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New Light on Sir Christopher Wren, by M. Scanlan (2001)

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MessagePosté le: Lun 26 Jan - 05:53 (2009)    Sujet du message: New Light on Sir Christopher Wren, by M. Scanlan (2001) Répondre en citant

New light on Sir Christopher Wren

Recent Research Has Revealed a Flaw in Masonic Scholarship
Matthew Scanlan Reports, Issue 18, Autumn 2001
Grand Lodge Publications Ltd

Note : Matthew Scanlan, MA, is International Editor of Freemasonry Today. The story of the `Acception’ is to be published with essays on Freemasonry by Columbia University Press.


Sir Christopher Wren is undoubtedly England's most celebrated architect; for Freemasons there has long been the whisper that he was also a Brother. Contemporaries clearly stated that he became a Mason, yet many writers have tended to regard these accounts as little more than fables. However, evidence reveals that there has been a fatal flaw in the way historians have approached the origins of the craft, and which places the story of Wren's alleged membership in a completely new light.

After the Great Fire of London of 1666, the City of London was reconstructed for the first time in stone, and for a generation resembled a builders' yard. Apart from fifty-one new churches, the mathematician and astronomer, Sir Christopher Wren, was also commissioned to design a new cathedral to replace the medieval one destroyed in the fire. By 1675, after a series of frustrating rejections, his design received royal approval and the foundation stone was laid on midsummers day.

The cathedral took some thirty-five years to complete and as work progressed, the antiquary, John Aubrey, recorded in his diary that on the 18 May 1691 Wren was to be made a freemason.

This day … a great convention at St. Paul’s church of the Fraternity of Accepted Masons where Sr. Christopher Wren is to be adopted a Brother:..

Aubrey's statement was later copied into the records of the Royal Society of which Wren was a leading member (President 1680-82); Wren raised no objection to the account.1 The diarist John Evelyn recorded an almost identical story and upon Wren's death in 1723 several newspapers referred to him as that 'worthy Free Mason'. His grandson later recorded that when the last stone was laid upon the lanthern in 1708, it was laid by Sir Christopher Wren's son,

… in the presence of that excellent Artificer Mr. Strong, his son and other Free and Accepted Masons chiefly employed in the execution of the Work.

Significantly, Christopher Wren junior is known to have belonged to the Old St. Paul's Lodge and served as its Master in 1729.2

From 1691, this lodge met in The Goose and Gridiron alehouse in St. Paul's churchyard, where the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717. The 'excellent Artificer' referred to was the Oxforshire mason Edward Strong senior, the most important contractor to work on the cathedral. Although there is no evidence of his membership, his son, Edward Strong junior, belonged to a lodge of 'Free and Accepted Masons', that met at The Swan in East Street, Greenwich.3 Clearly, the key to understanding our origins appears to be in the words 'Free and Accepted'. We must note that there has been a false distinction enshrined in our rituals, that between operative and speculative masons; in the seventeenth century `speculative’ was never used – it is first mentioned in 1755 – rather they referred to masons as `Free and Accepted’. What exactly do these words mean?

Free and Accepted Masons

The term freemason emerged in late fourteenth century England as a corruption of free-stone mason, from which time the London 'fellowship' or 'Company of ffreemasons' can trace its rise. In 1654, it changed its name to the London Company of Masons for reasons which are unclear. Nevertheless, individual craftsmen continued to use the term 'freemason' well into the eighteenth century.

The term Accepted however is altogether more difficult to pin down. There were three forms of admittance to all the London companies; servitude, patrimony and redemption. Servitude was granted after an apprenticeship; patrimony meant that one could join via one's parents; and redemption denoted that membership was gained by payment.

Curiously, the only Company to have an additional category of membership was the Masons' Company - and this was called the 'Acception'. Between 1630-77, the Company records identify thirteen names of those 'accepted', all of whom were senior craftsmen. One in particular, Nicholas Stone, had been Master of the Company twice and was the King's Master Mason when 'accepted'. After 1677, there is no further mention of this mysterious practice in the Company records.

Five years later, the antiquarian Elias Ashmole, left a tantalising account in his diary. He recorded that on the 10 March 1682, he received a 'sumons to appeare at a Lodge to be held next day, at Masons Hall London', home of the Masons' Company.

… I went, & about Noone were admitted into the Fellowship of Free Masons, Sir William Wilson Knight, Capt: Rich: Borthwick, Mr: Will: Woodman, Mr: William Grey, Mr Samuell Taylour & Mr William Wise. I was the senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since I was admitted) There were present beside my selfe the Fellows after named. Mr: Tho: Wise, Master of the Masons Company this present yeare. Mr: Thomas Shorthose, Mr: Thomas Shadbolt, ----- Waindsford Esquire Mr: Nich: Young. Mr: John Shorthose, Mr: William Hamon, Mr: John Thompson, and Mr: Will: Stanton. Wee all dyned at the halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapside, at a Noble Dinner prepared at the charge of the New-accepted Masons.4

Here Ashmole unequivocally refers to a 'Lodge' of the 'Fellowship of Free Masons' or 'Accepted Masons', of which he had belonged for thirty-five years. This clearly refers to his own initiation at Warrington in October 1646, indicating that the two lodges belonged to the same fellowship; the evidence points to the Warrington Lodge also being part of the ‘Acception’. Historians have failed to appreciate the significance of this statement. It has been asserted that,

Ashmole records … the admission of six gentlemen, none of whom were operative masons, to the Fellowship of Free Masons at London in 1682.5

An analysis of the account contradicts this view and yields fascinating results. Sir William Wilson trained as a mason and sculpted the statue of King Charles II at Lichfield Cathedral. Not much is known concerning Captain Richard Borthwick, but William Woodman was already a member of the Masons' Company and later belonged to the Horn Tavern Lodge at Westminster.6 William Grey, Samuel Taylour and William Wise were also members of the Company, the latter being the son of the Master.

Even more revealing is the membership of the 'lodge' itself: Thomas Wise, the King's Master Mason and Master of the London Company, accompanied by John Shorthose and William Stanton, the Wardens of the Company that year. Thomas Shorthose was a Past Master who was 'accepted' on 25 January 1650, and the rest of the lodge included a Past Master, a Past Upper (Senior) Warden, a Past Renter (Junior) Warden and two freemen of the Company; all are known to have been practising masons who worked with Sir Christopher Wren.

A Flaw in Scholarship

This analysis exposes a fatal flaw deeply engrained in Masonic scholarship, namely the erroneous view that Accepted Masons were non-craftsmen, when in fact the `Acception’ appears to have been admitting both high level craftsmen and gentlemen into some sort of exclusive body. Indeed it is highly probable not only that Wren came into contact with this tradition, but that the craftsmen would have actively sought his patronage. Moreover, the Master of the Masons' Company in 1691 was John Thompson, whose workshop supplied work for Wren, and who, as Ashmole’s Diary entry proves, was a member of the `Acception’ lodge nine years earlier.

Though it is still unknown what the `Acception’ consisted of, it is evident that Ashmole knew the term 'Free Mason' referred to craftsmen. In 1672, he recalled how the vaulting of the Choir at Windsor was undertaken by two Free Masons in 1508.7 In an earlier publication there is an even more intriguing account: in 1652, he published a volume of alchemical texts, which included Thomas Norton's The Ordinall of Alchemy, written in 1477. Significantly, Norton attempts to dissuade unskilled persons from the mysterious art of alchemy, and in doing so cites a number of craft professions including the 'Free Masons', who he says, 'as well as Lords', love this 'profound philosophy'.8 It is impossible to conceive of Ashmole failing to appreciate the implications of this text: he had been a 'Free Mason' for several years and had a deep love of alchemy.

With the establishment of modern science by such as the Royal Society, of which, Wren and Ashmole were founder members, the physical aspects of alchemy began to form the basis of chemistry. However its spiritual focus on the transformation of the individual, through a process of symbolic death and rebirth, remained obscure. This was despite such reputable Royal Society scientists as Robert Fludd and Sir Isaac Newton tirelessly seeking alchemy's fabled elixir - the philosopher's stone, frequently depicted as a Phoenix and likened to the risen Christ. Curiously, high on the south side of St. Paul's, is a huge carved Phoenix symbolising the re-birth of the cathedral after the conflagration of the Fire. Tellingly perhaps, this was the work of Wren's expert carver, Caius Gabriel Cibber (whose son was a Freemason), who had inherited the workshop from the freemason Nicholas Stone, who had joined the 'Acception' in 1638.

Indeed, if we remember that the earliest known Masonic ceremonies date from as early as Wren's alleged initiation, and that these rites centred upon veiled notions of death and rebirth, then we are a step closer to understanding the origins and meaning of our Craft.


1. Bernard Williamson & Michael Baigent, 'Sir Christopher Wren and Freemasonry: New Evidence', Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 109 (1996), pp. 188-9
2. Now The Lodge of Antiquity, No. 2.
3. 1725 list.
4. Ashmole’s Diary, 10-11 March 1682. My italics.
5. John Hamill & R. A. Gilbert, Freemasonry, A Celebration of the Craft (1992), p. 22.
6. 1723 & 1725 lists.
7. Elias Ashmole, Institutions, Laws and Ceremonies, of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672), iv, ii, p. 136.
8. Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652), p. 7.
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