History of the Royal Black Institution
Whilst objective historians desire strong documentary evidence and bona-fide testimonies from by-gone days, those who set about collating a fair historic analysis on a subject are often dependent upon the findings of previous historians to establish certain facts or ascertain helpful pointers. This can present a challenge for the assessor, as men’s personal bias can sometimes get in the way of objective scrutiny. Men are often coloured in their interpretation of material by their own particular partialities.
This difficulty is even more pronounced when it comes to the study of secret societies. Masonic historian Albert Mackey speaks of 18th century Masonic historian Nicolas De Bonneville, that he “had an exalted idea of the difficulties attendant upon writing a history of Freemasonry, for he says that, to compose such a work, supported by dates and authentic facts, it would require a period equal to ten times the age of man; a statement which, although exaggerated, undoubtedly contains an element of truth.” And any earnest enquirer that has tried to get to the root of Freemasonry and other co-existing secret societies could certainly understand where he is coming from. In fact, De Bonneville draws attention to the great struggle that any researcher (whether inside the Lodge like himself or not) experiences when they try to get to the core of secret orders, which by their very nature are designed to conceal rather than reveal.
Mr. Bernard E Jones writing about the Masonic Order has this to say: “few, if any institutions are invented offhand. They are all creatures of growth. If we find one of them organized and in working order at a certain date, it is highly probable that, whether we find documentary evidence or not, it has existed for many years in a rudimentary and unorganized form.”
Of course, this obscurity is not simply restricted to Freemasonry but is common to all secret societies (the Royal Black Institution included), whose origins seem to be blurred by their inherent secrecy but also by the mist of time. Secrecy and confidentiality are the very lifeblood of these societies. This is not to say that detail and facts cannot be assembled – they can – but it involves long, meticulous, and laborious digging and deciphering. Royal Black historian Ryan McDowell seems to agree in his short history of the Institution, when he says “It is difficult to trace a definitive history for the Black Institution in that the oldness and secrecy of the Order means that information is not always widely available. Most such societies have romanticised versions of their history, which make it difficult to determine legend from truth. Further to this, Black fragmentation at various points in history can lead to contradictory facts being quoted by different historians as one may be quoting in respect of one Black strand and another in reference to a totally separate strand” (The History of The Royal Black Institution).
Despite the difficulties, it is our desire to piece together a comprehensive history of the Black, built as much as we can on real evidence. We will try to shy away from unnecessary speculations or the temptation to construct a history on other men’s opinions. In doing this we will strive to assemble our thesis upon that which is sure and trustworthy. We will highlight any apparent weaknesses in existing analyses of the matter and try to rectify them with evidence that can stand up to rigorous investigation. In our efforts we have accumulated some rare historic data that may give us a better perspective of the origins and development of the Black movement as a whole. To the best of our ability we will try to examine the historic unfolding of the Black movement in a chronological manner.
Before going any further, the reader should be aware that there has never been any significant officially sanctioned history of the Royal Black Institution. There have been some short pamphlets by individual Blackmen but they have been far from comprehensive. The governing authority of the Royal Arch Purple – the Royal Arch Purple Chapter – in its History of the Royal Arch Purple Order, informs us: “On three occasions the Grand Black Chapter decided to produce an official history of the Black Order, in 1857, 1873 and 1908, but none has yet been authorised for publication.” It seems strange for an organisation that prides itself on its antiquity that it should so carefully steer clear of disclosing its history. Whilst observers may advance various reasons for this, there is no doubt that its history is enveloped in such murkiness that exploring its origins may well create more questions than answers. Some of these could be very embarrassing.
For a detailed history please read:
The formation of the Black
Obtaining reliable evidence relating to the early development of the Black is particularly difficult, with useful material being extremely rare. This has meant that most of what has been written on the formative years of the Black movement is nothing more than general speculation and opinion. Much of the detail covering its inception is shrouded in mystery. Even trying to establish a concrete date for the formation of the Black Knights is well-nigh impossible. Much of the data that has accumulated over the years has come from one Black historian building upon the opinions of another earlier Black historian. The unfortunate failing of many has been to accept without careful examination the statements of preceding writers.
Most Blackmen herald 16th September 1797 as the date on which their Institution was founded. However, few realise that this date is far from certain. Most of the Loyal Orders historians acclaim this date, although none of them furnish direct evidence of (1) what actually unfolded on that day; (2) who its founders were; (3) where exactly the institution was birthed; and (4) why it was formed. In fact, we are left with nothing of any evidential value. All basic and elementary information is sadly lacking in all the internal writings and archive material. A massive question mark therefore hangs over this date.
In his thorough work Orangeism in Ireland and Throughout the Commonwealth, R.M. Sibbett succinctly states that “the Grand Black Chapter of Ireland … was founded in Ireland on the 16th of September 1797” (p. 537). Unfortunately, however, he made no attempt to prove or enlarge upon this comment. Sibbett’s lack of expansion on this date speaks volumes given that he is a historian who normally is meticulous on the detail of the most insignificant of Loyal Order events. If anyone could have put meat to the bones it would surely have been him.
Rev. John Brown in his short history of the Black also says: “According to the best evidence the Royal Black Institution was formed on the 16th September 1797. It grew out of Orangeism … In the early days of the Orange Society, it was felt that extra means of recognition amongst its members were necessary in those troubled times … Masonic models were always present to the minds of men who organised societies in those early days, and the same principles seem to have been accepted in Orange Lodges as in Masonic Lodges.”
Again, Brown does not expand upon this statement or reveal any of his so-called “best evidence.” This is a common approach by Loyal Orders historians when writing about the origins of the Black. It is not that they are intentionally concealing something; it is more likely that they simply do not have any evidential material to present to corroborate their claims.
The first documentary reference to this date (accepted by most of the Loyal Orders’ historians) is presented by the first Grand Registrar of the Grand Black Chapter formed in 1846 – Edward Rodgers from Armagh. Rodgers refers to a warrant in his possession issued by a Black governing group in 1820. It is the first Black certificate that makes any reference to a foundation date for the order. It read: “The Magnanimous and Invincible Order of Royal Blackmen’s Association … having commenced on 16th September, in the year 1797, for the preservation of our Glorious King and Constitution.”
This is the only evidence we have relating to this date, which ever since has been taken by Loyal Orders’ historians as true and factual. In the opinion of this writer, this is inconclusive proof that anything of substance occurred on that date. Unfortunately, The Magnanimous and Invincible Order of Royal Blackmen’s Association made no effort to elaborate upon its opinion or to provide any verifiable proof for its conviction. We are therefore left with a cold date with no supporting validation. Whilst we cannot completely dismiss the date there is insufficient evidence to be dogmatic about it and no known corroboration to support the contention. This is one solitary certificate awarded years after the alleged formation date by a newly formed Black group. There is no additional historic support, for example from other testimonies or newspaper reports; there are no other old manuscripts preceding 1820 that would suggest anything happened on this date.
We should also remember that this was written in 1820 when Black associations were competing over who was the most ancient. From an evidential perspective there seems to be no compelling grounds for insisting on this specific date. Whilst on the subject of this document, we cannot ignore how Portadown District Black deals with it on its website. In their wisdom, they have doctored this early document (which Rodgers shows relates to 1820) by adding the dates 16th and 17th September 1797 to the different signatories, giving the false impression that this certificate was actually issued in 1797 rather than 1820.
This misrepresentation must concern any right-minded historian who is genuinely in search of truth on this matter. The Royal Arch Purple comprehensive research publication History of the Royal Arch Purple Order confirms the fact that this certificate is dated 1820. This seems like a desperate attempt on behalf of the Portadown Black to give legitimacy to this uncertain founding date.
It is surely significant that the one who brought this certificate and its accompanying date to light (Edward Rodgers) was himself far from convinced as to the authenticity of the date. In his later writings he admits, “It is difficult to trace the exact date and the original founders of this Society. It took its birth however in the same locality as the Orange Society and is of the same heritage and age. No trace can be found of the originators of this Society having a printed code or laws or even separate warrant of authority until 1820.”
This statement made by the holder of this lone document is significant and would surely place a massive question mark over the dependability of the date. Whilst the Royal Black Institution may look to this date it can never truly be a certain historic fact until more reliable information can be brought to light. This is common with secret societies. They tend to make grand boasts without ever trying to base their contentions on reliable material – this is especially the case with the chivalric societies.
The formation of different Black ruling authorities
A significant impediment which restricted the advance of the Royal Black, and which was a contributing factor to its failure to establish itself in any notable way during the first 50 years, was that it was split up into several insignificant independent organisations which carried little power or influence. From the historic evidence that exists it appears like each of these Black groupings were very insular, and all seemed transfixed with building their own small kingdoms. During this early period the different Black groupings were divided amongst themselves to such a degree that they viewed each sister Black organisation with the same suspicion as they regarded the external opposing factions. As Black historian Ryan McDowell succinctly put it: “Its fragmentation proved to be a messy business.”
There was no one association which could command widespread respect and therefore unify all the various Black ritualistic strands throughout Great Britain and Ireland. This was an obvious hindrance to their general development. Although they essentially believed the same things and operated the same secret practices, the Black movement remained divided with no cohesion between the different Black bodies. The early years of the Black were clearly difficult, as it suffered from many varying debilitating problems. In fact, several times the Black was in danger of disappearing through a mixture of its own internal problems, strong external persecution and prohibitions from Orangeism. On top of this, the Black had to deal with some strong Government censures forbidding the gathering of political secret societies in Ireland. In this situation, the Black family struggled to gain traction and because of their impaired state there was no agreed format for the degrees nor was there a standardisation in administration.
Edward Rodgers explained, “For a considerable time matters remained in this disjointed and unsatisfactory condition. Few, if any, heard of each other’s existence, whilst the original list of Degrees was diminished or added to as suited the taste or imagination of the Lecturer” (p. 6). As long as the Black associations were small, powerless and split they could not set up an effective governing structure that could oversee organisation, the working of the degrees and internal discipline.
Trying to establish exact beginnings for any of the early Black associations or ruling structures is therefore no easy task, and no more certain, than trying to ascertain a definite date for the formation of the Black Institution. Royal Black and Knights of Malta historians are at such variance, and so lacking in reliable data to verify their assertions, that we are left wondering how much of their information is factual and trust-worthy, and how much is mere speculation. It is decidedly hard to find two older Black historians who agree. Even Masonic historians who sometimes touch the subject are very inconsistent and devoid of concrete material. Good credible evidence on the early years is thus hard to acquire.
The earliest claims for a governing Black body come from Aiken McClelland in his short history of the Black Institution written in 1968. McClelland was not a Blackman, but was a Mason and an Orangeman. He states: “A Grand Black Orange Lodge was founded in 1802 and existed to 1814, while the Royal Britannic Association of Knights of Israel was in existence before 1810” (Origins of the Imperial Grand Black Chapter of the British Commonwealth).
McClelland seems to stand alone in advancing these early dates of 1802 for the Black and 1810 for the Britannic. He supports his belief by testifying of having seen two military warrants dated 18th September 1808, the latter one indicating that a Thomas Currins was installed Black Knight of the Most Holy Order of the Orange. However he presents no documentation that verifies his two dates. We can only surmise from the certificate he mentions that there was a functioning Grand Black in existence at this time, but it is more likely that there were some small unwarranted groupings of Blackmen, although lacking in any real leadership. McClelland fails to prove his case, leaving us the task of filling in the many gaps in his thesis.
The next earliest claim to a Grand Black comes in a Knights of Malta communiqué to its members written on 11th April 1850, which claimed: “It is a notorious fact that, in the beginning of the present century, there was not a Black Warrant working in Ireland, but the system was irregularly communicated under the warrants of another association.” Unfortunately it does not make clear what this association was. We can only imagine it is referring to either the Masonic Lodge or the Orange Order. Whichever it is, it must have been irregular as neither of these two organisations accepted the higher degrees at this time.
The article continues, “About the year 1807, some brethren in Dublin assembled, and proclaimed themselves to be ‘the Grand Lodge of Ireland’.” The evidence for this belief is said to come from one older Black Knight, although nothing else of substance is forwarded or corroborated. The Knight in question is not identified nor (once again) do we have any other material to support the claim. We should be forgiven for being cynical of this non-corroborative information, but allowing for the quality of the evidence pertaining to this period such scepticism is probably justified. We should remember that this publication came at a time of great rivalry between the Knights of Malta and the recently formed Grand Black Chapter, when both were vying to be the most ancient. This may explain this isolated assertion.
T. H Gilmour makes a passing reference to this date, citing the internal 1850 document as support, in his later history written on the subject by the same organisation in 1902. In his history of the Scottish Knights of Malta (aptly called Knights of Malta: Ancient and Modern) he provides evidence of the existence of a body calling itself the Grand Black Order of Orangemen in 1814. He documents a certificate belonging to the order dated 30th August 1814. However, he makes no allusion to the dates presented by McClelland or any other previous date.
Widely accepted as one of the most informed historians the Grand Black have ever had (and its first Grand Registrar) Edward Rodgers seems to have been unaware of this earlier document belonging to the Grand Black Order of Orangemen when he wrote his history of the Black. He suggests a later beginning of 1820.
Rodgers tells us that “In the year 1819 the District of Armagh determined that they would hold meetings composed of Knights of the different Orders on the 1st day of January and the 1st day of July in each year, 1820.” Rodgers contends that “This is the most important era in the history of the Black Order.” He continues, “From this date the Institution stands independent and wholly apart from the authority of the Orange Institution, from the repeated and virulent attacks made on it by the Officers of that body, measures were adopted to place the Society under some sort of government of its own, accordingly a meeting took place in Dublin and a Grand Lodge was formed.” This, he said, gave the Black Association the authority to issue warrants and “propagate its mysteries independent of any other Association.”
Looking at these different historians, Gilmour’s evidence is by far the most compelling, although the certificate he furnishes the reader with does not pride itself in being the first Black one issued. Sadly McClelland fails to give us any proof that there was a ruling Grand Chapter governing the Black prior to 1814. We must therefore settle with 1814 being the first supported date for a Grand Black Chapter. Whilst Rodgers does present evidence of the existence of a Grand Black Order in 1820, he seems to overstate the importance of this date. He basically alleges that this is the first Grand Black. Unfortunately, proceeding Loyal Orders historians have tended to repeat his deduction ever since. Where he is on stronger ground is in his conviction that 1820 is the year where the Black finally disengaged from the Orange Order in name. And there was a powerful reason for that important development, as we shall see.
The warrant which Rodgers bases his conclusion on is the one we previously made reference to, which made the first known allusion to a 1797 formation date – but issued in 1820. In his introduction to this document in his history of the Black, he says it refers to the inception of the Grand Black Order of Orangemen. However, from Gilmour’s evidence, we know that this same body existing in 1814. We cannot be certain that this was the founding date of this particular Grand Black. Also, the 1820 certificate he presents describes the organisation as “The Magnanimous and Invincible Order of Royal Blackmens Association.”
Interestingly, we find the same organisation issuing warrants under the title Royal Black Association three years later. Some of the office-bearers are the same and it appears this became an accepted designation for the Black for some years to come. There is all likelihood that the Grand Black Order of Orangemen title evolved into the title Royal Black Association because of ardent Orange opposition. After all, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland had just released a strong censure in 1820 forbidding any association with the Royal Black. In fact, Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland set up a committee to look into the many and various ritualistic additions that some were trying to foist upon Orangeism in the form of the Royal Arch Purple and the Royal Black procedures.
On 22nd January 1820 it reported, saying: “The Committee, from several circumstances arising out of the present enquiry are led to observe, that various and jarring forms of admission and initiation have found their way into different Lodges, together with ceremonies, &c., not only unknown to the original simplicity of the Institution, but in many cases repugnant to common sense, to the religious feelings of many, most worthy, Brethren, and even to common decency. In order to guard against the future recurrence of this crying evil, the Committee have thought fit to institute a form of admission and initiation which they consider fully adequate to the end in view, and which to be to combine with due brevity a proper degree of the Solemnity, so necessary to be observed, at the important moment of a man’s dedicating himself by a voluntary Obligation, taken in the face of his Brethren, to the zealous discharge of his duties as a loyal Protestant.”
It concluded, “In making the change required it has been their study to keep in view and to restore the sublime simplicity of the original Orange Institution; and to keep as widely as possible from approaching – (in the only thing in our Institution which can be classed under the Head or denomination of ‘Mystery’ viz. those Signs & c., whereby we are to guard ourselves and our Association against the danger of hostile intrusion) the system of other recognised Associations.”
This communiqué appeared to mark the end of any reference to the Orange in the Black titles. From here on, the Black would officially stand separate from any connection with the Orange, regardless of how one-sided this love affair may have been. Whilst there were certainly a percentage of Orangemen that gave their allegiance to the Black, from an Orange Order perspective, there never was a formal connection. This 1820 Grand Lodge censure was the last thing the Black needed in its fragile early state. Orangemen were openly warned against associating with this ritualistic body with the threat of severe repercussions. This certainly did not enhance its standing or progress.
The strong warnings and active repression of the ritualists seemed to be successful. The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland statement of 6th February 1822, testified, “The Grand Lodge have to state, with great satisfaction, that those disagreements which unfortunately took place in the Order on the change of 1820 are subsiding apace; and the number of Lodges which decline acting under the improved system are reduced to a very few.”
As for McClelland’s concluding claims about the Britannic, he does not provide the reader with any facts to support his conviction. Moreover, we cannot find backing for his dates from any other reliable historian or from any early document. There is a claim of an earlier beginning for the Britannic Association from Rev James Harris (who professed to be Grand Chaplain of the Britannic Society) in 1835, when he spoke to a House of Commons Select Committee Enquiry into secret societies. However, this is a sweeping statement that is left totally unsupported. He alleged of the Britannic Society: “I would say it is an older society than Orangeism, but has been but lately revived.”
Harris contradicted himself so often in the enquiry that he is probably the least dependable of all the Loyal Orders spokesmen. Firstly, Harris admitted he had only attended a couple of meetings since he joined a year previously. He can hardly therefore be viewed as an established Black authority. Secondly, he was even shown to be ill-informed about his own position, claiming to be a Grand Chaplain of the Order after less than a year as a member, when in fact the position did not even exist.
The Enquiry later learned that a Grand Lodge did not even exist at the time of his testimony. His colleague and fellow interviewee, Mr. Chetwoode, who actually recruited him into the Order, denied that the office ever existed, saying, “There cannot be a Grand Chaplain for there is no Grand Lodge.” Harris (along with his colleague), who had been previously expelled from the Orange Order, was unable to provide any proof for his historic belief. It would plainly be unwise to build an authoritative conclusion on such a poor informant.
T. H Gilmour adds a further appendage to his thoughts on the development of the early Black bodies: “We have the ‘Grand Black Lodge of Orangemen’ in 1814, the ‘Loyal Orange Association (new system)’ in 1816, and we have positive proof of the existence of the second Grand Lodge (the one instituted in 1643) in 1822, when they issued Warrant No. 16.”
Whilst we have already considered the first date in this quotation, from a first glance the second would seem to relate to the Orange Order. However, when we dig further we discover it is actually referring to a Black grouping. The certificate from which he gleans his belief lists several Black degrees and is dated 12th June 1816. It was issued to a Black Lodge in County Monaghan. As we have previously shown, Gilmour seems more informed on this subject than most, supporting most of his contentions by hard evidence. The only exception is his wild claim that a Black group was instituted in 1643. This was clearly an effort to show the supposed Protestant roots for this Templar Order. Not surprisingly, he does not corroborate that crazy assertion.
The last reference to 1822 would seem to match the believed date for the formation of the Grand Britannic Association in England. Speaking of its origins this Association stated in its yearly report in 1931 that it became “in the year 1822, a distinctive and independent organisation.” The Arch Purple’s History of the Royal Arch Purple Order supports this contention, saying: “In the year 1822, a group in Manchester preferred to establish their own Grand Black Lodge adopting the name of the ‘Grand Britannic Association’.”
There is evidence of the Royal Black operating in Scotland at a date just prior to the English Black. Gilmour describes a certificate in his possession headed the “Royal Black Association” and dated 2nd March 1821. This appears to be the same organisation that is situated in Ireland in 1820, the title of which, we have seen, most likely mutated from the Grand Black Order of Orangemen. In this document the new member was notably dubbed “a Royal Arch Black Knight Templar.” Being a Blackman was evidently synonymous with being a Masonic Templar.
Scottish Blackman David Bryce gives us another piece of evidence relating to a slightly different entitled Order. He informs us that “A Loyal Black Association Lodge No. 24” is on record as having “met in King William’s Tavern, 119 Gallowgate, Glasgow on February 1828” (A History of the Royal Black in Scotland p. 1). It is not clear whether the prefixes “Royal” and “Loyal” in front of “Black Association” were interchangeable in that day and referred to the same institution or whether we are looking at two completely different Scottish Black orders. From later evidence it would suggest we are looking at a further Black Order.
We have another designation on a military certificate originating in Scotland a few years later dated 1st August 1829. It is mentioned by Gilmour who claims to have possession of it. It is entitled: “Royal Black Lodge, Honourable Protestant Association.” In the body of the certificate the organisation is further described as “the Magnificent and Invincible Order of Royal Black Lodge Association.” This appears to be another schism within the Black family. The evidence for this we will consider in a moment. The most interesting thing about this parchment is that it contains the first reference to a “Grand Black Lodge of Scotland.”
The History of the Royal Arch Purple Order makes reference to the Loyal Black Association, stating: “In Scotland a Loyal Black Association was formed in 1831 and began to issue warrants to Ireland in the absence of any effective authority there.” Firstly, the Arch Purple Chapter is evidently speaking of the period between 1836 and 1846 when secret societies were forbidden in Ireland. Secondly, the Arch Purple is evidently unaware of the historic proof that the said order was actively operating in 1828. Thirdly, it could not be referring to the formation of the Royal Black Association which we have seen was working in Scotland in 1821. Fourthly, the only event that other historians have highlighted of that year is the formation of the Grand Black of the Royal Black Association.
A warrant exists relating to 24th June 1831 under the name “Royal Black Association” testifying of the inception of a Grand Black Chapter. It records, “We, the Grand Masters and Officers of the Grand Black Assembly of Scotland, &c., held in Glasgow, do hereby authorise and empower our well beloved brother, Sir George Donaldson, to establish a lodge of true and worthy Black men, and to act as Grand Master thereof.”
This certainly proves that the Royal Black Lodge, Honourable Protestant Association and the Royal Black Association were two separate entities, as the former already had a working Grand Lodge two years previous in 1829. This is clear proof of the instigation of a second Grand Black in Scotland at the time. We can find no actual evidence that the previously cited Loyal Black Association had a Grand Black Lodge during this period. That is not to say it did not. We cannot dismiss the possibility that there were three competing Scottish Grand Black Chapters at the same time.
Blackman and Former Grand Secretary of the Orange Order in Scotland David Bryce writes in A History of the Royal Black in Scotland of the Knights of Malta: “George Donaldson, the first Grand Master, emigrated to Canada in 1840 taking warrant number 2 with him and opened a Preceptory in Montreal. The expansion was such that in the next decade three Provincial Grand Lodges were operating in British North America that grew into a kingdom warrant embracing the USA” (p. 5).
We can see from this that Donaldson was indeed the leading figure in the Knights of Malta at this time – the organisation he exported to Canada. Whilst there is no mention of the name ‘Knights of Malta’ in the 1831 Scottish Black certificate, it seems like the Scottish Royal Black Association had a name change and evolved into the autonomous “Protestant” Knights of Malta during the 1830s. The fact that Donaldson is listed as Grand Master of both during this time of development reinforces that thought. Bryce adds: “it was to the Knights Templar of the crusades that a group of Orangemen looked in 1831 when they founded their own organisation to cater for the higher degrees” (p. 2). Bryce seems to overlook the fact that the Royal Black Association was functioning in Scotland in 1821, although he may have meant to refer to the formation of a ruling authority for the order.
Edward Rodgers did not seem to be aware of the existence of a Black grouping in Scotland at this time. He contends, speaking of the Knights of Malta which also expressed itself illustriously as the Parent G.B. Lodge of the Universe, “For the existence of this or any similar Society in Scotland previous to the year 1835 we have looked in vain.” Whilst Rogers is partially correct in that this is the first we hear anything of the Knights of Malta, he overlooks sound evidence indicating the existence of a Black organisation in Scotland prior to 1835 under a previous designation. The creation of the Knights of Malta would become a major development in the history of the Black story. The next 10 years would see them come to the centre of the Black stage.
The online Phoenix Masonry Masonic Museum tells us: “By the 1830’s, these different so-called Black degrees were being coordinated by bodies such as the ‘Royal Black Association of Ireland’, the ‘Grand Black Order of Orangemen’ and the ‘Magnanimous and Invincible Order of Blackmen’. There was also a Scottish order variously called the ‘Loyal Black Association of Scotland’, the ‘Imperial Grand Lodge of Knights of Malta and Parent Black Lodge of the Universe’, and the ‘Imperial Grand Encampment of the Universe and Grand Black Lodge of Scotland and the most Ancient Illustrious and Military Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem’. This group began to issue Irish warrants in 1834 and in 1844 it formed a Grand Priory of Ireland. As their names suggest these ‘Black’ organizations were modelled upon the older chivalric orders, and more directly upon the chivalric orders found within the Freemasons.”
It is therefore clear, that as had been the case from its inception, the Black movement was totally disjointed and could boast of no individual central cohesive body during the 1830s. This was probably the main reason why it struggled to grow in popularity. Whilst these different names may sound impressive they certainly did not allude to large, influential orders. Quite the opposite was true, for they were small insignificant groupings vying for pre-eminence. Even the strongest Black associations did not seem to carry influence over more than a handful of Black Lodges. The different Black bodies simply represented the division that existed within the movement. The overall Black family did not seem to realise its potential for growth or influence during this dysfunctional period. In fact, the Black sway did not seem to hold or expand in any significant way. Through most of its early life the Black Institution failed to gain an accepted place within the Orange family.
Several key Orange and Black leaders were called as witnesses by the House of Commons Select Committee Enquiry into political societies in Ireland in 1835. This tribunal, which was set up by the Prime Minister to gauge the potential harm secret fraternities were having upon society in Ireland at the time, provides us with some valuable material on the strength of the Black at that time. Senior Orangemen Lieutenant-Colonel Verner, the Grand Secretary, Stewart Blacker, and the Grand Chaplain Rev. Mortimer O’Sullivan, were selected to give evidence on behalf of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. They were all questioned as to the popularity of the Black Lodges. Their responses give us an idea of the prominence of the Black.
Speaking of the number of Black Lodges, Mr Verner said that he knew of “none.” Rev. Mortimer O’Sullivan responded, “I know of one which existed, but only one.” Mr Blacker when questioned on the same matter said, “I have heard of only two or three … I have heard of one in Dublin, I have heard of one or two in the North, but I cannot state the locality.” Even if we allow for the secretive nature of the Black, and any understatements, it is clear from these well-positioned Orange witnesses that the Black influence in Ireland was minor.
The English Black (the Royal Britannic Association) spokesmen to the same tribunal Rev James Harris and C.E. Chetwoode, reinforce the idea that the Black was also quite insignificant in Great Britain at this time. Harris who admitted in his interviews: “I belong to the society of Freemasons,” was pressed as to the number of Britannic lodges. He replied, “I know of none but at Portsmouth.” His fellow C.E. Chetwoode was asked whether there are “any lodges in the country belonging to this society?” To which he replied, “Yes, if they may be called lodges … I think there is one at Manchester.”
From the aforementioned Parliamentary witnesses (and others), within and without the Black Institution, we get a real sense of the pitiful state of the Black movement at this time. It seemed there was rather a small number of known working Black Lodges with at best small memberships. The poor condition of the Black movement at this time must primarily have been a result of the vigorous opposition of the respective Grand Orange Lodges throughout the United Kingdom. The Orange Order faced down the Black influence and by its rules repudiated anything other than its own two simple non-ritualistic degrees. The disorganised state of the Royal Black and the constant infighting certainly added to its impoverished state. Clearly the Black struggled to establish itself during its opening 50 years.
This governmental probe resulted in the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell deciding in 1836 that a humble address should be presented to his Majesty, “praying that he would be graciously pleased to take such measures, as his Majesty might deem desirable for the effectual discouragement of Orange Lodges, and, generally, all political societies, excluding persons of different religions, and using secret signs and symbols, and acting by means of associated branches.”
Black historian Rodgers explains, speaking of a ruling Grand Black in Ireland, “For the space of nearly 10 years there is no documentary evidence of its existence, save the occasional and isolated meetings of a few.” Rodgers here could only be speaking of the Irish Black, as the recently named rival Black in Scotland – the Knights of Malta – continued on, increasing in power and influence.
Royal Black writer Ryan McDowell says of this period, “The abdication of leadership by the Grand Lodges of Great Britain and Ireland in 1836 left the loyal orders in a state of flux and prone to fragmentation. The Black Order suffered from this to an even greater degree.”
Black author David Bryce comments of the Black in Scotland: “As the only Grand Lodge unaffected by the events of 1836 it provided a bridging and role model for Orange and Black Lodges throughout the British Isles and Commonwealth. In 1842 a Grand Black Orange Lodge of Ireland was constituted in County Down taking its orders from Scotland” (A History of the Royal Black in Scotland p. 3).
Leading Irish Blackman Edward Rodgers is understandably not overly complementary of the arrival of a competing Grand Black to Ireland, saying: “to complete the tragedy a Grand Black or Orange Lodge of Ireland was constituted in 1842 in Co Down to which place it was chiefly confined.” There is also a Black certificate in existence issued to a Black group in Clough, County Down, relating to 1843 that is authorised by an organisation called the “Royal Arch Purple, Blue & Black Association.” It is difficult to know whether this was another schism or whether it was an off-shoot of the newly-formed Scottish Black.
Aiken McClelland in his short history of the Black Institution, alleges, “In 1844 a Grand Prior of Ireland was formed, in order to allay discontent among Irish members who felt that they were neglected by their Scottish brethren. But this action came too late to overcome the desire for independence” (p. 193).
The History of the Royal Arch Purple Order book suggests: “In Ireland there were three separate bodies each claiming to be the Grand Black Orange Lodge. One operated in Armagh, Tyrone and Lagan Valley, one in Co. Down centred on the Saintfield area and there still remained the remnants of the Old Black Grand Lodge in Dublin. This is neatly illustrated by the three No. 2 Black Warrants, one operating in Killyman, Co. Tyrone, one in Clough, Co Down and yet another in Dublin.” It thus concluded, “It must have seemed an impossible task to bring all the strands under one authority.”
Edward Rodgers suggests that the Scottish Black (the Knights of Malta) had expanded its influence to England by 1845. He describes the existence of a warrant dated 24th March 1845 under the authority of the “Grand General Counsel of the Most Noble Order of the Knights of Malta.” This Black order was based in Bradford. This is interesting as the Grand Britannic Institution continued to operate at this time at its headquarters in Manchester – although it was also quite small in size. Rodgers testifies that both of these Black organisations were working the “Popish degrees” of ‘Apron’, ‘Sword and Star’, ‘Star & Garter’, Link & Chain’, ‘Knights Templar’, and ‘Mediterranean pass’. Notwithstanding, the Knights of Malta Order had now spread its influence into both Ireland and England, albeit in a minor way.
The turning point for Black fortunes in Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom and even the Commonwealth came with the formation of the Grand Black Chapter. Another Black historian and leading Royal Arch Purpleman Cecil Kilpatrick succinctly says of this event: “The period of chaos was nearing its end” (from Black, Scarlet, Blue, Royal Arch Purple or any other colour). Edward Rodgers stated of this development, “In this lamentable state of things, Br George Whitten of No. 1 Tandragee and members of No 8 Armagh convened a public or general meeting of all Black brethren in Portadown on Monday 14th September 1846 for the purpose of amalgamating all differences and forming one Grand Head from which all should hold their authority and to which all appeals should be made.” These analyses reflect how low a state to which the Black cause had sunk.
On 1st March 1847 the Grand Black Chapter was able to announce that it had brought together the three main elements of the Black movement in Ireland and England – (1) the Royal Black, (2) the Britannic and (3) the Knights of Malta. The Scottish Blackmen, with their independent Knights of Malta Grand Chapter, remained more or less outside of the fold at this time. Notwithstanding, the vast majority of the Irish Black lodges that had given their allegiance to the Scottish Black swiftly transferred it to the newly formed Grand body. Whilst there were some exceptions that would not submit to this new authority – particularly some Knights of Malta elements in Dublin and Britannic elements in Manchester and Liverpool – the new authority succeeded in bringing a significant degree of unity to the Black family throughout the British Isles. Edward Rogers tells us, “The motto Tria Juncta in uno descriptive of the Union was adopted” – meaning three joined in one.
It was not until the Grand Black Chapter was formed that there came any semblance of stability and unity. From this occurrence the Institution seemed to receive an infusion of life which gave it a greater sense of confidence and therefore permanency. By it the organisation received the much-needed leadership it evidently lacked. This eventually precipitated the expansion of the Black into the different Empire countries where Orangeism had already gained a strong footing.
A circular from the new Grand Chapter stated: “For the purpose of amalgamating the differences, and concentrating the forces and sinews of the three contending parties, each bearing the name of grand lodge. Never was there manifested a greater unanimity of purpose; all gave way to the proper feeling, that there should be but one head, one mind, and one ruling power, to which all should refer for counsel and protection. The association now stands a noble and imposing edifice, complete in every point of ancient architecture and magnificence … Thus the finishing hand has been laid to the work, and it now remains with all parties bearing that name and dignity to come forward immediately, and enrol themselves under the colours that body has unfurled for the protection of such as may avail themselves of the many privileges now presented to them, and the advantages arising therefrom.”
This new grouping made an announcement designed to stir the ailing organisation. It declared, “Certain members of the Royal Black Association finding that from the want of prudent counsel and judicious measures, the internal machinery of the Institution has, of late, fallen into a state of inutility and confusion (far from the spirit of its original intention), have fearlessly come forward and taken that stand and responsibility (which the late Grand Black Lodge so basely deserted) for the purpose of rescuing the brand from the fire, and placing it in a position, which under God, may be a light to the uninstructed, and a source of information to those that walk in darkness.”
It went on, “It should then be a source of gratification to every branch of the true vine to find, even in these days of tergiversation and backsliding, that there exists a faithful few – a vivid spark to rekindle the too neglected fire of our great and glorious Institution, a system as old as it is good.” Under its rules and Regulations, it affirmed, speaking of the setting up of the order: “It is calculated to instruct and inform those who are desirous of obtaining a knowledge of divine truth and sublime mysteries.”
What precipitated the formation of this new Grand Black? Aiken McClelland probably hits the nail on the head, when he says, “There can be little doubt that the reason for the amalgamation was the reconstitution of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in 1846, and the fear that the new Grand Lodge would succeed in crushing smaller bodies, but would find a larger body a more difficult proposition.”
Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland had succeeded for nearly fifty years in keeping the Black suppressed. This is evidenced by its slow growth, its disorganised state, and its insignificant influence. For the Black to expand, it had to bring its resources together and be more proactive in its message. Orangeism was its target group, and this was certainly fertile ground to obtain new members. Orangemen were already accustomed to the lodge arrangement, secrecy and the unusual way of teaching that exists within secret societies. With a little persuasion the Black could take advantage of this prepared ground. And they did.
Bit by bit the fragmented Black movement was beginning to come together. Ryan McDowell suggests of the Britannic, “The Grand Britannic Association, sometimes referred to as the English Black, which was mainly based in Lancashire and Yorkshire was greatly impressed by the unification of the Order in Ireland and in 1848 began to exchange Old English Britannic Warrants for new Irish Warrants. After the Manchester No.1 Warrant was exchanged in 1848, the rest of the Association quickly followed, bringing what had formerly been the Grand Britannic Association under the jurisdiction of the Grand Black Chapter of Ireland” (August 2005 Annual Demonstration Booklet of City of Belfast Grand Black Chapter).
It took about 15 years to tie up some of the loose ends and bring some hesitant elements under the larger Black umbrella. On 17th September 1851 two more Britannic warrants were replaced in Liverpool by Black warrants. On 18th April 1856 No 1 Black Knights of Malta in Dublin surrendered their warrants and accepted warrants and authority from the newly formed Grand Black Chapter. On 27th May 1859 the Grand Black Chapter received a letter from Sir John Acheson of Glasgow recommending the union of the Lanarkshire Knights of Malta membership and the Grand Black Chapter. After ironing out some difficulties, a new Provincial Grand Black was set up in Scotland on 3rd December 1860.
Scottish Black author David Bryce says: “By 75 the Knights of Malta in North America (Canada and the USA) had grown to such an extent that they were given autonomy … but that quarter sowed a seed that brought disaster to the parent body. Their qualification for membership dropped the requirement of belonging to the Orange Institution. It was not long before some in Scotland forgot their roots too” (A History of the Royal Black in Scotland p. 3). The Scottish Knights of Malta in Scotland also eventually amended their rules in regards to Orange membership, so that you did not need to be in one to be in the other.
T.H. Gilmour is very frank about the cost of this internal change in his history of the “Protestant” Knights of Malta, admitting, “In plain English our members went by hundreds to the Black Chapter (which with all its faults still maintains its connection with the Orange Institution), hundreds more simply allowed their membership to lapse and have never since entered a Black Encampment.”
The unified Grand Black Chapter was now beginning to take the pre-eminent position in Scotland after it had been held by the Knights of Malta for several decades. Bryce adds, “In three years the Imperial Black Encampment [speaking of the Scottish Knights of Malta] lost over fifty percent of its Preceptories. The Grand Black Chapter of Ireland was the beneficiary. Its foothold in Scotland was soon transformed from 11 warrants it held prior to the Knights of Malta loosening of the Orange connection”
Despite the establishment of a Grand Black, Black historian Rev John Brown explained, “From certain evidence, the Institution was still in some difficulties” (p. 8). He was probably speaking of the continued and unwavering opposition of the respective Orange Grand Lodges throughout the United Kingdom. Under their Constitution and Rules, they remained vehemently against any advance of the ritualistic Black cause. On top of this, the formation of the Grand Chapter, rather than eliminating the division within the Black family, actually fuelled it. This can especially be seen in the aggressive encounters between the Royal Black Institution and the Scottish Knights of Malta.
The internal fight within the Black
The instigation of the Grand Chapter provoked a hostile response from the Scottish Knights which continued hot and heavy for the next sixty years. Between 1847 and the early 1900s we have explosive accounts of each side vilifying the other. Even to this day, there is no real harmony between these two bodies, as they belong to separate Orange bodies.
Not surprisingly the Scottish Knights of Malta were not enamoured with the creation of the newly constituted Irish Grand Black Chapter. In 1850 it forcefully slated it, charging it with altering and adding to the original Black degrees. In stylish language it dismissed the new structure as being bogus. It said, “The hand upraised in defence has descended to stab the dagger under the fifth rib. Every virtuous man will cry ‘shame’, when such discreditable artifices are used to prop up a tottering edifice … The epithet ‘spurious’ has been applied to us, but anon we shall see that it is vice versa and how successfully the battery can be turned. Does this haste to stigmatize us proceed from a consciousness of internal error? … The rod which Solomon the Wise instructs to be applied to the ‘fool’s back’ is to effect reform.”
The Scots lamented: “New lecturers have been promulgated: surely the initiated will observe the glaring departure from the original and immutable landmarks of the Order. If it be permitted to lengthen and shorten it, as a tailor would a garment, soon will the ‘Chapter’s’ Order be ‘Like the chameleon, who is known to have no colour of his own, borrows from his neighbour’s hue, his white or black, his green or blue’ … We mourn for it, because that, like a planet receding more and more from the centre, it only emits that flickering, gloomy light, which abounds more with froward phantoms than Egyptian darkness.”
On 24th June 1856 the Knights of Malta met under the grand name of the Knights of the Exalted Royal Grand Black Order of Malta. It reaffirmed its ancient heritage back to the Crusades and claimed direct lineage to the Roman Catholic Knights of Malta. It cautioned: “We the Sir Knights Companions of the above-mentioned Grand Black Lodge of Scotland warn and apprize all those whom this may concern, to recognise no Assembly or Association of Men in the British Realm calling themselves the Grand Black Chapter or the Grand Black Lodge of Knights of Malta.” This statement must have appeared quite brazen to the newly constituted Grand Black Chapter. After all, it had a more established heritage than the Scottish Blackmen, who, it seems, only became structured in the mid 1830s.
Edward Rodgers (Grand Registrar of the Grand Black Chapter) in an impassioned response recorded in his History of the Royal Black Institution (25th Nov 1857), denounced the ruling Scottish Knights as being “a Grand Lodge composed of men of the lowest grades in society.” He said that these men, who “were easily gulled, formed themselves into a body corporate under the forgoing title, with power to issue Warrants throughout Christendom, confer Degrees innumerable, of every shade and colour.” He crudely described these degrees as “Popish Degrees.” He further charged, “With the principles held by the ‘Knights of Malta’, and professed by these mendicant pilgrims of Glasgow we have no sympathy. Their deeds and reputation as well as their religious professions we entirely repudiate.” He said, they were “unlettered impostors” with “knavish pretensions,” and concluded that these “errant Knights of Glasgow … have been led astray … acting under false ideas.”
This is strong language by any standard. However, it was reflective of the hostility existing between the two main Black bodies – particularly since 1846 when the Irish Black reorganised.
The Knights of Malta lodges in Ireland which refused to acknowledge the new Grand Black Chapter consisted of only a few Dublin lodges. The influence they carried seemed quite minimal. In 1905 the Irish Knights of Malta joined itself to the Independent Loyal Orange Institution and in the same way that the Royal Black Institution sits in relation to the Orange Order. Today, it remains the senior order of the Independents. The History of the Royal Arch Purple Order book explains, “By 1905, the Irish Encampment had formed their own Supreme Encampment and had found allies in the break away body The Independent Loyal Orange Institution formed in 1903.” Aiken McClelland says, “The only organisation which objected to the control of the new body (speaking about the new Grand Black Chapter in 1846) was the Dublin based remnant of the Knights of Malta, which lingered on in a few places until the beginning of this century, when it got a new lease of life by attracting members of the Independent Orange Order.”
The disagreement is seen still to be festering in 1948 when the Knights of Malta under the grand title of Supreme Grand Encampment of Ireland issued another attack on the Grand Black Chapter, affirming: “Those who have seen the secret work of both know that beyond all question the ritual and degrees of the ‘Black Chapter’ are simply imitations of the ‘Knights of Malta’, for it cannot be that the older is an imitation of the younger, such being an impossibility and naturally historically false.” If this statement has the ring of truth about it, the question then arises: But where did the Knights of Malta and their rituals come from?
There has been a passionate internal debate within the Black family over the years as to the real origins of the Black system, and as to which Black order is the older between the Royal Black Institution and the Scottish “Protestant” Knights of Malta. At times the debate has been intense and heated resulting in some fantastic claims being made by either party. While the issue may have been important to the bodies involved, it is largely superfluous to most outside. The reality is there is little evidence to prove either position. History at best is vague on the matter. Those that could have helped us settle the issue are long in the grave.
The 18th century saw a general proliferation of such secret fraternities, all sharing the same or similar oral legends, elaborate ritualism, and esoteric symbolism. There was a great deal of laissez-faire plagiarism, and therefore much admixture from various sources. The “ritualistic imagination” was certainly active.
Like all secret societies, the roots of these Black associations are shrouded in mystery. Many of these orders simply evolved into what they became from other existing bodies and their ritualistic ideas. It is therefore difficult to pin down the exact birth of many of these esoteric fraternities. Both the Black and the Knights of Malta purport to have more ancient credentials, although, much of their evidence does not derive from actual historic facts, but from later statements made by men within these respective orders. This disagreement has most likely emanated more from a competitive rivalry amongst progeny rather than a dispute about any alleged parentage. Whilst one sibling may be slightly older than the other they both emanated out of the same fraternal mother – higher degree Freemasonry. The rivalry between the two is more akin to two twin brothers fighting over the family heir-ship. It seems as if this disagreement is less about which one is the child and which is the mother than which one is the older of the two twins.
The external battle with the Orange Grand Lodge
Returning to the position of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in relation to the new arrangement, we discover that its opposition to the Black had not in any way diminished. The Orange authorities were quick to release a warning admonishing its members to accept no degree or association but that pertaining to the Orange Order. In 1849, every Orangeman was required not to “admit or assist at the admission of any member into any other order purporting to be part of the Orange System, than the Orange and Purple, which are the only Orders recognised by the Rules of the Orange Institution.” We should make clear, Purple here refers to the second degree of the Orange Order, not the separate Royal Arch Purple.
Even though the Black did not claim attachment to the Orange Order, it cleverly connected itself to the Orange system by recruiting its members exclusively from the Orange Order. This would be an ongoing problem. The formation of the Grand Black Chapter created much unease within the ranks of Grand Lodge. Opinion was split on how best to deal with it. Some wanted it publicly faced down whilst most felt that the stringent rules of the Ora
nge Institution were sufficient to dissuade Orangemen from joining.
On 4th December 1862 Grand Lodge released a strong censure to its members, affirming: “It having appeared to the Grand Lodge, from some facts recently before it, that the interests and welfare of the Orange Institution, and its effectual working for the objects for which it has been established, are seriously handicapped and endangered by any Lodge or members becoming connected with an Association styled the Grand Black Chapter, this Grand Lodge declares, that, any connection with any association is contrary to the true spirit of the Orange Institution. Therefore the Grand Lodge of Ireland hereby cautions all members of the Orange Institution against becoming or continuing to be in any way identified with that Association.”
There was clearly no softening within the Orange on its view of the Black, but it was now dealing with a better organised and more formidable enemy since the formation of the new ruling Grand Black Chapter.
On 31st March 1863 at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland held in Newry, the Grand Master of the Orange Order, the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen, was to lock horns with the Grand Master of the Black William Johnston in relation to the development of the Black Institution. Johnston recorded this encounter in his diary: “Lord E came down to try and extinguish the Black. The result was a promise, on my part, to have a preparation ready for May, totally separating the two Institutions in appearance, and an expression of complete satisfaction on his part.”
This revealed the internal unease within the higher echelons on the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. Whilst the ritualists and Masons amongst the Orangemen were being increasingly attracted to the Black with its elaborate rites, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland itself remained strongly antagonistic.
In 1878 leading members of the Grand Orange Lodge of England initiated the largest gauge of senior Orange opinion on the subject of the higher orders. An opinion poll was conducted amongst the most prominent and influential Orangemen in the British Isles and was intended to assess their position on the ritualistic encroachments that were pressing in on Orangeism. The sentiments of these leading Orange respondents were 100% hostile to both the Royal Arch Purple and Black degrees. This illustrates the difficulties the Grand Black Chapter faced throughout the 19th century to maintain its reputation and secure its survival.
Lord Enniskillen, in his capacity as Imperial Grand Master of the Grand Orange Council, stated: “I have been an Orangeman since 1832 or 33, and during that time I have never had anything to do with it or any other Order beyond the Orange and the Purple, agreeably with the standing rules of the Grand Lodge of Ireland; and I never have, nor never will sign any certificate that contains anything beyond those two colours. I strongly recommend every Orangeman keep clear of all the numerous and ridiculous innovations” (9th January 1878).
On 4th January 1878 William J. Gwynn Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland represented the position of the Orange Order in Ireland to an Orange enquiry into the higher degrees in England. He contended: “I view … all fantastic tomfooleries of Arch-Purple, Black, Scarlet, Green and the like as but unauthorized inventions of self-sufficient spirits loving to have the pre-eminence, and to draw disciples after them … there are many who, violating its real principle, unite themselves with those schismatics who by thus dividing are the very worst enemies of the Orange body.”
George Kershaw of the Orange Institution in England declared, “I look upon all such innovations as the Black, the Blue, the Red, Green, White &c., as unworthy of the acceptance of Protestants and the most certain way to bring the society down to the level of the Red Republican of 1793 or the Fenian Firebrand of 1865. I do not speak without reason, but can avouch all I have stated. I consider our Orange Fraternity as formed for the special protection of Protestantism as opposed to Paganism wherever found, whether in the form of Babylonish rite and heathen mysteries of the followers of Nimrod, Bacchus, and Semiramis, or the Saturnalia of Pio Nono and the Whore of Rome, both having the same source and paternal derivation; but to take our stand on the Infallible Rock we contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, and as such we must root out from our midst this pollution, and have done with the chamber of imagery and witchcraft. Let us then put on the whole armour, standing shoulder to shoulder, for the truth, looking to our one Master, and shouting, ‘The sword of the Lord and of Gideon’ ” (26th January 1878).
T.B.Hill, Past Provincial Grand Master, England affirmed: “I have known much injury done to the cause by members of the high orders. The men (I cannot call them Brothers) who volunteered to divulge the secrets of the Society to O’Connell, in order to assist him in his attacks upon the order were prominent members of the Black Order” (23rd January 1878).
W.H. Torriano, Grand Secretary of the late Orange Association Great Britain explained: “I never administered and never would be party to seeing or administering the so-called Royal Arch Purple. I have always considered all the various forms of this Order and all the imitations of the other so-called high Orders, a system of disgusting buffoonery, unworthy of men, gentlemen, and Christians, contrary to the Orange laws and by their oaths contrary to the laws of the land” (21st January 1878).
Chas A. Reeks, Orange Institution, England stated: “I consider the time spent and the energy expended in conferring the various orders beyond and foreign to the Orange Institution, as so much time and energy wasted so far as promoting the Protestant cause is concerned, which I take it is (or ought to be) the object of every man worthy of the name of ‘Orangeman’.” But if we as Orangemen feel it our duty to stand shoulder to shoulder in defence of our Protestant religion, against its inveterate foes, then it would be far better to know nothing of the Black, the Scarlet, and the Green” (4th January, 1878).
Chalmers J. Paton. Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland stated, “I am of the opinion that all degrees worked by Orangemen other than the Orange and Purple are spurious and unnecessary” (17th January 1878).
Thomas Macklin, Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland outlined: “Politically all besides the Orange and simple Purple are absolutely useless, but viewed in relation to religion not only are they useless but profane and degrading, and ought to restrain the men who practise them from laughing at the mummeries and buffooneries of Popery” (22nd January 1878).
As it slowly began to establish itself within the Orange family, these battles within and without did not seem to curb the growth of the Royal Black Institution. First, it was well organised. Secondly, it was now unified in Ireland, with all the different associations pooling their membership. Thirdly, it exercised control over the Black family in the United Kingdom and throughout the Commonwealth. Fourthly, it was now operating covertly but astutely, wooing many Orangemen into its ranks. Fifthly, the Black carefully and cleverly presented itself as the senior Order of the Orange. This gave it a credibility and distinction that it frankly did not own.
Finally, the Royal Black Institution acquired a popular convert in William Johnston of Ballykilbeg the leader of the protest movement against the unpopular Party Processions Act of 1850. It was his opposition to this legislation which eventually brought him to prominence in Ulster. The Royal Black Institution was not ignorant of his charisma and appeal and duly elected him as Sovereign Grand Master in 1855. The Black finally had a real champion, and an admired one at that. He was able to mobilise opinion in favour of the Black Knights.
Moreover, as Rev John Brown in his short history of the Black says, “Johnson’s reorganisation was particularly important. It resulted in the sequence of the degrees becoming pretty much what we know it today.” In his book William Johnston, Aiken McClelland states, “His relationship with Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland during the decade 1860-1870 was unsatisfactory, and several times it looked as if he were in danger of expulsion from the Order.”
Despite the best efforts of Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland the Black gradually fastened itself to Orangeism. By 1847 the body had grown to 47 Preceptories throughout the United Kingdom. By 1856 that number had jumped to 112 Preceptories, and by 1876 this had developed to a notable 218. The Black had now become a significant player within the Loyal Orders community.
Whilst the Grand Black Chapter and the Royal Arch Purple Chapter continue to remain distinct and separate from the Orange Order of today, as the 1900s progressed they became accepted as an integral part of the Loyal Orders family. The former hostilities have long abated, with around 95% of Orangemen today undergoing the degrading Royal Arch Purple degree, and 40 to 50% of them joining the Black. These ritualistic orders now sit comfortably where once they would have been repudiated. Interestingly, this has coincided with the gradual decline of the Orange. Its membership in Ireland has fallen to around 15,000 members or less, and the institution in Australia, New Zealand and England is actually fighting for its very survival. Former Orange hotspots like Liverpool have all but disintegrated. The Royal Black barely has a pulse in Scotland now.