Provincial Grand Chapter of
Hampshire and Isle of Wight

Origins and History

By E. Comp. G.S. Jassar, PGStB, P2ndProvGPrin.

The origin of Royal Arch Masonry is obscure and is a subject, which has exercised the minds of Masonic Scholars for many years. Currently three theories are postulated. The least likely is the suggestion that the Royal Arch was at one time actually a part of the Third Degree ceremony, which was then mutilated in order to produce a Fourth Degree. Some believe that the Third Degree and the Royal Arch had a common origin; a point of view supported by the fact that, that which is lost in the Craft, is found in the Royal Arch ceremony. Others believe that the Royal Arch was imported from Europe and rapidly found favour in English Freemasonry. There is no doubt something was taking shape in the early 1700's, which later became the Royal Arch, though the form and content of its development is likely to remain veiled in the mists of time.

If the European theory is correct, it is likely that the ceremony originated in France, where a great number of Masonic innovations and Degrees made their appearance in the early 1740s. There is an interesting reference in the "Sceau Rompu", an exposure dated 1745, to a superior class of Masons with a ceremony designed to commemorate those who worked "…with trowel in hand and sword by their side". Several similar items of evidence support the view that certain characteristic features of the Royal Arch ceremony, by whatever name it was then known, were in existence on the Continent at an earlier date, but this cannot be taken as proof of origin.

The first documented evidence of the Royal Arch as a distinct Degree comes from the minutes of Lodge No 21 in Youghal, County Cork dated 1741. However the oldest known Chapter in the world is Stirling Rock Royal Arch Chapter No 2 in Scotland, which has worked since 1743. Laurence Dermott's "Ahiman Rezon" states that the Degree was worked in London from at least 1744. This claim is supported by a book titled "A Serious and Impartial Inquiry into the Cause of the present decay of Freemasonry in the Kingdom of Ireland", by Fifield Dassigny MD published in Dublin in 1744, which states that the Degree was worked in London and York at that time. It is frequently said that the Royal Arch is the completion of the Master Mason's Degree, and if this were indicative that it was formed by splitting it from the Third Degree at some time prior to 1741, it would explain why no earlier references to the Royal Arch have been found.
The earliest written proof of the Degree being present in England is to be found in the minute book of a "Moderns" Lodge meeting at the Crown Inn, Christmas Street, Bristol dated 1758. There is also evidence that the Royal Arch Degree was conferred in Lodge No 4 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA on 12th December 1753. That Lodge's place in history is assured by the fact that on 4th November 1752 George Washington was initiated in it. He became the first President of the United States of America in 1789.

At the beginning of the 18th century only two Craft Degrees existed and Rituals, as we know them today, did not exist. The two ceremonies were very brief being composed of a recital of the old legendary history of Masonry, an obligation and a charge, together with the entrusting of a grip accompanied by a word. At the Festive Board, a form of catechism ensued among the Brethren. These proceedings gradually became more elaborate and eventually a Third Degree appeared around 1724/25. By 1730, the Third Degree was fairly widely known, although not extensively practiced. At this stage, all three working Grades within the Craft were covered by separate ceremonies. However, there was still no distinguishing ceremony for men who had presided over a Lodge as Master. In the 1740's one inevitably appeared, which developed into the Royal Arch.

The legend of the Vault and its discovery by the Sojourners, form an integral part of the Royal Arch ceremony. It is based on two stories. First the Biblical story describing the return from Babylon and the re-building of the Temple and secondly the ancient legend describing the discovery of a Vault containing an Altar on which a Sacred Word was written.

The Biblical story is amply expounded in the sacred writings and the legend of the Vault is a very familiar myth. The story of the discovery of a long lost treasure in a Vault is very old and is found Worldwide, particularly in the Middle East. The Historian Philostorgius in his "Ecclesiastical History of Solomon" recorded one such tale around 400 BC. In Chapter 14 of Book Seven, he recounts the finding of a column in an underground cavern on which is engraved the Name of God. The story has many aspects in accord with our own ceremony. Many such tales, previously regarded as folklore and legend, were confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In 1659, Samuel Lee of Wadham College, Oxford published a remarkable book entitled "Orbis Miraculum", or "The Temple of Solomon portrayed by Spiritual Light". It contains references to two pillars, the unspeakable Name of the Most High and other subjects so familiar to Freemasons.

There is also an English translation of a Greek book by Callistus, who lived in the 14th century. His work was an ecclesiastical history in which he enlarges upon the earlier story of the Vault detailed by Philostorgious. This relates to the attempt by Julian the Apostate to re-build the Temple in about 362 AD, when a book was discovered and, on being opened, was found to commence with the words: "In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God". These are the opening lines of the Gospel according to St. John. It is significant that, in the early days of the Craft, the Volume of the Sacred Law was usually opened at this point in many Lodges, which were consequently described as "St. John Lodges".

Lee's book reveals that our legend was well known, prior to the 18th century, and abounds with material applicable to many other Masonic Degrees, in addition to the Royal Arch. It is therefore easy to suppose that the contents of the book could have been a guide to those who first began to formulate the Royal Arch ritual. Many learned Masons are inclined to the opinion that this did actually happen and that the basic principles of the Royal Arch spread in Lodges from this source. If this was the case then the foundations of the Royal Arch may have been laid many years before we have any recorded knowledge of them!

One such early reference is to be found in the "Book of Constitutions" written by Anderson in 1723, in which he says: "The Master of a particular Lodge has the right and authority of congregating the members of his Lodge into a Chapter". This would suggest that the so-called Chapter must have practised some rite or ceremony, which differed from the ceremonies normally performed in the Lodge. If this work was connected with the Royal Arch, such as something similar to the "passing of the veils", it must have been regarded as a part of Craft Masonry yet differing from the normal Degrees. As this regulation was incorporated by Anderson in his "Constitutions" and worded in such a fashion, it shows that whatever was meant by a "Chapter" was already in common practice and accepted by 1723.

The first Premier Grand lodge, or "Moderns" as they later became known was founded in 1717. It initially concentrated on regularising the First, Second and Third Degrees. Although it realised that some of its adherent Lodges worked the Royal Arch, it gave no official recognition or support to the ceremony. It is interesting to note that although the ceremony was not regarded as an integral part of the three Craft Degrees, it was nevertheless worked in ordinary Craft Lodges at that time.

On the other hand, the "Antients" Grand Lodge, which broke away in 1751, acknowledged the Royal Arch with enthusiasm. Laurence Dermott, its second Grand Secretary, described the Royal Arch as "…the root, heart and marrow of Freemasonry". It was openly conferred as a Fourth Degree in its Lodges with the consent and approval of the "Antients", who became known as the "Grand Lodge of the Four Degrees". Indeed, their first set of Rules and Regulations states that "Ancient Masonry consists of Four Degrees - the Apprentice, the Fellow Craft and the Sublime Degree of Master" and goes on to provide that "… a Brother well versed in these Degrees and having discharged the offices of his Lodge, particularly that of Master, is eligible to be admitted to the Fourth Degree, the Holy Royal Arch". The Rules also state that "Every Regular Warranted Lodge possesses the power of forming and holding Lodges in each of its several Degrees, the last of which, from its pre-eminence, is denominated among Masons, a Chapter". At that time, separate Chapters still did not exist and so one was opened in the Craft Lodge under the authority of its Warrant in order to confer the Degree.

In 1764 Cadwaller, the ninth Lord Blayney, became Grand Master of the "Moderns" and was its first head to foster the Royal Arch Degree. He "Passed the Arch" (was exalted) in June 1766. In July 1767 he constituted the Caledonian Chapter into the "Grand and Royal Chapter of the Royal Arch of Jerusalem" by Charter of Compact. Interestingly, one of the signatories to that document was Thomas Dunckerley, who became Grand Superintendent of Hampshire in 1778 and of the then separate Province of Isle of Wight in 1793. The Supreme Grand Chapter of today is the direct descendent of that body. The "Antients" tried to follow suit, but its Grand Chapter never obtained true independence and merely functioned as a Committee of their Grand Lodge.

There can be no doubt that the Royal Arch was a considerable factor in the negotiations between the two Craft bodies. Had the Premier Grand Lodge made any attempt to leave Royal Arch Masonry in an unofficial or unrecognised position it would definitely have wrecked all hope of reconciliation. The Act of Union in 1813 "Declared and pronounced that pure Ancient Masonry consists of three Degrees and no more, viz: those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch". From that date Royal Arch Masonry in England was officially no longer a Fourth Degree. Whatever it was in fact, it became a complement to or completion of the Third.

In the year after the union, representatives of the Grand Lodges of England, Ireland, and Scotland met together to discuss the position of the Royal Arch. It was hoped that an International Compact could be formed, but unfortunately each of the Grand Lodges went its own way.

In England the two Grand Chapters continued to exist side by side until 1817, when a joint meeting was held under the presidency of HRH the Duke of Sussex, and the two Grand Chapters became one, with the happy result that the United Grand Lodge was able to pass the following resolution on 3 September of that year: "That the Grand Lodge will at all times be disposed to acknowledge the proceedings of the Grand Chapter and, so long as their arrangements do not interfere with the Regulations of the Grand Lodge and are in conformity with the Act of Union, they will be ready to recognise, facilitate and uphold the same".

The United Grand Lodge of England has always maintained that Royal Arch Masonry is not a separate Degree in Craft Masonry. The Royal Arch is the natural progression that provides a Brother with the genuine secrets and replaces the substituted ones entrusted to him at his Raising. As such, it truly forms an integral part of English Freemasonry.

However, this situation has changed.In December 2003,the United Grand Lodge resolved to add the following statement to the definition of pure ancient Masonry,which had been the preamble to the rules in the Book of Constitutions since 1853:

"At the Quarterly Communication of 10th December 2003 the United Grand Lodge of England acknowledged and pronounced the status of the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch to be 'an extension to, but neither a superior nor a subordinate part of, the Degrees which precede it' ".

At the same time a Ritual Committee had been set up to look at the effect of the addition to the definition on the Royal Arch ritual and to consider the Principal's Lectures. The Committee recommended the dropping of 27 words from the exaltation ceremony,the dropping of the Installed Master's qualification for the Third Principal's Chair and recommended revise texts of the Principal's Lectures. These were demonstrated to Grand Chapter in November 2004 and adopted.The dropping of the 27 words and the Installed Master's qualification became mandatory but the new Lectures were optional, each Chapter having the right to choose either to stay with the old texts, adopt the new or use a mixture of both.