Greek, Latin and other languages.

Aside from the direct implications of this legend, it is interesting to note that the King and Prince were patrons of Masonry and as such were probably speculative, rather than operative members of the craft. The fact that this concept prevailed as early as 1390 A.D., and possibly earlier, makes it easier to account for the fact that so many speculative members of high rank joined the craft in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry by Frederick G. Speide

The Chapter of Royal Arch Masons

While the keystone is the principal locking stone of the Arch, the Copestone is the top, or cap of the entire wall. Therefore, The Royal Arch of Freemasonry, which has been classed as “the Copestone of Ancient Craft Masonry”, is known as the Capitular Rite.

In the United States, a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons confers the degrees of Mark Master, Past Master, Most Excellent Master and The Most Sublime Degree of the Holy Royal Arch. To add realism to the work, these degrees are usually conferred in appropriate costumes.

In Virginia and West Virginia, the Royal Arch Chapters also confer the Royal and Select Masters degrees of the Cryptic Rite. In Pennsylvania, the Grand Lodge retains control of the Past Master’s Degree.

While solicitation cannot be made for members for the Symbolic Lodge, once a man has attained the rank of Master Mason, he can and should be encouraged to continue his Masonic Education in the York rite. Several Grand Lodges specify a waiting period before a Master Mason is permitted to advance. All Capitular Masons should be familiar with the requirements of their jurisdiction.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel

Mark Master’s Degree

In ancient times, stonemasons placed an identifying symbol upon their work. This symbol was known as their “Mark”. Wheter this practice was utilized during the building of the Great Temple in Jerusalem in accordance with Masonic allegory is uncertain. However, “Operative” Masons in England and on the continent of Europe have left their “Marks” on stonework dating from the dark ages.

The Marks were normally inscribed upon the work with an engravers chisel and mallet and therefore consisted primarily of a combination of straight lines.

The Mason’s Mark served several purposes; to identify the work of each craftsman, and to serve as signature in a period when most people were illiterate. While the mark had no symbolic meaning in operative craft, the workman was classed by the quality of his work. Therefore, most of the stonemasons strove to do their best work prior to identifying the piece by placing their mark upon it.

The medieval lodges of Freemasons maintained a Book of Marks wherein were registered the “Marks” of their members. Several of these volumes have survived to the present day. This practice has been carried over into our speculative craft and each American Chapter maintains a Book of Marks of its members.

At a meeting of the operative Lodge of Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 8, 1600, the presiding Master and the members present certified the minutes by placing their marks upon them.

The first reference to the conferral of a Mark degree is found in the minutes of Phoenix Royal Arch Chapter, working with Friendship Lodge at Portsmouth, England, on September 1, 1769. In that account,Thomas Dunckerley, the Pro Grand Master of the “Modern” Grand Lodge delivered the Warrant to the Chapter and “he made the brethren ‘Mark Masons’ and ‘Mark Masters’, and each chose their Mark”. So, in this first reference, we encounter two degrees concerning the Mark. As written rituals did not exist in those days, we do not know of what those degrees consisted. However, we can well assume that these degrees had existed prior to that date. The Mark Mason degree was conferred in Fellowcraft lodges and the Mark Master in Master Masons lodges.

The ritual of the Mark Master degree very impressively illustrates the inherent values found in honest employment and charitable activity.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel

Past Master’s Degree

(Virtual Past Master, Installed Master)

The degree of Past Master is not rooted in antiquity. The earliest reference to this degree occurs in the middle of the 18th century in England, where the degree was conferred for one of two purposes: First, a number of English lodges conferred the degree of Installed Master upon the Masters of symbolic lodges. The degree possibly included a secret word and grip and could only be conferred in the presence of Installed Masters. This practice varied with the lodges in different parts of England and also within the two Grand Lodges of Antients and Moderns. There were no standards whatsoever for the degree. Second, it was originally the custom of many lodges and chapters to only confer the degree of the Holy Royal Arch upon Installed Masters of lodges. As the craft became more speculative, it became the practice to confer the degree of (Virtual) Past Master as a prerequisite to the conferral of the Royal Arch. This latter procedure created much turmoil in English Masonry for over a century. Almost all of the Grand Chapters presently working in the United States require this degree prior to conferral of the Royal Arch.

Additionally, several American Grand Lodges believe that it is desirable for a Master-elect to receive particular instruction for governing a lodge. These Grand Lodges require that the Wardens of their subordinate lodges recive the Past Master’s Degree of the Chapter prior to their Installation into the office of Master. Arrangements are made with neighboring Royal Arch Chapter to confer this degree upon the Wardens of surrounding lodges. This ceremony also fulfills the requirement of several Grand Lodges which states that the Master of a Symbolic Lodge be installed by an esoteric ritual.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel

Most Excellent Master Degree

A number of degrees with a similar title were conferred in the British Isles in the 18th century. They were, Excellent Masons, Super Excellent Mason, Excellent Master, and an obscure degree in Scotland called Most Excellent Master. These degrees differed in content but were each considered to be prerequisite to the Royal Arch Degree in whatever jurisdiction they were worked.

Many Masonic historian credit Thomas Smith Webb with fabricating the Most Excellent Master Degree as it is worked in modern America. He may have written the American ritual, however, the main theme is that of the Most Excellent Master Degree known in Scotland in the 18th century.

The earliest references to woeking this degree in America were in Middletown, Connecticut in 1783, and in Newburyport Chapter in Massachusetts on January 1, 1797. The degree could well have been conferred here prior to 1783.

This is the only Masonic degree that deals with the completion of the temple. The craftsman is confronted with many valulable lessons for his future development.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel