Initially, an ancient legend was used in conjunction with some Biblical stories to form a dramatic ritual. That, however, has been modified with time to increase its symbolism and philosophical content to the form that is used to day. The exact evolution is unknown, but some revisions took place at the time of the Union of the Grand Chapters in 1817, and more important changes were introduced in 1834. As the Royal Arch was born in lodges, it is certain that the Craft had a strong influence on the early ritual and ceremonies. Despite the creation of the premier Grand Chapter in 1766, and the “Antients” Grand Chapter in 1771, the individual independent chapters adapted the ritual to their own needs and wishes, especially where the chapter was, in fact, the fourth degree in lodge working.
It can be said that Royal Arch, as we know it, is the confluent of many sources that have united to create the organisation that we know to day. In other words there is probably no unique origin for it, beside the strong influence of the Craft and, possibly, other degrees. Its symbolism derives in large part from religious sources, but also from alchemy. There is no known printed ritual dated from before 1820, the only previous ones are manuscripts. The Royal Arch Degree was at least sixty years old at that time, and that means that there was no single ritual, leaving the chapters to do more or less what they fell was good for them.
The earliest known Royal Arch ritual dates from 1760 and comes from France. The manuscript describes some thirty-five degrees used at that time. Its title is: “Précis des huit premier Grades, ornés de discours et d’Histoires allégoriques, relatif au respectable Ordre de la Franc-Maçonnerie”. In the chapter dealing with the Royal Arch we are told of a light indicating the way to an underground chamber upheld by nine arches, reached by going down nine steps, and opened and closed by nine knocks. The tracing-board explains that the sun was the true light that led the nine Brethren who discovered great secrets. Nine arches are designed on the board as well as the vault of an underground chamber, and the nine steps that lead to it. There are also a stone with a ring closing the chamber, a torch that is extinguished by the brilliance of the sun, and a triangular plate of gold bearing the Sacred Name.
A few sources of information allow us to know what the ritual was at the end of the eighteenth century. To form the chapter the Three Grand Chiefs, or Principals, are placed in the East and represent the three Keystones of the Arch; the three Sojourners are in the West; the Scribes E. and N. are in the South and North, respectively. An arch of a square or triangular form is put in the centre, above the Grand Pedestal. There is another Pedestal in the east with the Tree Great Lights upon it. The Most Excellent Grand Chiefs, or Principals, wearing their robes and carrying their spectres, withdraw with the Companions in another room where the Scribes take their places on “each side” of the open door, “which is now tyled”. The Companions range themselves in a double line that opens to let the Principals walk into the chapter-room where they work a short three-fold ceremony before standing ceremoniously in front of their chairs. The organist, “being ready in his robes” is asked to enter followed by the Companions, the organ playing a solemn march. The First Principal then asks them to assist him in opening this Grand and Royal Arch chapter.
The opening of a chapter is mainly a dialogue between, on one side, the First Principal and the Principal Sojourner, who must also insures that the chapter is properly tiled, and other officers on the other side. The chapter having been opened by the Principals, the minutes “are read for confirmation”, and the Junior Sojourner is asked to introduce the Candidate. He is presented as “Brother A.B., a Geometric Master Mason who has regularly gone through all the degrees of Craft Masonry, passed the chair in due course and now wishes to complete his knowledge in Masonry by being exalted to the Sublime Degree of a Royal Arch Mason”. He is then admitted on the Word of a Past Master of arts and Sciences. The Three Sojourners offer their services in the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, they receive the necessary tools to do the rebuilding job, and they are told how to use them. The drama of the discovery is acted in the chapter in full view of the Companions, the keystone is removed, and the discovery of an open space below confirmed. The First Principal orders the Sojourners to explore it after taking all the necessary safety measures, and drinking a glass of wine. After removing the second keystone they found a part of the Holy Law and, after removing the third, they find a pedestal with a plate of gold with the figure of a “G” on top of it. On the top, in a triangle, there are characters that they cannot understand. The Sojourners make their rapport to the “Three Grand Chiefs” and this is confirmed by Companion N. The Z. then gives an emblematic explanation of the work done and of the discoveries. After that he has proclaimed his trust in God, the Candidate takes his Obligation (“drawing forth the keystone”) that is similar to the Craft Obligation that includes a penalty clause. After the reading of the story relating the return of the Jews from exile, the candidate now restored to the light is invited to attend to a “description of the pedestal and its glorious contents”. There is then a long charge leading up to a closing reference to the lost word and the circumstances that led to its discovery. This word is reserved for the students of this Sublime Degree and should not be disclosed to anyone outside the chapter that can now be closed.
The many rituals used until the 1830’s were unified after the revision of 1834-35. This common ritual is the work of Rev. George Adam Browne from Trinity College, Cambridge who also held high offices in the Grand chapter. A committee of nine officers, including the three Grand Principals, was created in 1834 and their suggestions concerning the revised ceremonial were approved the same year. In 1835 a special Chapter of Promulgation was warranted for a limited period of six months. Its duty was to work as a chapter of instruction and promulgation, and to ensure uniformity of practice through the Order. The standardised (recommended but not compulsory) ritual of 1835, also known as the Sussex ritual, is very similar to the ritual in use to day. This Sussex ritual represents what we now call the “Perfect” ritual, whereas other versions are described as “Complete”, “Aldersgate”, “Standard”, “Dogmatic”, … The revised ritual eliminated the ceremony of passing the veils that went out of use, at least in England, as well as all the Christian references. The Chapter of Promulgation was very successful with the London chapters but not so much so in the English provinces. This was due in particular to the absence of a printed edition of the new law and revised ceremonies.
The Installation ceremonies are not very old compared with the equivalent Craft ceremonies. In their present form, they are not older than 1835. Before the Union, the ceremonies of Installation of the Principals were decided by each chapter and in many of them the elected Principals just “assumed the chair” without ceremonies. Later on, if they wanted to be esoterically installed, they often had to attend other chapters where experienced Companions would properly install them and teach them how to install their successors. It was quite usual for only the First Principal to be properly installed, and for him to invest the other officers (by definition “to install” is to put a Companion in his chair of honour while “to invest” means to clothe a Companion with the insignia of his office). In some old chapters all three Principals were “Installed”.
After the Union and the revision of 1835 the Installation ceremonies were codified, as well as the qualifications required from the Companions for office. Later on it became the custom of “installing” Companions out of their chapters. After the “Installation” of the Three Principals comes the investiture of the Scribe E. The Three Principals, when in chapter, are to be regarded conjointly, and each severally, as the Master. The regulations of the Grand Chapter require the Third Principal to have been installed as Master of a Craft lodge and to have served one year as a Scribe, or as a Principal or Assistant Sojourner. The Second Principal must be an Installed Third Principal, and the First Principal an Installed Second Principal. In each case there must be a full period of one year since their election to the junior chair. A First Principal cannot serve more than three years in succession, and the Second and Third not longer than two years, except by dispensation. A Companion cannot serve as First Principal in two lodges at the same time, except by dispensation. On the death of a First Principal another is to be elected by ballot, and then installed. In the absence of a First principal, the Immediate Past or Senior Past principal of the chapter act in his stead. Failing this then any qualified Companion may be invited to do the work. The First Principal of a chapter has the prefix “Most Excellent” attached to the title of his office (but not to his name) and all Principals, present and past, are “Excellent Companions”.
As in the Craft, a Companion can be given the dignity or status of a Principal by “being passed through a chair”.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries only the Installed Masters could be Candidates for the Royal Arch. “Passing the chair” was a subterfuge to allow Master Mason who had not ruled a lodge, the required status, to be a Candidate. The “Antients” probably devised it, but the “Moderns” adopted it too. It took the form of installing the Third Degree Mason in the Master’s Chair with a normal ceremony, and then allowing him to leave it immediately.
The Craft Installation ceremony dates from the 1740’s; it was associated with the Hiramic story and complete with an Obligation and penalty. In any case it cannot be anterior to the creation of the Third Degree in the 1720’s. It is difficult to believe that the “Moderns” abandoned it. The “Antients” attitude to the Installation ceremony has something in it of reverence and veneration. For them a Master was not only a head, past or present, of his lodge, but one who, having passed through an esoteric ceremony of distinction, was now of a definitely higher grade. This explains why they refused to confer the Royal Arch Degree on a Brother who had not passed through the Chair; he was simply not good enough to become a Royal Arch Master. The “Antients” were insisting on an Installation ceremony when, at the same time, for the “Moderns”, an Installation was little more than the incoming Master taking the chair. This ceremony was embellished with time to become what is now known as the Extended Ceremony of Installation.
The Royal Arch is known as “an organised body of men who have passed the chair”, and the “Antients” always observed the rule that the candidates must be Installed Masters. With the growing popularity of the Royal Arch this rule proved to be unworkable; it was too restrictive to cope with the growing demand for Exaltation. The bottleneck resulting from the request that the Candidates be Installed Masters was by-passed by the subterfuge of passing a Brother through the Chair for the sole purpose of qualifying him as a candidate for Exaltation. This ceremony became soon known as the Past Master Degree and the Brother was known as “virtual” (in essence not in fact) Past Master. This procedure was invented by the “Antients” lodges, and not by their Grand Lodge.
The “Moderns” were working the Royal Arch at an early date but they knew nothing officially of an esoteric Installation ceremony. Probably they did not even require that the Candidates had Master’s qualifications. They, in fact, sanctioned the ceremony of Installation in 1828, long after the Union, although some lodges worked the ceremony before. In preparation of the Union, the Lodge of promulgation (1811) was teaching the Installation ceremony and the instructed lodges were teaching others. Under the first Grand Chapter (1766) it was not necessary for the candidate to be present or past Master of a lodge, to be Master Mason was enough as the Installation ceremony was “officially” unknown to the “Moderns”.
The “Moderns” followed quickly the “Antients” in adopting the procedure of “passing the chair” but, in the year of the Chapter of Compact (1766), they knew little about it, and the “Antients” were only starting to use it. Within a few years the “Moderns” required the Candidates to exaltation to be Past Masters, and this means that they too used the procedure of “passing the chair” created by the “Antients”, although it was not recognised by their Grand Lodge. The regulations of the premier Grand Chapter of 1778 and 1782 required that the Candidates to the Royal Arch degree must have been Past Master.
From 1771 to 1813 the “Antients” denounced the practice of “passing the chair”, but any suggestions to impose that the candidates to the Royal Arch degree must have been Masters of a lodge for at least twelve months was never included in their rules. It is also true that the “Moderns” could not do anything to stop the candidates taking the “virtual” Past Master Degree, but many chapters insisted that the candidates must have been Mater Masons for at least twelve months before being accepted for exaltation.
In summary, all “Antients” Royal Arch lodges and chapters required all candidates to have passed the chair, actually or virtually; some “Moderns” chapters did the same, but not all of them. A Brother wishing to be exalted had to get the consent of his lodge, first of all to pass the chair. He may propose himself, or be proposed by a Brother, but he had to be elected to this honour. The proposal could take the form of the Candidate asking for a certificate as a Geometric Master Mason to allow him to be made a Royal Arch Mason.
As the “virtual” ceremony became more and more usual, this distinct degree was also conferred in some chapters rather that in lodges, as it became seen as a part of a sequence leading to the Royal Arch Degree. There was however a strong opposition to this practise. As a consequence, the ceremonial was slightly changed; the chapter was adjourned, a lodge was opened to confer the Past Master Degree, and the chapter was opened again for the Exaltation. Generally the “virtual” Master was clearly told that he was not qualified to rule over the lodge for more that a brief moment. Following the Craft and Royal Arch Unions, the “Moderns” used a ceremony of Installation similar that that of the “Antients”.
There were many attempts to stop the practise of “passing the chair” but, in fact, it was still widely used until the second half of the nineteenth century. It should have disappeared in 1822 when the Past Master qualification was dropped in favour of a twelve-month (one month since 1893) standing as Master Mason. When it finally disappeared, many candidates to the Royal Arch degree were disappointed. It is also a fact that not all Brothers “passing the chair” did it to become Royal Arch Masons.
Another ceremony known as “passing the veils” was part of the Royal Arch rite. It dates from the late eighteenth century and, probably, had a Christian origin and, if only for this reason, was used when the Royal Arch was mainly a Christian degree. With the de-Christianisation of the degree following the Union (1817) and the revision of 1835, the veil ceremony disappeared from the English Masonry. The passing of the veils symbolises the enlightenment that comes with Masonic progression even if, originally, the veils were the emblems of the mysterious veil that was “rent in twain” when the crucified saviour passed trough it. It could also have an alchemist interpretation, or it is the symbol of the sufferings of the Jews in returning from exile.
In the early ceremonials the veils were three, sometime four. Some believe that the ceremony of passing the veils dates from the early days of the Royal Arch, but there is no historical evidence to this effect. The ceremony was known over quite a long period as the Excellent Master Degree or the High Excellent Degree. The veil ceremony was initially probably a separate ritual that led to a separate degree with its own name, as it is the case in Scotland (the official name of the ceremony is the Excellent Master’s degree).
The known history of the passing of the veils dates from the end of the eighteenth century, or the beginning of the nineteenth. The ceremony of passing the veils took place soon after the Obligation, but it was not much known in London although it was commonly used in the “Antients” chapters before the Union, and its use went on well into the nineteenth century.
About 1820 the ceremonial was more or less the following: the Candidate was blindfolded, his knees bared, his feet slipshod, and a cable-tow was tied around his waist. Three Sojourners acted as the guardians of the veils; the Junior Scribe conducted the candidate, and was giving four knocks at the door of the first Veil. The candidate was admitted after giving the Past Master’s word and sign; this was followed by reading from the Scripture. At the second veil the candidate gave a password already received and met the emblems of the Serpent and Aaron’s Rod followed by more reading of the Scriptures. Suitably entrusted, the candidate was now enabled to pass the Guard of the Third veil followed, again, by reading of the Scriptures. He now heard the words “Holiness to the Lord”, and was shown the Ark of the Covenant containing the tables of stone, the pot of manna, the table of shew-bread, the burning incense, and the candlestick with seven branches. He was now qualified to enter as a Sojourner and candidate for Exaltation. During the ceremony he received passwords and signs enabling him to pass the successive veils and, finally, to present himself as a Sojourner. However the ceremonial varied in its details from region to region, and even from chapter to chapter.
A certain number of other degrees of the early days were linked to the Royal Arch even if it is not clear if they derived from the Royal Arch, or if they came from the same source. Many of these degrees include the word “Arch” in their title, such as the Royal Arch of Enoch and the Royal Arch of Solomon.
It is known that the “Antients” lodges worked a number of degrees under their Craft warrants, although these warrants did not mention such degrees, but the “Antients” Masons had an open view as to the ceremonies of the Order. The “Antients”, and later the “Moderns”, in addition to the three Craft Degrees worked the following degrees:
-A Past Master Degree derived from the Installation ceremony.
-An Excellent Mason or Excellent Master Degree
-Super Excellent Mason
-Super Excellent Master, or High Excellent Master Degree
-The Royal Arch
-Knights of Malta
It is difficult to know how old these degrees are, but they were known before 1770. In the early 1800’s, one form of the Excellent Master Degree worked in England celebrated the completion of an arch. Pillars were erected and bridged with an incomplete arch still needing its archstone, or copestone, that was put in place during the ceremony. The Excellent Mason Degree as worked in England in the 1820’s was conferred only to Past Master Mason and was seen as a step to higher degrees. The Super Excellent Master Degree Candidates wore the clothes of a High Priest, but it introduced very little new matter. These degrees were also sometime known as “passing the veils”.
The most important of the chivalric Masonic orders, the Knights Templar, is probably twenty years younger than the Royal Arch, but the two degrees were related in their early days. In the 1780’s the Royal Arch was a requisite to the Knights Templar Degree as it is still the case to day. Members of the Knights Templar are eligible for the Knights of Malta, a degree known since the late eighteenth century.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Red Cross Degree was worked in what was called an “encampment” of Royal Arch masons. Three symbolic deputy Grand Masters were placed in the East. The President was a Captain General, also called the Royal Arch Captain, supported by First and Second Lieutenants.
The Royal Arch was a factor in the creation of the Mark degree that appeared in England in 1769. Both degrees were closely related in the early days, the Mark degree being lower than the Royal Arch.
They are some doubts on the precedence of the different degrees. The most accepted list of precedence was given before, but it is not recognised by everybody. Some lodges and chapters have a different priority between the Royal Arch, Mark, Knights Templar, Red Cross and Knights of Malta, but this is not important. In England to day a Master Mason is qualified to become a Mark Mason, or a Royal Arch Mason, in the order that he wants. In Ireland, Scotland and the USA, the Mark is still a preliminary to the Royal Arch.
There are also some historical references to a Harodim Degree (known also as Herodim, Herodium, Heredim and Heredom) that was between the Fellow Craft and the Master Mason. It could have been an early form of the Mark Degree as it included the Hiramic idea of the loss and the finding of the word, and the mark idea of the rejection of the stone.
There is also a ceremony known as “Crossing the bridge”. It was used in some early Royal Arch and Mark rituals and is still used now in the American Royal Arch ritual. The candidate must cross a bridge, generally of a shaky and decrepit condition. The symbolism of this ceremony goes back into the ancient mysteries, as the Mohammedans said that the road to Paradise included a bridge laid over the mist of hell, a bridge finer than a hair and sharper than the edge of a sword, beset with briars and hooked thorns which could offer no impediment to the good, but would entangle the wicked who, missing their footing, would fall headlong into Hell. The Magi, a priestly caste of the Medes and Persians and the Jews, have a similar legend.