Many old manuscripts have been burned in 1719 to prevent them falling in unauthorised hands. Fortunately their destruction was not total and a few copies kept in libraries and in some lodges’ archives have reached us. These documents are known as “Old Records”, “Old Charges” or “Old Constitutions”. Most of them are very similar and this is probably due to the fact that they are copies of older documents that have not yet been discovered.
The oldest known of these document is a poem kept at the British Museum and entitled “Constitutiones artis geometriæ secundum Eucleydem”, published in 1840 by Mr. Halliwell in his Early History of Freemasonry in England. It is supposed to be from about 1390. Bro published the second oldest document in 1861. Matthew Cooke from the original again in the British Museum. It is dated from about 1490. The Cooke MS. is far more elaborated than the Halliwell and contains an extended version of the “Legend of the Craft”. Mr. James Dowland published the third document in 1815. It is dated from about 1500 and is a copy of the Cooke MS but with many changes. Other manuscript Constitutions have been found later on. The main ones are the following:
- Halliwell MS. Supposed 1390
- Cooke MS. ” 1490
- Dowland MS. ” 1500
- Lansdowne MS. ” 1560
- York MS., No 1 ” 1600
- Harleian MS., No 2054 ” 1625
- Grand Lodge MS. ” 1632
- Sloane MS., No 3848 Certain 1646
- Sloane MS., No 3323 ” 1659
- Harleian MS., No 1942 Supposed 1660
- Aitcheson-Haven MS. Certain 1666
- Edinburgh-Kilwinning MS. Supposed 1670
- York MS., No 5 ” 1670
- York MS., No 6 ” 1680
- Lodge of Antiquity MS. Certain 1686
- York MS., No 2 ” 1693
- Alnwick MS. ” 1701
- York MS., No 4 ” 1704
- Papworth MS. Supposed 1714
All of these manuscripts, except the Halliwell, begin with an invocation of the Trinity. The seven liberal Arts and Sciences are then described with the seventh, Geometry, said to be Masonry. A traditional history of Masonry from the days of Lamech to the reign of the King Athelstan of England follows. The manuscripts end with a series of “Charges”, or regulations, for the government of the Operative Craft. The traditional history, known as the “Legend of the Craft”, is more or less the same in all the manuscripts; it is full of inaccuracies but it is still useful because it forms the base of the Masonic history used later on by Anderson and the other main Masonic writers. Over-zealous Brethren who were opposed to their publication, as it was part of the esoteric instruction of the Guild of Operative Masons burned many copies of these manuscripts in 1719.
In the earlier German (Ordenung der Steinmetzen of 1462) and French (Règlements sur les Arts et Métiers of the twelfth century) there is no mention of this legend. This does not mean that it did not exist in these countries since it is well known that the early English Operative Masonry came from the Continent. This legend is important because of its long lasting influence on the Craft as its official history.