Ron Blaisdell, Founding Member, Director, and Fellow – The Masonic Society, MPS-Life
Originally Published in “The Knight Templar” Magazine, August, 1989
My first introduction to the Knight Templar Apron was made on my first visit to the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. There in the ante room to the Lodge is a large portrait of Lafayette wearing a black apron featuring the skull and cross bones. After a bit of inquiry, I was informed that the apron was that of a Knight Templar, which was one of the many orders into which Lafayette was received while he visited the United States during the Colonial Revolution. I was also told that there were three other Knight Templar aprons in the Memorial, located in the Chapter Room.
There are at least two examples of the Knight Templar Apron in Michigan. One in the possession of the historical room of Detroit Commandery #1, and one in the collection of the Jackson Masonic Temple. It was at the later location that I was encouraged to write on the history of the Knight Templar Apron by Past Grand Commander Jack MacDonald of the Grand Commander of Michigan, and to him I am deeply indebted.
While little has been written on the dress of the early Templars, prior to Thomas Smith Webb’s “Monitor” of 1797, there has been one suggestion has to the origin of the Templar Apron. In early references to the history of Templary in Great Britain, the following significant reference is made:
All Templar encampments were qualified to give the degrees of the “Rose Croix” and the “Kadosh” which had existed in England as Templar degrees years before the establishment of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. In the original form of the Templar Ceremonies, the “Rose Croix de Herodom (sic)” was one step above the Templar installation, followed by the “Kadosh”…1
The significant herein is the fact that Templary was related under British Masonry to the Rose Croix and Kadosh degrees. The Rose Croix apron is described as follows:
White lined in Black and outlined in Red. On the white side depicting a pelican feeding her young. On the black side a red Latin cross. (Northern Masonic Jurisdiction)
Thus giving us an early look at the potential design of the Knight Templar apron prior to Webb’s “Monitor”. Additionally, it is known that the Templar degrees were worked in this country “under the sanction of the warrant of ‘Blue’ Lodges.”2 This being fact, it is possible that the Knight Templar apron was a direct result of the modification of the Symbolic Lodges apron to fit the ritualistic legends of the Templar Orders.
The First “Standard”
The first written “standard” for the Knight Templar apron was published in Thomas Smith Webb’s “Monitor” of 1797. (Interesting side note: Webb was only 26 years old when this work was published!). In this volume (and subsequent reissues) Webb describes the apron as “White, with a black border; or black, with a white border. The flap black, and a skull and cross bones embroidered in silver thereon.”3 It is to Webb that the first standards of Masonic ritual and ceremony are attributed as his “Webb work” recast some of the degrees, and completely reconstructed others. Webb’s “standard” was accepted by the early Templars, and it was not until after the formation of the Grand Encampment, and its subsequent publishing of the general statutes of 1839, that a new permanent design was agreed upon.
In Chapter 4 of the General Statutes of the Grand Encampment, the following description can be found of the Templar Uniform:
Article 1. The costume of a Knight Templar shall consist of a full suit of black, dress coat and pantaloons, white cravat, black gloves, boots, and gilt spurs, all over a white surcoat, on the left breast of which shall be embroidered a red cross; and undress military cap, and on the front a Templar cross; a cross-hilted sword, the scabbard of black leather suspended from a black velvet or leather baldrick (sic), a short dagger on the left side, a black velvet apron of triangular form, having on the centre a patriarchal cross, and on the flap a skull and cross bones all in silver. The edging of the aprons and collars shall be gold for Grand Bodies, and of silver for Subordinate Commanderies.4
There is some doubt as to the adoption of this resolution by all Commanderies subordinate to the Grand Encampment. In the 1859 edition of “The Craftsman, and Freemason’s Guide” by Cornelius Moore the apron is described as “An Apron of black velvet of a triangular form, trimmed in silver lace. On the top or flap is a triangle, with twelve holes perforated through it; in the center of the triangle is a cross and serpent; on the center of the apron is a scull (sic) and cross bones, and at equal distance from them, in a triangular form, a star with seven points; in the center of each star a red cross.”5 The lack of an accepted standard caused the Grand Encampment to enact the famous “Digest of Decisions”.
The “Digest of Decisions”
At the Grand Encampment in 1847 William Blackstone Hubbard was elected as Grand Master. Frater Hubbard was singularly dedicated to Templary, and applied his many business skills to the development of the Grand Encampment. A Jurist by trade, his twelve years as Grand Master were marked with decisions that set a regulated tone to the proceedings of the Grand Encampment. Never one for “fuss and feathers”, Hubbard desired that the Templars become a respected order. In a method to reach that means, Sir Knight Hubbard issued his famous “Digest of Decisions” at the 14th Triennial of the Grand Encampment on September 9, 1856. The “Digest” covered three subjects: Dress, Work, and Discipline of Templar Masonry. The first area, “Dress” was not legislated upon until the conclaves of 1859 and 1862. The conclave of 1859 issued the first regulations concerning the standard uniform of Knight Templar’s, this was revised however in 1862 and the “Edict on the Uniform of a Knight Templar” was issued.
The “Edict” of 1859/1862 made many major changes in the uniform of a Knight Templar. The original edict in 1859 changed the frock coat from black to white, and simultaneously abolished the wearing of the Knight Templar apron. In 1862 the edict was changed to reflect the now standard black frockcoat that is worn by subordinate Commanderies. A provision was made in the edicts of 1859/1862 to allow Commanderies formed before 1859 to still wear the old or “black” uniform.
In his address to the Grand Conclave of the Grand Commandery of the State of Michigan on June 5, 1860, N.P. Jacobs, Grand Commander, made his report to the Grand Body regarding this new edict.
Great and material changes were made in regard to the dress and equipments of Knights Templar. These changes I wish to bring to your notice, that such actions may be taken by you as will produce uniformity therein, and conformity to the requirements of the Grand Encampment. These changes are radical, and the costume there adopted will undoubtedly remain the standard for all time to come.6
The mixed rule of “black” and “white” (those Commanderies formed after 1859) uniforms continued until 1872. In that year J. Q. A. Fellows, Grand Master, felt it was his duty to enforce a uniform dress in the Order, and issued his decree requiring all Commanderies in the United States which were using the “black uniform” to abandon it, and to adopt the “white uniform”. A single exception was made to this ruling, and that was to Washington Commandery #1 of the District of Columbia. This sole Commandery was allowed to continue to wear the Knight Templar apron. Today, the Commandery only wears its aprons on special occasions and installations.
Opposition to the Edict of 1862
There was much opposition to the uniform change in Commanderies were the “black uniform” was in use. The Grand Master’s interpretation of the statute of the Grand Encampment was doubted and denied, and the order was disobeyed by most if not all Commanderies still wearing the “black uniform”. Dr. Albert Mackey was in direct opposition to the ruling of the Grand Master and expressed his views in the December, 1872 issue of the National Freemason.
Previous to the year 1859 the costume of the Knights Templar of this country was determined only by a traditional rule, and consisted of a black dress, with the richly decorated baldric and apron; the latter intended to show the connection which existed between the Order and Ancient Craft Masonry.
In 1856, at Hartford, a new Constitution was proposed and adopted, with the exception of the part that referred to costume. Sir Knight Mackey, from the committee on the Constitution, made a report on the subject of dress, as a part of the Constitution; but the considerations of this report was postponed until the next triennial meeting. The changes in costume proposed by the committee were not very great; the baldric and the essential apron were preserved, and a white tunic, not hitherto used, was recommended.
At the session of 1859, at Chicago, the subject of dress was alluded to by the Grand Master in his address; and his remarks, together with the report of the committee made in 1856 were referred to a special committee of seven, of which the Grand Master was chairman, and Sir Knights Doyle, Pike, Simons, Mackey, Morris, and French were the members.
This committee reported a uniform which made material differences in the dress theretofore worn, and especially by the rejection of the apron and the introduction of a white tunic and white cloak. These last were favorite notions of Grand Master Hubbard, and they were adopted by the committee mainly in deference to his high authority.
The proposed measure met at first with serious opposition, partly on account of the rejection of the apron, which many Templars then held, as they do now, to be an essential feature of Masonic Templarism, and a tangible record of the union at a specific period in history of the two Orders; but mainly, perhaps, on account of the very heavy expense and inconvenience which would devolve on the old Commanderies, if they were required at once to throw aside their old dress and provide a new one.
This opposition was only quelled by the agreement on a compromise, by which the old Commanderies were to be exempted from the operation of the law. The regulations for the new costume were then passed, and the compromise immediately after adopted in the words of Sir Knight Doyle, who was one of the committee.7
Such was the nature of this disagreement that it continued until the twenty-third triennial in 1886 when Grand Master Charles Roome returned the control of uniforms back to the subordinate Grand Commanderies. Yet even after this measure, no additional Commanderies adopted the use of the Knight Templar apron as Dr. Mackey purported, save Washington #1.
The Symbolism of the Knight Templar Apron
Deeply rooted in the heritage of the ancient Templars, the Knight Templar apron draws its symbolism from the past, to create a tie between those ancient Templars and the modern Masonic Knight Templar. The black of the apron reminds the Sir Knight of the martyrdom of Jacques DeMolai, and the central, and most striking emblem of the apron the skull and crossed bones – the symbol of the last of mortality.
The skull and crossed bones were adopted as an emblem of the ancient Templars between the third and fourth crusade. The legend is one based on love, and is handed down as thus:
According to legend, a Templar fell in love with a beautiful noblewoman of Maraclea. She died before they could be married, but he could not endure to be separated from her, and dug up the body, and with full ceremonies married what was left of the corpse. After the body was reburied and he returned home, a voice came to him in a dream and told him to return in nine years. When he returned, he found only the skull and two large leg bones preserved enough to be moved. The voice spoke to him again and told him to guard and keep them always, and he would be successful in all his undertakings. Thereafter he prospered greatly and defeated all his enemies.
The skull and bones was passed on to the Templars at his death, and as mentioned was credited with their rise to affluence and power.8
So impressive is the skull and crossed bones on the apron, it was the first object to attract my attention in the portrait of Lafayette, and that which lead to further light in Masonry.
Brown, William Moseley. “Theories Connecting Chivalric Freemasonry with the Medieval Order of Knights Templar”. Highlights of Templar History. First Edition. Greenfield, Indiana: W. Mitchell Printing Co.; 1944. 35-40.
Brown, William. “The Scull and Cross Bones”. Alexandria, Virgina: George Washington Masonic Memorial Association; 1988. 2-3.
“Chapter 4 – General Statutes”. Proceedings of the General Grand Encampment Knights Templar United States 1816 to 1856. New Orleans; 1860. 309.
Gould, Robert Freke. “Grand Encampment of the United States from 1856”. The History of Freemasonry. W. J. Hugan, et al editors. Volume IV. Philadelphia: John C. Yorston & Co.; 1896. 601-602.
Mackenzie, Kenneth. “Black”, “Skull”, “Symbols”. The Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia. Revised Edition. Masonic Classic Series. Worcester, Great Britain: The Aquarian Press; 1987. 75, 677, 707.
Mackey, Albert G. “Knights Templar, Masonic”. An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences. William J. Hugan, et al editors. Seventh Edition. Volume #1. Chicago: The Masonic History Co.; 1921. 412-414.
—. “History of the Grand and Subordinate Commanderies in the Several States and Territories of the United States”. The History of Freemasonry. Second Edition. Volume VI. New York: The Masonic History Company; 1906. 1601-1640.
Mitchell, J. W. S. “Orders of Knighthood”. The History of Freemasonry and Masonic Digest. Volume II. New York: Thomas Holman Printer; 1868. 9-86.
Moore, Cornelius. “Templar’s Text Book”. The Craftsman, and Freemason’s Guide. Fourteenth Edition. Cincinnati: Jacob Ernst and Company; 1859. 262.
Moore, Lt. Col. W. J. B. “British Templary”. History of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons, and Concordant Orders. Henry Leonard Stillson, et al editors. Revised Edition. Boston: The Fraternity Publishing Company; 1907. 773.
“Proceeding of 1862”. Proceedings of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar for the United States of America 1859-1868. New York; 1871. 45-50.
“Regular Conclave of the Grand Commandery of June 5, 1860”. Reprint of the Proceedings of the Grand Commandery Knights Templar of the State of Michigan from its Formation June, 1858 to and including Conclave of 1871. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eaton, Lyon & Allen Printing Co.; 1885. 65.
Speed, Frederic. “Origin of American Templary and Early Grand Encampments”. History of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons and Concordant Orders. Henry Leonard Stillson, et al editors. Revised Edition. Boston: The Fraternity Publishing Company; 1907. 699, 702.
Waite, Arthur Edward. “Knight of the Temple”. A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. Combined Edition. New York: Weathervane Books; 1970. 458.
Webb, Thomas Smith. “Observations on the Orders of Knights Templars, and Knights of Malta”. The Freemason’s Monitor. Salem: Cushing and Appleton Publishing; 1821. III-236.
1 “History of Freemasonry and Concordant Orders”, Fraternity Publishing Company, Boston, 1907, Lt. Col. W. J. B. MacLeod Moore, Supreme Grand Master of the Grand Priory of Canada, p773. Return to position.
6 “Reprint of the Proceedings of the Grand Commandery, Knights Templar of the State of Michigan, from its Formation June, 1858 to and including Conclave of 1871”, Eaton, Lyon & Allen Printing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1885, p65. Return to position.
8 “Famous Crimes in History”, Allen Edwards, et al., as quoted in “The Scull and Cross Bones”, William Brown, Past Grand High Priest – Virginia, Curator, George Washington Masonic Memorial. Return to position.