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It was long believed that the word "yeomen" was the contraction of two Anglo-Saxon words meaning "young men"; it is now agreed that the word is more likely to have been derived from a term in the early Teutonic languages which meant "the district," "the local country." There are references to yeomen gilds in a large number of Medieval records and polychronicons, but in no instance does the context make clear what they were.
A number of Masonic writers have proposed the theory that they were gilds of Apprentices, or of new Fellows of the Craft before Setting up as Masters, or of Fellows while spending one or two years traveling abroad after having graduated from apprenticeship, but there is nowhere evidence for the theory, and it does not harmonize with other uses of the word.
In the typical Medieval manor the lord lived in a house, set in grounds of its own, on a hill or other high ground if any was available; his cotters, serfs, villeins with their families lived in a village of huts and cottages at its foot, each with its garden patch. If one of these later became a free man and was able to own his own place, he was called a yeoman—an independent small farmer.
When in the reign of Henry VII a national militia of volunteers was formed it was so largely recruited from among these small freemen that the soldiers were called yeomen. In the course of time they came to form a class between merchants and lords on the one side, and farm laborers and craftsmen on the other.
York, the county seat of Yorkshire, lying 88 miles north of London, with a population in 1930 of about 85,000, is one of the oldest cities in England, and one of the most famous cities in the world. Next after London itself, Speculative Freemasonry's mother ity, it is also the great Masonic city. (See Vol. II, p. 1129). The Britons had a town on its site before the Roman occupation; the Romans themselves established a barracks there, and later organized the town and its environs as a colonial or municipality. It was for years the home of King Athelstan. When its Paulinus was made Archbishop in 627 A.D., it became the seat of an Archbishopric which ever since has ranked second in importance only after Canterbury.
Alcuin of York was selected by Charlemagne as the teacher of himself and his sons (about 800 A.D.) because the cloister school of which Alcuin was head was so renowned, and because York itself was the Oxford of that day, and scarcely less known on the Continent than in England itself. The War of the Roses, "England'a most terrible war," was fought between Yorkists and Lancastrians. It also had for some two centuries a primacy in the fine arts, and more Gothuc architecture was crowded into its limits than in any other center; its Minster is one of the sublimest structures ever built anywhere, or for any purpose. Its fame as a Masonic city rests on many foundations:
1. A Bishop of York attended the Council of Arles in 314 A.D., and the Couneil Reeords indicate that he was given precedence over the Bishop of London; such a Bishop must have had a Bishop's church, or cathedral, and it is likely therefore that York began to be a center of architecture and of its sister arts and attendant skilled crafts as early as the Fourth Century.
2. Had Athelstan's name never been mentioned in the Old Charges he would have a large place in Masonic history because he was a King of Operative Freemasonry as well as King of England (see page 1172). York was Athelstan's home. He built or rebuilt many structures there, and it is probable that the eity already had its guildhall, and very probably what later would be caned a City Company of Masons. Also, he built and rebuilt much in London, and was so interested in the work per60nally that rules and regulations for craftsmen bulked large in his laws and edicts. Also, he was a city builder, a role to which even kings are seldom admitted, for while Exeter had been a Welsh City before him, he moved the Welsh out and in their place built a new eity according to a plan of his own. When the Old Charoes attribute to Athelstan a great interest in Freemasonry and a great love for Freemasons they do not exaggerate- indeed, they fall short of the whole truth because apparently the author of the Old Charges knew nothing of Athelstan's work outside of York.
3. In one version of the Old Charges it is stated that at an Assembly of Freemasons in York in 926 A.D., Athelstan gave the Craft a Royal Charter, a document which carried in itself a higher authority than one issued by either the Church or any lord of lesser degree or any city; the other versions of the Old Charges say that Athelstan had been titular head of the Fraternity of Freemasons, but had made over his title and prerogatives to a son, Prince Edwin. Historians question this tradition bed cause, first, it is unsupported by contemporary records; second, because no trace of a son of Athelstan named Prince Edwin has ever been found; third, no trace of the Charter itself, either in a copy or in quotation, has been discovered, although it is reasonable to think that the Freemasons would have preserved many copies of a document so important to themselves.
Gould questioned the tradition because he did not believe that General Assemblies of the Craft had ever been held, but his argument is dubious because if the Craft had not held assemblies a _ number of kings would not have issued edicts to prohibit them (see in this Volume, under Wyclif.); it is dubious in the case of Athelstan also because Gould apparently did not know what was insane by an 'assembly."
It is possible to reinterpret the whole problem of the Assembly at York and o! the Royal Charter said to have been granted there, and to do so without stretching the evidence. Athelstan himself (and not through an agent) was a direct employer of Freemasons at York, at London, at Exeter, and doubtless elsewhere; that which was a written contract at the time may have come to be thought of as a charter afterwards.
Also, as stated above, Athelstan h mself drew up rules and regulations for the Freemasons, and incorporated them in h s written laws- in so doing, and also while acting as an employer, both his own laws and contracts would specifically approve, at least by implication, the Freemasons' own rules and regulations. If these reasonings be sound, the tradition of a Charter granted by Athelstan becomes true in substance if not true in form and for the Freemasons had the same point.
4. As explained in a number of articles in this Volume. the first permanent Lodges were established about 1350 A.D. According to both eivil and eeelesiastieal law at the time such a body had to have a charter; it also had "to make returns," that is, to report their rules and regulations and their membersh p to the civil authorities. It is reasonable to believe that the Old Charges were written partly for each of these purposes.
If it be objected that the Old Charges are not a charter, but only the claim that Athelstan had already granted them a Roval Charter long before, the faet only proves that the Freemasons themselves in 1350 A.D. relieved literally in the "York tradition" but what id in th s connection far more important (Gould and Mackey both overlooked that importance), the chit authorities themselves believed it, and permitted the permanent Lodges to continue to work under the Old Charges. Had those civil authorities disbelieved it, they would have rejected the Old Charges and compelled the Lodges to seek civil charters.
Belief in the York tradition, and for whatever it may be worth, rests not on a modern theory about a supposed event a thousand years ago, but on a belief held by both Freemasons and civil authorities in the Fourteenth Century. The latter were four centuries removed from Athelstan, but that was not then as wide a gap in time as it would be now (when change is at least fifty times as rapid) because in the Middle Ages written official documents were mreserved with great care; and th s is especially true of York, as readers of Sir Francis Drake have discovered.
5. There was a Lodge in York, no doubt of a predominantly Speculative membership, before the Grand Lodge was erected in London in 1717; how old it was there is no way of discovering, but it is on record as early as 1713 A.D. According to its own Minutes it was sometimes called a Loeal Lodge, and sometimes a General Lodge —by this latfw term it was probably meant that it had set up daughter Lodges. In 1725 A.D. this Lodge turned itself into a Grand Lodge, elected a Grand Master, and took the title "Grand Lodge of All England."
In the following year its Junior Grand Warden, Sir Francis Drake, delivered an address to his Grand Lodge which ever since has belonged among the great Masonie orations. In that address he makes it clear that though their Grand Lodge was new, Freemasonry in York was very old. It was to this Grand Lodge that William Preston turned when he set up his "Grand Lodge of England south of the River Trent." Lodges under both these authorities were absorbed by the Grand Lodge at London- nothing is heard of the Grand Lodge of All England after the 1790'8.
6. When a group of London Lodges set up in 1751 A.D. that Grand Lodge which everywhere was to become famous as the Antient Grand Lodge, its appeal to English Masons who already had two Grand Lodges was based on its claim to recover and to preserve "the Antient Customs;" these customs it attributed to York, and therefore it often cared itself, or was caned by others, the York Grand Lodge.
The appelation was both unhistorical and unofficial; it was popular, however, and from it the name "York" passed into general use. Canadians of the Ancient Craft Lodges caned themselves York Masons, and from them the Phrase spread to the United States, where in popular usage the three degrees and the Mark and Royal Arch Degrees are caned "The York Rite" (including also, at times, Knight Templarism). The usage is incorrect but since it serves the purpose of roughly indicating the ladder of Degrees from Apprentice to Enight Templar, and thw distinguishes that hemisphere of the Fraternity from the Scottish Rite, it will doubtless continue in use through an indefinite future, and thus help to preserve the fame of the name of York.
NOTE. Both R. F. Gould and Wm. J. Hughan stigmatized this use of "York" as an "Americanism. " How could it have been when it originated in York itself, in the London Grand Lodge of 1751, A.D., and came to the American Colonies via Canada? Moreover it is only in popular and uncritical usage that "York Rite" is employed here; the doctrine that Freemasonry originated in York has not been of ficially adopted. Even if it were, the usage would be still less an "Americanism" because it would be based on the Old Charges. Chapters on the York and on the Grand Lodge of All England will be found in the Ketones by Gould and by Mackey.
The great work on York is the one entitled Eboracum, a thick tome of amazing erudition, written by the above-mentioned Bro. and Dr. Sir Francis Drake (not the explorer). It is a huge volume in fine print, al-most suffocatingly packed with facts. Any beginning Masonic researcher could look far for a better specialty it is a mine for Masonic essayists: in it countless old customs and symbols preserved in Freemasonry appear in the form of records or minutes made at the time of their use—there are at least fifty such records of the usages of Maundy Thursday. (The writer of these lines belongs to what possibly may be America's smallest club, its members consist of those who have read Eboracum! Any Master Mason who reads that volume is qualified.)
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Last modified: March 22, 2014