The Holy Royal Arch is specific to Anglo-Saxon Freemasonry, and is practised in slightly different ways in England, Scotland, Ireland and America. The Royal Arch is less widespread in continental Europe, where it is mainly practised on the fringe of regular Obediences, i.e. those recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England. In Continental Europe, and particularly in French-speaking Freemasonry, we know more about the Knights of the Royal Arch, 13th degree of the Ancient  Accepted Scottish Rite. Although this degree probably dates back to the same origins, it is nonetheless very different from the Royal Arch as understood by Anglo-Saxon Freemasonry. There is another Anglo-Saxon Side Degree known in French as "Nautonier de l'Arche Royale", but its English name is "Royal Ark Mariner". It's not the same word : in the case of the Mariner, it's Noah's Ark, whereas in the case of the Royal Arch, it's an underground vault under the Temple of Jerusalem.

Origins of the Royal Arch and its development in England 

The origins of the Royal Arch Degree are uncertain. It may come from the customs of the Lodge of York, but the first concrete evidences of its existence appear in Ireland in the 1740's. And it is from Ireland that it came (back?) to England, probably with the Irish immigrants of the famine of 1744-1745. According to some authors, the Royal Arch has distant French origins and, like the "Chevalier d'Orient", can be traced back to the "Discours du Chevalier de Ramsay" (1736), before moving on to Ireland and then England.

In England, the Royal Arch was practised from 1752 by the Grand Lodge of the “Ancients”, which included many Irishmen in its ranks. The "Moderns" initially opposed it, as they did not accept any degree higher than the Master Mason. They gradually began to practise it, but in a structure outside the Grand Lodge of London, whereas the "Ancients" practised it within their own Grand Lodge.

As the two English Grand Lodges merged to form the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, the status of the Royal Arch within the new organisation had to be clarified. The result was a consensus formula that was very British in its pragmatism, but paradoxical in its wording : "Pure and ancient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, namely those of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason, INCLUDING the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch" (Act of Union, 2d Article ; emphasis added). This "including" makes the Royal Arch a mere complement to the degree of Master Mason rather than a degree in itself, and yet it is administered by a Grand Chapter distinct from, but linked to, the Grand Lodge.

This applies to England, where this degree is called the Domatic Royal Arch, but the Royal Arch is practised somewhat differently in Scotland, Ireland and America.

The different forms of the Royal Arch

The main feature common to the various rituals of the Royal Arch is its central theme, which is the discovery of an underground vault beneath the Temple of Jerusalem, in which the recipient of this Masonic degree finds the divine Tetragrammaton (יהוה), as well as another mysterious name.

This degree is biblically based, as usually are the Anglo-Saxon Side Degrees, and involves the symbolism of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In England, Scotland and America, the story is set during the rebuilding of the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians, and the three "Principals who preside over the Chapter are Prince Zerubbabel, the Prophet Haggai and the High Priest Joshua. The Prophet Nehemiah and the Scribe Ezra are also present among the Chapter Officers. The ritual thus echoes the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which relate the return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The Irish Royal Arch is set in an earlier biblical context, that of the restoration of the Temple ordered by King Josiah, related in the 22nd chapter of the Second Book of Kings : the Three Principals are King Josiah, the High Priest Hilkiyah and the Scribe Shaphan.

The Scottish Royal Arch 

The Scottish Royal Arch is very similar to its English counterpart and uses almost the same Masonic Regalia, the only difference being the shade of colour of the red triangles alternating with the blue ones on the sashes and apron borders : red in England, dark red (crimson) in Scotland.

In these two variants of the Royal Arch, the First Principal is Zerubbabel, the Second the Prophet Haggai and the Third the High Priest Joshua. But in both cases, the Royal Arch is a single degree, granted to Master Masons and no longer to Past Masters only, as was the case until 1823. But in Scotland, the recipient is also required to possess the degree of Mark Master, which in that country is most often conferred within the Craft Lodge, as a complement to the Fellowcraft degree.

The Irish Royal Arch 

In Ireland, as mentioned above, the Three Principals are different, because the story is set in a different period of biblical history : the First Principal represents King Josiah, the Second the High Priest Hilkiyah and the Third the Scribe Shaphan. The Masonic Regalia are very different from the English and Scottish versions, since the collars and sashes are red, as are the borders of the aprons. But once again, this is a single degree which, as in Scotland, requires the recipient to first be awarded the title of Mark Master.

The American Royal Arch (York Rite)

The American Royal Arch is more complex, as it is integrated into the York Rite system of higher degrees. It is no longer an isolated grade, but part of a series, of which it is the apex : within the York Rite, the Royal Arch Chapter represents the second series, after the Blue Lodge, and administers the degrees of Mark Master, Past Virtual Master, Most Excellent Master and Royal Arch Mason.

The American ritual differs from the other versions on several points : like the English and Scottish Royal Arch, the legend recounts the rebuilding of the Temple and features Zerubbabel, but this case he is only the Second Principal, the First being the High Priest Joshua, the Third remaining the Prophet Haggai. But the Masonic Regalia are red, reminiscent of those of the Irish Royal Arch.

The Royal Arch, a multi-faceted degree

The Anglo-Saxon Royal Arch therefore seems to follow two, or even three, traditions. The oldest seems to be the Irish one, which has not yet joined the legend to that of the rebuilding of the Temple, and which uses simpler and more "archaic" Regalia. Red is indeed the most common colour used by the ancient Higher Degrees, particularly those of French origin, to the extent that several eighteenth-century rituals describe it as "the genuine Scottish colour".

The second tradition is the form that the Royal Arch took in England and then in Scotland, where the story was enriched by the theme of the rebuilding of the Temple. The Masonic Regalia are very unusual, featuring blue and red triangles that cannot be not found in any other Masonic degree.

Finally, the American Royal Arch seems to be a kind of synthesis of the other two traditions, which is not surprising when you consider that Freemasonry was spread in America by the English as much as by the Irish and Scots. The Masonic Regalia are red and remain very close to the Irish tradition, but the legend is that of the rebuilding of the Temple by Zerubbabel. However, the distribution of the Three Principals differs from that of the English and Scottish models and may suggest the existence of a different source, which has not yet come down to us.

January 24, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu