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A Basic Historico-Chronological Model of the
Western Hermetic Tradition

Some Evidence of Early Masonic Involvement in ‘Hermeticism’


Something has been said already that there may be Hermetic traces in the masonic rituals but it is when we look for any trace of Hermetic involvement in the earliest days of English speculative Freemasonry that we encounter a familiar difficulty. The Lodges’ records from the early decades of the 18th century are scrappy – to say the least. Their secretaries were not always diligent in keeping the records and even in making the required Annual Returns of their members to the Premier Grand Lodge. There was a sustained, widespread resentment of such interference from London. Generally, those Minute Books that do survive only provide dates, places and rough indications who attended the meetings and what office (if any) hey took during the ceremonies. Even the Premier Grand Lodge itself does not seem to have bothered to keep Minutes of its own proceedings until five years after its founding and although Scotland has splendid sets of Lodge records (some of which date from the late 16th century!), they too very fragmentary in their detail. Even so, much has been made of the experience of the ancient Lodges in Kilwinning, Aberdeen and Edinburgh which were attracting ‘gentlemen’ as members even in the middle of the 17th century. The point which David Stevenson and others have made recently is that something extraordinary must have been occupying these Lodges to make these busy educated men want to join and – what is perhaps more important – to retain their memberships over several decades and to celebrate that membership - as does that notable alchemist, Latin scholar and artillery officer Sir Robert Moray FRS for instance.

With this in mind perhaps something tentative might be said about what may have been Hermetic features of the ‘work’ by a few members of some of the earliest English Lodges. There were possibly some esoteric characteristics but they were short-lived and fragmentary. Perhaps they indicated the emergence of a broadly based Hermetic approach but, in the English cultural climate that was severely pragmatic and sceptical in outlook, they did not survive for long. The general nature of those early activities and, by implication, the underlying Hermetic principles seem to have been lost somehow from English-speaking Freemasonry since those formative times.

As indicated above, we have to rely mostly on evidence that does not come from the Lodges themselves. For example, the Letter of Verus Commodus (1725), an anti-masonic pamphlet, refers scornfully to

the August Title of Kabalists … a Knot of whimsical, delirious Wretches who are caballing together, to extirpate all manner of Science, Reason and Religion.

One of the better-known pieces of evidence is part of an obscure 1715 publication entitled Long Livers, an English translation of a French book by De Longeville Harcouet. The translator and editor was one ‘Eugenius Philalethes FRS’ (= the talented Robert Samber, a prolific translator and author). It is his ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to Long Livers that contains some pertinent references to Hermetic activities that may have been occurring among some early groups of English freemasons. Samber claims that Freemasonry belongs to ‘an uninterrupted Tradition’ and that individual freemasons are ‘living stones built [into] a spiritual house’, ‘a chosen Generation, a royal Priesthood’ as well as ‘imprisoned … exiled Children …’ and ‘Sons of Science … who are illuminated with the sublimest Mysteries and profoundest secrets …’. God is conceptualised as ‘the Centre of all Things, yet [HE] knows no Circumference’. There were many hermetic books published in a great variety in European languages in the early decades of the 18th century so Samber was probably well acquainted with at least the vocabulary. This is shown repeatedly, for example, in his Treatise of the Plague (1721) which he also dedicated to the then Grand Master, the Duke of Montague. What is also interesting to note in this ‘Dedicatory Letter’ is that Samber mentions that were several levels of masonic understanding and this was within a mere five years of the founding of the Premier Grand Lodge. When he addresses his fellow freemasons, the dedicatees, he draws a clear distinction between

those of you who are not far illuminated, who stand in the outward Place and are not yet worthy to look behind the Veil

and ‘those who have … greater Light’.

There is some evidence of Hermetic involvement in some of the Lodges’ inventories. English Lodges owned very few books, of course, but one of those titles which features often in these lists is The Voyages of Cyrus by the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay (1686-1743). Ramsay had probably been initiated in c. 1728 in the Old Horn Lodge (Westminster) shortly after his return to England after a 20-year sojourn in various European cities. His career and his [in]famous Oration (1737) have attracted plenty of attention. Apart from his education connections with the Royal House of Stuart in exile, he was masonically and culturally the equal of many of the FRS who joined that Lodge at about the same time. His first work, however, which dealt in a fictional form with copious learned excursions into ancient theological and philosophical systems, was his very popular Voyages de Cyrus (1727). In this and other writings, Ramsay shows himself to have been the intellectual heir of the Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth (1616-1688), whose True Intellectual System of the Universe (1st end.,1678) was hugely influential in the cultural life of the nation then. It was after his Initiation that Ramsay had his Voyages de Cyrus translated into English by Bro. Nathaniel Hooke (d. 1763) and he added a long ‘Discourse upon the Theology and Mythology of the Ancients’ in which he attempted to support his narrative with precise if somewhat obscure references to classical literature, providing extensive quotations in the original languages and including copies extracts from esoteric texts such as the Hermetica, the Oracula Chaldaica and the Orphica. It was an extremely popular venture which went through 30 English editions, and was even translated in German, Italian, Spanish and Greek. The fact that the masonic Lodges purchased copies and loaned them out to members would seem to suggest a taste of such Hermetic ‘exploration’ then amongst ordinary freemasons.

Then there are other clues in the following hitherto unexploited particular sources:

  • the records of the Old King’s Arms Lodge, now no. 28, which still meets in London;
  • the mysterious collection of Kaballistic drawings known as the Byrom Collection and named after their enigmatic former owner, John Byrom FRS (1691-1763), a Jacobite, inventor of a primitive form of short-hand writing, freemason and spy;
  • the ritual of the Order of Heredom which became transmuted eventually into the present day Royal Order of Scotland and
  • the Royal Arch Ceremony.

The Old King’s Arms Lodge began its long history in 1725. When it began there were only 14 members. The first extant Minute Book covers the years 1733-1756 after the Lodge had moved to the King’s Arms Tavern in the Strand. By then there were 43 new members, none of whom had been among the original founders. A tradition had been acquired somehow of being ‘entertained’ by lectures on a whole variety of abstruse subjects at the regular meetings. Within just one decade (6 August 1733 to 4 January 1743) there were 36 lectures/demonstrations that can be described broadly as ‘Hermetic’ in the broadest sense. It is worthwhile recalling the subjects of these lectures:

Topic No. of Lectures

(Human) Physiology, including practical dissections (!) 7

Scientific phenomena and techniques 7

Ethical concepts 6

Architecture 5

Industrial processes 3

Mechanical inventions and scientific apparatus 3

Art and aesthetics 2

History (classical) 1

Masonic apparel 1

Mathematics 1

Even though it was only one of about 60 Lodges in and around London at that time, the frequency of these meetings of the Old King’s Arms Lodge and the fact that they were continued over a decade would seem to suggest at least something about the character and intellectual background of the membership of this particular London Lodge. It hints at what they regarded a legitimate or proper working of a masonic Lodge (i.e., that it was not merely a Degree ‘factory’ or a convivial foregathering in a tavern).

The variety of topics is revealing itself. It shows the London Enlightenment gentlemen freemason at his leisure, interested in the practical application of sciences and in the philosophical bases of ethical concepts, his vision rooted firmly in this world though hardly limited or inward-looking. His Freemasonry has not yet become introverted, feeding only on itself. His was a clearly marked fascination with measuring and quantification which not only suggests something of the English Enlightenment mentalite in general but also goes some way to explaining in particular the frequency of the references to geometry and practical measuring apparatus which came to proliferate throughout the English masonic rituals.

Sadly, however, the ‘Hermetic’ exploration by the members of this Lodge declined in the late 1740s. Even by the early years of that decade there is some indication in the Minute Book that the original impetus for papers was abating. On 2 February 1743 there is a reference to fact that

frequent Disappointments had happened by Brethren not performing their Promises of giving Lectures

and by the end of the year (7 December 1743) things had become even more desperate obviously because the Minutes state

The Master called upon several Brethren to oblige the Lodge with a Lecture upon any useful subject which not being compiled with, Sir Robert Lawley was so kind to offer a further continuance of a lecture in Masonry either on the next or the succeeding Lodge night…

In case it may be thought that this approach to Freemasonry was unique to only one London Lodge in those days, it may be worthwhile recalling that the practice of having lectures delivered regularly at Lodge meetings was wide-spread. According to Francis Drake of York in 1726

… most Lodges in London, and several other Parts of this Kingdom, [my emphasis] a Lecture on some Point of Geometry or Architecture is given at every Meeting …

Bro. William Smith of Gateshead, in the Preface to his compilation The Book M (1736), wrote that he recommended to his subscribing readers in their Lodges

the Studys (sic) of Geometry and Architecture and that there should never pass a Lodge Night without some Discourse upon those Heads….

The anonymous author of the half-exposure/half-apology of Freemasonry, A Word to the Wise (1795), reported that

from the Minute Books of various lodges in the earliest dates, it would appear that the Members were not content with merely proceeding in the usual form of Masonry, but Lectures were occasionally given by those who were qualified in the branches of the Arts and Sciences.

The same author noted that the members of the Grand Stewards’ Lodge meeting in London

in particular on their public nights entertained their visitors with a diversity of knowledge … Natural Philosophy in general, dissertations on the laws and properties of Nature, the doctrine of fluids etc., were commented upon and explained. These subjects were gratifications to the intelligent and which primarily distinguished this fountain of honour.

There are traces of ‘Hermetic’ lectures being delivered to meetings elsewhere. For instance, Desaguliers delivered such an oration on 24 June 1721 to the Premier Grand Lodge in Stationers’ Hall in the City of London. Five years later, referring to an as yet untraced London Lodge of ‘Antediluvian Masons’ due to meet in the Ship Tavern in Bishopsgate Street on 24 June 1726, a newspaper advertisement mentioned that there would be

several lectures on Ancient Masonry, particularly on the Signification of the Letter G … a particular Description of the Temple of Solomon … [as well as] an Oration in the Henlean stile (sic).

Martin Clare, a London schoolmaster, ‘entertained’ the members of the Grand Stewards’ Lodge on 17 November 1735 with

an excellent Discourse containing some maxims and Advice that concerned the Society in general.

According to the later ‘testimony’ of Oliver, Clare’s

grave and quiet method of delivery made a strong impression on the audience and [his] conclusion was received with loud approbation…

Certainly his lecture was considered to be so good by those present that they asked the Master of the Lodge, one Sir Robert Lawley – a Kabbalistic associate of Byrom (see below) – to recommend to the Grand Lodge that they hear it again. This was done on 11 December 1735 to ‘great Attention and Applause’. Clare later had the revised text printed in a yet untraced pamphlet and this version was translated thereafter into both French and German (1754).

John Byrom’s life and taste for Hermeticism have been described already by Joy Hancox. His library is revelatory. A catalogue of his 3,300+ titles and 40+ MSS was printed privately in 1848 and fortunately most of the collection came to the Chetham Library in Manchester in 1870. This collection reveals Byrom’s sustained interest in theology, ecclesiastical history, liturgy, apologetics, mysticism and ‘the occult’. For instance, there were 26 titles by his close friend, the non-juror mystic William Law (1636-1761) as well as first editions of Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1533) and Porta’s Natural Magick (1591). There were also books on necromancy and witchcraft together with copies of Reuchlin’s De Arte Caballistica, The Divine Pymander and Dee’s Monas Hierogylphica. There were many of the standard mathematical and geometrical texts, works by Descartes, books on trigonometry and a wide selection of alchemical texts, ranging from Bacon to Boyle. There were contemporary scientific works too, including the standard works of Newton and the then latest volumes on electricity and magnetism as well as books on codes, including a rare, valuable copy of John Falconer’s early work on codes Cryptomenis Patefacta (1685). Byrom’s interest in physiology and medicine is reflected in his ownership of texts ranging from Galen and Paracelsus, Elizabethan herbals and pharmocopeias to the latest research in inoculation. In addition, his collection contained Rosicrucian texts by Andrea, Maier and Vaughan.

Byrom’s enthusiasm for Hermetic exploration is also evidenced in his membership of a discussion group known only from many references to it in his journal as the ‘Sun Club’. This group of freemasons met weekly at various London taverns from the late 1720s, including the Goose and Gridiron tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard. It included some interesting personalities some of whom, such as Martin Folkes, George Graham, James Jurin and Ralph Leycester, were active freemasons. Sadly, there are no surviving clues as to what these enthusiasts discussed at their weekly gatherings but we can glean some impression perhaps by reference to the published records of a comparable provincial group of which some of them were also members: the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. The latter group had a permanent home. This enabled them to accumulate their own library and museum, a physics garden and even their own harpsichord (for their frequent musical recitals). Their lectures, demonstrations and discussions covered a wide range of literary and scientific topics, including archaeology, astronomy, biology, engineering, horticulture, mathematics, medicine and ornithology, and the prestige of the group might be indicated by the fact that no less a personage than Newton was a member.

These were the fairly conventional enthusiasms of leisured middle-class amateurs. The general features of their interest in literature, history, science and mathematics, as cultural phenomenon have been very well delineated and there is nothing much that might be called classically Hermetic in their discussions. However, Byrom wanted to expand the range of his inquiries with his companion explorers so, on 9 March 1725, he proposed to the members of the ‘Sun Club’ the formation of an inner group to be called the ‘Caballah Club’. This also met regularly but more secretly in London taverns and it is the activities of this smaller group of Hermeticists, some of whom at least were freemasons, that is most interesting.

The range of their occult discussions is shown by the unique Byrom Collection which was found (accidentally) in 1969. This collection consists of 516 separate pieces of paper and card, of varying thicknesses, sizes and shapes. The materials range from thick and mottled coarse card to fine paper. Some of them (171) can be dated from the mid- to late-17th century using watermarks which are well-known. They consist of drawings, done very carefully by hand and using geometrical precision instruments. Some are coloured yellow and gold and a few have the telltale press marks which show that they may have been patterns for printing. There is a variety of styles of calligraphy, beautifully styled and executed, displaying a remarkable consistent standard of penmanship over several generations of scribes. Viewed generally, the drawings date from the late 1570s to 1732 but the MS comments in margins are written in English, French, German and Latin in a variety of cursive styles that were common in the mid-17th and early-18th centuries. At least some of these drawings may have been copied from a curious Rosicrucian collection, or scrapbook, in the British Library that had been compiled pseudonymously by a ‘Theophilus Schweighardt’ and is entitled Speculum Sophicum Rhodo-Stauroticum (1618).

There are two crucial considerations to take into account when assessing the importance and relevance of this collection. Firstly, it was a collection, kept secretly in tact among the Byrom family archives. Secondly, there are several signs that these curious pieces of MSS were actually working drawings that were referred to and passed around (perhaps among several people who knew their significance). For instance, many of them have very old coffee stains and candle wax marks. Some others have hastily scrawled notes added. Yet others have pierced holes from the repeated practical use of compasses. Moreover, the whole sequence, as it was discovered, had been rearranged by someone so that they do not appear in any logical sequence. Still others have larger holes at their ‘top’ edges hinting probably that they were hung up on string in displays. Others have tiny pencil dots which would imply that at least one user has been engaged in measuring the dimensions of the figures therein.

The drawings cover an interesting range of topics. Lots of them display plans of at least five well-known London theatres dating from Elizabethan and Jacobean times. These are based largely on the plans of Roman theatres based on a French version of Vitruvius and others based on Palladian designs. Several are drawings of complex timber roofing constructions, such as the Rhenish Helm format. The drawings are so accurate that it has been proved possible to reconstruct a three-dimensional scale model of the Globe Theatre using some of them.

Another group of the drawings are concerned with ‘sacred’ locations – such as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge; the Temple in London and Westminster Abbey. Others depict complex military fortifications from Renaissance Italy. Another group shows miscellaneous symbols that have Hermetic significance: the letter Tau, the Swastika, the Hexalpha and the Hexagon. There is a group of compass cards to be used in navigation. One card depicts the five Platonic Solids; another shows the Tree of Life and several show designs for three-dimensional lectern-shaped sundials and 24-hour clocks such as those at Lamancha and Haddington in Scotland.

Of especial interest and relevance in the present connection are the names of men whom the MSS mention and who are known to have strong Rosicrucian and/or Hermetic connections: Colet, Riley, Fludd, Dee, Le Bon, Boehme, Meirer and Khunrath. This is a veritable Who’s Who of the western Hermetic tradition.

The Order of Heredom originated among Scots freemasons living mostly in or around London. It was formed in the early 1730s to correct the abuses which they perceived to have crept into St John’s Masonry. This so-called ‘Scots (or Ecossais) Masonry’ was intended to form a superior, more knowledgeable Freemasonry and its members attributed to themselves a sort of supervisory, inspectorial role. It was certainly resented by some of the leading members of the Premier Grand Lodge because its very raison d’etre was to correct the mistakes which the latter were alleged to have been introducing into Freemasonry by, inter alia, abbreviating the ‘Lectures’. Another reason for it being rejected by the London-based masonic authorities then could have been its popularity among freemasons in France, England’s traditional enemy.

The ritual contains distinctively Hermetic and Kabbalistic themes. Among the most important of these are:

    1. mystical perambulations representing the soul’s pilgrimage in search of a Lost Word;
    2. an recurring emphasis on numbers (e.g., 9, 7, 5 and 3);
    3. references to the Seven Wonders of the World;
    4. allusions to men who are said never to have died (e.g., Enoch transported by fire into Heaven);
    5. references to the descent and removal of the Divine Shekinah;
    6. escape from the imprisoning confines of human physicality;
    7. admission into a ‘Cabinet of Wisdom’;
    8. allusions to Kabbalistic dimensions assigned to the Christian Church and to the generality of the east-west alignment of all sacred buildings;
    9. remarkable passages encapsulating an apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgement.

Part of its regalia is a thistle green cordon or baldrick and so the Order of Heredom may have been the so-called ‘green-ribbonned cabal’ which is referred to several times in some of the contemporary anti-masonic literature. However, it died out quickly in England probably because of the determined opposition of the Premier Grand Lodge. After c. 1756 it was transported to Edinburgh where it became transformed into what is now called ‘The Royal Order of Scotland’. That Order is still very active on a world-wide basis, is much cherished and continues to contribute a distinguished Scottish variety of Hermetic ‘lived-through’ experience in a masonic context for the Brethren who are privileged to be invited to join its elite ranks.

With the departure into Scotland of the Order of Heredom (‘Heredim’ = ‘Princes’ or ‘Rulers’), the English masonic landscape became even more impoverished as far is any emergent Hermeticism is concerned. In one way the intensity of the esoteric vision which it represented was replaced by the Royal Arch ceremony with its emphasis on the deliberate burial of a secret ‘Word’ in an underground vault within the Temple precincts and the accidental discovery of that secret ‘text’ by stonemasons employed in the reconstruction of the Temple after the return of the remnant of faithful Jews from their 70 years of captivity in Babylon. The esoteric features of the Royal Arch ceremony include the following:

  • a subterranean cave;
  • concealment of arcaneities (texts and carved inscriptions) in that vault in order to preserve them from the profane;
  • the legend of the accidental discovery of those secrets by ordinary workers who could not understand at first what it was they had found until the significance was explained to them;
  • the rewarding of those discoverers;
  • the revealing of the meaning of that hitherto hidden Word which is taken to refer to the Supreme Deity.

The theme of a subterranean vault containing hidden artefacts and accompanying the discovery of these with Hermetic instruction is echoed also in the Royal Master Degree – one of a sequence of four Degrees invented in the mid—19th century. In that ceremony, the Neophyte is accompanied by a ‘Magus’ figure on seven circular perambulations around the precious Ark of the Covenant buried below Solomon’s Temple. During that journeying, the elder man imparts his accumulated wisdom to his new disciple in a lengthy oration. However, the sequence of Degrees, known collectively as the Royal and select Masters, is not very popular among English-speaking freemasons and only a tiny minority of brethren ever bother to join.

Furthermore, what cannot be denied is that the Royal Arch ceremony was not always accepted officially among members of the Premier Grand Lodge as part of ‘pure’ Freemasonry, even though some of them were active members of what they regarded as a separate masonic Order. Indeed, for several decades in the early 18th century there was active opposition and discouragement of Premier Grand Lodge Brethren from taking part in Royal Arch ceremonies. It found acceptance only slowly and its popularity increased fitfully throughout the 18th century. Its ritual is preserved today (more or less) although some of its zodiacal features were removed in the extensive revisions in the 1830s. However, the presence today of the Royal Arch ceremony does not prove that there are surviving Hermetic elements in speculative Freemasonry that influence the ‘living-through’ experience of English-speaking freemasons generally. The Royal Arch is still not popular. Only a third of English freemasons ever bother to join it. In Scotland it is still regarded officially by that Grand Lodge as no part of ‘ancient’ Freemasonry. Officially, the Grand Lodge of Scotland and the Royal Arch of Scotland do not recognise each other’s existence even though, of course, most of the Royal Arch ‘Chapters’ do meet in premises owned and operated by Craft Lodges and some of the leading office-bearers of the Scottish Craft have also been simultaneously the prominent office-bearers in the Royal Arch Order.

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