William Schaw And The History of Freemasonry

By Brother Michael Hopkins

How, in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, did a young man improve his social and economic situation? The answer is by initiation by some measure of training. Apprenticeship to a craft was the usual preliminary to the status of a qualified worker. The "freedom" of a town was acquired by the completion of the bondage of apprenticeship. This system ensured a high standard of workmanship and the exclusion of all strangers or newcomers who had not qualified according to the rules.


If you sought initiation as an apprentice to stonemasons’ guilds of this period, typically as a teenager, you did so to learn to subdue your passions (that is, to be a moral and upright man) and to improve yourself in masonry.


The guilds of operative masons had rituals, an oath, means for the initiation of apprentices and the determination of proficiency of craftsmen, and ways by words, tokens and signs to identify one another. Over one hundred manuscripts or fragments exist to document the above, which are now termed the Old Charges.


There is no mention in this early period of masonic lodges. In the areas where stonemasons were working there were likely shelters erected where men could rest or organize the work. These shelters provided seclusion in which the closely guarded secrets of craftsmanship could be protected. Men appointed as overseers of the work could give instruction, examine apprentices for the preferment of fellows of the craft, and settle disputes.


These ancient practices are echoed in many ways in our current Masonic lodges. For starters, it is taught that a lodge is not a building, but an assembly of men cemented by brotherly love and affection. Also, we are taught that disputes should avoided, and if they arise should be swiftly and fairly addressed, harmony being the strength and support of all societies, most especially ours.


The first official mention of a masonic lodge occurs in the ordinances written in 1598 and 1599 by William Schaw. Schaw was not a stonemason, but was well acquainted with them as Master of Works for King James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England and, as such, the patron of the King James Bible). As Master of Works Schaw was responsible for employing masons in the repair or construction of the houses, castles, and other structures owned and maintained by the Scottish crown. He was aware that there were periodic meetings in Edinburgh of the various operative groups of masons in Scotland and, for whatever reason, he issued ordinances to govern those groups.


The earlier of these, termed the First Schaw Statutes, was issued December 28, 1598. It deals mainly with rules for the fair and safe conduct of work, but begins importantly by declaring that master stonemasons “observe and keep all the good ordinances set down previously concerning the privileges of their craft by their predecessors of good memory and especially that they be true one to another and live charitably together as becomes sworn brothers and companions of craft.” This recognizes the early rules and charges and highlights the fact that these early masons had sworn an obligation to help one another. The First Statutes also declare that an apprentice may be taken only upon notice to the warden of the lodge where he resides, so that his name and date of entry “may be duly booked.” Finally, the First Statutes state that any “question, strife, or variance” arising must be made known to the warden of the lodge within twenty-four hours, so it may be fairly dealt with in a just manner.


A Second Schaw Statutes was issued December 28, 1599. While this document is rather long of fourteen separate statutes, of particular interest to the modern day Mason is the provision that fellows of craft not be admitted unless there be sufficient test of their memory and art of craft. This is important because it reinforces that there was something worth memorizing. In present day lodges we carry on this focus on a test of memory by which, through a succession of ages, are transmitted unimpaired the most excellent tenets of our institution.


Both Statutes are now preserved in the first Minute Book of the Lodge of Edinburgh #1, Mary's Chapel. They are in plain hand and bear Schaw’s signature. The First Schaw Statute is pictured below. 


  • Robert L.D. Cooper, Cracking the Freemason's Code, 2007
  • Robert G. Davis, The Mason's Words, 2013
  • Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 1985
  • David Ogg, European History in the 17th Century, 1925
  • Barbara Tuchman, The Distant Mirror, 1978
  • Materials at the Masonic Trowel website and the website of the Mother High Council of the World, Regular F&AM; including all quotations from the statutes used above that were rendered into modern English from the original Scots English. No authors given on either site.

Published in the Maine Mason magazine published by the Grand Lodge of Maine, 2015

Reprinted with permission of the author


Copyright © 2015 by Michael Hopkins

All Rights Reserved.