History of the Royal Black Institution Degrees

History of the Royal Black Institution Degrees

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Degrees Development

Like many historical issues relating to the Black over the first fifty years, there is scant information in relation to the development of the degrees and the degree format in the institution. In the early years there was no real structure to, or government of, the working of these degrees, so they were worked in an unregulated ad-hoc manner. Each group of Blackmen tended to operate independent of the other and therefore there was no standardised Black system. That is not to say there were not similarities of practice and working. There were, although each jurisdiction had its own unique style or arrangement. There is little existing historic information on their functioning. So when it comes to reliable evidence, we are left largely with the occasional Black certificate, or the frequent Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland censures warning its members about the Black. Due to this, Blackmen have tended to speculate as to the magnitude, detail and development of their degrees from the start.

Some of the early evidence documenting the development of the Black degrees is actually based on written condemnations from the Orange Order. The Orange Institution of Ireland, from the formation of its ruling Grand Lodge in 1798, only ever accepted two degrees, namely, that of Orange and Plain Purple, and never accepted or recognised the Black degrees as part of, or associated with, its Order. However, due to the overlap of memberships (whether small or great) Grand Lodge felt compelled to warn its members about the “higher orders.” It is from these pronouncements that we glean some useful insight into what actually existed.

The first mention of the Black degrees we can find is in a Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland censure of 17th December 1799. The Lodge received a certificate relating to Lodge 655 in Bandon where William Pemberton was said to have “received the degrees of an Orange, Purple, Scarlet, and Royal Marksman.” Grand Lodge wrote to the Lodge concerned and informed them that “Grand Lodge recognises no other Orders save Orange and Purple.”

A further censure was issued in 24th October 1801, although it was more widely addressed. It stated, “It must have been to the complete shock and disdain of Grand Lodge after re-constituting the Orange to learn of several incidents where Orangemen were reported to have been initiated into the various Black degrees … It having been reported by Several Gentlemen that in violation of the Rules of the Grand Orange lodge of Ireland, some Masters of Lodges in Dublin and elsewhere have initiated Orangemen into Systems which they term Black, Scarlet, etc. Resolved unanimously: That the Grand Lodge of Ireland does acknowledge no other Colour or Degrees among Orangemen but Orange and Purple and that all other colours or Names of Black, Scarlet, Blue or any other Colour are illegal and injurious to the true Orange system, and that if any shall presume after public notice of this Resolution to meet in any such Black or other similar Lodge he shall be publicly expelled, and his name sent to every Lodge in the Kingdom.”

Here we have solid evidence of the working of the first four degrees of the Royal Black Institution – Black, Scarlet, Royal Marksman and Blue degrees – a few years after the formation of the Orange Order. This seems to be the first documentary evidence in relation to the Black degrees. Orange historian (and Freemason) Aiken McClelland testifies to having seen a Black certificate dated 18th September 1808 that showed Thomas Currins of military lodge 1162 had received “the degrees of Orange, Purple, Royal Mark, Black, Scarlet, and Blue” (Origins of the Imperial Grand Black Chapter of the British Commonwealth). Again, we have more proof that the first four degrees that the Black owns today were being worked in the different Black Lodges.

A further admonition from Grand Lodge is given on 11th November 1811, although this time the Royal Arch Purple degree is added to the prohibited degrees previously cited. Evidently these warnings were ignored by the ritualists as further censures on the subject continued. This can be seen from the wording of Grand Lodge’s statement on 12th July 1814. They stated, “Many of the very best friends of our Loyal Orders have complained of innovations, by ridiculous and even superstitious ceremonies having been adopted in some places by spurious Orders of Royal Arch Purple, Black, Scarlet, Blue and Gold; and by assuming, in some degree, the Rules and Regalia of that very respectable Order, the Freemasons; which, however honourable in themselves, are totally distinct from Orangemen – of these abuses, brethren, we warn you, and earnestly entreat you to avoid them, as whoever continues in such practices cannot be received as a brother of our Order.”

The Gold degree is added to the list of working Black degrees. Collectively the Black, Scarlet, Blue and Gold degrees are deemed by the Grand Lodge as “spurious Orders” and are said to involve “ridiculous and even superstitious ceremonies.” That is not to say that these were the only Black degrees being worked in Ireland at the time, we know the Royal Marksman was operating at this time, but they were the ones that the Orange Order were aware of, or that they chose to highlight in their renunciations. They do correspond with the only degrees we know were active at this time.

Knights of Malta historian Thomas Henry Gilmour in his comprehensive history of the Knights of Malta and Black refers to some old certificates that carried coloured ribbons indicating what degrees were active during the first half of the 19th century. He speaks of an Irish certificate relating to County Monaghan dated 12th June 1816 which states that “Brother James Henry has regularly received the colours affixed to this certificate.” Gilmour tells us that “The degrees represented by the attached colours are Orange, Purple, Black, Scarlet, Old Blue and Royal Mark.” The evidence on this parchment correlates with that coming from the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland statements and shows us of the active working of the first four Black degrees at that time. We can add the Gold degree to this (12th July 1814 censure).

Grand Lodge hostility to the Black degrees had not diminished by 7th July 1817 when it released another strong statement testifying, “The silly, shameful, and even idolatrous practice, of mystically initiating into Black, Red, and perhaps Green Orders, still continues.” This is the first mention of the Green degree and evidence of the existence of another degree additional to those already mentioned previously.

Interestingly, we have the mention of the Red degree here that is unknown to modern-day Black or Knights of Malta movements. In fact, this seems to be the only mention of such a degree from any historic source. It could be that the Orange was referring to the Scarlet degree, although we can only speculate here. The fact that Scarlet was one of the known degrees at this time, and that the Grand Orange Lodge had previously condemned it would lend weight to such an assumption. The draft to the Royal Arch Purple Chapter History of the Royal Arch Purple Order describes a certificate dated 24th day of April 1819 that refers to Thomas Joyce which had a three-striped ribbon bearing the colours Orange, Blue and Scarlet.

Not wishing to divert from our discussion on the development of the Black degrees, it is of interest to look over the fence at another secret society that arose at the same time as the Black and which appears to mirror the Black’s structure and development. Formed around the same time, this seemed to share a similar ad-hoc existence. A Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows for England was said to be formed in London in 1803. During the 1820s it was interestingly said to work the “White degree, the Blue degree and the Scarlet Degree, to which the Covenant and Remembrance Degrees were added in 1826” (Mill Valley Lodge 356 website, California, USA). This seems to reinforce the belief that there was a large common pool of esoteric degrees – the product of what we have called “the ritualistic imaginations” – which existed among the secret fraternal world from the late 1700s through to the 1800s and from which they all seemed to trawl.

The History of the Royal Arch Purple Order tells us, speaking of some English Orange brethren: “In the year 1822, a group in Manchester preferred to establish their own Grand Black Lodge adopting the name of the ‘Grand Britannic Association’.” A warrant issued by them on 24th January 1829 describes the degrees that were being worked by this Black body: “Brother Sir. Thomas Worrall … and his successors are hereby appointed to hold this Dispensation as Master in the Grand Britannic Association under which he will initiate Brethren to Orders in the Degrees of Scarlet, Royal Arch, Blue, White, Gold, Black, Knights Templar and Mediterranean Pass within the realm of Great Britain.”

The degree of Royal Arch mentioned here is most likely the Royal Mark which was sometimes later referred to as Royal Arch Mark. Support for this supposition is found in later Britannic listings that list the degree as “Royal Arch Markman.” The White degree arises here within the English Black around the same time it surfaces in the Odd Fellows. Clearly there was an evolution to the development of these esoteric degrees. The Knights Templar and Mediterranean Pass are also added here to the ones already being worked by the Black in Ireland. These two degrees were unique to this English Black association (the Britannic) although they were widely operated within Freemasonry worldwide.

The next certificate of evidence that makes a clear allusion to the degrees is dated 1st August 1829. It relates to a military Black Lodge stationed at Bangalore, East Indies. Gilmour tells us that the colours affixed “represent the degrees up to and including the Green.” Although Gilmour does not specifically mention them all by name, this would suggest that the degrees of Orange, Purple, Royal Arch Purple, Black, Scarlet, Royal Mark, Blue, White and Green were in use. The Gold degree was probably not included here (it being a higher degree that Green). Gilmour further mentions a Scottish Black certificate dated 24th June 1831 that carries the Black and Scarlet ribbon. This testifies that Sir George Donaldson has the right to “establish a Lodge of true and worthy Black men.”

In an article for the Ulster Folklife in 1996, entitled Black, Scarlet, Blue, Royal Arch Purple or any other colour, Loyal Order historian Cecil Kilpatrick claimed, “In Scotland a Loyal Black Association was formed in Glasgow in 1831 and was soon conferring the degrees of Black, Knights of Malta, Scarlet, Royal Mark, Blue, White, Golden Garter, Apron, Flaming Sword, Green, Red Cross.” The Scottish Black brings some new degrees to the table that were hitherto unheard of within the Black domain. Some of these have since been merged into the Black degree system. This indeed is the first time we are confronted with the still-active degrees of Golden Garter, Apron and Red Cross. We also have further proof that the Royal White degree was now accepted in Black circles.

In his short history of the Black, Sir Knight Ryan McDowell comments, “The Black Order in Glasgow had been greatly influenced by Freemasonry developing degrees like the Golden Garter, Apron, Flaming Sword and Knights of Malta (another reference to chivalrous orders from earlier periods in history). These degrees had been previously unknown within the loyal order system in Ireland.”

The strong anti-Black position assumed by the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland seemed to force the Black underground. The degrees are rarely mentioned by name after this although Grand Lodge did make a statement in November 1834 (two years before it went into abeyance for 10 years to meet an edict by the British parliament banning secret societies in Ireland) warning its membership against the Black Order, although no specific Black degrees are identified.

The Orange counselled its members: “That we have heard with the deepest regret that there exists in various parts of Ireland Lodges professing to be in connection with the Orange Institution numbering among their members Brethren of this Institution adopting other Orders and degrees than the Orange and Purple, the two original and only recognised Orders by us, that we cannot too strongly express our conviction that all such unlicensed Orders were highly detrimental to our best interest and injurious to the character of our Institution and we hereby request our brethren to abstain from all connection with Black Lodges or Lodges granting Degrees of Royal Arch Purple or Purple Marksman or any other unrecognised names or systems different from those established by our fundamental Rules and we request all Grand Officers of Counties wherein such Lodges exist to use their influence for their suppression or proper conformity to the said Rules and Regulations.”

Evidence as to the content and format of the Black degrees is in short supply. However, there is enough material to delineate the sparse ad-hoc working of the Black grades in the early years. Basically there seems to be three to seven degrees in the main that existed during the first fifty years of Black history. Notwithstanding, some additional neo-Masonic degrees started to filter into the Black in England in 1829 and Scotland in 1831 that were previously unheard of. It does not seem as if any of these found their way into the Black in Ireland until the 1840s. Speaking of this early period, Rev John Brown in his history of the Royal Black Institution concedes, “For some time these Black Lodges would seem to have been few. We have little information about their exact constitution and manner of working.” Plainly this whole movement was insignificant in its size and influence.

The governmental ban in 1836 saw the disbandment of the Orange Order and the other various Irish secret societies. Therefore we have little information of the operation of the different Black degrees. The draft to the Royal Arch Purple history does make one mention of the working of the “Purple, Black and Scarlet” degrees at Derrycorr, Armagh, dated 25th November 1837 although this seems to be an isolated occurrence.

This dormant period in Orange and Black activity in Ireland did not seem to be replicated in Scotland. The newly formed Knights of Malta used it as an opportune time to organise itself and to spread its influence. The Royal Arch Purple History of the Royal Arch Purple Order suggests “a Grand Black or Orange Lodge of Ireland was constituted in 1842 in Co Down deriving its orders from Scotland. In the Glasgow area the Black Order, greatly influenced by Freemasonry, had evolved by adding degrees such as Golden Garter, Apron, Flaming Sword and Knights of Malta, which had been unknown to Ireland. These were introduced into County Down and are mentioned in the 1846 Rules.”

This is the only historic material indicating the existence of these degrees in Ireland. Even then, we know that the life-span of this particular Order was brief and it was unable to establish itself. What is more, the existence of one lone Black lodge in Co. Down (constituted by the Scottish Black) could hardly be viewed as an effectual Grand Lodge. Grand titles seem to be thrown around at will within various Black associations during the first fifty years, even though their importance and influence was minimal.

In his history of the Knights of Malta and Black, Knights of Malta historian T.H. Gilmour gives us some insight into the degrees that were being unofficially worked in Ireland under the auspices of the Scottish Black Knights during the period of the governmental prohibition. This comes in the form of old letters that were written at the time. A letter dated 21st March, 1842 tells us that Companion John O’Hara received a Dispensation relating to “Ballyminster, County Antrim; District of Ahoghill, No. 1231 of Black Orangemen, Royal Arch Chapter, Black Knight Encampment; Scarlet, White, Blue, and Green; Holy Order of St. John of Jerusalem and Apron Order.”

He also states that a John Darby was summoned to Crossgar to answer charges that he was illegally initiating men into some of the various Black degrees without the necessary authority. The summons was for Saturday, 3rd December 1842 and was said to bear the seal of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Gilmour tells us that that the summons showed that “John Darby was a weaver, and that he had received the degrees of Scarlet, Black, R. Mark, R. Blue, White, Gold and Green.” He also alludes to the fact that “George Whitten, of Lisnakee, writing on St. November, 1843, says ‘David Cathcart opened his new lodge on the 26th of September’. In this letter he applies for a ‘certificate for John M’Cleland, of Banbridge, who joined No. I, on the 16th of May last, and has received the degrees of Black, Mark, Scarlet, Blue and Priestly Order’.” The Priestly Order was also known as the Gold degree.

Whilst there was a general commonality between the degrees worked by the Irish Black before it suspended its activities, this dormant period for the main Black in Ireland saw the introduction of several new Black degrees from Scotland that were previously unknown to the Black in Ireland. This period of official inactivity allowed these new degrees to come to the fore.

The formation of a Grand Black Chapter of Ireland on 14th September 1846 saw the re-establishment of the Black cause. It also saw the standardisation of the degree system in Ireland. This was probably the most momentous event in Black history. The reorganisation of the Order made it into a more significant and effective organisation enabling it to advance its mystical message. This engendered confidence amongst the demoralized Black Institution and inevitably led to its growth. The list of degrees that were approved at a meeting of Grand Black in 1848 was:

(1) Black degree
(2) Royal Mark degree
(3) Scarlet degree
(4) Royal Blue degree
(5) White degree
(6) Green Degree
(7) Gold (or Priestly) degree
(8) Crimson Arrow degree
(9) Red Cross degree

This is the first time we notice the Crimson Arrow degree, however, it is unclear which Black body it originated from. It is suffice to note it was now accepted by the newly constituted Grand Black as a legitimate Black degree. The Red Cross degree of the Knights of Malta is also seen to be welcomed into the new Black body. This is evidence that the different Black strands were being gradually amalgamated.

The rules of 1854 confirm the continuation of the same format. At the half-yearly Grand Chapter meeting in Omagh on 26th May 1857 the eleven degrees that exist today were listed for the first time. The only difference with the format worked today is that the Link & Chain degree is listed at number eleven and the Red Cross Degree is listed at number ten. Three degrees are also added, one of which is grafted on to an already existing one.

(1) Royal Black degree
(2) Royal Scarlet degree
(3) Royal Mark degree
(4) Apron & Royal Blue degree
(5) Royal White degree
(6) Royal Green Degree
(7) Gold degree
(8) Gold Star & Garter degree
(9) Crimson Arrow degree
(10) Red Cross degree
(11) Link & Chain degree

As we can see, the Apron degree was merged with the Blue degree making the Apron & Royal Blue degree. The Star & Garter and Link & Chain degrees were added to the existing degrees becoming individual degrees on the Black ladder. This took the number of degrees worked in Ireland from nine to eleven. Black historian Cecil Kilpatrick comments on this change, “The Apron degree of the Scots Black, or Knights of Malta, was accepted in 1857, and at the same time the degrees of Link and Chain and Star and Garter of the English Black, or Royal Britannic Association, were added to the system. This no doubt was the price paid to maintain the unity which had been so surprisingly achieved” (Black, Scarlet, Blue, Royal Arch Purple or any other colour). This kind of trade-off, or compromise, says a lot about the value or usefulness of these cobbled up rituals.

It is unclear whether the English Black’s Star and Garter degree was synonymous with the Scottish Black’s Golden Garter degree. The fact it became known as the Gold Star & Garter degree may lend weight to the assumption that it was the same degree. A compromise title may have been agreed to please both sides. This was a common practice at this time of integration. The acceptance of these additional degrees are quite surprising when one considers that these were among the grades that Edward Rodgers (the first Grand Registrar of the Grand Black Chapter formed in 1846), denounced as “Popish Degrees.”

By 1886 the degree order had been changed to the same layout as it is today with the Link & Chain degree falling to number 10 and the Red Cross degree rising to number 11. This change was reflected in the Rule Book for that year. The order and number of the degrees has remained the same ever since.

The Knights of Malta yearly constitution booklet of 1905 lists its degrees as:

(1) Knights Hospitaller (Royal Black)
(2) Knights of Malta
(3) Scarlet
(4) Royal Mark
(5) Royal Blue
(6) Blueman Master Builder
(7) White
(8) Gold
(9) Apron
(10) Priestly Pass
(11) Knights of the Green
(12) Red Cross Knight

A copy of the Knights of Malta degrees being worked on 31st January 1928 correspond with that outlined in 1905.

In its 1931 Rules and Regulations the Royal Britannic Association lists its degrees. They correlate exactly with the format outlined in 1925 for their Annual Grand Encampment:

(1) Scarlet
(2) Royal Arch Markman
(3) Blue or Priestly Order
(4) White
(5) Gold
(6) Black or Knightly Order
(7) Green or Knights of the Red Cross
(8) Apron
(9) Sword and Star
(10) Lieutenant of the Temple
(11) Captain of the Temple

It is worth noting that the first six degrees of the Royal Britannic Association remain the same as that laid out on the 1829 Britannic list, with the Knights Templar degree and Mediterranean Pass degree being removed or given a name change and five degrees being added – namely, the Green (or Knights of the Red Cross), Apron, Sword and Star, Lieutenant of the Temple and Captain of the Temple. The last two seem to have some link to the former Knights Templar degree.

Ryan McDowell writes of the Britannic order in August 2005’s Annual Demonstration Booklet of City of Belfast Grand Black Chapter): “In the Belfast Weekly News dated 24th June 1909 a report was included on an organisation referred to as the Royal Britannic Association of the Knights Templar. Again perhaps suggesting a perceived continuity between the Black Order and earlier chivalrous orders that existed centuries before.” Whether this was an additional order or an alternative description of the same lone Britannic association is not clear.

Whilst there have been various modifications to the content of the degrees over the years (as they have been taken on board by the different Black associations), there does not seem to have been any further changes to the sequence and general character of the degrees worked. However, the Britannic association has died a slow death and seems to have disappeared into the abyss. The official historian of the Grand Orange Lodge of England, M.E. Pheland, is of the view that the Britannic Association is no longer in existence (History of the Royal Arch Purple Order p. 123).

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