The historical records of the Livery Companies of London, and among them the Masons Company, fortunately have reached us and show the social historical importance of that organisation, as well as its contribution to Masonic history. Many legends surround these organisations, and the stories of Mason Fraternities existing between 1202 and 1429 are probably false. In any case, even if they existed, they are not the predecessors of the mason Companies. These companies were created for the same reasons that the guilds were but, although most other workmen found their job locally, it was not the case of most masons (with, of course, some exceptions in the big towns). Masons had to be prepared to move from their home to find a living. Most towns and cities had many Craft guilds, but very few beside London had guild-like masons companies. Masons scattered in small towns and in the countryside could not maintain a guild, or be controlled by one. This explains why the English masons were not organised into guilds in the early medieval days contrarily to the other trades.
Even before 1376 London had a strong Freemason and Mason Company, but it is not known when it was created although it must be near the beginning of the fourteenth century. Some provincial guilds accepted both male and female members, but these guilds were more religious fraternities with a strong social activity, helping also their members in custody for anything less that murder and theft. The London Company seems to have been the only important true trade or Craft guild-like organisation of its kind in England. In 1481 the members of the Company were granted a livery, a form of clothing specially designed, or chosen for their members, by the Masters and Wardens of each company. The livery company was like the old guild, but brought in line with the custom of the time. Its powers were important as they had complete jurisdiction over their members as Craftsman but also, to a large extent, as private citizen.
A Master, Wardens, a Court of Assistants, and a livery governed each Livery Company. Below came the freemen and below again the apprentices. Sometimes the chief officer was known as Warden, Upper Warden, Prime Warden, or First Warden instead of Master. A Master and two Wardens in association with the livery governed the Mason Company. The Constitutions of 1481, the year when the company was enfranchised, were “granted to the fellowship of the Freemasons enfranchised within this Honourable City of London”. One of the Constitutions obliged the members to attend mass officially once every two years and, afterwards, to hold an expensive dinner to which their wives could be invited.
There were four ways to obtain the freedom of a livery company. The normal one was through a seven year apprenticeship that led to full freedom and, eventually, later, the freeman could become a liveryman and, perhaps, still further on, a Warden or a Master. The rule of patrimony allowed the sons and daughter of freemen to claim the freedom of the company, even if they were not engaged personally in their father’s trade. This opened the door of the company to non-operative people. There were such members in the Mason Company. Freedom of a company could also be bought, or given as a gift, to special persons. Again this was a way to allow people not linked to the trade to enter into the freedom of the guild. It was also, in principle, possible to transfer from one guild or company to another.
During the Reformation Period (1530-1560) the Papacy lost the jurisdiction over the Kingdom of England and this led to important political, religious, and social changes. This occurred at the time when the great Gothic period of building came at an end as the result of changes in the social and economical conditions. Among other things, the looting and destruction of the monasteries discouraged the construction of other ecclesiastic buildings. The building industry, and the London Company of Freemasons, both declined because the economic structure of England was changing. The power of the Kings, the nobles, and the Church who had built the great Gothic building declined in favour of the gentry, the universities and rich merchants. The system of direct labour was not used anymore, and some rich masons became contractors working under the contract system. Now the contractor constructed buildings for a fixed price and he also provided the labour and the material. The old Master Mason had been the servant or agent of his employer from whom he received his wages, but now he was becoming a contractor with all the risks associated to this function. The wage of the working mason increased, but perhaps not as fast as the cost of living.
The Crown, that had always feared the guilds and livery companies, used these unsettled circumstances brought by the Reformation to decrease their power, and to take over their possessions. However the guilds and livery companies went on with their activities (social, charitable, and the regulation of industry and trade). The Mason Company was one of the worst affected but it still went on for about one century, that is until the middle of the seventeenth century when its name was changed from “The Company of the Freemasons of London” to “The Company of Masons”. The Company received a Royal Charter from King Charles II in 1677.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century the London Company of Freemasons started to decline. They are no direct documents older than 1620 but, fortunately, some records from late thirteenth century to the middle of seventeenth century have been found in the archives of the City of London. The Company’s difficulties started in 1607 and, from the middle of the seventeenth century, many members of the mason trade gained their freedom of the City outside the Company, and this hurts its membership and revenue. Moreover, many masons came to work in London without becoming members of the Company. In any case the members of the Company could not, alone, do all the building work requested, especially after the fire of London. After seven years of residence and work, these “foreigners” acquired the right to work freely in London. There are some evidences that non-operative members, including women, joined the Company as early as 1663. Members of the Company participated in the building of St Paul’s cathedral (1675-1707), but people not linked to the London Company did 80% of the work.
The first Hall of the Worshipful Company of (operative) Masons of the City of London was built in about 1463 in Hazelwood Alley in the Ward of Bassishaw, but it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt on the same site in 1668 at a cost of £800. Some Speculative Masons used it until it was sold in 1865.