The Royal Arch is the capstone (Copestone) of the craft (symbolic) degrees. In other words, without the craft degrees, the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch has no foundation. Therefore, the development of the degree of the Holy Royal Arch has been, necessarily, linked to the development of the craft degrees.
A number of theories have been advanced over the past 200 years as to possible origins of this degree. These theories have been explored by outstanding Masonic historians and many of the theories have been laid to rest. Suggestions that the Royal Arch legend was originally a part of the Hiramic legend has been discredited because of the objections the premier (Modern) Grand Lodge of England had toward the conferral of the Royal Arch by its subordinate lodges.
The first reference to the existence of this degree occurred in England in 1730’s, prior to the establishment of the Antient Grand Lodge. These references appear in Masonic literature of the 1730’s but not in the lodge minutes. Some of these accounts reveal that the Modern Grand Lodge did not consider the Royal Arch a part of the craft degrees, indicating that an “original” connection did not exist. At that early period of the Modern Grand Lodge (founded in 1717) it is entirely probable that they were having sufficient problems in achieving a standard working of the craft degrees without injecting further controversy. Similarly, the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland frowned upon its use in the early 18th century. Controversely, the Antient Grand Lodge (founded in 1752) accepted the Royal Arch degree as the completion of the Hiramic legend and permitted its conferral in their symbolic lodges from the outset.
The Royal Arch Degree, as practiced today in a major part of the world, is a refinement of a number of degrees, legends, and traditions that existed under that, or similar, name in the early 18th century in the British Isles. The legends refer to a “crypt”. The type of crypt and its location, whether subterranean or above ground, varied. The stated origins of the crypt differed by several millenia. The only point of similarity in the legends was that the crypt was constructed to preserve valuable secrets for future generations.
The Royal Arch degree concerns itself with the discovery of a crypt and the value of the resulting discoveries in bringing additional Masonic light to the discoverers.
The value of the discovery, which resulted in completing the Hiramic legend, could not long be overlooked by the Modern Grand Lodge of England. Therefore, because they had previously declared that this was not a craft degree, they eventually formed Royal Arch Chapters within their lodges to confer this degree. While the Grand Lodge of Ireland and Scotland did not officially recognize the degree, many of their lodges conferred it anyway.
The Antient Grand Lodge had permitted the use of the Royal Arch degree within its subordinate lodges from the beginning of its existence. However, reasons for conferring the degree differed in various lodges. A number of lodges conferred it as a 4th Degree. Others utilized it as a second part of the Master Mason’s Degree. Some only conferred it on Past or Installed Masters after they had received the Mark Degree, and Installed Master (Past Master) Degree. There was no uniformity for its conferral in the early days.
Surviving lodges minutes of the early 18th century seldom refer to degree conferrals, possibly because they considered it secret work, or, in the case of the Royal Arch, because they had no real authority to confer it. While the degree of the Royal Arch had definitely been conferred in the 1730’s in England, the earliest surviving minutes recording the conferral of the degree was in “Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons”, Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 22, 1753.
The Fredericksburg Lodge (now No.4) at that date was a “time immemorial” lodge, operating without a Charter. A tradition indicates they may have had dispensation from Massachusetts. According to the minutes, the lodge opened, formed a “Royal Arch Lodge” with a visitor presiding, and conferred the degree on three candidates, one of whom was the regular Master of the lodge. The Royal Arch Lodge was then “shutt” and an Entered Aprentices Lodge opened.
This is the lodge that raised George Washington to the degree of Mater Mason on August 4th of that year. The lodge later received a Charter from the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1758. These minutes and Charter are on display in the replica lodge room in Fredericksburg, Virginia, along with other historic memorabilia.
References to Royal Arch Masons begin to occur with more frequency in Britain during the 1750’s but there are few accounts detailing the basis for conferring this degree.
The earliest reference to conferral of the Royal Arch Degree in English lodge minutes appears in a “Modern” lodge in Bristol in 1758, prior to the establishment of the Grand Chapter. This substantiates that, while the degree was not recognized by Grand Lodge, subordinate lodges of that jurisdiction were working on it.
Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel