Thursday, December 22, 2011

Freemasonry and King Athelstan

History of King Athelstan

King Athelstan, the grandson of King Alfred the Great (known for his defense against the Viking invaders), Athelstan (also spelled: Athelstane, Athelstone, Athelston, Aldiston, Adelstan, Adelston, and Ethelstan) is historically known for his success in securing the submission of Constantine II, King of Scots, at the Treaty of Eamont Bridge in 927 AD through to the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD led to his claiming the title "King of all Britain".  While overlooked by his grandfather, it is important to point out that Athelstan was the first King of a unified England from 927 AD.  He reigned between 925 and 939 and was a distinguished and courageous soldier who pushed the boundaries of the kingdom further than anyone had done before.

According to Masons, particularly those of the York Rite persuasion, he holds an endearing place in our history as great supporter of Masonry in England, establishing charges and articles given to the Craft to live by.

From the Masonic Order of Athelstan's website:
In the year 926 A.D., the legendary Grand Assembly at York, was said to have been held by King Athelstan's half brother Prince Edwin, wherein the great traditions of symbolic and operative masonry were constituted, revived, or organized, and a new code of laws for the governing of the Craft instituted.

Under Athelstan, law codes strengthened royal control over his large kingdom. Currency was regulated to control silver's weight and to penalise fraudsters. Buying and selling was largely confined to the burghs, encouraging town life. Areas of settlement in the Midlands and Danish towns were consolidated into shires.

Overseas, Athelstan built alliances by marrying off four of his half-sisters to various rulers in Western Europe. He was also a great collector of artworks and religious relics, which he gave away too many of his followers, and to churches in order to gain the support of the clergy.

Athelstan died in 939 at the height of his power, and was buried in Malmesbury Abbey. He had been an ardent supporter and endower of the Abbey, and it is fitting that he should be buried there.
Here is from the York Rite Sovereign College of North America's website on the origins of the York Rite:
The York Rite takes its name from the Ancient English city of York, around whose minster, or cathedral, cluster many Masonic traditions. Here , these traditions tell us, Athelstan, who reigned more than a thousand years ago and who was the first king of all England, granted the first charter to the Masonic guilds. Here, in 1705, a Grand Lodge in London, to whose constitution the Grand Lodge of England later appealed as the true source of authentic Freemasonry. Though early disappearing from the Masonic scene, this Grand Lodge left an indelible impression upon the institution, and its name --- York --- will survive as long as Freemasonry continues.
According to Phillip G. Elam in his paper "King Athelstan: Masonry's First Royal Patron",

History of manuscripts

The three manuscripts that surround the York Rite legend and King Athelstan are the:  Halliwell Manuscript (Regius Poem), Cooke Manuscript, and Landsdowne Manuscript.  There is also one I had not heard of before doing this research, this is known as the Roberts Manuscript; claiming to be dated around the 13th century.

Regius Poem/Halliwell Manuscript

This manuscript is admitted to be the oldest genuine record of the Craft of Masonry known. The general consensus on the age of the document dates its writing to between the late 1300s and the middle of the 15th century, and from internal evidence its author appears to have been a West of England clergyman. The manuscript was recorded in various personal inventories as it changed hands until it came into possession of the Royal Library, which was donated to the British Museum in 1757 by King George II to form the nucleus of the present British Library.

During this time, the document was generally described as a poem of moral duties. The significance of the document as relating to Freemasonry was not realized until it was featured in an article on Freemasonry by James Halliwell in 1840.

The text of the document states that Freemasonry was brought to England during the reign of King Athelstan from 924 to 939.
In Egypt he taught it full wide,
In divers lands on every side;
Many years afterward, I understand,
Ere that the craft came into this land.
This craft came into England, as I you say,
In time of good King Athelstane's day;
He made then both hall and even bower,
And high temples of great honor,
To disport him in both day and night,
And to worship his God with all his might.
This good lord loved this craft full well,
And purposed to strengthen it every part,
For divers faults that in the craft he found;
He sent about into the land 
Cooke Manuscript

The Matthew Cooke Manuscript is the oldest of a class of about one hundred early documents known as Freemasonry's Gothic Constitutions, and the second oldest known manuscript in Masonic history. Typically, the Gothic Constitutions included an invocation, a mythical legend of ancient Masonry, a list of charges and regulations for Masons, and an oath or obligation.

The manuscript was published by R. Spencer, London, in 1861 and it was edited by Mr. Matthew Cooke—hence the name. It has been dated at 1450 or thereabouts, an estimate in which most of the specialists have concurred.
And after that there was a worthy king in England, called Athelstan, and his youngest son loved well the science of Geometry ; and he know well, as well as the masons themselves, that their handicraft was the practice of the science of Geometry. Therefore he drew to their councils (or took counsel, or lessons, of them) and learned the practical part of that science in addition to his theoretical (or book) knowledge. For of the speculative part he was a master. And he loved well masonry and masons. And he became a mason himself. And he give them charges and usages such as are now customary in England and in other countries. And he ordained that they should have reasonable pay. And he purchased a free patent of the king that they might hold an assembly at what time they thought reasonable and come together to consult. Of the which charges, usages and assembly it is written and taught in our Book of Charges; wherefore I leave it for the present.


Many years after, in the time of king Athelstan, sometime king of England, by common assent of his Council and other great lords of the land on account of great defects found amongst masons, a certain rule was ordained for them.
Landsdowne Manuscript

The lesser known of the manuscripts, this catalogs the old charges of Freemasonry. According to Albert Mackey:
This version of the Old Charges is of very early date, about the middle or latter half of the sixteenth century, as these Free Masons Orders and Constitutions are believed to have been part of the collection made by Lord Burghley, Secretary of State in the time of Edward VI, who died 1598 A.D.
From the manuscript:
Thereat was he himselfe and did help to make Masons and gave them Charges as you shall heare afterwards, soone after the Decease of St. Albones there came Diverse Warrs into England out of Diverse Nations so that the good rule of Masons was dishired and put downe vntill the tyme of Kin% Adilsion in his tyme there was a worthy King in England that brought this Land into good rest and he builded many great workes and buildings, therefore he loved well Masons for he had a Sonne called Edwin the which Loved Masons much more then his ffather did and he was soe practized in Geometry that he delighted much to come and talke with Masons and to Learne of them the Craft, And after for the love he had to Masons and to the Craft, he was made Mason at Windsor and he gott of the King his ffather a Charter and Commission once every yeare to have Assembley within the Realme where they would within England and to correct within themselves ffaults & Trespasses that weere done as Touching the Craft, and he held them an Assembley at Yorke and there he made Masons and gave them Charges and taught them the Manners, and Comands the same to be kept ever afterwards And tooke them the Charter and Commission to keep their Assembly and Ordained that it should be renewed from King to King.
Roberts Manuscript
He began to build many Abbeys,  Monasteries, and other religious houses, as also castles and divers Fortresses for defence of his realm.  He loved Masons more than his father; he greatly study'd Geometry, and sent into many lands for men expert in the science.  He gave them a very large charter to hold a yearly assembly, and power to correct offenders in the said science; and the king himself caused a General Assembly of all Masons in his realm at York, and there made many Masons, and gave them a deep charge for observation of all such articles as belonged unto Masonry, and delivered them the said Charter to keep.
1. Wikipedia. (2011, November 24). Retrieved from Masonic Manuscripts:
2. Elam, P. G. (n.d.). Masonic Forum. Retrieved from King Athelstan: Masonry's First Royal Patron:

3. Hughan, W. J. (1872). The Old Charges of British Freemasons. London.

4. Masonic Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved from The Landsdowne Manuscript:

5. Masonic Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved from The York Legend:

6. Speth, T. b. (n.d.). Matthew Cooke Manuscript. England.
7. The Masonic Order of Athelstan in England, Wales, and its Provinces Overseas. (n.d.). Retrieved from Who was King Athelstan?:
8. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from Athelstan:
"Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave: even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." 

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