We are often asked if Masons are different from Freemasons and, if so, how. The article below was written by Pete Normand, Board Member & Former Editor of the Scottish Rite Research Society. It was published on Quora on January 18, 2018, and is one of the most succinct and interesting articles answering this often-asked question.
In the middle ages, the terms Masons and Freemasons were used to differentiate between the rank and file Masons, on the one hand, who were “rough masons,” “row masons,” setters and layers, and on the other hand, Freemasons, who were more skilled and better paid.
Freemasons derived their name from several origins: 1.) They were free men, and not indentured, and were free to travel about and pursue their vocation when and where they wished; 2.) Stonemasons who were employed on ecclesiastical properties (churches, abbeys, monasteries, preceptories, etc.) were free from taxation and governmental regulations. In France, these Masons, free from civil regulations, were called “franc-maçons.” 3.) These more highly skilled stonemasons, often worked in freestone, a type of soft quarry-stone, that could be sculpted into elaborate decorative elements, like window tracery, fan-vaulting and statuary. Freestone masons came to be known as Free-Masons or Freemasons.
In 1356, in London, a dispute arose between the lesser-paid Masons (layers and setters), and the more skilled and better paid Freemasons (mason-hewers), who were usually the contractor-employers of the rank and file Masons. As a result of this dispute, the Mayor of London ordered 6 Masons and 6 Freemasons to sit down together and work out a set of Statutes to govern their joint vocation. The resulting Regulations of Masons of 1356 gave way to the formation of a guild for Masons and Freemasons in the city of London, which was originally known as the Fellowship of Masons. This was an exception to the general rule that Masons and Freemasons in England did not belong to guilds. But, London was large enough, with plenty of construction work, that a guild was successful there.
Following this set of regulations in 1356, there began to appear written lists of rules and regulations for the Masons in England. The oldest surviving example of these is the Cooke Manuscript from the early 15th century. But, the Regius Manuscript, which is a poem that is based in part on an older copy of these regulations, is from about the year 1390. The Masons’ guild of London was given a grant of arms (coat of arms) in 1472.
In the 1530s, Henry VIII and the Reformers caused the London guild to change its name from the Fellowship of Masons to the Company of Freemasons. In 1653, the guild changed its name again, dropping the prefix “Free” and becoming the Company of Masons.
During the late 1500s and throughout the 1600s, it was accepted that the term Freemason referred to a Mason who was sufficiently skilled in the art of sculpting stone, and educated in science of architecture, that he warranted the name Freemason. The vast majority of stonemasons were content to be simply, Masons, and work for a good wage.
Also, during the late 1500s and early 1600s, a secretive organization, known as “The Acception,” which met in the London Masons’ Hall, and whose account books were kept by the guild, began to accept non-Masons as well as highly skilled Freemasons into its membership. These men were all referred to as “accepted Freemasons,” or “free and accepted Masons.” The non-Masons that were admitted all had something to contribute to the success of “The Acception” in the way of expertise in architecture and its relation to the arts and sciences. They all had a common interest in preserving the old esoteric element within the fraternity, that had been derived from the craft’s early relationship with the monasteries, and which related to the Gothic style, which had fallen out of favor since the Reformation.