It is not clear where the Royal Arch Degree comes from. Some people believe that it was present in early speculative Masonry and others believe that it is an innovation of the first half of the eighteenth century.
Those who sustain the first hypothesis believe that long before Craft Masonry became part of history -the Acceptation of Freemasons in the London Company of Freemasons in 1621 and the “making” of Elias Ashmole in 1646- some legends led to:
. The Hiramic Degree (Master Mason) which is known to have existed in the 1720′.
. The Royal Arch Degree which was known in the 1740.
. Some additional degrees.
According to this hypothesis all three types of degrees are thought to have come from the same source; even if they followed a different way, all have common features. Many experts think that the Royal Arch Degree was initially part of the Hiramic Degree and that the 1813 Act of Union between the “Antients” and the “Moderns” was wrong when it stated “that pure Ancient Masonry consists of three degrees only, the Arch Degree being included in the Master Mason grade”. It is well known that the Hiramic Degree grew into a practical ritual form after the Premier Grand Lodge was formed in 1717 in London. The Arch Degree followed the same grow path 20 to 30 years later, although it is difficult to believe that the Royal Arch degree came from operative Masonry. The speculative Masonry of the seventeenth century, centred on the London Company of Freemasons, became associated with the learned mystic Rosicrucians and Alchemists who brought with them the symbolic knowledge that was grafted on the simple ritual of the early speculative Masons. In particular, the Royal Arch Masonry borrowed a lot from the symbolism of the Alchemists. All this does not prove that the Craft and the Royal Arch come from the same source.
The second hypothesis says that the Royal Arch developed from the Hiramic Degree that was mutilated to make room for the Royal Arch. This would mean that until the 1740′ most of the components of the Royal Arch were included in the Master Degree. The “Moderns” assert that the “Antients” are responsible for this mutilation, but this does not seem reasonable; and it is also unreasonable to think that the “Moderns” did it to repudiate it later. In fact there is no evidence that the Royal Arch came from the Master Mason Degree which found his present form in the late 1720′. At the best, the Royal Arch borrowed some elements from the Master Mason Degree that renounced to them later on. It is also known that the same lodges accommodated both the Master Mason and the Royal Arch Degrees on different days and that, in both cases, the Brethren were the same people.
There is a strong presumption that the Royal Arch Degree was “invented” by the French and brought to England around 1730. Freemasonry came to France from England, and the French “improved” it in such a way that it came back to England in a more effective form that was easily accepted. It is possible that this “improvement” included a fourth degree that, strange enough, has never been popular in France.
In conclusion, it is probable that the Royal Arch has not the same source as the Hiramic Degree and that it has no connection with the operative masons. It was not entirely fabricated either. More probably, there were already some elements of the Royal Arch ritual and ceremonies in early Masonry and, at one time or the other, they were put together to form a separate degree whose content took about fifty years, and a major revision in the 1830′, to reach its present form. Moreover many Masons fell that the Craft Degrees were not complete, and that the Royal Arch fulfils a need in this direction as the “Antients” always thought. For them, the Third degree and the Royal Arch are part of the same Masonic tradition and legend, and the “Moderns” accepted it, but not officially.
Initially, and for about fifty years, the Royal Arch had a Christian character as its ritual included legends from the old and New Testaments. It is true that the Old manuscript Charges of the operative masons of the fourteenth century gave the speculative Masons a pro-Christian heritage that lasted through the eighteenth century, even if the first Constitutions of 1723 and 1738 tried to put it aside but with a limited success. In many lodges in which the Royal Arch grew, the ritual had a strong Christian base due to the crypt legend, and its links to the Old Testament story of the Jewish return from exile. The more Christian characteristics were taken off the ritual in the revision of the Constitutions of the early nineteenth century, but some traces were still left.
Recorded speculative Masonry was one hundred years old when Royal Arch appeared in the early eighteenth century. English Freemasonry had developed many years before 1621, probably from operative lodges to the London Company of Speculative Freemasonry. In the middle of the seventeenth century there were many operative lodges in Scotland. Some of them played an important role in the founding of the Scottish Grand Lodge in the next century, even if their speculative Masonry, most probably, came from England where it existed in the early seventeenth century. Unfortunately we do not know anything about the ceremonies used by these early speculative lodges except that they were simple with very little of esoteric nature. Many intellectuals were attracted and joined the Craft, especially those with an inclination for alchemy who influenced strongly the ritual.
In 1717 four London lodges created the Premier Grand Lodge, known also as “Modern”, the first in the world; the Brethren elected a Grand Master as the “Centre of Union and Harmony” and adopted “Constitutions” to replace the “Old Charges”, the oldest known being from 1380. The Constitutions eliminated all the references to the Christian religion from the Craft’s rules but they were reintroduced a generation later. At that point the Craft knew only of two Degrees, the third one, or Hiramic Degree of the Master Mason, was introduced in the middle of the eighteenth century together with a fourth one known as Royal Arch.
Not all the lodges recognised the authority of the Grand lodge and many Masons remained outside. This eventually led to the creation of a rival, the “Antients Grand Lodge”, that soon adopted the Royal Arch Degree in their ritual and organisation. This new degree had an attractive ceremonial that pleased many Brethren. It was presented as part of the Christian tradition that still had a strong appeal at that time and it was bringing back that which, they had been told, had been lost. The lodges that adopted the new degree regrouped naturally under the Antients Grand Lodge.
The development of the Royal Arch owns a lot to the quarrel between the premier “Grand Lodge” founded in 1717 and the “Antients Grand Lodge” that became fully operative in 1751-53. The Royal Arch grew during the years preceding the formation of the “Antients Grand Lodge”. The “Antients Grand Lodge” was created by Irish and Scottish Masons residing in England with the help of some dissidents from the “Modern” lodges. The premier Grand Lodge was not a very efficient organisation and this created discontent among some of the Brethren. The Antients Grand Lodge filled a need and attracted many members, in particular those who resented the elimination of Christian references in the ritual of the premier Grand Lodge, as well as its reluctance to accept the Royal Arch Degree. However it must be clear that then, neither the “Moderns” nor the “Antients” had a unique and well-defined ritual. Each lodge had its own version, even if there was a tendency in each Grand Lodge to unify their ritual, and the process went on during all the eighteenth century. For instance, it is most probable that there was no formal ritual concerning the opening and closing of the lodges in the 1730′. The ritual concerning all degrees grew up among both the “Antients” and the “Moderns” during the remaining of the century. By the end of the eighteenth century there was an attempt to unite the two organisations whose rituals had become very similar.