To the casual observer it may appear that the City of London Livery Companies are a branch or offshoot of Freemasonry since they both have a passion for dressing up, for participating in arcane ceremonies and use similar titles for many of their officers (Master, Past Master, Wardens, Stewards, Almoner, Chaplain, etc). Any assumption that the Livery Companies are a sort of Masonic organisation is pure fiction, or worse - fantasy. However, that’s not the end of the matter, so read on...
Many learned historians have researched the origins of Freemasonry, and some of them have put forward the plausible theory that Freemasonry grew out of the Livery Companies, probably in the late 17th Century in the City of London following a split between operative and speculative members of the Masons’ Company. Hard facts are difficult to come by and there will be opinions for and against the Livery Companies having been a progenitor of Freemasonry.
What is not in doubt are these observable, verifiable facts that draw comparisons between the Livery Companies and Freemasonry (maybe put the kettle on now because there are quite a few of them) :
- Many of the City of London Livery Companies have ‘closed’ (restricted membership) Masonic Lodges of their own, all formed between 1897* and 2013. One such example is Taurus Lodge, the private Lodge of the Worshipful Company of Butchers (see to the right). At last count (January 2016) there were 24 such City Sister Livery Circuit Lodges.
- There is a Masonic Lodge that restricts membership to Freemen of the City of London (the Freedom of the City of London is a legal status not connected with Freemasons).
- There is a Masonic Lodge for installed Masters of Lodges who are either Freemen or Liverymen of City of London Livery Companies or employees/officers of the City of London Corporation.
- Several Masonic Lodges meet in Livery Company Halls in the City, one even meets in the Crypt of Guildhall (home of the City of London's government).
- There are numerous Freemasons among the members of the Livery Companies and vice versa.
- The structure of a Lodge is similar to that of a Livery Company although Livery Companies vary widely in the precise details of their structure and governance from one to another.
- All Lodges and all but one of the Livery Companies elect their Master for a one year term of o ffice.
- The United Grand Lodge of England and its provincial grand lodges use a Coat of Arms in part based upon those of The Worshipful Company of Masons. It should be noted that the law of arms requires that every coat of arms be unique with a least two differences, not including a simple change of colour. The arms of The Worshipful Company of Masons feature a sable (black) field on the shield with a white chevron, three castles and a pair of compasses on the chevron, whereas the variant used in the Masonic arms uses a gules (red) field. This does not constitute a difference that would satisfy the law of arms in England and Wales. In theory the Masons’ Company could have taken the United Grand Lodge of England to the Court of Chivalry for libel - but that’s not likely to happen as the UGLE arms have been since been registered at the College of Arms in 1919, from whence the Masons also received their grant of arms just a little earlier in 1472.
- Some Masonic Orders have a strong history of members receiving a grant of arms, as is often the case for Past Masters of Livery Companies.
- There are certain customs and aspects of ceremonial that both organisations share, such as The Loving Cup and the Sung Grace (usually sung to the tune of Laudi Spirituali) and toasts to the Monarch.
- There is similarity among some (but not all) of the regalia employed by Livery Companies and Freemasonry such as the Masters Jewel and Livery Badges / Medals - often suspended from a collar.
- There are similarities in the various grades or degrees of progression within the Livery and the Freemasons.
- The Lodge where a Freemason is first made a Mason is known as his ‘mother lodge’, in the same way the first Livery Company in which a Freeman is admitted is known as their ‘mother company’.
- There is documentary evidence of operative and speculative masons meeting at the Masons’ Hall in the City of London, a property now demolished and which once stood on Mason’s Avenue (also called Mason’s Lane) off Basinghall Street. The Worshipful Company of Masons having been originally titled the Company of Freemasons from as recently as 1530. In 1619 the Masons’ Company is known to have incorporated or was connected with an organisation known as the ‘Acception' which met in Masons Hall in the City of London and comprised members who were not operative masons (i.e., they were speculative).
- Both Freemasonry and the Livery Companies have a strong charitable (relief) and fraternal (brotherly love) ethos, and some closed Masonic Lodges donate time, talent and money to Livery Company charities or collaborate on joint projects.
- Some Masonic Lodges find their foundation in particular trades, crafts or occupations.
- Freemasons participate in the annual Lord Mayor’s Show in the City of London, one of the very few occasions that Freemasons will be seen parading in all their finery.
- The Goose and Gridiron Tavern that once existed in the City of London is where the earliest recorded Masonic meetings where held in 1717, this pub’s sign was actually that of Apollo’s Swan and Lyre (which are also the modern arms and crest of The Worshipful Company of Musicians). The pub was also well known as a meeting place for minstrels at a time when all musicians operating in the City would he been members of the Musicians’ Company (formerly the Ancient Company of Minstrels).
* This is 767 years after the oldest documentary evidence of the existence of a Livery Company.
There are also numerous ways in which Freemasonry and the Livery Companies differ, some of the more pertinent differences include:
- The Livery Companies predate any documented existence of Freemasonry (myths, legions and folklore aside) by at least 600 years, and the oldest City of London guilds are undoubtedly of Anglo-Saxon (pre-Norman conquest) origins. By contrast the the first Masonic Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717 (see photo to the right taken at Freemasons’ Hall in London).
- The Livery Companies are all legal companies, most formed by Royal Charter, some by prescription. They are subject to the laws governing corporations.
- Freemasonry as regulated by the United Grand Lodge of England does not discriminate on grounds of race, colour, religion, political views or social standing but it is an exclusively male preserve. There are female Masonic Lodges in the UK but they are explicitly not recognised by UGLE.
- The overwhelming majority of Livery Companies (108), all Companies without Livery (3) and all Guilds (3) are open to women as equal members and none explicitly forbid women from joining. No Livery Company forbids its members, irrespective of gender, to communicate with, visit or participate in the activities of another company - whereas Freemasonry* as recognised by UGLE and its Scottish and Irish equivalents explicitly forbids ‘intercourse of any kind with mixed lodges or bodies which admit women to membership’.
- Only about 1/6th of the Livery Companies have a closely related Masonic Lodge and the degree of relationship between the Lodge and the Company varies widely from one to the next.
- There is no overarching regulatory authority governing Livery Companies whereas there most definitely is for Freemasonry. Neither is there a provincial organisational structure for Livery Companies.
- Livery Companies are a creature unique to the City of London (in that their members still have a civic role as an electorate) whereas Freemasonry operates in many countries.
- Many Livery Companies require their members to be professionally qualified and practising in their respective trade, craft or profession. The Worshipful Company of Engineers for example will only admit Chartered Engineers who are also Fellows of a professional body recognised by the Engineering Council. Freemasons have no such explicit professional membership criteria.
- Membership of a Livery Company passes by right of Patrimony to sons and daughters so long as their parent was a Freeman before his/her children were born.
- Livery Companies all have a clear trade, craft or professional foundation, and most are still very active in their respective field in ways as diverse as education, training, professional development, examination, awarding, research, inspection, enforcement, standards and other ways.
- Each Livery Company is an entity unto its own, and not part of a greater whole. There is no such thing as the ‘Livery movement’ rather there is friendly but deeply entrenched rivalry among the companies and a strict pecking order.
- Livery Companies have a love of ceremony, but it’s all done in public (such as participation in the Lord Mayor’s Show) and the ceremonies are essentially civic in nature rather than allegorical.
- There is no requirement to hold a religious faith in order to join a Livery Company, whereas certain degrees and orders of Freemasonry do require members to be of Trinitarian Christian faith. That said Livery Companies have an association with the Anglican Church and members often do worship together (e.g., at the United Guilds Service) in public. Livery Companies also welcome those of no faith, whereas all Freemasons must profess an belief in a supreme being.
- Progression within the Livery is a matter for each Company, and there is but one common pre-requisite that applies to all Liverymen - that they be admitted as Freemen of the City of London, a status which is a matter of public record and nothing to do with Freemasons and Freemasonry.
- The Livery Companies could not reasonably be described as ‘a society with secrets’ (a term sometime erroneously applied to Freemasonry), neither does any Livery Company describe itself as such, although Livery Companies are private entities with as much right in law to privacy as any individual in the United Kingdom.
* There are Lodges for women and for mixed genders, but they are not recognised by or subject to the authority of The United Grand Lodge of England neither is it permitted for male Freemasons to visit or correspond with these lodges.
In summary, the Livery Companies and Freemasonry are entirely separate, distinct and independent bodies, albeit they have some similarities and many members in common. Neither is an offshoot of the other, and it is most definitely not a requirement for progression to the highest levels within a Livery Company that one be a Freemason (i.e., no advantage or privilege is afforded to Freemasons in the Livery or vice versa). The same is also true for those Liverymen who go on to elected office as Common Councilmen, Aldermen, Sheriffs or to the estate and dignity of The Rt Hon The Lord Mayor of the City of London.