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Esoteric Freemasonry before 1717?

A question that interests me is when Freemasonry ‘became esoteric’. An unavoidable question when looking at that is ‘how did it ‘start’ in the first place?’

For centuries very different theories have been worked out. The most common is that in the days of the guilds there were also masons guilds and from these “operative” lodges, over time “speculative” Freemasonry grew. How, when and why non craftsmen joined is a matter of dispute. An often heard theory is that lodges asked ‘higher ups’ in society to join to raise their own prestige. Another idea is that these men joined by their own initiative because they thought to find something in these lodges. That ‘something’ can hardly be craft secrets, so what then? Interest in architecture as Knoop and Jones suggest? (1)

Fabio Venzi suggests (2) that initially Freemasonry was not yet esoteric, but this was introduced by the so-called “Cambridge Platonists” in the 17th century. He writes:

Elias Ashmole, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were all scientists, members of the Royal Society who continued to practise alchemy side by side with the experimental methods applied by modern science.

Studies p. 190

So that is before the foundation of the ‘premier Grand Lodge’ in 1717. Yet, most old texts even from around 1717 are not very esoteric. The rituals were only developed later. Perhaps there are a few things to say about this.

Venzi mentions Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). Recently I have read two books of Tobias Churton in which Ashmole plays a big part (3). Churton also looks into the people around Ashmole and paints a picture of people who – at the dawning of the age of science – kept their interest in subjects such as alchemy. People who – as Venzi says – stood at the cradle of the Royal Society. Members of the Royal Society were also involved in Freemasonry. Let us have a look at a few people.

William Schaw (1549–1602)

Schaw we know for two sets of “statutes” that are hailed as “Old Charges” by contemporary Freemasons. Initially there does not seem to be a whole lot of esotericism in them. Some authors make much of the phrases “good memory” in the first statute (4) which are expanded in the second statutes (5) where Schaw mentions a “test [of] the qualification of all the Masons within the aforesaid boundaries of their art, craft, Science and ancient memory”. A little further he writes about “the art of memory and science thereof”.

Some say that this ‘art of memory’ is that of (or similar to) the art of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and other Renaissance thinkers who used elaborate schemes (diagrams, imaginary buildings, etc.) for remembrance. Along these lines Schaw is connected to Renaissance esotericism.

Schaw was a master mason and “Master of Works and General Warden of the master stonemasons”, which is not a surprise. When there are guilds, it is logical that the best architects are their leaders.

William Backhouse (1593-1662)

Backhouse was a bit of the ‘grand magus’ of his day. He was called “elixer man” suggesting alchemy. He is also connected to the Rosicrucian movement. Backhouse is interesting because he lived in Oxford and is (sometimes unsubstantiated) connected to people meeting at Wedham College where supposedly the ideas for the Royal Society were conceived. He is furthermore interesting because he appears to have first initiated Ashmole and later passed him a secret. In his diary he wrote:

On April 3, 1651, at half past midnight, “Mr : Will : Backhouse of Swallowfield in Com. Berks, caused me to call him Father thence forward.”

and later

On March 10: “This morning my Father Backhouse opened himselfe very freely, touching the great Secret.” As if smelling something interesting going on, 11 a.m., June 14, 1652: “Doctor Wilkins and Mr Wren came to visit me at Blackfriars.”

Backhouse is very likely a major cause for Ashmole’s interest in things Masonic. Backhouse had an extensive library which Ashmole used.

Samuel Hartlib (c1599-1670)

Hartlib was a Pole who was somewhat of a centre in esoteric circles in his time. He knew Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Abraham von Frankenberg (1593-1652). Like Comenius he travelled about and could be found in The Hague, but also Britain. He appears to have been close to the Germany Rosicrucian circles and he may well have been one cause for Comenius’ ideas of an “invisible college” taking root in Britain.

Sharing many interests, he and Ashmole were in contact.

William Lilly (1602-1681)

Lilly was one of Ashmole’s long lasting friends. Like Ashmole his entire life was based on astrological calculations and the two frequented astrological societies. They were introduced to each other when Ashmole had moved to London by Jonas Moore (1617–1679), “a royalist mathematician” (6). Both men owned a copy of Picatrix the famous Arabian grimoire and there is a suggestion that their meeting may have been because both men (or perhaps all three) were Freemasons, but I have found no further information about Lilly’s membership.

William Dugdale (1605-1686)

Dugdale was another good friend of Ashmole. Dugdale was somewhat older than Ashmole and eventually Ashmole would marry Dugdale’s daughter Elizabeth. The two had many mutual interests and travelled through the country gathering information, taking notes, etc. Both were antiquarians, they collected massive amounts of information for massive books.

Robert Moray / Murry (1608-1673)

A name you may have heard of in connection to the Royal Society. Moray was a Scot (Murry is the English spelling of his name) who was initiated in the military Scottish masonic lodge Old S. Mary’s Chapel in 1641 which makes this the oldest known initiation of a non-craftsman in a Masonic lodge.

Moray was a walking encyclopedia for all things Rosicrucian and related. Yet he became the first president of the Royal Society.

John Wilkins (1614–72)

Like Ashmole a collector of “artificial, mathematical and magical curiosities”. It was at his office at Wedham college where people such as Christopher Wren (see later) met, a group of like minded people who would found the Royal Society. He knew Blackhouse and Ashmole. As we saw above in Ashmole’s diary quote, Wilkins immediately after Ashmole could call Backhouse his father, Wilkins and Wren happened to step by. This was the first time that Wilkins and Ashmole met.

Thomas Vaughan (1621–1666)

Vaughan published the first English versions of the first two Rosicrucian manifestoes and yet again, belonged to the early Royal Society. He even appears to have tutored Robert Moray in things (al)chemical.

John Aubrey (1626-1697)

Another good friend of Ashmole. Aubrey is a bit of a controversial character. Like Ashmole he was an antiquarian and he is best known for his Natural History of Wiltshire (1677) in which Freemasons are mentioned a few times. He even speaks of the initiation of Christopher Wren (see below), but this claim is disputed.

Memorandum. This day, May the 18th, being Munday, 1691, after Rogation Sunday, is a great convention at St. Paul’s Church of the fraternity of the adopted Masons, where Sir Christopher Wren is to be adopted a brother, and Sir Henry Goodric, of the Tower, and divers others. There have been kings of this sodality. (7)

In his book he frequently mentions Wren and Dugdale (see above) claiming something. He appears to have known both well. Why he would be disinformation about Wrens initiation eludes me.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691)

Boyle was in correspondence with Hartlib (see above) and they wrote about an ‘invisible’ college. Through ‘antiquarian ways’ he knew Ashmole. There are also a few interesting things to say about Boyle that Churton does not mention. Boyle is somewhat interesting in our story because he supposedly brought a German alchemist by the name of Peter Stahl (or Sthael) to Oxford and Stahl tutored Boyle, Wren and others. I cannot find much about this Stahl, but a possible link with the German Rosicrucian movement is tempting.

Christopher Wren (1632-1723)

The famous architect who designed Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and had a big part in the rebuilding of London after the fire of 1666. As we saw he was a familiar of Ashmole. He attended the earlier mentioned Gresham college where in 1660 he lectured suggesting a “voluntary association of men in an academy”. He appears to have had an interest in biology, optics, but also in things more arcane. With Ashmole he shared an interest in the Royal Order of the Garter about which Ashmole wrote the book that made him famous.

Aubrey says that Wren was made a Freemason in 1691. In 1727 he would have been master of the Old St. Paul’s Lodge. Others place him within one of the four lodges that founded the premier Grand Lodge, the lodge that met at the Goose and Gridiron. Yet more scholars doubt that Wren was a Freemason at all.

If Wren was a famous architect like Schaw, he would have certainly have helmed a lodge of stone masons the least. With his interests this membership may wel have expanded into “accepted” Freemasonry. But more about that later. By the way, noone less than the famous Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborgh (1688-1772) who had visited Britain, Wren and his son where Freemasons. Wren certainly was a name in the more esoteric parts of society.

Thomas Hyde (1636-1703)

According to Chris Earnshaw (8) far Eastern elements can be found in Masonic symbolism. He suggests that the Chinese convert Shen FuZong (c1658-1691) was largely responsible for this. FuZong visited Europe several times and he was asked to translate Chinese manuscripts in the Bodleian Library for example. Thus he met the Oxford professor of Hebrew Thomas Hyde (1636-1703) who on his turn knew Ashmole.

Hans Sloane (1660-1753)

The first man I name in this article and the last one both gave their names to “Old Charges”. Sloane has left us two sets of “Old Charges”, published in 1646 and 1700. More about these later. Sloane was much younger than Ashmole, but he was also an antiquarian and involved in the Royal Society. Perhaps briefly, but the two are likely to have met.


I mentioned Wedham Collage, especially the quarters of Wilkins. That is one place where like-minded people met and where both things esoteric and scientific were discussed. Oxford knew similar clubs, or perhaps they are just different names for the same. Something similar seems to have happened at Brasenose College. Some others speak of a Gresham Collega round Thomas Gresham. There was of course the famous Bodleian Library (1602), from 1683 the Ashmolean Museum and the famous University of Oxford. On a smaller scale there is talk of an Oxford Philosophical Club, which may have been the group around Wilkins. There were antiquarian societies (of which many members were also involved in the Royal Society), astrological societies, apparently like-minded people knew how to find one another.

Be all that as it may, Oxford seems to have been the place that somehow ties the men mentioned above tie together.


We have seen a stock of men with a variety of interests, more or less loosely connected by an interest in things esoteric. Some of them are known to be Freemasons, of some we are not sure, of others (such as Boyle) we are certain they were not. The question that remains open is: did these men bring esotericism to their lodges or did (they hope to) find it there? One thing seems to be certain: these men did not learn trade secrets of the craft. They were “accepted” in lodges that either or not were special meetings of existing lodges or lodges (temporarily) created for the purpose.

Some scholars say Ashmole was not an active member. Freemasonry is only mentioned twice in his diary with many years in between. Yet, the second entry of 1682 suggests that he was called upon for his experience. He even mentions he was senior at the meeting.

About 5 H: P.M. I received a Sumons [sic] to appeare at a Lodge to held the next day, at Masons Hall London. Accordingly, I went … I was the Senior Fellow among them (it being 35 yeares since I was admitted) … We all dyned at the halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapeside, at a Noble Dinner prepaired at the charge of the New-accepted Masons.

There are a few things interesting about this quote. The meeting took place at “Masons Hall London” which was the headquarters of the “operative” Masons guild. This seems to suggest that free and/or accepted masonry still took place under the umbrella of the good old guild. Also – like I said – Ashmole presents himself as the experienced Mason.

Churton suggests that Ashmole may have indirectly referred to lodge meetings more often when he spoke about gatherings such as mathematical meetings.

There is something interesting about Hans Sloane’s first manuscript. On publication it was dated “decimo sexto die Octobris Anno Domini 1646”, October 16, 1646, the day Ashmole says he was initiated. Was this a pun of the publisher or is there something to it? Whether or not this is the actual text that Ashmole heard during his initiation, it is likely that it was something similar. In the text we read:

Our intent is to tell you truly how and in what manner these stones were found; and where these Crafts were written in Greek; Hermines  was son to Cus [Cush]; and Cush was son to Shem, who was the son of Noah: The same Hermines was afterwards Hermes; the Father of wise men and he found out the two pillars of stone where the Sciences were written and taught them forth.

Ashmole named himself “Mercuriophilus Anglicus” or ‘English mercury lover’ after Hermes Trismegistus. He must have been delighted to hear about Hermes in his new group of brothers. Could this have been the reason for him joining or would it have been a very like chain of events?

It is often suggested that in these days the Masonic initiation was not more than the hearing of the “charge” (legendary history of Freemasonry) and either or not receiving some secret word and/or grips. When there were more people like Ashmole who were members, I wonder if that was really the case. Were they satisfied with a story? Were it the meetings in which all kinds of subjects were discussed or was there something more to it all? Schaws ‘art of memory’ only seems to be mentioned by himself.
I wonder if we will ever know what really went on in the “accepted” lodges of these days and how big the influence the membership of men like Ashmole of these pre-1717 lodges was.

Robert Plot (1640-1696) was another friend of Ashmole’s. Plot wrote the lauded Natural History of Staffordshire of which Churton makes quite something. Churton quotes Plot writing:

that the admission of accepted Free-masons “chiefly consists in the communication of certain secret signes, whereby they are known to one another all over the Nation, by which means they have maintenance whither ever they travel” is attested by seventeenth-century documentary records.

Recognition in other “operative” lodges cannot be what the gentry was after. Ashmole himself in his famous compilation of British alchemical texts writes the following:

Both “common workemen” and “Free Masons” were interested in alchemy. He published his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum six years after his initiation. You would say he would know by then!

There is another thing. Churton writes:

The most significant early reference to an “Accepcon” (Acception) occurs in the Renter Warden’s Accounts of the London company of ffreemasons, 1638, now held in the Guildhall Library, London. Records for 1638 describe a meeting that took place sometime between Marchand midsummer 1638, […]. Five freemasons, already members of the company, paid ten shillings for the privilege of being “accepted”—or perhaps as a contribution to a post-ceremonial feast. We have no idea how long this ceremony had been practiced, as records for the London Freemasons Company before 1619 do not exist.

So existing members were again “accepted” and they even paid quite a sum of money for the privilege. This reminds of the interesting case of William Wilson who was a known Free Mason, but was also “accepted”. Perhaps the same even happened with Christopher Wren. Apparently for “operative” members and non members alike, the “acception” lodges had to offer something.

There is a thought I want to throw at you as a closer off. Ashmole was initiated in Warrington, England. Moray somewhere near Edinburgh, Scotland. Hans Sloane – who may have been present at Ashmole’s initiation – was an Irishman. We know that these three regions had quite different forms of Freemasonry. Scotland had a ‘Mason’s Word’, England did not. Soon after 1717 the Irish found themselves more traditional than the British. Would it be a weird suggestion that his whole group of people around the Royal Society were also responsible for a ‘merger’ between different kinds of Freemasonry and – during the proces – added some elements from their own interests?

Stolen from the book The Golden Builders (3)

(1) The Genesis Of Freemasonry by Knoop and Jones (1978)
(2) Studies On Traditional Freemasonry and Freemasonry, the esoteric Tradition by Fabio Venzi (2013 and 2016) also see this article.
(3) The Golden Builders and The Magus Of Freemasonry by Tobias Churton (2004 and 2006)
(4) The First William Schaw Statutes (1598) available online (accessed 28/1/22)
(5) The Second William Schaw Statutes (1599) available online (accessed 28/1/22)
(6) The Magus Of Freemasonry by Tobias Churton (2006)
(7) Natural History Of Wiltshre by John Aubrey (1677), available online (accessed 28/1/22)
(8) Freemasonry, spiritual alchemy, Freemasonry, initiation by light and Freemasonry, quest for immortality by Chris Earnshaw (2019, 2020, 2019)

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