Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers is a Professor of History at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, USA. She completed her PhD at Washington University in St. Louis in 1992. Dr. Sommers is the author of Parliamentary Politics of a County and its Town: General Elections in Suffolk and Ipswich in the Eighteenth Century (Greenwood Press, 2002) and Thomas Dunckerley and English Freemasonry (Pickering & Chatto, 2012). She is currently under contract with Oxford University Press to publish The Siblys of London: A Family on the Esoteric Fringes of Georgian England.
James Anderson and the Myth of 1717
The story of the formation of the Grand Lodge in London at the Goose and Gridiron in 1717, following discussions between four lodges meeting at the Apple Tree tavern in Charles Street, is one of the most familiar in freemasonry. However, this tale was not reported anywhere until James Anderson’s recounted it for the first time in the 1738 edition of the Book of Constitutions, published nearly twenty years after the events it describes. Anderson was not present at any of these meetings and the people he used as informants were not trustworthy witnesses. At the time he compiled the 1738 Constitutions, Anderson was in desperate straits, following the failure of a financial speculation in a tapestry business and a dispute with the congregation of his church. He was a debtor, living under the rules of the Fleet Prison, and using a borrowed study to write his books and keep his precious library safe from his creditors.
Anderson was anxious for the financial success of the new Book of Constitutions and used his skills as a historian to try and piece together the fragments of information about the early days of the Grand Lodge. He was under pressure from Grand Lodge to demonstrate its continuity with earlier traditions and to show the primacy of the English Grand Lodge over the Grand Lodges recently established in Ireland and Scotland. As a result, the foundation myth of the Grand Lodge created by Anderson was a mixture of truths, half-truths and fabrications, assembled from the tall tales and false memories circulating in Grand Lodge in the 1730s. Other pieces of evidence, such as the references to the Grand Lodge in the papers of the physician, antiquary and natural philosopher William Stukeley, suggest that the picture given by Anderson is seriously misleading.
Our conclusion is that the meetings at the Apple Tree and the Goose and Gridiron never took place, and that the available evidence suggests that Anderson’s account of the formation of Grand Lodge and its history up to 1723 is defective and should be discarded. An account of the installation of the Duke of Montagu in a book in the records of the Lodge of Antiquity No. 2 in London indicates instead that the Grand Lodge was created not in 1717 but at the time of Montagu’s installation on 24 June 1721. The Antiquity description of the installation of Montagu suggests that the formation of Grand Lodge was a more politically significant event than has hitherto been assumed. Moreover, the circumstance of the emergence of the myth of 1717 sheds light on the social and political tensions which shaped the early history of Grand Lodge.