Chapter 9

The Cologne Charter (1535)


It is the first part of the 16th century. Europe was recovering from the historical news of the discovery of a new continent, by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), of the roundness of the earth demonstrated by Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521); much of Germany was converted to Protestantism by the reformist monk Martin Luther (1483-1546); and Francis I of France (1494-1547) revealed himself as a determined builder of castles, and a pugnacious opponent to the Emperor Charles V (1500-1558).

And in 1535 the Elected Masters of the Brotherhood dedicated to St. John, members of Freemasonry, allegedly gathered in the city of Cologne, in the Rhineland, to draft a new Charter, which was more concerned with Accepted Masonry than with the manual practice of the Craft.

The document - Among the 19 signatories of this charter – established in nineteen copies (1)... – are those of Philippus Melanchthon, Luther’s great friend, Herman of Viec, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, Jacobus of Antwerp, Provost of the Augustinians of the city, and the one of ... Gaspard de Coligny, the leader of the Calvinistic party in France. That is not surprising, after all, as it is today universally admitted that the “Charter of Cologne” is not genuine and the names of these leading and powerful Europeans were there to give the document false status.

While the document itself is dated June 24 1535, it is unclear when the document actually was created. The consensus is that it was most probably written in France during the second half of the 18th century, perhaps in the 1780s. It was most likely written to counter the recent Papal Bulls and other religious or political statements of the time that were critical of Masonry. Where and by whom? Nobody knows.  

The charter has long received massive support from Freemasons – and non-Freemasons – who defended its authenticity. However, it includes a long list of curious, if not fanciful, statements and information: the personality of the signatories, the existence of an unknown Brotherhood of high Masonic degrees, the evocation of links between Freemasons and Templars, Masonic activities in Edinburgh, Hamburg, Rotterdam and... Venice. Furthermore, the charter, although intended to be widely distributed, is written in medieval Latin and presented in a substitution cipher of “Masonic” characters – invented during the 18th century. 

Modern transcription from Latin (2).

The Text

For the greater glorification of Almighty God

We the chosen Masters of the honorable and distinguished St. John’s Fraternity, or members of the Freemasons’ Order, heads of the Lodges which have been established in London, Edinburgh, Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, Lyons, Frankfort, Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Madrid, Venice, Ghent, Konigsberg, Brussels, Danzig, Middleburg, Bremen and Cologne, 

Have in this town of Cologne in the year, month and day mentioned below, assembled a chapter under the presidency of the Master of the Lodge of this place: a worshipful, learned, wise and circumspect brother, who in consequence of our unanimous request has undertaken to conduct these transactions; and make to the Lodges in the above mentioned places, and to the Brethren collectively who at present belong, or may hereafter join the Order, the following statement. 

Taking into consideration, how in troubled times, rife with civil discord, and other conflicts, we and the above mentioned Fraternities, and all Brethren belonging to the Freemasons or St. John’s Order, have been accused either secretly or publicly of entertaining such projects, and opinions, as are equally contrary to our sentiments singly or collectively and most thoroughly opposed to the spirit, aim and precepts of this Brotherhood. 

It being generally known that we, the members of this Order (chiefly because we are bound together by an indissoluble bond of secrecy) are the more certainly exposed to the revealings of the uninitiated and profane and to public obloquy in general, have therefore had the following crime laid to our charge: viz, that “we are desirous of reviving the Order of Knights Templars” and that on this account we stood publicly accused before the world: 

“That we had further bound ourselves by oath as members of that Order, to get back its estates and possessions, and to revenge the violent death of the last Grand Master on the descendants of those Kings and Princes who were guilty of his murder, and were the authors of the ruin of the Order.” 

For this purpose we had excited divisions in the Church and mutiny and rebellion in the empires and kingdoms of the world; that we were inflamed with hatred and envy against the Pope, as the head of the clergy and against the Emperor and all rulers; that we did not recognize the authority of any but consecrated chiefs and elected Masters of that Fraternity of ours, which is spread over the whole terrestrial globe and that we executed their secret commands, communicated by mysterious messengers in letters in cipher, and that we admitted no one into our mysteries but those who had been bodily tormented, tried, and proved, and been made to swear an abominable oath of secrecy. 

On this account and in consideration of all that has been here cited, we esteem it most necessary and expedient to represent the real condition and origin of our Order and the aim of this benevolent institution in the way in which it has been recognized and confirmed by its most distinguished members, both individually and collectively viz., the most experienced Masters in the Order, enlightened by the genuine truths which their art inculcates, and then to distribute this document composed, worked out, subscribed, and ratified by us, among the different chapters and Lodges of our confederacy; that a perpetual witness may be at hand of the renewal of our covenant and of the immaculate purity of our intentions.

And because of the daily growing proneness of the citizens and nations to hatred, envy, intolerance and strife, it is much more difficult for the Brethren to retain their Constitution and original form of govern­ment pure and uncorrupted, to spread themselves in different quarters of the globe, and to uphold their integrity inviolable, that then when better times dawn, if not all copies, yet at least some one copy or other of this circular epistle, will be extant, which the Society can adopt as a guide and rule of conduct and by which when shaken to her very foundations, she can remodel herself and if in danger of degenerating, or being estranged from her original aim and purpose, she can here be led back to the true spirit, which should guide and direct her.

 By this epistle, addressed to all true Christians, taken from the most ancient deeds, and from the memorials existing of the opinions, customs, and habits of our secret Order, for the reasons aforesaid, we chosen ones, the Masters of our Orders, and all having one aim viz., the attainment of the true light, we do charge all those our companions in labor into whose hands this letter may fall, by their most sacred vow, that they never renounce this witness of the truth hereby confided to them. 

We likewise certify and make known to the enlightened and unenlightened world, whose welfare lies near our heart, urging us to continue our work actively and zealously, the following: 

A. -  That the Fraternity, or the Order of Freemasons which is bound together by the sacred vows of Saint John, do not trace their origin from the Order of Knights Templars, nor from any other spiritual or secular Order of knighthood, neither from a single one nor from several united together. It has not the remotest association with any such either directly or indirectly; but it is more ancient than any Orders of the kind, for it existed in Palestine and Greece, as well as in one portion or other of the Roman Empire, even before the Crusades, and before the time when the knights just mentioned went to Palestine. This has been proved to us from different documents and notoriously well authenticated ancient records. 

Our Fraternity existed at that period, when a large body of consecrated individuals, separated themselves from the contradictory ethics of the Christian doctrine, because they had had confided to them the true moral teaching and the most legitimate interpretation of religious mysteries. For at that period of their separation it was believed by those learned and enlightened individuals, who were Christians entirely free from heathen heresy, 

“That a religion polluted with heresy, could only cause and disseminate religious divisions and abominable wars instead of promoting peace, toleration, and love.” 

They have therefore bound themselves by a sacred oath to preserve with greater purity, the fundamental doctrines of this religion, so greatly promoting that love of virtue inherent in the human race, devoting themselves entirely to the good work, that light may spring up in the midst of darkness, disperse the mists of superstition, and establish among mankind all the virtues of humanity, peace, and general prosperity. 

The Masters of this Confederation were called the St. John’s Brethren, as they had chosen John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Light of the World, the first of the martyrs, who suffered by spreading this light, as their original and example. According to the usage of the times, those men who distinguished themselves by their superior knowledge in their writings, were called Masters. These chose for themselves from amongst the most experienced scholars, companions in their labors, whence arose the name Fellow-Craft; the rest of those summoned, but not specially chosen, being according to the fashion among the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman Philosophers, distinguished by the appellation of scholar or Apprentice. 

B. - Our confederacy as was before, and is so now, consists of these three degrees, Apprentice, Fellow-Craft, and Master; these latter, likewise of Elect and Most Elect Masters. All other associations and fraternities, which admit of other denominations and divisions of their degrees, or attribute to themselves another origin, interfering in political and ecclesiastical intrigues, and solemnly swearing to hate anyone whatsoever, whe­ther they assume the names of Freemasons or Brethren, who affirm that they are carrying out the sacred principles of St. John or of any other person, all such do not belong to our Order, but are denied and repudiated by us as schismatics. 

C. - Among the teachers and Masters of this Order who studied mathematics, astronomy, and other Sciences; an interchange of their advance in knowledge took place when they were scattered throughout the whole Earth. This led to the selection of one, from the body of Elect Masters, who should assume authority over the rest, and be honored as the Most Noble and Sublime Master or Patriarch, but known only as such to the Elect Masters, so that this chosen one might be regarded as the visible and invisible head and guide of our Order. 

In pursuance of this stipulation, even in our day, a Superior Master and Patriarch actually exists, though known to but few. 

After having demonstrated these facts, which we have gathered from the rich collection of ancient parchment rolls and deeds of our Order, we do hereby decree and command, with the permission, approval, and sanction of our Patriarch, following the text of the sacred documents, which in future will remain under the faithful guardianship of our Superior and his successor, the following. 

 D. - The conduct of our Confederacy and the manner and method in which the rays of the flaming star shall be brought home and dispersed among the enlightened Brethren, and the uninitiated portion of mankind, is conferred upon the Elect and Chosen Masters. 

They have to guard and watch over this, so that the Brethren, of whatever rank and station they may be, may undertake nothing contrary to the fundamental principles of our confederacy. 

These directors have likewise to defend the association and to preserve and ensure its continuance. Should it be necessary, they must even protect the institution by the sacrifice of their worldly goods and at the peril of their lives, against all assaults and attacks from without. 

E. - We have no convincing testimony that this Fraternity of ours, bore any other name than that of the St. John’s Brethren before A. D. 1450 but as we gather from the documents, it first began to be called the Freemasons’ Fraternity at Valenciennes in Flanders, at the period when in some districts of the Hainault, Hospitals, and Infirmaries commenced being erected at the cost of the Brethren for such poor people as were suffering from St. Anthony’s fire (3). 

F. - Although when exercising our benevolence we are not accustomed to have regard to any religion or any country, yet have we deemed it till now advisable and safer not to admit any into our Order but such as in their profane life and in the world of the unenlightened have made a profession of Christianity. 

No bodily tortures are resorted to when examining the Candidates for initiation into the first degree, but recourse is had to such tests as will more clearly demonstrate what are the powers, inclinations, and principal characteristic of the novitiates. 

G. - Among the duties strictly enjoined and which must be accompanied by a solemn oath, are faithfulness and obedience towards the secular legally instituted authorities, who have command over us. 

H. - The introductory laws guiding our actions, and all our efforts, into whatever channel they may be directed, are expressed in the two following precepts:

 “Love and cherish all men as you do your brother, and your blood relations. – Render to God the things that are God’s, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” 

I. -  The secrets and mysteries, which conceal our purposes, are only with this one view: to do good unostentatiously and to carry out our resolutions to the very minutest details. 

J. - Every year we hold a feast in honor of St. John, the messenger of Christ, and the protector of our Order. 

K.o-oThese and similar solemnities belonging to our Order are represented by certain signs or words or some symbols or other known to the Brethren, but differing entirely from ecclesiastical ceremonies. 

L. -  He alone is acknowledged as a St. John’s Brother or Freemason who, according to law, under the guidance and superintendence of an Elect Master, assisted by at least seven Brethren, is initiated into our secrets, and is able to prove his initiation by the use of those signs and words of recognition, practiced by the Brethren. 

With these are included those signs and words customary in Edinburgh and in the Lodges and “Bauhütten” affiliated with her, also in Hamburg, Rotterdam and Venice. whose functions and business, it is true, are carried out in the Scottish ritual (4), but whose origin, aim, and fundamental arrangement do not differ from those prevailing in our community. 

M. -  Our Order as a whole is governed by one single, universal Superior, but the assemblies of the Masters, which essentially compose this confederacy, must be drawn together from many different countries and states, therefore nothing is more necessary, than that a certain degree of conformity should prevail in the Lodges, scattered over the face of the whole earth, like single members of one great whole, and this can be effected by means of an animated exchange of correspondence and of emissaries, who shall in all places be of one mind, teaching one doctrine; wherefore, this writing, which records the character and form of our association, shall be transmitted to all the Masters, and colleges of our Order, as many as exist. 

For these reasons this circular epistle, of which 19 copies have been made verbatim, has been issued, confirmed and ratified by our names and signatures. 

At Cologne on the Rhine, in the year one thousand five hundred and thirty five, on the twenty-fourth day of the month of June, reckoned according to the computation of time, styled the Christian era. 

Have signed the text (5): 

Harmanus - Carlton - Jo. Bruce - Fr. V. Upna - Cornelis Banning - de Colligni - Virieux - Jean Schroder - Hoffman - Icobus Prepositus - A. Nobel - Ignatius della Torre - Doria, J. Utti­nhove - Falck - Nicolas van Noot - Philippe Melanthon - Huys­sen - Wormer Abel.


1. -  Nineteen copies for nineteen signatories; one of them is today preserved in the archives of the Grand Lodge of France, in Paris.

2. -  The Latin text of the Charter of Cologne was published for the first time in the Historical, literary and historical Annals of Masonry of the Netherlands, for the year 1818, in two versions, one in “literal” Latin (containing many mistakes due to encryption), the other in “ordinary” Latin (that is to say, corrected by the translator), both versions being accompanied by a French translation.

3. -  St. Anthony’s fire, or ergotism - poisoning, sometimes fatal, due to ingestion of ergot, a fungus found on rye and other grains.

4. -   The notion of Masonic Rite or Ritual appeared after the constitution, in 1773, of the Grand Orient of France, and the Scottish Rectification of Jean-Baptiste Willermoz (1778), when different rituals were used in lodges.

5. -  It is curious to note that the drafters of the Charter took care to hide the terms of their text by using a Masonic cipher alphabet – unknown in the sixteenth century  – but openly affixed their usual signature at the bottom of the document.

© Guy Chassagnard 2016