The Regius Poem

also known as

The Halliwell Manuscript

"A Poem of Moral Duties"

The poem is in a separate file, and may be viewed by pressing the button for the version you wish to view. The poem Urbanitatis mentioned several places below is also available on this site. The following commentary has been (and is being) compiled by Owen Lorion. It is still a work in progress, and comments or suggestions will be considered.

A Note on Footnotes: Notes[*] [**] have been added to this Internet manifestation, while footnotes[†] and parenthetical comments( ) are those from the original documents, described in more detail below. All three forms can be moused over for the text.

The Speth transcription and Baxter translation have been copied a multitude of times into print and onto Internet websites, and somewhere along the line a great many words have been mis-typed, and even whole lines have been left out. Our first intent to flag these proved impractical once the great extent of the errors became apparent, but we have indicated in blue in the poem where entire lines have been elided, for the benefit of students who have checked another website first, and webmasters who would like to correct the copies on their websites. An exhausting exhaustive list is available in Appendix IV.

The Regius Manuscript is the oldest version of English Masonic regulations yet to be discovered. This premier of the Old Charges, or pre-1717 documents of the regulations of the Craft, is also notable for being the only one written in verse. The poem was written before the advent of the printing press[*], sometime between 1390 and 1450 A.D. While the 1390 date is most often cited, that is about the earliest possible date for it, and recent scholarship puts it as more likely after 1425. It was written in a Middle English script, not Latin or Saxon or Old English, as sometimes mis-represented, though the headings were in Latin. It is barely recognizable today because it is in a Gothic or Germanic lettering style, and the alphabet and spellings have changed, but if sounded phoneticaly, most of the words are still understandable in our language of today. While the scribe may have been a literate mason, he was more likely a priest or monk commissioned by a local Operative Masonic lodge. Whoever he was, it has long been assumed that he was paraphrasing, and extending, an even older Masonic document no longer extant.

Structurally, the poem consists of 794 lines of rhymed couplets, plus 34 lines of unnumbered headings, making 828 lines in all on 64 pages, with the inner pages 11-14 lines each. You can click on the chart below for a larger and clearer version. There are no spacings around headings, but they are set apart by being in red ink rather than black, by being in Latin instead of Middle English, and by not participating in the rhyming.

The poem divides easily into sections, with the following line counts for headings and rhyming lines:

Some more about King Athelstan can be found in Appendix I

In 1874, Richard Sims of the Department of Manuscripts of the British Museum, working with Masonic scholar Rev. Adolphus Frederick Alexander Woodford (1821-1887) determined that the Regius poem incorporated portions from two Middle English texts, an extract from Instructions for a Parish Priest[**]by John Mirk (fl.c.1382-c.1415) and the full text of an anonymous poem on etiquette known as Urbanitatis[*]. A third text, a poem entitled Merita Missa,[*] author uncertain (attributed to Dan John Lydgate (c.1370–c.1451), but this is in dispute), was also determined later to be incorporated, interspersed in the Mirk section. Sims also provided a detailed description of the Regius Manuscript and of two manuscripts containing Urbanitatis and A Parish Priest, which was published in Woodford's periodical, Masonic Magazine[*].

Albert Mackey, writing in 1881 in The History Of Freemasonry, makes a convincing argument that the first sections are out of order with relation to the other Old Charges — that lines 535-576 should preceed line 1, that there was another section or two that preceeded them (probably an invocation first, and then even more likely, an antediluvian history of Masonry), and that lines 471-496 should be inserted after line 74 (relegating the dozen lines from 75 through 86, the end of that section, as a preamble to the articles and points), and this part closes at line 470 with the end of the points, just as they conclude all the other Old Charges. The current writer concurs with this conclusion, as it puts the history sections chronologically, except that I would place the ending of Athelstane's story after line 84 instead of 74, leaving only two lines as a lead-in to the 15 and 15.

Together, these account for all parts of the poem except the Ars Quatour Coronatorum, which is left an orphan. It is a portion found in no other English Old Charges. But for upwards of 200 years before the Regius was written, it had been a well-known legend of the Craft among the Steinmetzen, the stonemasons of Germany. This gives a clue that, in addition to all the precursors already noted, this section may have been copied from yet another document, an ancient charge from the Continent, where Freemasonry was even older than in Britain.

The Regius manuscript has suffered the ravages and fading of age, once even receiving some minor damage in a fire in 1731. In 1889 a newly-calligraphed copy of the original manuscript (referred to as the facsimile) was produced by Mr. F. Compton Price, Masonic membership unknown, to accompany a monograph on the poem by Henry Josiah Whymper (1845-1893) of Quatuor Coronati Lodge. Price, incidentally, had been a student of Halliwell’s Shakespearian copyist, Joseph Netherclift. To date, only the first page of either the original or of Price's facsimile has ever been reproduced on the Internet, but both are displayed for comparison in the Regius/Price section of the poem page. Whymper produced only 6 copies of his original edition, but passed the plates on to be reused in the Quatuor Coronati Antigrapha[*].

It was a non-Mason teenager,[*] James Orchard Halliwell (1820-1889), who rediscovered the significance of the poem in 1838. In 1840 and 1844 he published books with his transcription of it into modern alphabet, but retaining the Middle English words. A slightly corrected version was edited and published by George William Speth (1847-1901), Secretary of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, in the initial volume of Quatuor Coronati Antigrapha in 1889. On the accompanying poem page, words Speth corrected are highlighted in red, and mousing over them will show Halliwell's reading. According to a chart at BC&Y, only 19 words changed between the Halliwell and Speth versions, in lines 90, 265, 266, 279, 329, 338, 363, 379, 402, 451, 620, 688, 718, 737, 754, 781, 782, 791. The chart also indicates a change in line 547, but the indicated word doesn't appear in that line or anywhere near it. The most significant difference was line 402, where a smudge had obliterated an entire word, so that it could only be guessed at. Halliwell (and later, Church) guessed "hole" (...that the whole work not be spoiled), but Speth went for "lordys" (...that the employer's work not be spoiled); thus this line was a touchstone to which transcription was being used.

Medieval writing had a number of characters we no longer use, which Halliwell and Speth translated into their modern equivalents. More details on these can be found in Appendix II. One that bears mention was yogh [*], which didn't get converted. On the Internet, some websites use [G]/[g] as a substitute for yogh, others including this one use Z / z.

Roderick Hildegar Baxter, Worshipful Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge in 1922, made a modern English translation, printed in Ars Quatuor Coronati in 1914. This was reprinted in the 1966 edition of Mackey's Encylopedia of Freemasonry with reportedly only changes in punctuation. (To say that Mackey reprinted it is a bit of a misconception, since Mackey died in 1881, but his Encylopedia lives on!) Baxter tried to preserve the rhyme of the original document by retaining some old words at the ends of lines, but putting their modern equivalents following them in parenthesis. In later reproductions, some sources have retained this plan, others have dropped the archaic words and substituted the modern ones. On this site, on the accompanying poem page, we have compromised, and readability was felt to be enhanced, by reversing that and using the modern words in the running text, and hiding the archaic words in ( )s which will display the old terms when moused over.

The Baxter version appears to have been entered into the Internet several times, each with its own collection of typos. If you're a webmaster of one of these sites, you may want to check out the errata lists in Appendix IV.

In 1952, Frederick Maurice Hunter (1879-1964), a 33º Mason in the Oregon Lodge of Research, No.198, wrote a monograph on the manuscript, and engaged John Church, a non-Mason expert in Middle English, to make a fresh translation of the poem into modern English. Hunter published these together with black-and-white photo reproductions of the original manuscript. The full text of Church's translation has never before been published on the Internet. Besides his article accompanying it, he included this heading and colophon:

The Regius MS.
A Poem on the Constitutions of Masonry
a free rendering line for line.

Note: This free rendering of the Middle-English text of the Regius MS. was done at my request by Mr. John J. Church, holder of a fellowship on the instructional staff of the English Department of the University of Oregon, through the kindness of Dr. P. W. Souers, head of that department.


In the Church translation on this site's poem page, footnotes[†] and parenthetical comments( ) are alternate interpretations that were in the paper book. Why two forms? Perhaps one was by Church and the other by Hunter. Where parenthetical additions have been made of words left out of the poem, they have been left in the running text.

The poems on the accompanying poem page, and described above, are the most accessible, but other translations have been done.

In 1874 Richard Sims (not himself a freemason) prepared a version of the Regius poem in modern English for the editor of Masonic Magazine, A.F.A. Woodford. This was presumably published with commentary in Masonic Magazine in 1874, in a serialized article titled ‘The Old Masonic Poem’[*], though we have not been able to view a copy to verify this; this translation is not available on the Internet nor in any available book.

Douglas Knoop, Gwilym Peredur Jones and Douglas Hamer, The Two Earliest Masonic MSS. (Manchester, 1938). We have not seen this monograph, but it reportedly is excellent, and contains both a reproduction and translation of the Regius Poem. Which translation, or if it was a fresh one, we don't know.

The Masonic Service Association, no author noted, The Regius Poem: Freemasonry's Oldest Document (the copy in hand is dated 1997, but is probably a re-issue of one written in 1951 and reissued in 1959). This booklet contains both the Speth and Baxter versions, and also reproductions of the first two and last two pages (1-2,63-64) of Price's facsimile. Both the Speth transcription and Baxter translation had a few typos, but were generally better quality than the copies on the Internet.

The Masonic Book Club produced possibly the best print version in 1970. It included the original plates of Price's calligraphed version, together with the Speth transcription, from the Quatuor Coronati Antigrapha, an article on the history of the manuscript by the editors, Louis L. Williams and Alphonse Cerza, calligraphed and transcribed versions of Urbanititas and Instructions for a Parish Priest (uncredited, but probably by Compton Price and George Speth), articles by James O. Halliwell himself and J. Fairbairn Smith, an edited version of the Baxter translation, and a glossary of Middle English by Speth. With no earlier copy to compare it to, we can't tell if the errors in the Speth transcription are printer's errors or errors by Halliwell and Speth. Some seem to fall into each category. But "wt oute dowte," there are errors where it disagrees with the facsimile, although it was still the best rendering we found. The Baxter version, however, was not quite as good, with over a dozen errors, and even one line, 529, entirely missing.

In the foregoing, a lot of attention has been paid to versions of this poem on the Internet. This subject is something too new to have received much previous study anywhere else. Putting "Halliwell Manuscript" OR "Regius Poem" into a search engine will produce many thousands of hits. (Without the quote marks, the search results will also include another 'Regius Manuscript,' a Scandinavian edda known as the "Regius Codex".) Most of these are just passing mentions, but a great many are recreations of the manuscript itself (in one version or another) or entire articles about the manuscript. Unfortunately, most are simply copies of each other, with variations in formatting, and some significant errors, as detailed in Appendix IV. While checking every site would probably be beyond human capability, the tables below will give a reference to those sites within the top three hundred[*] which actually contain the text of the poem, plus several print versions. The websites are ordered to match the error charts in Appendix IV, and keys to them are below the charts.

Sites with the Halliwell/Speth transcription

Website Gen. files match #'d yogh-é format intro notes
GLBC&YISBnL[g],éhtmlWhas chart of Speth's changes to Halliwell, other details
WasatchISByn[g],éhtmlnonefrom Google cache of MSWord .doc.
HopeIISBn!Xz,ehtmlnoneold first, followed by modern in same file
TorrioneIIS-Xz,ehtmlPno longer on Internet, link is to WayBack copy.

Files were arranged in different ways. Some had both the Baxter and Speth versions on the same page, some had them in different files, and some divided the poem up between separate files for each section. The "files" column gives this information according to this key:
B = Baxter Translation only
S = Speth Transcription only
SB = Both Speth and Baxter in the same files
bs = Both Baxter and Speth on site, but in separate files
C = Church Translation

For those marked SB, the match column tells if
y = aligning the two versions for line-for-line comparison was attempted (even if line wraps throw them off),
n = the two are side-by-side, but not lined up, using type faces of different heights,
n! = they're not even side-by-side.

The numbered column in the chart above refers only to the Middle English transcription, and in the chart below only to the Modern English translation.
L = Lines numbered (sometimes every tenth line),
X = Lines numbered, but incorrectly!
P = Pages numbered with Roman numerals (most others had blank lines at page breaks, but no numbering).

Sites and books with a Modern English translation

Website Group files align #'d Archaic format intro notes
CraftAB-n0htmlshortadditional brief notes at end, mostly on phrase "Amen, so mote it be"
HopeASBn!n0htmlnoneold first, followed by modern; tiny print, but it is adjustable.
SoCalAB-n0htmlshortbreaks off at line 511
WasatchASByn0htmlnonefrom Google cache of MSWord .doc
MDictBB-n0htmlnonecalls it "Freemasonry's Ancient Poetic Jewel"
GravewormBB-n0htmlnonedivided into 9 section files with added headings and footnotes
AboutBB-n0htmlshortpoem same as Graveworm, intro totally incorrect
MackeyEB-P134htmlEFH section of Mackey's Encylopedia, with extensive article under 'Halliwell'
Bet-ElEB-P134htmlEFidentical to Mackey's Encyclopedia, but just this one article; difficult background
SeattleFB-P126htmlshorthas both Latin and English headings
MPediaFB-P127htmlmixcomposite of several online articles; has both Latin and English headings
Knoop?SB???printbookwe've not seen it, but reportedly very good
MBCBSBn!n0printbookalso has facsimile.
HodappAB-n0printshorterroneously attributes translation to Halliwell
Hunter-C-y0printbookhas photos of original MS.; includes dubious history of Masonry from ancient times
Kessinger-C-y0printbookWe've not seen it, but reportedly the MS. photos are poor quality
Amazon-C-y0flashnoneexcerpt from Church translation, limited view
Farese-C-y0htmlbooklines 1-470 plus some of the accompanying text; no longer on Internet, link is to copy at MPS.

Intro lists which introductions to the poem the websites used. While a few sites had nothing at all, some had entire articles. There were four reprints used as longer introductions, and a number of short paragraph or less intros. Here are the first sentences of each: