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Royal Ark Mariners

To many Masons who do not know much about it, even to many Mark Master Masons who have not gone on to become Ark Mariners, the Royal Ark Mariner can seem to be just a quaint, short little degree about Noah’s Flood whose members wear rainbow coloured aprons.

It may be attached to the Mark degree, but it is often dismissed as being of very little ritual significance. This could not be more wrong. Those who are ‘elevated’ as Royal Ark Mariners, and who take the slightest interest in Ark Masonry, soon realise that it is simple and beautiful, rather than superficial or trivial.

However, there is more to it than that. As the late Bro Handfield-Jones wrote, “although the ceremony is short, yet it fulfils the canon of a genuine Initiatory Rite and its symbolism is worthy of deep study.”

The candidate may enter the lodge room blindfolded, ‘clothed in the habiliments of a distressed mason’, but he completes his ritual ‘elevation’ at the conclusion of the ceremony in a very different state.

The great point about the Royal Ark Mariner, as many have said, is that it further develops the idea that is the keynote of initiation: the making of a new beginning or the adoption of a new outlook on life. It is certainly one of my very favourite degrees, and the attention one has to pay when in the chair of a Royal Ark Mariner lodge reaps rewards merely beyond being able to get the ceremony right for the candidate, important though that is.

The degree above all celebrates the providence and mercy of God in saving Noah and his family from the destruction metered out to all others. The actions of Noah and the symbol of the Ark are particularly apposite. The Master, referred to as the Commander and representing Noah, speaks of his Wardens as his Sons, Japheth and Shem; this might seem a little contrived or absurdly quaint, but the exchanges between the three principal officers are appropriately familial and most instructive.

The ritual focuses on those attributes and virtues exemplified by Noah, and the symbolic uses of the working tools of the degree, are beautifully and informatively explained. The explanation of the steps taken to move from the West to the East is particularly important in this degree, as are the addresses by the three principal officers to the candidate after he has been entrusted with the traditional secrets.

The candidate is clearly and, particular in this Fraternity, kindly instructed in his obligations to others and to his God. Above all there is a different feel about this degree than many others. This is difficult to explain. The degree is not homily; the symbolism in Ark Masonry is anything but basic. But, there is a very real closeness between the members and the candidate; indeed the installation of the commander ritualistically stresses this very real bond and the Address to the new commander by the outgoing commander is particularly apt in this regard. Indeed, since the ritual was reissued in 1994, the commander speaks of Ark Masonry as a Fraternity of Royal Ark Mariners, rather than merely as a degree.

In fact, the ceremony is now only described as a degree four times in the ritual; I feel that candidates receive more than just another degree, they are admitted to a very real Fraternity. Both ceremonies, of elevation and of installation, are very natural and do not feel contrived in any way. That impression, in addition to their fraternal message, is probably the secret of the Royal Ark Mariner. For a part of masonry that many ignore, it is deservedly popular with those in the know!

Like both Craft and Mark, the Ark Mariner has reference to that great Masonic allegory of Building. However, in this degree, the issue is not how to build something, but rather the ceremony celebrates a man who did so, in this case the Patriarch Noah in his construction of the Ark, which the ritual describes as an ‘Ark of Safety’. Furthermore, it teaches the futility of relying on any human endeavour or expedient to escape divine justice without the direct instructions of the Almighty. Obedience to the Deity is not to be avoided, but to be embraced.

One of the other delights of the degree is that the regalia is very simple: an uncluttered apron and a jewel with the addition of a collar for Officers and Past Commanders. The only change to the apron is silver-coloured triangles replacing the three rosettes when one assumes the chair; these become gilt if one receives Grand Rank.

Holders of Provincial and Grand Rank have a small neck collarette, whilst Past Commanders can wear an additional breast jewel if they wish. As there is no Provincial or District officer structure as such in the Fraternity, as all administration above Lodge level is undertaken by the Mark hierarchy, the Mariner is blessed with few titles and little fuss.

This is perhaps the only real current benefit of being attached to the Mark, despite the fact that the degrees are not connected ritually in any way. Simple regalia and little concern over rank and title.

There is no doubt that the story of Noah and the Great Flood has been performed and dramatically interpreted in these islands from as early as the 13th century in the various Mystery Plays of the medieval Christian church.

These biblical dramas were popular until suppressed in the 16th century as part of the Reformation. The Mysteries enacted the events of the Bible from the fall of Lucifer to the Day of Judgement in a series of pageants ranging in number from about 25 to nearly 50.

Each pageant or section of the story was performed by a different trade-guild, often with a humorous or macabre connection between the metier and the playlet. Thus, in many places carpenters enacted the crucifixion, the butchers that of Abraham and Isaac and the carpenters staged the tale of Noah and the Flood. By the 15th century the plays had been written down in various forms and the Mystery Cycles that survive today, such as those of Chester or Wakefield, are long and very elaborate.

Noah and his Ark are always present; masons today who go to see a Mystery Play will be particularly amused by the antics of Mrs Noah, the hectoring wife of Noah, who is initially very sceptical of her husband’s ark-building obsession.

These Mystery Plays probably had no direct bearing on the origin of the Masonic Noachite ritual. However, we know that the Masons’ guilds were regularly involved in the staging of these plays.

But it is necessary to appreciate the importance of the Noah legend in English tradition, and we should not be surprised that it was referred to early in the history of English Freemasonry.

It seems that Noah had for many years been considered as one of the Grand Masters of Freemasonry, something which many modern Masons seem to have forgotten.

In an unpublished paper, John Mandleberg observes that “as Royal Ark Mariners we are the custodians of a very ancient speculative tradition.” We need to consider the family of Noah rather carefully at this point. There are two genealogies of Noah, one in Genesis Chapter 4 and one in Chapter 5; it is the latter that the rituals of the degree select.

Thus Noah is descended from Adam, being nine generations in descent from him. His half-brother was Tubalcain, who will be well known to all Masons for his skills with metal-working. Noah was no mean craftsman either, which must be a contributory factor in his being chosen as a Masonic figure: the skill in building the ark would have been considerable.

Indeed, some have seen the dedication and skill of Noah as a builder, with the enormous nature of the task and the importance of what he constructed on God’s direct orders, as comparable or a least identifiable with that current Masonic centre-piece, the building of King Solomon’s Temple.

It is no surprise to find, therefore, that this view was one shared by early Masons: Noah may well have been the early prototype or precursor of Hiram Abif.

One of the earliest surviving Masonic documents, the Graham Manuscript, apparently dated 24 October 1726, explicitly refers to the sons of Noah seeking the secret which their dead father had possessed in a manner similar to part of the Traditional History of the Third Degree. This manuscript thus gives a Noah story, rather than an Hiramic one as the legend of the Third Degree.

Whilst there is reference to Hiram and his work for King Solomon, it makes no mention of his death. It was not until 1730 that any detailed account was published of the death of Hiram Abif, as we would recognise it, this being in Prichard’s Masonry Dissected.

This has profound implications for Ark Mariners, especially when one considers the central nature of what became the Third Degree of the Craft. It would seem possible, then, that at some point various Masons decided to replace Noah with Hiram, and that this change took place over time.

One has only to look at Anderson’s 1738 Constitutions to realise the key importance of Noah for early Freemasons. In addition, while all Master Masons may see themselves as ‘Sons of the Widow’, so are they too, by ancient Masonic tradition, all Noachites or sons of Noah.

Anderson describes himself in 1738 “as a true Noachida.” In surviving the Flood and being the father of the new human race, for no-one other than Noah and his family had survived, Noah can be seen to represent a second Adam and this makes him of enormous importance, notwithstanding his great skill in construction. For, as we are told, Noah was “a just man, perfect in his generations and (who) walked with God.”

There is an enormous amount of work still to be done not only in tracing the influence of the Noachite tradition on our current Craft ritual and tenets.

There should also be research into the shift from Noah’s central importance in Masonry to his virtual disappearance, except really in the Royal Ark Mariner, now considered strictly outside the three degrees of ‘pure Antient Masonry’ according to the United Grand Lodge in its 1813 Article of Union.

This should not, however, lead us today to ignore Masonry’s Noachite heritage. Indeed, it is worthy of note that the Royal Order of Scotland, set up in the 1740s with the express purpose of correcting and reforming the abuses of the Craft, gives back to Noah, the Ark, the Flood and indeed Enoch, of whom more later, some degree of prominence. Those who created the Royal Order of Scotland clearly saw Noah and the Noachite tradition as of more than passing importance.

Noah was also very important to the early church, as well as to the founding fathers of Freemasonry. Neville Barker-Cryer makes a clear reference to this, as may well be inferred from the Address to the new Commander. In this he states that “by the turn of the first millenium of the Christian era, Noah has become a direct prefiguring of Christ himself”: a man chosen by God to save mankind and usher in a new covenant.

An interesting idea, especially when one remembers the later de-Christianisation of the Craft. Interesting also that whilst the ritual of elevation of today makes reference to Noah’s father, to his grandfather and to his great, great-grandfather, it today ignores his great, grandfather, as also does the ceremony of the installation of the Commander. I refer to Enoch. It has been left to the revived Royal Ark Mariner tracing-board and its accompanying lecture to restore Enoch to his place in Ark Mariner Masonry. Interestingly, Enoch was made much of in the ceremony of installation of the Commander published in 1871, but since then that address has been omitted. Why, I have yet to discover.

Recently a tracing board has been revived with an official lecture published in 1995 under the authority of the Grand Master’s Royal Ark Council. This lecture is an adaptation of one researched and delivered in the 1950s by two Hertfordshire Royal Ark Mariners.

The Tracing Board is similar in look and style to a warrant dated 1796 issued to a certain Charles Sinclair by a body referred to as the ‘Grand Lodge of Ark Mariners.’ Experts suggest that the Board was painted about that time.

Being a board from the time of the Antients, it contains many more elements than one would expect from a purely Royal Ark Mariner tracing board based on today’s official ritual. If you have not heard the lecture it is well worth buying the 1995 published booklet.

Not least of importance is the reference to the two pillars of Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, one made of brick, one made of marble, both for the purpose of containing and protecting the Archives of Wisdom. As Neville Barker-Cryer so perceptively observes in his book, The Arch and the Rainbow, the tracing board so recently re-introduced “reminds any Ark Mariner of the older setting within which this degree existed from its inception. It…links the past with the present (and also) tradition with current practice.”

The precise origins of the Royal Ark Mariner are unknown. The earliest confirmed record of such a degree being specifically worked is 1790 in Bath, although the existence of Noachite traditions within the body of English Freemasonry is suggested as early as 1726.

The claims that a Grand Lodge of Ark Mariners was formed in 1772, and presided over by the Duke of Clarence, are not convincing. So the later claims that this Grand Lodge had fallen into disuse to be ‘revived’ in 1871, with reference to statutes of 1870, do not really stand up.

Whilst the degree seems to have been practised in a variety of ways in a host of different Lodges, there was probably no Grand Lodge over the degree.

However, the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons has a warrant issued by a certain John F Dorrington, described as Grand Commander, dated 24 November 1793. It seems that nearly 77 years later, the same now very elderly Bro Dorrington called a meeting at his house on 14 May 1870 when he appointed a certain Morton Edwards as his Deputy and Scribe E with the express purpose of ‘reviving’ some sort of Grand Lodge.

It is interesting to note that the ubiquitous Thomas Dunckerley, so important in the fortunes of many degrees in Masonry, was also describing himself in 1793 as Grand Commander of the Society of Ancient Masons of the Diluvian Order of Royal Ark Mariners.

It was Dunckerley who appointed a certain Brother Sibley as his Deputy just before he died, and it was this Sibley who welcomed Lord Rancliffe as the next Grand Commander until 1799, the same Lord Rancliffe who also took over the mastery of the Knights Templar.

However, the degree had almost disappeared when it was so ‘revived’ in this supposed Grand Lodge of Ark Mariners under Morton Edwards in 1871. As some Mark Lodges had also begun to work the degree, there was some conflict with the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons (formed in 1856).

This occurred when Canon Rev G R Portal, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons, announced (also in 1870) that, as the degree of Ark Mariner had been worked in Mark lodges since 1790, then the Mark would protect the Royal Ark Mariner degree under a new Grand Master’s Royal Ark Council.

Hence the reason for Mark Grand Lodge’s current control of the Ark Mariner. However, this conflict and dissension continued post-1870, until the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons simply bought the degree from Edwards in 1884 for the princely sum of £25.

The Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of England and Wales is automatically Grand Master of the Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Royal Ark Mariners, and the degree of Royal Ark Mariner is conferred only upon Mark Master Masons.

This inextricably linked the governance of these two quite ritualistically separate degrees. Lodges of Royal Ark Mariners are often said to be ‘moored’ to Mark Lodges. They must certainly carry the same number as the Mark Lodge, irrespective of the age or seniority of the lodge of Royal Ark Mariners, and in the majority of cases also have the same name.

The confusion that reigned when both the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons and the Grand Lodge of Royal Ark Mariners claimed the degree, is well illustrated by the earliest history of my own Mariner lodge.

On 7 May 1872, the Apollo University Lodge of Royal Ark Mariners No. 44 was constituted by dispensation by the Supreme Grand Commander, Morton Edwards. In the private lodgings of a certain Brother Hugh Riach, Edwards took the chair and elevated six brethren before installing Riach as the first Commander. He then proceeded to appoint him as Deputy Inspector General for Oxfordshire!

Later that same afternoon, another emergency meeting was held in different lodgings and Riach elevated another brother. Less than a month later, the brethren of the Lodge became displeased with the actions of the Grand Lodge of Royal Ark Mariners, and joined the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons under Canon Revd. G R Portal, the Grand Master. Incidentally, but not coincidentally, the Grand Master had also been the founding Senior Warden of the University Lodge of Mark Masters, set up within the University of Oxford in 1862! The Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons then issued a charter of confirmation, dated 17 March 1873, and the Lodge changed its name to that of today, the Oxford University Lodge of Royal Ark Mariners No. 55. The original warrant was returned to Morton Edwards a mere two days later.

The Lodge has had a chequered history since then – it did not meet 1875-1880 nor 1914-1918 nor indeed 1933-1947. But, since its revival in 1947 in a bedroom in Oxford’s Randolph Hotel, with some brethren sitting on chairs, some on a small settee and others perched on the bed, it has gone from strength to strength.

However, we have not yet exceeded the number of 12 brethren elevated on one evening in 1929! The Lodge remains one of the oldest Ark Mariner lodges in England, despite its number. It is the senior Royal Ark Mariner Lodge in the Mark Province of Oxfordshire, with both the Provincial Grand Master of Craft and Mark and the Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge, as Past Commanders.

Brethren who would like more information should consult the oft reprinted The Royal Ark Mariner Degree: its Origins and History by the late R M Handfield-Jones, first published by Premier Metropolis in 1968, as well as Revd. N. B. Cryer’s ‘The Arch and the Rainbow’ published in 1996 by Ian Allan/Lewis Masonic.

In 1991 it was decided that the November meeting of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons each year should be given over entirely to the degree of Ark Mariner under the Grand Masters’ Royal Ark Council. Although still tied to the Mark, Royal Ark Mariners have really, at last, come of age in their own right as the Antient and Honourable Fraternity of Royal Ark Mariners. As the late R W Bro Handfield-Jones wrote of the Royal Ark Mariner degree: “when fully understood it captures the hearts of its members as one of the jewels of Masonic Ritual.” How right he was.

I must thank the Director of the Library at Grand Lodge for her help in finding certain texts. I am particularly indebted to C. J. Mandleberg, both for his advice and also for allowing me access to his most scholarly, provoking and, as yet unpublished, paper on The Importance of the Degree of Royal Ark Mariner.

A reprint of an article published in Freemasonry Today

Issue 15, Winter 2000/2001

Following in Noah's Footsteps, Matthew Christmas examines the Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Royal Ark Mariner

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