by- E. Robinson Lee


Throughout  the  vast and complex  system  we  call  Masonry  are  found  many  beautiful  and  educational  degrees, and although many similarities exist  between  some  of  them,  on the whole  innumerable  moral  and  religious lessons are taught. The following  comments,  remarks and opinions should in no way be construed  to  reflect a preference of any Masonic Body over another,  but rather to examine some of the fascinating  aspects  of  that part of Freemasonry known to us as  the  Holy  Royal Arch.

The present day Royal Arch Chapter is to me one of  the   most  enjoyable  of  all  the   Masonic   Degree Conferring  Bodies.  The  companionship  between   the  members seems to be more intense and sincere  than  in  most  organizations, and the friendships that  develop  to be more enduring. The business meetings, or  stated  convocations,  are  much less formal and  stodgy  than  those  of  many bodies, and humor  and  levity  within  bounds of decorum and good taste is commonplace.  When  an  officer  in a Craft lodge makes a mistake  in  his  ritual he is frequently mortified, whereas in a  Royal  Arch  Chapter he will laugh it off and plow on.  Humor  has  a recognized and deserved place in  nearly  every  situation,  Masonry being not the least of  them,  and  our Chapters seem to have accepted and encouraged this  human need albeit perhaps unwittingly. Degree work  is  by  necessity more formal, but certainly never  stuffy  of  pompous.  Rather than frightening  our  candidates  with  mysterious dark secrets of their fate, they  are  made  to  feel a part of the  proceedings,  especially  when  the degrees are explained to them that they  can  better  absorb  the  beauties  and  meanings  of   the  workings.


How  many times have we all heard it said,  in  one  way  or  another, “All The Masonry that there  is,  is  contained in the Symbolic, Craft of ‘Blue’ Lodge?” How  sad  to  be  so  short-sighted!  Royal  Arch   Masonry  actually is part of Ancient Craft Masonry, and without  the  degrees of the Chapter and including the  Council  Degrees, the Master Mason is incomplete indeed. All of  my references to the Royal Arch Chapter are made  with  the  understanding that it be Virginia  style  whereby  the  Council  degrees  are an  integral  part  of  the  Chapter.

Symbolic  Masonry treats of the loss of  the  Word,  leaving  the Master Mason dangling with an  incomplete  story.  Royal Arch Masonry teaches the  discovery  and  preservation  of  that Word,  thereby  completing  the  story and truly fulfilling the Master Mason degree.

The  Royal Arch was at one time part of the  Master  Masons   Lodge,  but  was  considered  of   too   much  importance  to  be conferred on any  but  actual  Past  Masters.  The English Grand Lodge of 1751, best  known  to us as the “Antients” Grand Lodge, claimed to adhere  to  the  “Old Constitutions” of Masonry.  A  quotation  from  the Ahiman Rezon, or Book of the  Constitutions,  best  explains  their views of the importance  of  the  Royal Arch:

Ancient  Masonry consists of  four  degrees,  the first three of which are that of the Ap- prentice,  the Fellowcraft, and the  Sublime  Degree  of Master, and a brother being  well  versed  in  these degrees, and  having  dis- charged  the offices of the Lodge,  particu- larly that of the Master, and fulfilled  the  duties  thereof with the approbation of  the  brethren of his Lodge, is eligible, if found  worthy, to be admitted to the fourth degree,  the Holy Royal Arch.

When  the  two Grand Lodges, the Antients  and  the  Moderns, merged in 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge  of England, the following proclamation was issued:

That pure Ancient Masonry consists of  three  degrees,  and  no more: viz.  those  of  the  Entered Apprentice, the Fellowcraft, and the  Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of  the Royal Arch.

The  point here being that the Royal Arch  is  part  and  parcel of the Master Mason Degree, and cannot  be  separated therefrom. It is not clear just how or  when  seaport Chapters were formed, but is believed  that the  formation of seaport bodies for the conferral  of  the  Capitular  and cryptic degrees was of  no  recent  date, and done for convenience. 

It  is  interesting  that the  Royal  Arch  Degree,  which as we learned earlier was conferred only on Past  Masters,  was considered of such importance  that  the  concession  was  made that it could  be  conferred  on  those  brethren  who first received the  Past  Masters  Degree, thereby making them “Virtual” Past Masters, as  opposed to actual Past Masters.

The  present Virginia system of Royal Arch  Degrees  includes the Mark Master, Past Master, Select  Master,  Royal  Master,  Most Excellent Master and  Royal  Arch  Mason.  The  Select  and  Royal  Master  degrees   are  conferred in a separate body called “the Council,”  as  is  a more recent but very beautiful and well  written  degree  called  “The Super  Excellent  Master,”  which  sorrowfully in not a part of Virginia ritual.

The  Mark Master degree extends the lessons of  the  Fellowcraft,    teaching   order,    regularity    and  discipline. Our thoughts and work should be honorable and good, so that the Great Overseer will approve our  labors.

The degree of Past Master is honorary, but is required of a brother before he can serve his lodge as a   Warden.  This degree deals with the   peculiar circumstances in presiding over a Symbolic Lodge, and teaches humility and service. This is the only  degree  in  the  possession of both the Grand  Lodge  and  the  Grand  Chapter, and can be conferred by a  Provisional  Lodge  of Past Masters, which is a specially  convened  lodge  of Actual and Virtual Past Masters,  under  the  authority of the Grand Lodge of Virginia.

   The Select Master Degree deals with a secret  vault  beneath  the  Temple,  and  the  deposit  of  treasure  therein  by Hiram Abif. The companion degree of Royal Master is based on that period of the Temple after Hiram Abif’s [mythical] death.    The  Most Excellent Master is a more recent  degree  dealing  with  the dedication of the  Temple  by  King  Solomon, and the formation of a select group of masons  to maintain the magnificent structure. This degree is 

purely  American and is found nowhere outside of  this  country.


The  Sublime Degree of Royal Arch Mason  imparts  a  number  of  lessons, but most  important  teaches  the  rediscovery   of  the  lost  word,   symbolizing   the  discovery  and meaning of life, obtained through  much  effort and trials.

From the Freemason’s Monitor of 1864 we read:

This  degree is indescribably  more  august,  sublime and important than all which precede  it,  and  is the summit  and  perfection  of  ancient Masonry. It impresses on our minds a  belief  of the being and existence of a  Supreme  Deity, without beginning of  days  or  end  of years, and reminds us of the  reverence due to His Holy Name. It also brings to  light  many essentials of the  Craft,  which  were,  for  the space of  four  hundred  and  seventy years, buried in darkness, and with- out a knowledge of which the Masonic character cannot be complete.

The degree of Super Excellent Master, I repeat, is  honorary  and  is  not part  of  Virginia  Royal  Arch  Masonry.  It is, where conferred, an  optional  degree  under the jurisdiction of Cryptic Councils. It  treats  and  expounds  on  the capture of  Jerusalem  by  King  Nebuchadnezzar,  and  the Babylonian  imprisonment  of  Sedekiah,   the   last  King  of   Judah,   and   most  impressively  teaches fidelity. I  strongly  recommend  that  all  Royal Arch Masons  receive  this  unusually  beautiful degree by taking advantage of the few  times  it  is conferred in Virginia by another  jurisdiction,  or by going to a near-by state such as North  Carolina  when it is worked.

After being elected and installed High Priest of  a  Royal  Arch Chapter, the Excellent Companion  is  then  eligible  to  receive  the  Degree  of  Anointed  High  Priest, and indeed isn’t officially considered a  Past  High  Priest  until  he has  received  this  important  degree  which  deals with the duties of  that  office.  This degree is conferred only once a year, during  the  Annual Convocation of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter  of  Virginia,  by  the  Grand  Council  of  Anointed  High  Priests of the Commonwealth of Virginia.


After  a  High  Priest has  faithfully  served  his  Chapter for a year, and has been Anointed, Consecrated  and Set Apart to the Holy Order of High Priesthood, he  is  then  eligible to receive the  Thrice  Illustrious  Masters  Degree, conferred immediately  following  the  Anointed High Priests Degree each year. Eligibility is  based on his having presided over the Cryptic  Council  simultaneously  with the Royal Arch Chapter,  and  the  degree  is under the authority of the Grand Council of  Thrice Illustrious Masters of Virginia. This degree is  unusually beautiful and moving, especially due to  the  performance of Most Excellent C. Frank Goodrich,  Jr.,  who portrays the chief character.

The  exact history of the Royal Arch is, like  most  of Masonry, uncertain, but it is felt that it  existed  as  an elevated degree at the time the  Masters  grade  appeared  during  the early Sixteenth  [sic]  Century.  During   this  period  Special  Masters  Lodges   were  developed  for Masters and Past Masters only, and  the  Hiramic  legend was introduced into the  Master  Mason  Degree  ritual. Since there is no  connection  between  the Royal Arch and the Hiramic legend, the Royal  Arch  must  have assumed that which was displaced  from  the  old  rituals  of  the  Master  Masons  Lodge  by   the  introduction of the Hiramic legend. Just what was  replaced by the Royal Arch is lost to us, but we  know  that symbols shown on ancient floor cloths and tracing  boards disappeared from the regalia and  paraphernalia  of  the Craft Lodge, only to reappear  in  conjunction  with the Royal Arch degree. It would appear then  that  the  Royal Arch received the lost word from the  Craft  lodge  which was displaced by the Hiramic legend.  The  Royal  Arch  ritual  was probably never  part  of  the  Master  Masons  degree, but was most likely  a  higher  degree  reserved  for  Masters  and  deserving  Master  Masons.

The  importance  of the Royal Arch  was  made  very  clear  by  the  Articles  of  Union  produced  by  the  formation of the Mother Grand Lodge of England from the  “Moderns” and “Antients” from which I have  previously  quoted. From this definition of Masonry every lodge in  the  world  holden  under the Mother  Grand  Lodge  of  England  promptly  claimed  the  Royal  Arch.  English  Masons,  and  to a slightly  lesser  extent,  American  Masons,  are  even  today required to  be  Royal  Arch  Masons  as  a  prerequisite  to  many  other  degrees,  orders,  and  bodies.  Even  the  Scottish  Rite   has  required the completion of the Royal Arch prior to its  degrees in England. 

The first recorded mention of the Royal Arch  dates  from 1743 in Ireland, telling of a Masonic  procession  where  the  Master  was preceded  by  the  Royal  Arch  carried by two Excellent Masters. 

The  earliest record of the Royal Arch  in  America  thus  far  known  is  in  the  minutes  of  the   Time  Immemorial  Lodge at Fredericksburg,  Virginia,  dated  December 22, 1753. 

Many   Royal  Arch  Chapters  were  formed   either  independently  or  under  the authority  of  the  many  provincial Grand Lodges operating at that time.  Three  Virginia Chapters formed the Grand Royal Arch  Chapter  of Virginia in 1808, but as might be expected, it  was  some years before all Chapters in Virginia joined  the  Grand Chapter.

Of passing interest but not a point of  elaboration  at this time is the interesting fact that Virginia has  never  belonged to the General Grand Chapter, and  was  until  recently  one of only two Grand  Chapters  that  were sovereign.

Symbolism  of  the Royal Arch is  so  complex  that  entire  research papers have been devoted to only  one  item.  An outstanding one comes to mind on the  emblem  of  the  Royal  Arch Degree, The  Triple  Tau,  by  J.  Linwood  Holloway, Sr., a Past Master of  this  Lodge.  Another  was by another member of this  Lodge,  Birley  Schoen,  on the Shekinah, or divine luminous cloud  as  explained in the Royal Masters Degree.

The Keystone is the emblem of the Mark Master,  one  of  the  oldest degree conferred and one of  the  most  interpreted  emblems. The Keystone and the Triple  Tau  especially  have caused much speculation on the  Royal  Arch  connection  to astrology, occult  symbology  and  cryptography.

There  are  so  many varied facets  of  Royal  Arch  Masonry to be studied that a life-time could be  spent  without exhausting its potential, but for my money the  Chapter  is  just about the most fascinating  part  of  Masonry in which to be involved - never boring, always  stimulating. Far from being repetitious there seems to  be  a  new  lesson  to be  learned,  a  new  angle,  a  different  perception, a fresh conception each time  a  degree is conferred.

The  Chapter  proclaims a search and study  of  the  lost word, which represents truth. Truth is the purest  form  of religion, and represents the meaning of  life  which we all strive to understand. Masonry teaches  us  to prepare for our other life, and Royal Arch  Masonry  comes  closer to logically demonstrating the truth  of  life.

According  to  our beloved  friend  Most  Excellent  Joseph  B.  Barnes,  when a director  of  one  of  the  largest observatories passed away some years ago,  his  wife wrote a short poem to his memory. This man’s many  years  of  astrological  studies  had  developed   his  profound belief in a life hereafter. This is what  she  wrote:

Don’t call me back when I have gone,

to cross that unknown sea.

My work on earth at last is done,

and I am now set free.

Don’t call me back, and do not cry,

I am so glad to go.

I oft have longed to soar the sky,

and other worlds to know.

Don’t call me back, a little while,

and I am far from earth.

And I am leaving with a smile,

to face another birth.