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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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…
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
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