The 'speculative' Masons inherited seven fundamental points from their 'operative' predecessors:
1. An organization with three grades of members: Apprentice, Fellow or Journeyman, and Master Mason.
2. A unit termed a Lodge.
3. Legendary histories of the origins of the masonic craft set out in the 100-odd manuscripts containing the so-called 'Old Charges', the oldest being the Regius manuscript of 1390, which was in verse.
4. A tradition of fraternal and benevolent relations between members.
5. A rule of secrecy about Lodge doings, although the Old Charges themselves were simply lists of quite ordinary rules for the guild, which members were enjoined to keep 'so help you God'. As befitted a Christian grouping there were no blood-curdling oaths.
6. A method of recognition, notably the Scottish 'mason word' traced back to 1550: unwritten but variously rendered as Mahabyn, Mahabone or even Matchpin.
(7) A thoroughly Christian foundation - the Old Charges are permeated with mediaeval Roman Catholicism.
With the demise of the original 'trade union' purpose of the organization and with the eclipse not only of Roman Catholicism due to the Reformation but also the waning of Christianity with the rise of science, what was left towards the end of the seventeenth century was the framework of a secretive association, likened by one authority to a peasant's cottage ripe for development as a luxury weekend home for the well-to-do.
Serious masonic historians themselves deplore the lack of documentation about the three or four critical decades before the foundation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. But it was during these years that the course Freemasonry was to follow was set. It was evidently then that a few men among the small number (possibly only a few hundreds in all) of 'accepted' Masons must have come to see the potential of a secret society cutting across class divisions to embrace aristocrats, gentry, professional men and elements of the expanding middle class. It was to be a brotherhood which would put a string to pull into the hand of every member, and strings enough in the hands of its shadowy controllers to manipulate events - like puppet masters behind the scenes. But who these people were and just how consciously they planned or, as some have said, even plotted, is shrouded in mystery.
One thing united a majority of politically conscious people at this time: the need to preserve the gain of the Civil War of 1642-51 - the limitation of the power of the King. The 'accepted' Masons of the last quarter of the seventeenth century would appear to have been largely drawn from the type of people most anxious to preserve and to increase the steadily growing influence in society and government of men of quite moderate wealth and standing.
Whether Lodges as such or Masons as Masons took part in the initiative to invite William of Orange and his consort Mary to become joint sovereigns in 1688 is not known, but the suggestion is plausible. All that is certain is that by the early years of the eighteenth century a number of Masons had set their sights high: they sought a maximum of reputability. In 1716, according to Dr James Anderson (of whom more later), 'the few Lodges at London resolved . . . to chuse a Grand Master from among themselves, till they should have the honour of a Noble Brother at their Head'. The stage was set for the system of tame aristocratic and royal figureheads that we know today, which confers an aura of indisputable approbation on everything to do with Freemasonry. When Grand Lodge was founded, George I had been on the throne only three years. The prominent in Masonry were poised to have a hand in the manipulation of the new Hanoverian dynasty.
Before the foundation of Grand Lodge in 1717, moves to transform the old guild into a true secret society were well under way. As the normal trade union business of operative masonic Lodges dwindled and eventually ceased, so the element of ritual based on the readings of the Old Charges - their legendary stories about the origins of the masons' craft and their injunctions to members to obey the traditional rules - was transformed. Lodge ritual, initiations and speculative dissertations became the main business of actual Lodge meetings. At the same time, fraternal conviviality - which in the old days of operative masonry had probably been confined to a tankard or two after meetings in a local ale house - soon became a major feature of masonic society. Much was eaten, much was drunk, and much was discussed in the privacy of masonic meeting places (usually taverns) after the rather dry formal doings in Lodge were over. The 'better' the Lodge - in the sense of social class - the 'better' the conversation and the more lavish and expensive the entertainment. Masonry was already on its way to mirroring and reinforcing the class system and the emerging social order based on strictly constitutional monarchy. Whatever it was to become overseas, where no Civil War, no Glorious Revolution had yet taken place, Masonry in England was alreaded headed towards a conservative future. The sights of its prime movers were already set on a movement underpinning a type of society admirably suited to its purposes: a stable society with limited social mobility in which a secret inner 'Old Boy' association could provide an environment where considerable benefit could be gained by members who knew how to 'play the masonic organ'.
To achieve this end, though, the confidentiality of the old guild had to be reinforced. The transformation into a secret society meant the institution of formal oaths accompanied by penalties. But once again, before the establishment of Grand Lodge, very little is known of the development of ritual, particularly the oaths. There is evidence that rituals based on various incidents in legendary masonic history were tried out in different Lodges - rituals perhaps based on stories of Noah's Ark and the Tower of Babel alluded to in some Old Charges. It is also probable that rituals based on the story of the building of King Solomon's temple, the principal subject of present-day rituals, were 'worked' (the masonic word meaning the acting out of the Brotherhood's ceremonies). But why this subject was chosen when the legends in the Old Charges give no special prominence to the story of Solomon's temple, no one has been able to explain satisfactorily.
Formal oaths of secrecy to be sworn by individual initiates appear in a number of Old Charges containing 'new orders', but as these were published five years after the establishment of Grand Lodge they are possibly spurious.
Either way, no horrific sanctions are mentioned. Even so, the inclusion of an oath in the initiation rituals can be regarded as a crucial step in the creation of a secret society from the old guild.