Origins of banners and their usage in Freemasonry
The illustration (left - courtesy of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry) shows a Victorian ceremony attended by Masons displaying their Lodge Banners. Prince Albert is seen laying the foundation stone of the Victoria Yacht club house at Ryde on the Isle of Wight in March, 1846. Local masons were amongst the local groups in attendance and the lodge banners have been identified as Sussex Lodge (possibly Royal Sussex Lodge No. 342 in Portsmouth) and Lodge No. 176, which is almost certainly Albany Lodge (now No. 151), which met at Newport a few miles away.
We express thanks to the United Grand Lodge of England for the photograph and the information on this page. For more information about the Museum of Freemasonry which is situated in Freemasons Hall at Great Queen Street London: see www.freemasonry.london.museum. The picture above is the copyright of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry (Registered Charity No 1058497) 2011.
Standards and banners have long been used to proclaim the identity or affiliation of the bearer. Even as far back as Ancient Egypt a specific symbol was used to indicate the influence of various regimes. Army units of the Roman Empire had distinctive designs on their shields. It was not until the 12th century however that specific designs were used in England to identify individuals and families, passed down as an inheritance by those entitled to bear them.
The original use of heraldic designs as we know them today came in the jousting tournaments of the middle ages, a helmeted knight was anonymous, so his coat of arms, displayed on a shield, was used to clearly identify him. As the tradition of jousting faded away, these distinctive insignia came to be used in other ways, as designs on wax seals to mark official documents, carved on family tombs and embroidered and flown as banners over family estates. The first book of rules on coats of arms and who had the right to bear them was written in 1350, leading to the development of such bodies as the College of Arms, founded by King Richard III in 1484, which still regulates heraldry and the granting of new armorial bearings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland today (Scotland has its own body, the Court of the Lord Lyon). Not all banners are heraldic. Originally a king or leader would display his standard on the battlefield to show his soldiers where he was, but eventually different units of soldiers created their own insignia, allowing troops to know where their comrades were assembling or fighting, leading to the development of the badges which regiments and battalions of the british army use to this day. Such military insignia have been under the control of the College of Arms, however, since 1806.
Other organisations have used banners to proclaim their identity. Trade unions have used banners since at least the 1840s, carried in processions and at May Day parades. Political organisations, temperance movements and the city guilds have all used them. Today ad hoc banners are often carried in demonstrations.
Lodges under the jurisdiction of the United Grand Lodge of England have their own individual insignia, a lodge badge, which many also display as a banner often carried in front of members as they march in procession. Such processions are rare now, but the banners still hang in masonic halls and lodge rooms across the country. In some lodges the master displayed his own coat of arms as a banner for his one year term of office. whilst the coat of arms of the Premier Grand Lodge, formed in 1717, adopted theirs from the London company of masons and were known to be using it by 1730. The Antients Grand Lodge claimed theirs came from the writings of a 17th Century Jewish scholar, Rabbi Jacob Jehudah Leon, and adopted it at their foundation in 1751. Both were combined at the Union of the Grand Lodges in 1813 and form the basis of the current coat of arms, now with the addition of a red border with eight lions, indicative of the arms of England, granted by the College of Arms in 1919 (see the information sheet available from the Library and Museum of Freemasonry called “The Arms of the United Grand Lodge of England” for a more detailed history).
Grand Lodge also has its own standard, embroidered with this coat of arms, which can be seen hanging in the main gallery of the library in Great Queen street together with the standard of the current Grand Master and previous Grand Masters who have held that office since 1901. These are heraldic, being the coats of arms of the person who held the position.