While many working tools, such as the Square, the Compass, the Rule, the Mallet, the Chisel, the Level, the Perpendicular..., are featured in all Masonic rituals, one tool rarely appears: the Trowel. Strange, considering that the Trowel is one of the most common tools used by builders. The use of mortar, which requires the use of the Trowel, is well attested by the medieval builders whose heirs the Freemasons claim to be. Then why do we talk so little about the Trowel in Masonic rituals? Is the Trowel the unloved tool of Freemasons? When and where did it appear in Masonic rituals? And what might its allegorical significance have been?

Absence of the Trowel in early Masonic documents 

Surprisingly, there is virtually no mention of the Trowel in the earliest known Scottish or English Masonic documents, which date from the very late 17th century to the 1730s. Even Samuel Pritchard's "Masonry Dissected" (1730) and "Three Distinct Knocks" (1760) completely ignore the use of the Trowel. At best, Trowels are mentioned in the historical account of the "Dumfries #4" manuscript (c. 1710), without any mention of a symbolic or ritual dimensions. And a single disclosure, "The Grand Mystery Laid Open" (1726), indicates that Freemasons use two tools, the Hammer to separate and the Trowel to join. More on this very strange document later.

The situation was much the same on the continent. In France, and more generally in the French-speaking area, as well as in Germany, the Trowel is absent from rituals and disclosures before 1744. And even after this date, the majority of rituals continue to ignore it, such as the "Rituel du Duc de Chartres" (1784), the "Rituel du Marquis de Gages" (1763), the rituals of the Strict Templar Observance, the French Rite (1785/1801)...

Introduction of the Trowel in French rituals 

The first mention of the Trowel is to be found in a very strange 1744 disclosure, "Le Parfait Maçon", which reveals the secrets of Entered Apprentices, Fellowcrafts, Master Masons and Scottish Masters, in a highly unusual form, quite different from all known Masonic rituals. In this ritual, the Worshipful Master wears a Square and a Trowel on his collar; and after the oath of a new Entered Apprentice, he takes a Trowel with which he pretends to mix mortar in a trough, and then passes it over the Apprentice's lips to symbolically seal them. We'll come back to this ritual later, which may reveal the origin of the Trowel's use in Freemasonry.

The following year, another Disclosure, "Le Sceau Rompu" (The Broken Seal), otherwise in line with known Masonic usage, mentions the Trowel in its general presentation of Freemasonry, this time associating it with the Sword, a clear allusion to the degree of Knight of the East, which works the Sword in one hand and the Trowel in the other, and which appeared in the 1740s.

Still around 1745, the "Luquet" manuscript (one of the two oldest surviving Masonic ritual manuscripts in French) makes the Trowel associated with the Sword the coat of arms of Freemasons, clearly referring to the 1736 Chevalier de Ramsay Discourse, which traced Freemasonry back to the Crusades and the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Later in the ritual, the Trowel is depicted as the tool used to mask the Brothers' defects.

Around 1778, Jean-Baptiste Willermoz introduced the Trowel as one of the three movable jewels (along with the Compass and Mallet) in the First Degree Catechism of the Rectified Scottish Rite, specifying that "it is used by Freemasons to build temples to Virtue".

And it wasn't until 1887 that the French Rite practiced at the Grand Orient of France added the Trowel to the tools with which the future Fellowcraft performs his five emblematic journeys, and included it on the Worshipful Master's altar for the three Craft Degrees.

In the Higher Degrees, the Trowel also appears a few times, primarily in the Knight of the East (Third Order of the French Rite, 15th degree of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite) and related Anglo-Saxon degrees (Irish Knight Masons, Scottish Red Cross Knights...). It is also featured in the Royal Arch, which is also linked to the legend of Zerubbabel rebuilding the Temple, and is omnipresent on the regalia and emblems of the Cryptic Degrees, a series of four degrees of American origin but widespread in all Anglo-Saxon countries.

The Trowel, the mark of a minority Masonic movement?

The Trowel clearly does not belong to the symbolic corpus of ancient Freemasonry. Then how can we explain its appearance in French rituals around 1745? Its introduction seems to be linked to the emergence of the Higher Degrees, and in particular the Knight of the East, the first chivalric Higher Degree. The main symbols of this degree are the Sword and the Trowel, in accordance with the biblical texts that provide the basis for the legend of the degree, which relates that the builders who rebuilt Jerusalem worked with one hand and carried a weapon with the other, and further specify that they all carried a sword at their side (Nehemiah 4, 17-18).

But there's no mention of a Trowel in the biblical text. So why choose this tool over any other? Probably because the Trowel was already known to a minority fringe of Freemasonry, as attested by "The Grand Mystery Laid Open" of 1726 and "Le Parfait Maçon" of 1744. But what was this fringe of Freemasonry?

The Trowel, a Jacobite rallying sign?

It is known that Jacobites played a role in the emergence and development of the so-called Scottish Higher Degrees, and in particular the Knights of the East, whose point of departure seems to have been the Discourse of Ramsay, himself a Jacobite: Zerubbabel, of royal lineage, in exile in Babylon and authorized by King Cyrus to go and rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, could just be an allegory of the Stuart Pretender, in exile in St Germain-en-Laye, helped by the King of France to go and reconquer the throne of England. In the 1740s, the Pretender was Charles Edward, "The Young Pretender", who landed in Scotland in 1745 with French help and raised an army that was defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Was the Trowel a Jacobite Masonic symbol? It probably was. Let's return to the only ancient English text to mention the Trowel, "The Grand Mystery Laid Open" of 1726. Like "The Perfect Mason" of 1744, this strange document is most often considered a parody. It features absurd, or irrelevant, words, such as Layla Illalah, which is given as the first Freemason's name, and which is none other than the transliteration of the Muslim profession of faith (There is no God but God). But couldn't this be a coded document? Would not the Hammer that separates be William of Orange, who dethroned James II and the Hanover dynasty that was subsequently established, and the Trowel that joins be the exiled Stuarts, who gathered their supporters in St Germain-en-Laye? In this disclosure, the Lodge is referred to as the Lodge of St. John, but it is specified that St. John is a King, because he is the King of all Christian Lodges. Would this not be an allusion to the Stuarts' attachment to Catholicism?

And in "Le Parfait Maçon" (The Perfect Mason), whose customs are probably of Jacobite origin, the Trowel is used to seal the Entered Apprentice's lips. What could be more normal when dealing with Jacobite conspirators? And the Luquet manuscript (whose allusions to the Chevalier de Ramsay may suggest a Jacobite inclination) adds that the Trowel is used to hide the Brothers' "defects", or should we not better understand "secrets"? Can we suppose that, in this case, the Masonic secret was doubled by another secret, a political one?

It's thus probable that the Trowel was originally some kind of rallying sign for Jacobite Freemasons, and that the degree of Knight of the East was a metaphor for the political project of the exiled Stuarts. This would explain why the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of the French Knight of the East were first developed in Ireland (Knight Masons) and then in Scotland (Red Cross Knights), Ireland and Scotland having provided a large proportion of the Jacobite contingents. 

But the Trowel remains a builder's tool, and its presence in the Rectified Scottish Rite, the Cryptic Degrees and later the French Rite, clearly has no Jacobite connotations.

December 13, 2023 — Ion Rajalescu