Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Livery Companies and Freemasonry

This blog article is based upon an earlier comparison of the similarities and differences that exist between the Livery Companies and Freemasonry that originally appeared on my website (www.cityandlivery.co.uk). It has been updated based upon more recent discoveries and a deeper understanding of the role of Freemasonry and how its relationship with the Livery.

The subject of Freemasonry is something of a 'marmite' topic among Liverymen, there are those that love it, and those that would rather not partake, but by and large the knowledge of Freemasonry's links to the Livery are not widely known and remain poorly understood by both Freemasons and Liverymen. In particular Freemasonry has many stories of its origins that are built on foundations of historical quicksand, providing no firm facts and every opportunity for the unwary to get trapped in myths and legends.

In the beginning...

The origins for Freemasonry are lost in the mists of time; never the less some learned historians have put forward the plausible theory that Freemasonry grew out of the Livery probably in the late 17th century in the City of London following a split between operative and speculative members of the Masons’ Company. 

How did the split come about?

Records exist of operative and speculative Masons meeting at Masons' Hall in Masons' Lane in the City of London during the 17th century. As with many Livery Companies whose power to regulate their trade was passing from their grasp at the time, the Masons were probably keen to invite wealthy gentlemen to join their ranks and swell coffers. These gentlemen were not craftsmen and certainly not skilled in the mysteries of the mason and therein lies the root of potential conflict with those members of the Livery Company who had done their time as an apprentice, journeyman and become master craftsman.

When, how and if this split between operative and speculative Masons occurred is open to conjecture,  but there remain a bewildering array of similarities between the Livery and Freemasonry despite being entirely separate and organisationally unconnected groupings.

Let's examine some of the similarities

To the casual observer it may appear that the City of London Livery Companies are a branch or offshoot of Freemasonry since they have a passion for dressing up in unusual outfits, for participating in arcane ceremonies and they use similar titles for many of their officers, to wit: Master, Past Master, Warden, Steward, Almoner, Chaplain, etc. However some these titles are also used by many other organisations including the ancient universities. They are reflective of the social structures and officials who were commonplace at the time when early medieval Guilds formed.

So, we should not assume that just because the Livery Companies and Freemasonry look and sound superficially similar, that they are therefore in some way connected. On the other hand, the similarities are too numerous to simply dismiss the idea of common origins. Here are some of the observable and verifiable facts that draw comparisons between the two:


  1. Some but certainly not all of the City of London Livery Companies have ‘closed’ (i.e. restricted membership) Masonic Lodges of their own, all formed between 1897* and 2013. At last count (January 2016) there were 24 such City Sister Livery Circuit Lodges.
  2. There is a Masonic Lodge that restricts membership to Freemen of the City of London (the Freedom of the City of London is a legal status not connected in any way with Freemasonry).
  3. There is a Masonic Lodge for installed Masters of Lodges who are either Freemen or Liverymen of City of London Livery Companies or employees/officers of the City of London Corporation.
  4. Several Masonic Lodges meet in Livery Company Halls in the City, one even meets in the Crypt of Guildhall (home of the City of London's government). 
  5. There are numerous Freemasons among the members of the Livery Companies and vice versa but there are also many Liverymen who are members of the National Trust, their local golf club, the Rotarians, and so on. Liverymen are joiners! 
  6. The structure of a Lodge is similar to that of a Livery Company although Livery Companies vary widely in the precise details of their structure and governance from one to another. 
  7. All Lodges and all but one of the Livery Companies elect their Master for a one year term of office.
  8. The United Grand Lodge of England and its provincial Grand Lodges use a Coat of Arms in part based upon those of The Worshipful Company of Masons. It should be noted that the law of arms requires that every coat of arms be unique with a least two differences, not including a simple change of colour. The arms of The Worshipful Company of Masons feature a sable (black) field on the shield with a white chevron, three castles and a pair of compasses on the chevron, whereas the variant used in the Masonic arms uses a gules (red) field. This does not constitute a difference that would satisfy the law of arms in England and Wales. In theory the Masons’ Company could have taken the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) to the Court of Chivalry for libel - but that’s not likely to happen as the UGLE arms have been since been registered at the College of Arms in 1919, from whence the Masons also received their grant of arms just a little earlier in 1472.
  9. Some Masonic Orders have a strong history of members receiving a grant of arms, as is often the case for Past Masters of Livery Companies, but any suitably eminent subject of Her Majesty may petition for arms, so it's not a privilege or right linked to Freemasonry or the Livery.
  10. There are certain customs and aspects of ceremonial that both organisations share, such as The Loving Cup and the Sung Grace (usually sung to the tune of Laudi Spirituali) and toasts to the Monarch. Again, these customs are not insular to the Livery and Freemasonry as one may experience similar at Oxbridge Colleges and in regimental messes.
  11. There is similarity among some (but not all) of the regalia employed by Livery Companies and Freemasonry such as the Masters Jewel and Livery Badges / Medals - often suspended from a collar.
  12. There are similarities in the various grades or degrees of progression within the Livery and the Freemasons. 
  13. The Lodge where a Freemason is first made a Mason is known as his ‘mother lodge’, in the same way the first Livery Company in which a Freeman is admitted is known as their ‘mother company’ although it is possible to translate to a new mother company in the Livery.
  14. The Worshipful Company of Masons having been originally titled the Company of Freemasons from as recently as 1530. In 1619 the Masons’ Company is known to have incorporated or was otherwise very closely connected with an organisation known as the ‘Acception' which met in Masons Hall in the City of London and comprised members who were not operative masons (i.e., they were speculative).
  15. Both Freemasonry and the Livery Companies have a strong charitable (relief) and fraternal (brotherly love) ethos, and some closed Masonic Lodges donate time, talent and money to Livery Company charities or collaborate on joint projects.
  16. The role of the Beadle in a Livery Company that has a hall is very similar in scope and responsibilities to that of a Lodge Tyler or Outer Guard.
  17. Some Masonic Lodges find their foundation in particular trades, crafts or occupations.
  18. Freemasons participate in the annual Lord Mayor’s Show in the City of London, one of the very few occasions that Freemasons will be seen parading in all their finery. 
  19. The Goose and Gridiron Tavern (originally the Mitre) that once existed in the City of London is where the earliest recorded Masonic meetings where held in 1717, this pub’s sign was actually that of Apollo’s Swan and Lyre (which are also the modern arms and crest of The Worshipful Company of Musicians). The pub was also well known as a meeting place for minstrels at a time when all musicians operating in the City would have been members of the Musicians’ Company (formerly the Ancient Company of Minstrels).
* This is 767 years after the oldest documentary evidence of the existence of a Livery Company

So far, so good and it appears the Livery and Freemasonry have a lot in common, but so do the Boy Scouts and the Boys Brigade, yet they are not one and the same.

Let's examine some of the differences

There are also numerous ways in which Freemasonry and the Livery Companies differ, some of the more pertinent differences that disprove any suggestion they are connected include:

  1. The Livery Companies predate any documented existence of Freemasonry (myths, legions and folklore aside) by at least 600 years, and the oldest City of London guilds are undoubtedly of Anglo-Saxon (pre-Norman conquest) origins. By contrast the first Masonic Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717 - a fact the Freemasons will confirm and is carved into the wall of Freemasons' Hall in London.
  2. The Livery Companies are all legal corporations, most formed by Royal Charter, some by prescription. They are subject to the laws governing corporations and in the case of Royal Charter companies they are ultimately governed by the Privy Council. Masonic Lodges don't get anywhere near this level of official recognition by the state. The right to confer a Royal Charter is a reserved power of the Monarch.
  3. The overwhelming majority of Livery Companies (108), all Companies without Livery (3) and all Guilds (3) are open to women as equal members and none explicitly forbids women from joining. Unlike Freemasonry* no Livery Company forbids its members, irrespective of gender, to communicate with, visit or participate in the activities of another company because the company admits women. Women have been admitted to the Livery and to the Freedom of the City of London for centuries.
  4. Only about 1/6th of the Livery Companies have a closely related Masonic Lodge and the degree of relationship between the Lodge and the Company varies widely from one to the next. Generally even those Livery Companies that have a Lodge will keep strict separation between the governance, finances and activities of the two entities.
  5. There is no overarching regulatory authority governing Livery Companies whereas there most definitely is for Freemasonry. Neither is there a provincial organisational structure for Livery Companies as they are creatures of the City of London.
  6. Livery Companies are part of the body politic of the City of London (in that their members still have a civic role as an electorate) whereas Freemasonry operate in many countries and have no civic or political role. By custom all Aldermen, Sheriffs and Lord Mayors of the City of London are Liverymen.
  7. Many Livery Companies require their members to be professionally qualified and practising in their respective trade, craft or profession. The Worshipful Company of Engineers for example will only admit Chartered Engineers who are also Fellows of a professional body recognised by the Engineering Council. Freemasons have no such explicit professional membership criteria.
  8. Membership of a Livery Company passes by right of Patrimony to sons and daughters so long as their parent was a Freeman before his/her children were born.
  9. Livery Companies all have a clear trade, craft or professional foundation, and most are still very active in their respective field in ways as diverse as education, training, professional development, examination, awarding, research, inspection, enforcement, standards and other ways.
  10. There are no appendant orders within the Livery in the way that exists in Freemasonry.
  11. Each Livery Company is a legal entity unto its own, and not part of a greater whole. There is no such thing as the ‘Livery movement’ rather there is friendly but deeply entrenched rivalry among the companies and a strict pecking order. The Livery is not a fraternal body comprised of chapters, branches or lodges, it is 110 separate companies who are sovereign.
  12. Livery Companies have a love of ceremony, but it’s all done in public (such as participation in the Lord Mayor’s Show) and the ceremonies are essentially civic in nature rather than allegorical. Most Livery Company ceremonies are derived from practical or legal procedures, such as the presentation of the Boar's Head by the Butchers' Company to the Lord Mayor in lieu of payment of a fee.
  13. There is no requirement to hold a religious faith in order to join a Livery Company, whereas certain degrees and orders of Freemasonry do require members to be of Trinitarian Christian faith and all Freemasons must declare a belief in a supreme being. That said Livery Companies have an association with the Anglican Church and members often do worship together (e.g., at the United Guilds Service) in public. Livery Companies also welcome those of no faith.
  14. Progression within the Livery is a matter for each Company, and there is but one common pre-requisite that applies to all Liverymen - that they be admitted as Freemen of the City of London, a status which is a matter of public record and nothing what-so-ever to do with Freemasons and Freemasonry.
  15. The Livery Companies could not reasonably be described as ‘a society with secrets’ (a term sometime erroneously applied to Freemasonry), neither does any Livery Company describe itself as such, although Livery Companies are private entities with as much right in law to privacy as any individual in the United Kingdom.

* Freemasonry as regulated by UGLE does not discriminate on grounds of race, colour, religion, political views or social standing but it is an exclusively male preserve. 
There are female and mixed Masonic Lodges in the UK but they are explicitly not recognised or governed by UGLE which in clause 4 of its Basic Principles for Grand Lodge Recognition forbids 'Masonic intercourse of any kind with mixed lodges or bodies which admit women to membership' (their words, not mine). 

In this respect Freemasonry does exclude prospective members based upon the random allocation of chromosomes and also forbids collaboration and communication with lodges that admit women, although as a private association it is entirely lawful for Freemasonry to hold this position. The same is true for Freemasonry following the Scottish and Irish traditions and governed by their respective Grand Lodges. 

Whether or not that is a morally defensible position to maintain in the 21st century is a question I leave for others to ponder.
In conclusion 
The Livery Companies and Freemasonry are entirely separate, distinct and independent bodies, albeit they have some similarities and some members in common. Neither is an offshoot of the other, and it is most definitely not a requirement for progression to the highest levels within a Livery Company that one be a Freemason (i.e., no advantage or privilege is afforded to Freemasons in the Livery or vice versa). 
The same is also true for those Liverymen who go on to elected office as Common Councilmen, Aldermen, Sheriffs or to the estate and dignity of The Rt Hon The Lord Mayor of the City of London. In fact there is no legal requirement for anyone to be a Liveryman to stand for election to these and other offices in the City, even if most candidates are Liverymen.

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