In the Masonic sequence generally known as the Solomonic Story, a series of tableaux are played out in various Degrees across a number of Orders, each telling a different part of the story of “King Solomon’s Temple”, although in fact there were three physical temples on the site, overseen by Solomon, Zerubbabel and Herod, as well as a number of allegorical temples which are referred to in the questions asked of the Principal Sojourner during the Royal Arch Commemoration at the Festive Board, and subsequently enlarged upon in the Order of Pilgrim Preceptors.
The Craft and the Mark are largely concerned with the progress of building the First Temple at Jerusalem and end with the cliff-hanger death of Hiram Abif and the loss of the Master Word.
Royal Arch Chapter concerns the recovery of the lost secrets at the building of the Second Temple while the Pilgrim Preceptors touches on the Third Temple before explaining how Freemasonry spread out through Europe from its putative roots in Jerusalem.
Between the events of the third degree in the Craft and those of Royal Arch Chapter is a period of some 470 years which the various degrees of the Royal and Select Masters and the Allied Masonic Degrees, among others, encompass.
Of these degrees, it is the Royal and Select, or “Cryptic rite”, that has some of the most significant, and poignant, degrees in the whole of the Solomonic Story and is open to Freemasons who are also in both Chapter and Mark.
The first four degrees in the Order are the Select Master, Royal Master, Most Excellent Master and Super Excellent Master. After the Chair (which is not considered a degree in its own right), “companions” of the Order can go on to take the Thrice Illustrious Master’s degree, or Order of the Silver Trowel, and finally the degree of Excellent Master.
With the exception of the Most Excellent Master Degree, the officers of a Council in a manner correspond to those of the Royal Arch, but with different names – Thrice Illustrious Master, Deputy Master and Principal Conductor of the Work are analogous to the three Principals while Conductor of the Council and Captain of the Guard are not dissimilar to Scribe Nehemiah and the Principal Sojourner, but there are important differences which become clear as one progresses through the Order.
The regalia consists of a breast jewel, a triangular apron and, later, a Past Master’s collar and jewel.
District Officers wear a collarette and jewel while Grand Officers wear a more elaborate version of the Past Master’s collar with stripes indicating “very” and “right” ranks. There is a hallmarked sterling silver trowel to decorate the apron of those in that degree and a special breast jewel for Excellent Masters.
The Order also has a distinctive tie that is often confused with that of a certain cricket club!
The Select Master’s degree is set during the construction of the first temple, and shares many elements with the Grand Tilers of Solomon in the Allied Masonic Degrees and the degree of Intimate Secretary in the Scottish Rite.
The story serves to explain how, and why, the secret vault was originally built, and also how its existence was kept secret. The main protagonists are our familiar three Grand Masters, and their three very different personalities are explored, along with an explanation of how the first three Craft steps, Mark and then Chapter eventually lead into the Cryptic degrees.
The degree is typically performed with dimmed lights to bring a sense of being in an underground vault, and, although the book nowadays constrains the dramatic flourish with which the degree opens (“on his return, the Captain of the Guard should not be wiping his sword clean of blood…”) the degree is still exciting and full of a sense of the conspiracy that must have surrounded the original building of the crypt.
By complete contrast, the degree of Royal Master concerns a very personal conversation between Adoniram and Hiram Abif shortly before the latter’s demise, as Adoniram enquires of his senior when he will receive the Master Word, and what might happen if it were to be lost.
It is widely considered one of the most intimate rituals found anywhere in Freemasonry, and not only binds the characters in the Craft to those in the Mark, but also describes the circumstances by which the Secrets of Masonry were eventually deposited in the vault and thus preserved for posterity.
The main ritual is conducted by the Principle Conductor of the Work, who represents Hiram Abif, and is a monologue which always remains indelibly imprinted on the memory of each Candidate who takes the degree.
The lecture of the degree includes a detailed description of the Ark of the Covenant, which features in all the degrees of the Royal and Select as well as other Orders in Freemasonry.
Most Excellent Master
The Most Excellent Master’s degree concerns the dedication of King Solomon’s Temple, and takes the candidate to the days shortly after Hiram’s death, when the Temple is being consecrated and opened to the general population whilst Solomon is still tinged with sadness at the loss of his Architect.
The degree is a short and simple one, worked in a layout that resembles, in some respects, a Craft lodge.
Super Excellent Master
The last degree of the Royal and Select before the Chair, and the one that earns the candidate his apron of the Order, the degree of Super Excellent Master relates the fall of the first temple, when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, has defeated Judah, and his general Nebuzarradan has come to destroy the Temple and carry the Jews into captivity.
The Candidate is taken into the last few days of the Temple and its subsequent destruction, and witnesses the transition of the Jewish state from Judah to Israel. The danger of a broken vow -- bringing about the end of Solomon’s era --serves to re-enforce our Masonic sense of fidelity to our obligations. The lecture expounds on the symbolism of the Circle, Square and Triangle.
The Order of the Silver Trowel, or Thrice Illustrious Master’s Degree, is typically worked at District level and is bestowed by recommendation of the District Grand Master to the Most Illustrious Grand Master on members of the Order who have passed through the Chair and have shown particular merit and usefulness to their District.
Amongst all the Degrees in Freemasonry, it is one of the most poignant, involving the death of King David and the entrusting of his young son Solomon with the task of building the Temple that he had so long planned for.
Interestingly, this degree serves as a link between the Order of the Secret Monitor, the Ancient and Masonic Order of the Scarlet Cord and the degrees of the Craft.
Recipients of the degree wear a sterling silver trowel on their apron and are entitled to wear a similar, but smaller, silver tie-pin.
Otherwise known in other Orders as “The Veils”, this degree is worked in Scottish Rite and in Bristol before Exaltation into Royal Arch Chapter.
In England, it is reserved for those Cryptic Masons who are recommended by their District Grand Master and selected by the Most Illustrious Grand Master for preferment into this highest of degrees worked in the Order.
The degree links the Tabernacle, built by Aholiab and Bezaleel and consecrated by Moses at the foot of Mount Horeb in the Wilderness of Sanai, with both King Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple, and even extends to explaining a connection with the Robes of the Royal Arch.
Thus, it illustrates the single unbroken thread that binds all the Degrees of all the Solomonic Orders together.