It is well known that operative stone masons indented the stones they had prepared with special marks. These were of two types, those that indicated the orientation and position of the stone within the building together with a personal mark to identify the mason who prepared it.
Operative stonemasonry, as a major trade, began to evolve in the early 11th century with the Saxon builders and intensified in the centuries following the Norman conquest. By the 14 th century building had reached a scale that required the trade to be regulated in its customs and practices. The first regulatory body was the Masons’ Company, formed in London sometime before 1375, later known as the London Masons’ Company. It was granted a coat of arms in 1472. These arms were later adopted by the first Grand Lodge soon after its foundation in 1717, and still form one half of the arms of the present United Grand Lodge of England.
The earliest known document regulating the trade is the Regius Manuscript of c.1390. These and later documents, now referred to as the Old Charges, are the origins of the present charges found in the Craft Book of Constitutions, abbreviated forms of which are delivered to each new Mason and to the Master before his installation.
Although the origins of speculative Freemasonry are unclear, it is evident that it has borrowed heavily from the medieval operative stone masons’ trade in a number of respects – including the symbolism of working tools and gauges in the Craft and other Masonic Orders, and the use of marks in speculative Mark Masonry. The earliest authenticated record of a man being made a truly speculative Mason – is that of Elias Ashmole (founder of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, among other things), who was admitted to a Lodge in Warrington in 1646.
The first Grand Lodge was founded at the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse, St Pauls Church Yard, in the City of London in 1717 and this marked the start of organised Freemasonry. Because of disputes about certain practices and principles, a breakaway rival Grand Lodge was formed in 1751. The two Grand Lodges eventually reconciled their differences and the Act of Union was signed in 1813 when the present United Grand Lodge of England came into being. As to the ritual, we know (from early exposures) that a system of three Craft Degrees was well developed by 1730 and that the Royal Arch emerged in the 1740s. The first mention of a brother being made a Mark Mason was at a Lodge in Newcastle in January 1756, although earlier references to a brother having “received his mark’ are known. But it is not clear from these records whether a degree ceremony was being worked.
The earliest records of a speculative Mark degree being worked in England are those of Royal Arch Chapter No 257 at Portsmouth on 1 September 1769 when several brethren were made Mark Masons and Mark Masters. Note that in the earlier working the Mark Man and Mark Master were performed as two distinct degrees as opposed to the present practice of the Mark Man forming no more than an introductory phase to the Mark Master Degree. It is also apparent from the earlier working that the Mark Man degree was conferred on Fellow Crafts and the Mark Master Degree on Master Masons.
The early Mark Degrees were closely associated with the Royal Arch, as they still are in many parts of the world. Their development probably followed soon after that of the Royal Arch. Many different ceremonies were known to exist, parts of which would be recognisable to the present day. It is also clear that the Mark Degrees were worked in Craft Lodges and in Royal Arch Chapters up until 1813. The existence of independent Mark Lodges at this time is not known, although one lodge, the Lodge of Hope, Bradford, conferred the Degree under a constitution originating from a body called “The Grand Lodge of All England, held at York”. Its influence in this country was confined to York, Cheshire and Lancashire. It was formed in 1725 and existed until 1792 but its influence abroad is more important.