The earliest speculative Freemasons were probably all Christians as a matter of course. Although Anderson’s ‘Constitutions’ of 1723 and 1738 opened the door of English Freemasonry to ‘all Good Men and True’ who were not ‘stupid atheists’, in the late 1740’s specifically Christian Masonic Rites began to appear in France, possibly England also.
For the most part these Rites were ‘chivalric’, and by the 1770’s vestiges of the Templar-Malta ceremonies took place in ‘Encampments’ derived from Royal Arch Chapters under the Grand Lodge of the ‘Antients’. In 1791 probably seven (there is some doubt about the precise number) of these Encampments joined together to form a Grand Conclave under the rule of Thomas Dunckerley.
The word Masonic is included in our title and this is because we are not directly descended from the original Knights Templar, but we came into being (in a wide variety of ritual forms, at first worked under Warrants of Royal Arch Chapters) in the British Isles in and around the 1760’s. The present day Templar ritual was introduced in the 1850’s, and a few years’ later, the same occurred to the Mediterranean Pass and Malta degrees.
A direct link with the original Templars is that they were granted their encampment in Jerusalem, on the site of King Solomon’s Temple. On 15th July 1099, the city walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the city captured by the Crusader army of the first crusade. In 1118, nine knights under the leadership of Hughes de Payen, approached the patriarch of Jerusalem (King Baldwin II); having decided to dedicate their lives to the service of the Holy Land. The patriarch subsequently assigned them a portion of the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (said to have been built on the original Temple of Solomon). This group of knights subsequently took their name from this; Pauperes commiltones Christi Templi Salomonis (the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon). Thus becoming known as the Knights of the Temple, and later, Knights Templar.
After the union in 1813 the Duke of Sussex became Grand Master, but it was only after his death in 1843 that the orders flourished with renewed vigour. Although ‘Encampments’ later became known as ‘Preceptories’, and the ‘Grand Conclave’ changed its name to ‘Great Priory’, the latter is, after the Grand Lodge of the Craft itself, the longest established English Masonic authority.
It presides over more than 500 Preceptories at home and abroad, each of which (with the exception of ‘Baldwyn C’ at Bristol and ‘Antiquity, No.1’ at Bath) works the official ritual, and which are grouped into 40 Provincial Priories. Great Priory meets twice a year, periodically a Church Service is arranged for the Knights and their friends (in 2001 this took place in Lincoln Cathedral), and the Orders give considerable support to the St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, a charitable foundation of the (non-Masonic) Venerable Order of St. John.