1717 or 1721?
A recent paper by Andrew Prescott and Susan Sommers has suggested that the London based Premier Grand Lodge actually began in 1721 rather than 1717. I’ve not read the complete paper but I believe it has been quite thorough in its research, and indeed there is no contemporary account of the meeting of the Grand Lodge in 1717. The first mention of such a meeting was written in the 1738 edition of James Anderson’s Constitutions, over twenty years after the fact.
Despite, this, as an English Freemason I have always believed in the 1717 foundation, mainly because of the strong tradition, my main reasoning being that there were always strong anti-Masons and in particular, anti-London Grand Lodge Masons even at the time that would jump at the chance to ridicule the suggested 1717 date if it weren’t true. There were many people still alive in 1738 that were around in the early days of the Grand Lodge who could have instantly said that 1717 was a lie, and that they really became a Grand Lodge in 1721. Anderson would certainly have been taking a gamble with the enemies of Grand Lodge. For example, having done research on the Grand Lodge of All England held at York, which was declared in 1726, I feel there would have been something said by the Yorkists as they were always keen in promoting York Masonry above London Masonry, and the 1717 lie would have been an easy target to expose at the time. Dr Francis Drake was of course an author and a York Mason who I’m sure would have ridiculed the London Grand Lodge for their fantasy of 1717.
Which brings me to the point that if 1717 is a fabrication – why would the Grand Lodge choose that particular year? Surely 1714 would have been a better choice – the defeat of the Old Pretender James ‘III’ and the securing of the Hanoverian succession would be a great year to start a Grand Lodge. One of the interesting occurrences for me was that from 1717 to 1721 the London Grand Lodge had ‘commoners’ for Grand Masters; Anthony Sayer, George Payne, Dr Jean Desaguliers and George Payne again. From 1721 the Grand Masters were extracted from the aristocracy or Royalty, so why not delete the embarrassing ‘commoners’ earlier on and start from the aristocrats?
Indeed, in the 1723 edition of Anderson’s Constitutions, on page 58, it actually states that George Payne was Grand Master in 1720, so at the very least we have to put the existence of the Grand Lodge to this year as it’s mentioned in black and white – for there to be a Grand Master there has to be a Grand Lodge. It would be hard to fabricate that in the first edition of the Constitutions published three years later, especially with so many Masons who would have known George Payne and would have read the work. Even then, as Masons, to all collectively lie about that would have not only been against a moral code, but the Yorkists – those pesky enemies of the London Grand Lodge – would have leapt at the chance to undermine the mere suggestion. And again, why mention a ‘commoner’ like George Payne as being Grand Master in 1720 when they could have had a pick of countless Lords and Earls.
So, in light of the strong tradition, are four years worth arguing about? I’m still to be sold on the idea of 1721, so for now the traditional date will do as I’m enjoying the tercentenary.