Feature Articles – St Edmund’s Masonic Church
Labelled by experts as a “temple to Freemasonry” and “a total concept as exotic as Roslin Chapel in Scotland”, St Edmund’s Church in Rochdale (Greater Manchester) is one of England’s hidden gems. So much so, that it is totally unknown.
by Philip Coppens
St. Edmund’s Church, off Falinge Road in Rochdale – now largely seen as a suburb of Manchester – might lay claim to being Britain’s greatest Masonic secret. Alas, unlike Rosslyn Chapel, it is unlikely to feature in Dan Brown’s The Solomon Key, where the bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code tackles Freemasonry, taking us no doubt from one “Masonic monument” to the next.
Though Rosslyn Chapel, the star of The Da Vinci Code, is often seen as a Masonic church, in truth, only certain modifications from the late 19th century contain some references to the Craft. St Edmund’s, however, was built by Freemasons, and apparently for Masons, not so much as a church, but as a Temple of Solomon.
Many Rochdale churches from the 19th century have Masonic symbolism, such as Christchurch in Healey, but none can compare to St Edmund’s. The church was designed by James Medland Taylor, with input from Albert Hudson Royds, sponsor and Freemason, and the fist incumbent, E.W. Gilbert, artist and Freemason. The church has been described as “probably James Medland Taylor’s finest work.”
The foundation stone was laid in 1870, in the northeast corner of the building – as Masonic ritual stipulates. The lewis bolt with which the stone was suspended and the working tools with which it was proved, were subsequently handed over to St Chad’s Lodge, No. 1129, in Rochdale.
The church was opened on May 7, 1873, with various Masonic ceremonies held. The cost of its construction is known to have been at least £28,000, whereas the cost of a “normal church” in those days was roughly £4000. No wonder therefore that Sir Nikolaus Pevsner catalogues the church as “Rochdale’s temple to Freemasonry, a total concept as exotic as Roslin Chapel in Scotland.” Pevsner added that “Almost every fitting and feature has reference to the Lore of masonry.” The Masonic design of this church begins with its placement within the landscape. It stands on a diamond-shaped churchyard, the focus of four streets, at the highest point of the town. Like King Solomon’s Temple on the top of Mount Moriah, so St Edmund’s dominates the skyline of Rochdale. But apart from Masonic planning, the church was also built with intervisibility between the church and Mount Falinge (the Royds family home nearby) in mind. Mount Falinge, of which only the windowless facade exists today, is now alas neglected. Alas, so is St Edmund’s.
St Edmund’s Church is the brain and/or lovechild of Albert Hudson Royds, a most prominent and wealthy Mason. The earliest traces of the Royds family are to be found at Soyland, then a small town approximately five miles south-west of Halifax, and can be traced back to one John del Rode, who died in 1334. The Royds family remained in the Halifax area until approximately 1500, when they relocated to Rochdale, roughly twenty miles away from their home. Wool apparently made the family rich and in 1786, James Royds of Falinge purchased land at Brownhill and later, in the same area, built Mount Falinge, which was built in a commanding position on sloping land between Cronkeyshaw and Falinge Road. Albert Hudson was born on September 11, 1811 and was baptised at St Mary’s Church in Rochdale. His family had now largely moved into banking and he took his seat in the family bank in 1827 when he was 16. His brother, William Edward, who was six years younger, joined him some time later. Both men soon became active partners in the firm and, by the 1840s, had became responsible for its general management, replacing their father, Clement, who by this time had become almost wholly involved with public life and a political career. St Edmund’s wasn’t the first church Albert Hudson Royd constructed. Following his father’s death, he opted for a complete change of life and in 1855 purchased an estate of 382 acres, mainly in Rushwick, near Worcester, called Crow Nest or Crown East. He rebuilt the house, renamed it Crown East Court, erected new outbuildings and stables, cottages and a church. Soon afterwards, he sold the estate and bought Ellerslie in Great Malvern and moved there in 1869. He remained there until May 22, 1878, when he moved back to Rochdale, first to Falinge Lawn and later to Brownhill, where he had lived before his father’s death.
From the window of Mount Falinge it would have been possible to look out on St Clement’s Church, Spotland, dedicated to that saint out of compliment to his father. From this vantage point it would also have been possible to see Christ Church, Healey, where so many members of the family lie buried; finally, he would be able to see St Edmund’s, the construction of which he had begun in 1870, and saw completed in 1873. St Edmund’s position was similar to King’s Solomon Temple, but the church’s dimensions were equally based on a temple that would inspire Freemasonry. It is four square in plan and is built on mathematically symbolic principals. Raised on a roughly hewn plinth, the overall dimensions are proportional to those of King Solomon’s Temple; its length is three times and its height one and a half times its breadth.
The interior volume is of six cubes, one for each arm and two for the nave, plus that of the crossing. The lantern was the seventh cube, but the lantern tower was ceiled off in 1887 (some reports mention 1911), on the advice of J. Murgatroyd, in response to complaints about downdraughts. It means that the centre was deprived of a flood of light, but also that the sacred dimensions of the building were mutilated.
Approaching from the south up Clement Royds Street, the building rises up out of the ground. First to appear was the pentagonal bronze star of the weathervane that left no doubt at all that this was an unusual church. Presently, the star has been removed. Noting that for many, a pentagram has Satanist connotations, having a church crowned by one, might have posed some questions. These doubts might not have gone away when people saw how the stone finials on the gables were crowned by even more pentagrams and other enigmatic designs: the five pointed emblem of the Craft is there; the six pointed star of the Royal Arch; the square crosses of the Christian degrees, etc. All of them leave the casual passer-by with the distinct impression that this church is unlike most – if any other.
On the gable end, there is the motto “Semper paratus”, “Always Ready”, a motto that is used by many organisations. It was the slogan of the Royds family, but for Masons might be a reminder of how they are supposed to always be vigilant, in keeping the secrets secret. Around the actual entrance are several depictions of the vesica piscis. The design is linked with divine proportions and architecture and its presence here must be an indication for the visitor that the building he is about to enter, is indeed a sacred design.
The tympanum has a pentagram, inside of which are water lilies and the side panels with oak leaves and acorns. For Freemasons, it is seen as an expression of the need to give a password before being able to enter and its presence above the entrance is therefore perfectly chosen. In many so-called “enigmatic churches” (read: Rosslyn Chapel and like), the stained glass windows are often later additions and hence shed little light into the mind of the original builders. Here, because the church is relatively modern, all are original, except for those of the south transept, which are missing. Originally a Te Deum, they were exhibited in Vienna in 1887 – but apparently never returned, or at least never reinstated.
The scheme on display in the windows was developed by Lavers, Barraud & Westlake. It is fascinating to know that Henry Holiday (who was behind the frieze at Rochdale Town Hall) also designed for them. In the nave, as one enters to our left, the story that the windows tell appropriately begins with Genesis, and Adam and Eve. In the North transept is a Jesse Tree, with Jesse stretched out over two lights. This design, less exposed to direct sunlight, is able to reveal some of the original magnificence of these windows. However, the western rose window does make one wonder whether we might not be in Chartres or some other French medieval cathedral.
What theme went into which window was not done haphazardly. Analysis reveals that on the south side, the theme is building – a favourite for Masons, of course – and we find depictions of Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel. On the north, the theme is sacrifice, with Abraham and Isaac, and the Last Supper. In the west: creation, fall and redemption.
Building has connotations with Freemasonry, but the Masonic interest is openly depicted in the East Window, situated in the Royds Chapel. It is a marvellous example of Masonic symbolism in its architectural design, and is appropriately filled with pictorial representations of the designing, building and decoration of the Temple at Jerusalem. In the centre light the three Grand Masters are shown with the plan of the Temple, or what purports to be the plan. There is also the figure of Hiram Abif, wearing a Master Mason’s cap, preserving the lineaments of Albert Hudson Royds. The right hand light shows the workmen busy with the masonry, while the left hand light shows the priests and populous celebrating the completion of the building. In the central pentagon of each pentalpha are, from left to right, the emblems of the Craft, the Ancient and Accepted Rite and The United Religious, Military and Masonic Orders. Albert Hudson’s Masonic path began on December 8, 1847, when, at the age of 36, he was initiated into the Lodge of Benevolence No. 273 (later No. 226) at the Red Lion Hotel, Littleborough, near Rochdale. It marked the start of a life in which he would join and rise in several – if not most – Masonic rites. He held office in the Provincial Grand Lodge of East Lancashire from 1850 to 1856 as Provincial Grand Junior Warden and from 1856 to 1866 as the Deputy Provincial Grand Master. In 1860, Albert Hudson Royds was one of the petitioners for the foundation of his “own” lodge, The Royds Lodge No. 816, which was consecrated on October 3, 1864, still several years before he would begin the construction of his own Masonic oeuvre. It was not the only lodge that would carry his name. On December 30, 1867, the Provincial Grand Lodge met at Townsend House, Great Malvern, for the consecration of The Royds Lodge No. 1204. At the consecration, Albert Hudson’s son, Edmund Albert Nuttall, was appointed as Junior Warden.
He also is known to have joined both Royal Arch and Mark Masonry, as well as being a founder member of the St Dunstan Chapter of the Scottish Rite. On April 8, 1862 he was elected a member of The Supreme Council – also known as the 33rd degree – and appointed Grand Captain General from 1869 to 1872, the time when St Edmund’s was built. The specific spark that initiated St Edmund’s might have come when on August 10, 1869, the Provincial Grand Lodge convened in the Chapter House of Worcester Cathedral to march in procession to the Cathedral where the Provincial Grand Master unveiled the new Masonic window that had been built in the north transept. On this occasion, Royds proclaimed: “I ask you to accept this gift from the brethren of our ancient Craft and sometimes, when you look upon its mellowed light, may you be induced to say, ‘O, wonderful Masons!’” The cost of the windows, nowadays more often referred to as The Twelve Apostles Window, was £530.
After the completion of St Edmund’s, Royds, on May 24, 1875, presided to lay the foundation stone of St Luke’s Church in Dudley. Alas, in December, he lost the use of his legs which, together with the loss of his daughter, at first made him unable to attend, and then compelled him to resign from office on March 7, 1878. St Edmund’s is a Temple of Solomon masking as a church. Built roughly at the same time when the enigmatic Bérenger Saunière constructed his enigmatic church in Rennes-le-Château, Saunière’s church supposedly contains “hidden clues” either to the location of a treasure or to the nature of the secret as to how he became so extraordinarily rich. But what detail is significant and might mean what precisely, is a matter of great controversy – and subjectivity. In the case of St Edmund’s, the Masonic references are sometimes underhand, but always clear to the Mason – quite often, they are straight in your face. There is, in short, no doubt that this church is Masonic in design.
On the East wall, a reredos by Rev. E.W. Gilbert, is integrated with the stone of the building. At first sight, it appears to be nothing more as if they are cement leaves; on closer inspection, they are meant to grow out of the wall, and are actually vine leaves; inside them, you can read the words “I AM THE”. For those “on the level”, this is supposed to be read as “I am the vine” – the vine not written, but portrayed. It is a reference to John 15:5, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” It appears to be a straightforward Christian message, but only Masons will know that this is actually a Masonic prayer, and a famous one at that: Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon and a Mason, used it during a private moment on the Moon – leaving non-Mason Neil Armstrong apparently somewhat perplexed as to what his colleague was doing. Looking up, we find the stone bond and the timber close boarding to the roof in enigmatic patterns, almost like a Masonic board. It is indeed accepted that it is to remind of the woodwork of King Solomon’s Temple, which was carved with knoops and open flowers, having a variety of geometrical designs.
If there is any doubt about this interpretation, the Masonic connection of the lectern is so obvious, it is actually often referred to as the Masonic lectern. Indeed, the lectern has been described as “the symbolic climax of the whole scheme”. On an imperfect block of black marble stands a perfect white cube of ashlar marble. The cube, of course, is already significant within the Craft. Upon that are three columns of brass: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, representing Wisdom, Strength and Beauty. However, engraved upon their bases are the symbolic tools of the Craft, specifically the jewels of the Master and the Senior and Junior Wardens – the three degrees of Masonry. On top is a horizontal brass tray, fretted with pomegranates, lilies and intertwined snakes (a variation on the ouroboros, but within a Masonic context symbolising unity), with a horizontal design that represents the Blazing Star or glory, and finally, to carry the Volume of Sacred Law, a pyramid formed out of square and compasses – making an obvious – Masonic – statement the congregation was impossible to miss. As mentioned, further straightforward Masonic imagery is present in the Royds Chapel and its stained glass windows. But there are more hidden messages. The chapel – structurally – carries one of the massive buttresses which really carry the tower, which is made out of ashlar stones. The mastery that went into the construction of this buttress – this pillar – is extraordinary. The Royds Chapel is divided from the chancel by a screen of granite columns, their overscale capitals representing fig, passion flower and fern – continuing a “leafy theme” that this part of the church shares with Rosslyn Chapel.
Direct references to the Craft are also present in the iron gates of Royds Chapel, which have square and compasses and a Seal of Solomon. For Freemasons, there is – again – a secondary level of reading this chapel. First of all, Royds chapel occupies the position in the church where the finished craftsman is placed after his passing. In the windows, of course, Royds has depicted himself as a Master Mason; and if he attended mass, he would hence sit in the position of Master Mason – inside the Royds Chapel.
Furthermore, in the opinion of Rod. H. Baxter, two pillars between the chancel and the chapel are meant to represent Jachin and Boaz, though he admitted that they were placed in an unusual position if they were meant to represent them. He noted that the donor of the church would have had to look out from his sanctuary between these two pillars to contemplate the altar – and hence that they are the best candidates for this honour. Indeed, though the giant pillars near the lantern at first sight seem obvious candidates for the role of Jachin and Boaz, there are four of them – alas, two too many. Whether the church was ever meant to be used as a lodge is open for interpretation. And between intent and execution, is another major chasm. But it is clear that the church could have been used for Masonic rituals – or at least was designed with these rituals in mind. Take, for example, the crypt – even though the Royds never designed or saw it as being used as a burial place. First of all, the crypt runs along the entire length and width of the church. It does not seem to have a real purpose and must have come at an extra cost. Entry to it is by a flight of stairs, as well as two trapdoors. In the third degree of Freemasonry, a crypt is a functional aspect, where the initiate is “raised” after being lowered in a crypt and reborn. In most lodges today, a tarp is laid out in the middle of the lodge temple, but could it be that the Church’s Masonic architects rendered it more spectacularly in St Edmund’s? Even if he intended to use it for Masonic ceremonies, Royds never much could enjoy his Great Work. In December 1875, as mentioned, he lost the use of his legs. He walked again in 1879, but moved to Lytham in 1881, to return to Rochdale six years later. He died on January 17, 1890 and was buried at Christ Church, Healey. On February 12, 1985, the church became a Grade Two* listed building. For a church familiar with Masonic Degrees, it must have been a somewhat familiar step to be raised to the level of Fellowcraft.
But Masonic initiations are all about conquering death, and alas, that is currently the challenge the church is facing. In 2006, the Rev. David Finney, vicar at both St Edmund’s and St Mary’s, was informed by the diocese that the church would close. Several services were being held without a congregation. In February 2008, the church was therefore finally closed to the public, but being a Grade Two listed building, it cannot be demolished. Its future is therefore uncertain, though other denominations have expressed a potential interest in securing at least the short to medium-term future of the building. What might therefore be seen by some as the end of this church, might, of course, only be a sleep, or rebirth. Rosslyn Chapel too had numerous episodes when it was unused, derelict and even close to collapse. Equally so, the Temple of Jerusalem had – and continues to have – a controversial history. In the end, it will be a question of whether the Great Architect of the Universe is willing… I would like to thank Andy Marshall for his extraordinary efforts in photographing the church, as well as guiding me to and through it. For more photographs of the building, click here.
I would also like to thank Charlie Watson and the Royds Lodges for cataloguing their history and the history of their founder, as well as Andrew Gough, for providing me with several Masonic insights, or confirmations.
All photographs copyright Andy Marshall. www.fotofacade.com