It is believed that the Old Charges were used in making a Mason in the old, operative stonemason days. They are called by many names: "Antient" (archaic word for "Ancient") Manuscripts, Old Masonic Manuscripts, Ancient (or Antient) Constitutions, Old Constitutions, Legends of the Craft, Gothic Manuscripts and Old Records.
The Old Charges are ancient documents that have come down to us from the 14th century and their legends, rules and regulations are now incorporated within our traditional history.
The physical makeup of these documents are found in the form of handwritten paper and parchment rolls, each unit having been either sewn or pasted together or are comprised of hand-written sheets stitched together in book form, as well as in the more familiar, modern, printed book form.
Some of these Old Manuscripts have been found to have been incorporated into the Minute Books of lodges. They range in estimated date from 1390 until 1714. A few of them are specimens of Gothic script. Most of them are in the safekeeping of the British Museum and the Masonic Library of West Yorkshire, England.
Freemasonry's Old Charges - 1390 through 1714
These Old Charges (or Old Masonic Manuscripts) form the basis of modern Masonic Constitutions, and therefore, each Grand Lodge's jurisprudence. They establish the continuity of the Masonic Institution through a period of more than six centuries, and it is believed to be much longer. They prove the great antiquity of Masonry by written documents, which is a thing no other Craft in existence is able to do.
These Old Charges are traditional and legendary in format and are not normally read by the amateur or layman due to their arcane Olde Englishe wording. Also, many of the words written 600 years ago mean something quite different in our language of today, so,...even in your excitement to read more about their Masonic antiquity, after reading a couple pages, you would soon tire of trying to understand the archaic meaning of many of their words, unless you were a true language historian.
Happily, for us, after discovering the Old Manuscripts, our Masonic historians through the years have studied them and written much about them in laymen's language that we can understand.
Historians have carefully and critically studied them and there is evidence that these old Legends of the Craft were used in making a Mason during the old Operative days. Some even served as the constitution of lodges during that time.
There are 19 major and many minor Old Charges or old records and approximately 100 in total, which have come down to us through the centuries. Those not housed in the British Museum are housed in well known, reputable and old libraries, in the archives of Masonic Lodges and have been published by those who discovered them.
These Old Constitutions are all very similar in content and historians presume that they are copies of some earlier documents which were, apparently, lost through wars, holocaust, required book-burnings and the chaos and destruction through the ages' so it is truly amazing that any of them are still available to us!
The Halliwell Manuscript has 794 lines of rhymed verse and is believed to be the oldest Masonic document in existence at approximately 600 years old. It is also known as the Regius Manuscript, as it was found within a group of other documents and renamed at a later date.
Of special note is the fact that each of these Old Constitutions begin with an invocation to the "Mighty Father of Heaven".
The Halliwell Manuscript is written in poetic meter and has 794 lines of rhymed verse. At over 600 years old, it is believed to be the oldest Masonic document among the Old Records in existence.
Freemasonry's Old Manuscripts
The following excerpt is from the Halliwell Manuscript, also known as the Halliwell Poem or Regius Manuscript. It is believed to have been written during the operative stone mason times during the late Middle Ages:
Line Ordinacio (Constitution) Ordinacio In Today's English
70: He sende about ynto the londe...(He send about into the land)
71: After alle the masonus of the crafte...(After all the Mason, us of the craft)
72: To come to hym ful eene stragfte...(To come to him full and straight)
73: For to amende these defaultys alle...(For to amend these defaults all)
74: By good counsel gef it hyt mytgh falle...(By good counsel give it the name of mightiful)
Freemasons are quite proud of our ancient and documented heritage and of our being a member of the oldest fraternity in the world.
19 of the Old Masonic Manuscripts
Below, are 19 of the approximately 100 Old Charges, (also called the Old Records), their approximate date of origin (to the best of our historian's abilities) and where they currently reside.
Halliwell Manuscript - Supposed - 1390 Housed in the King's Library, British Museum
Cooke Manuscript - Supposed 1490
Dowland Manuscript - Supposed 1500
Landsdowne Manuscript - Supposed 1560
York Manuscript, No. 1 - Supposed 1600
Harleian Manuscript, No. 2054 - Supposed 1625 Housed in the Archives of the Grand Lodge of England
Grand Lodge Manuscript - Supposed 1583 Housed in the Archives of the Grand Lodge of England.
Sloane Manuscript, No. 3848 - Certain 1646 Housed in the British Museum
Sloane Manuscript, No. 3323 - Certain 1659-
Harleian Manuscript, No. 1942 - Supposed 1660
Aitcheson-Haven Manuscript - Supposed 1666 Housed in the Grand Lodge of Scotland
Edinburgh-Kilwinning Manuscript - Supposed 1670 Housed in the Mother Lodge Kilwinning, No. 0, Scotland
York Manuscript, No. 5 - Supposed 1670
York Manuscript, No. 6 - Supposed 1670
Lodge of Antiquity Manuscript - Certain 1686
York Manuscript, No. 2 - Certain 1693
Alnwick Manuscript - Certain 1701 In possession of the Newcastle College of Rosicrucians
York Manuscript No. 4 - Certain 1704
Papworth Manuscript - Supposed 1714
For more in-depth information and a more complete list of the Old Charges with dates and owners, see the Mackey-Hughan-Hawkins Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and Hughan's Old Charges.
If you believe that these Old Charges,...these ancient Masonic Charters, found on the dark and musty shelves in ancient libraries are simply old and interesting pieces of Masonic history and information that have nothing to do with Freemasonry, today, you would be perceived among knowledgeable Brethren as abysmally uneducated.
Every single Masonic constitution, law, statute, rule, Grand Lodge By-Laws, Blue Lodge By-Laws, regulation, as well as each of our current Masonic Charters in some way contains what is written in these Old Constitutions.
The Old Charges are built into most Grand Lodge Constitution and By-Laws books as the foundation of Masonic jurisprudence, ...which are our Grand Lodge's methods of governing and regulating the legal affairs of the Craft.