Order of St. Thomas of Acon
Article for the Masonic Globe
by J. H. Bray
  

The Order was formed to give a Christian burial to those Knight Templars who had fallen in battle. It was formed to tend the wounded. The original Prior also had a third remit: to ransom captives kept by Saladin. The Order had its being between 1189 and 1538. Then, as part of the process of the Dissolution of the Monastries, King Henry VIII sold the Order and its properties to the Mercer's Company, who had been using some of the order's premises since the mid 1400s.

The records of the Order had always been deposited in the library at Guildhall, London. They survived the Great Fire of London and in 1950 were rediscovered by John E.N. Walker. He was in fact in course of researching certain historical aspects of the four original Lodges but came across so many references to the order of St. Thomas of Acon that he decided to forgo his original intentions, and followed up on these details.

For the next 20 years he spent each lunchtime looking them out in the Library of the Guildhall, London. His assiduity to the task included teaching himself medieval French and Latin. By 1970 he had extracted all the details of the order from the records - including a complete ceremony of the Installation of the Master.

At the completion of such a project one then has to ask the simple question "well, what do we do now with the information?", and it was because of the unique nature of the Order that it was decided to revive it as a Masonic Order. The unique nature being the fact that of all the Orders of Knighthood that were fighting in the Holy Land during the Crusades - and most particularly during the third Crusade - this was the only Order to have an English Foundation - the original monks have come from the City of London.

Certain very well known masons then assisted in the preparation of the present day ceremonial which delights so many. The basic story relates firstly to Gilbert Becket and then to Thomas Becket, his son, later Archbishop of Canterbury who two tears after his murder in 1170, in Canterbury Cathedral, was made a Saint. The influence of Becket was formidable with people revering his name and calling upon him to cure all manner of their ills. This influence extended in an every day sense over the next 150 years and his story is still of the greatest interest today. As a story line therefore this fitted perfectly with the time frame of the third Crusade.

The first meeting of the revived Order, now a Commemorative Order of St. Thomas of Canterbury of Acon, (abbreviated to the Order of St. Thomas). The opening few lines of the minutes perhaps give a flavour to the background:

"The Chair was taken by J.E.N. Walker who explained the purpose of the Meeting especially in regard to the founding of the Fraternity of Masons in Ironmonger Lane in the City of London in the Church of St. Thomas somewhere between 1170 and 1338, most probably 1240. He suggested that since the only Knightly Order of an English Foundation which took part in the Crusades was that of St. Thomas, it was his idea that a Masonic version of that Order be formed.

The difficulty of placing an exact date for the commencement of the Order, which some authorities place as early as 1190, it is perhaps shown by two articles, both of which may be accessed by the Internet by simply putting in the question panel - Order of St. Thomas of Acon. This will show up two headings, "The City Livery Companies and their Heraldry" by L.G. Pierson, and "The Order of St. Thomas of Acre" by Dr. Alan Forey, Emeritus Professor at the University of Durham. Dr. Forey appears to deal with the second phase of the Order's evolution.

The generally received wisdom on the matter would suggest that whilst the monks left London prior to the Third Crusade and were present at the siege of Acre in their normal capacity, that of the first translation to a Nursing Order, or Order of a Hospitaller nature, occurred by command of King Richard I a short period afterwards. Thereafter a further period ensued before a second translation to being a Military Order, with finally the third translation occurring when King Richard 1 created them into a Chivalry and ordered certain of his Knights Templars to protect the new Chivalry.

To interject a further historical note - the time frame for these events is interesting; King Richard I arrived in the Holy Land in June 1191 and concluded the siege of Acre on the 12th July 1191, and after having fallen out with Duke Leopold of Austria, both the Duke and King Phillipe of France soon returned home. Richard on the other hand killed the prisoners taken at Acre, marched down the coast to Jaffa, winning a victory at Arsuf en route. However his forces were unable to penetrate inland to Jerusalem and in September 1192 he was obliged to conclude a treaty with Saladin. He endeavoured to return to Europe in October 1192; en route his ship was wrecked, he was taken prisoner for 15 months, and was eventually released, returning to England in March 1194, but left again in May 1194 never to return. He died at Chalus on the 6th. April 1199 aged 41 years. This historical note tends to suggest that the elevation to being a Chivalry must have taken place either before October 1192 or between 1194 and 1199. It is probable therefore, that Dr. Forey is reporting on an existing situation when mentioning 1220.

For 100 years the Templars, the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights and the Knights of St. Thomas et al held Acre, the occurred the battle for Acre, at which the Order's history can be traced, since at the battle on the 12th. May 1291, which resulted in its loss, the Master and nine of the Knights of St. Thomas were killed.(see Official History of the British Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem by E.J. King(1934) , page 32.

Following such a grave loss to an Order which was never numerous, perhaps by reason of its function, the Order merged with the Order of the Temple for the period of its journey from Cyprus back to London when it again became independent buying its own properties, etc. The Order's eventual demise in 1538 has already been described. There is inter alia some interesting information in connection with Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester which the reader will find fruitful to pursue. Let it just be said - events could have turned out differently!

So now, turning to the modern era and to the Commemorative Order; events since 1974 moved slowly, there being but one Chapel, Blackheethe Chapel T.I. located at Blackheath, London, and the main preoccupation in the early stages was one of evolving and refining the ceremonial and the contribution of many senior masons is acknowledged.. It may be of interest to note that in the present ceremonial the commemorative Order preserves both the Military and the Monastic aspects of the original Order.

The first Most Worthy Grand Master, J.E.N. Walker, retired to give way to A.B. Stephenson who in turn retired from office in 1997 - at which time the membership was 38, and it was the present Most Worthy Grand Master Sir Barry of Ilford (B.Clarke), who decided to expand the Order. This took effect on thre29th. August 1998 when 38 candidates were admitted to the Order and were give the simple invitation to "go, form chapels".

Since that date 21 further Chapels have been formed (18 plus T.I. in the U.K., plus two in the U.S.A., and one in Canada) and the membership as at the 31st. December 2001 is just short of 600.. There are a further 16 Chapels in course of formation over the next two to three years with two enquiries of especial interest: an enquiry from Spain (which will depend on "events"), and one from Australia. The average number of founders per Chapel is 20.

It is fully intended that the present structure of Grand Master's Council and individual Chapels will give way to Provinces within the next twelve months, and that thereafter steady progress will be made to an Order wholly structured by Provinces. At the initial stage of development to Provinces the areas contained are more like regions as the Order has yet to see just where Chapels will be raised.

We look to the future with great confidence pacing great reliance on th M.W.G.M.'s dictum "that Chapels will be raised where the members wish them to be raised". The order is member led in its development. This is the surest test of continuing support. The fact that the Order is also an invitational Order and that the Chapels are made up of groups of friends is a source of great strength.

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