The lewis is a device that enables an operative freemason to raise large stones to the required heights and set them in place with safety and precision.

Speculative connections

The lewis is a device that has been used by stonemasons and erectors for at least two thousand years. It provides an anchorage in a stone, to which lifting tackle can be attached, which enables stones to be raised and lowered when they are too heavy or too awkward to be man-handled into position during transportation and erection. A speculative craft freemason usually learns about the lewis for the first time while he is still an entered apprentice. During the lecture on the first tracing board the apprentice is told that lewis denotes strength and that it also signifies the son of a mason, whose duty it is to provide care and support for his parents during the twilight of their lives. The word lewis seems to have been introduced into speculative craft freemasonry as a result of the “Auld Alliance”, that staunch and long-standing relationship the French and Scottish peoples established during the Middle Ages.

The seeds of the friendship between France and Scotland were sown in Scotland during the reign of David I (1124-1153), whose characteristics were distinctly Norman, in contrast to those of his predecessors. After subduing the rebellious men of Moray in 1134, David I parcelled out their lands to his French speaking Norman adherents. This friendship between France and Scotland crystallised during the reign of William I, King of Scots (1165-1214), who was known as “The Lion”. Because he was having difficulties with Henry II of England, William I sought the assistance of Louis VII of France in 1166. Although France was sympathetic and supported Scotland’s cause, a formal alliance was not established until during Scotland’s struggle for independence from England. It was in Scotland during the reign of John Balliol (1292-1296) that a joint council was set up between France and Scotland, as a result of which they signed a treaty in October 1295.

One of the earliest initiatives resulting from the friendship between France and Scotland was the involvement of the Travelling Masons of France in the design and construction of the Abbey of Kilwinning, which was founded in about 1150. The early French operative freemasons introduced the lifting device into Scotland, calling it a leveor. The Scottish operative freemasons were soon calling the device a lewis, which at first sight appears to be an adaptation of the French word. However, we must not overlook the intimate association that existed between the operative freemasons and the clergy in those days. Latin was the language regularly spoken by the clergy, so that the Master Masons must at least have had an understanding of Latin and probably could have conversed in it. The word lewis therefore is more likely to have been an adaptation of the Latin word leuis, which means to levitate. Whichever was the derivation, it was not long before lewis was used in Scotland to designate the son of a freemason, as well as the device to which it originally referred. It is relevant to note that in England the lewis was not known until introduced by a Scottish freemason, the Reverend Dr James Anderson D.D. (1684-1739), in the second edition of the Book of Constitutions that he prepared it for the original Grand Lodge of England in 1738, in which he referred to the eldest son of a freemason as a lewis.

Under the Constitutions and Laws of the Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland, sons of Master Masons under that Grand Lodge are permitted to seek admission to the craft when they have attained the age of eighteen years, instead of the twenty-one years that otherwise is the requirement. Some other Grand Lodges make similar provisions for the sons of freemasons, although the Constitutions of the United Grand Lodge of England do not. However under the United Grand Lodge of England there is a custom, as distinct from a rule, that a freemason’s eldest son may be initiated before any other candidate who is under consideration at the same time, but not in precedence to any candidate who has already been approved for admission.

The term lewis is not used in the United States of America, except under the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania where it appears in the Constitutions drafted in 1727, only ten years after the first Grand Lodge was formed in London and more than 110 years before the United Grand Lodge of England was formed. No right of early admission is recognised in the United States of America, although some lodges hold ceremonies to welcome new offspring of members and some establish endowments in the names of the offspring, which are passed over to them after their initiation.

The origin of the name

The probable origin of lewis as significant word in freemasonry has already been mentioned in connection with the use of the device in Scotland during the 1150s, but some further comments are relevant. A great deal has been written about the derivation of the name, but much of it is fanciful. One fanciful explanation is the suggestion that the word lewis arose in consequence of its use by an architect in the service of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), several centuries after it was first used in Scotland. In fact the device and its name were in common use in France from a much earlier date than the reign of Louis XIV, as a direct result of the Roman occupation and the similarities of the two languages. The Latin word leuis, meaning to levitate, gave rise to the Middle Latin word levis, which means light in weight. Both of these words aptly reflect the purpose of the lewis, which is to make the lifting of a stone easier or in the vernacular “to lighten the load”. The early Latin leuare, the Middle Latin levare, the Old French leveor, the Middle English levour and the modern English lever are all descendants of the Latin leuis and have the same meaning. Moreover, the Latin word leuis would be spelt as lewis in modern English.

It is of interest to note that by 1676 the Compagnonage, that is the brotherhood of masons who comprised the Compagnons du Tour or Travelling Masons of France, had changed their name for the lifting anchorage to louve, which means a she wolf, the feminine gender of loup meaning a wolf. It is said that the reason for the change being made was in allusion to the vice-like grip of a she-wolf’s jaws when angry. From that date onwards the Compagnonage also referred to the son of a mason as a louveteau meaning a wolf cub and to the daughter of a mason as a louvetine meaning a female wolf cub. It is believed that these two expressions owe their origin to a play on words, most probably prompted by a knowledge that in ancient Egypt a candidate in the Mysteries of Isis was required to wear the mask of a wolf, in deference to the wolf-headed god Upuaut, which signifies “he who opens the way” and is a very appropriate symbolism for a candidate in freemasonry. The god Upuaut was an important character in the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, he being the one who opened the mouth of a deceased person to release the soul and enable it to commence its journey through the underworld. Upuaut must not be confused with another Egyptian god of similar appearance, the jackal-headed god Anubis, which signifies “the Lord of the land”. It was Anubis whose duties followed those of Upuaut, conducting the deceased’s soul through the underworld to be judged. The soul was permitted to ascend to the heavenly duat only if found worthy.

The lifting device

In its usual form the lewis is comprised of two iron or steel wedges separated by an iron or steel spacing plate which, when assembled together, form a dovetailed tenon that can be fitted into a dovetailed mortice cut in a stone to receive it. The cross-section of the spacing plate usually is three times as wide as it is thick and its length usually is about four times its width. Each wedge has the same length and width as the spacing plate, but its thickness varies. About a quarter of the length of each wedge at its upper end has the same cross-section as the spacing plate. However, the lower three quarters of the length of the wedge is tapered, but only on the outer face that will be in contact with the stone when the wedges have been placed back to back with the spacing plate between them. The slope of the taper is such that the lower end of each wedge is one and one half times as thick as it is at the upper end. Matching holes are provided in the upper ends of the two wedges and the spacing plate, so that a shackle bolt can be inserted through them after the lifting device has been assembled in the dovetailed mortice cut in a stone to receive it. The shackle bolt holds the three pieces in their correct positions when the lifting tackle is attached. In ancient times the lifting tackle would have been supported from a tripod or a guyed gin pole, but nowadays a mobile crane generally would be used for lifting. When two wedges and a spacing plate of these proportions have been assembled in this fashion, the cross-section of the device at the upper end of the tapered section is a rectangle with sides of four units and three units, whilst the cross-section at the lower end is a square with sides of four units, thus forming a dovetailed tenon.

It is obvious that, if a tapered hole of these dimensions is cut into a stone to form a dovetailed mortice, the two wedges can be inserted into the hole when placed back to back. If the wedges are moved apart after they have been inserted into the mortice, the spacing plate can then be inserted between them. A suitable working tolerance is allowed in the cross-sectional dimensions of the mortice, so that the components of the device can be inserted and removed easily. The mortice is made a little deeper than the length of the tapered wedges that form the tenon, so that after lifting the stone the device can be tapped down into the mortice to free the spacing piece, which can then be removed to allow the wedges to be taken out. When a mortice is being cut into a stone it is commenced as a rectangular hole that is usually three units by four units in cross-section. The hole is continued with these dimensions until it has reached the required depth. The sides of the hole that are four units wide are then progressively undercut, so that at the full depth of the mortice its cross-section is a square with sides of four units.

Although the lewis is a simple device to use, the location of the mortice that must be cut into the stone to receive it is of utmost importance. It is preferable to use a single lifting point when this is practicable, because it will allow for the simplest arrangement of the lifting tackle that is possible, permitting the stone to be rotated and swung into position with the least difficulty. To achieve this, the mortice should be located directly above the centre of gravity of the stone. If the stone is square or oblong in plan the location of the mortice is easy to determine, because it is at the intersection of the diagonals. If the stone is a T-shaped footing corner stone it can still be lifted from a single point if it is not too heavy, but greater skill is required to determine the required location of the mortice. When a stone of awkward shape is required to be lifted, great care must be exercised and at least two lifting points must be provided. For example, when lifting an L-shaped elbow square corner stone two lifting points are required, one at the midpoint of each of the two legs.

The stonemason must exercise considerable skill when determining the actual dimensions of the device, the direction in which the mortice must be oriented and the direction towards which it must be expanded at the bottom. If the device is too small, it will pull out when the stone is being lifted. If the mortice is oriented or expanded in the wrong direction, the stone may split when being lifted. If the stone is too soft or is badly laminated it may not be suitable for the use of a lewis. The occurrence of any of these events could result in irreparable damage to the stone and necessitate the preparation of an expensive replacement. Great skill and care therefore is required when determining the optimum size of the device, as well as the number and locations of the lifting points, especially if the stone is awkwardly shaped, very large or unusually heavy. The construction of the temples at Baalbek, outlined in the following section on the history of the lewis, provides some impressive examples of the skills exhibited by freemasons in their use of the lewis.

The history of the lewis

Wide-ranging archaeological investigations have confirmed that the Romans used the lewis extensively, long before the Christian era, but we do not have specific evidence that the builders who preceded them also used the lewis. However, having regard to the extraordinary building skills displayed by the ancient Egyptians and the Phoenicians in particular, the Romans probably acquired the art from them. As earlier archaeological investigations tended to concentrate on the recovery of artifacts, evidence of the use of the lewis could easily have been overlooked. Some interesting examples of the known use of the lewis by the Romans include the construction of the colosseum in Rome, which was completed in 80 BCE; the construction of the amphitheatre in Pompeii, which was commenced in 70 BCE; and the construction of the temple at Baalbek which commenced in about 60 CE and continued until about 250 CE.

Baalbek is of special interest in relation to the use of the lewis because of the immense size and weight of the largest stones used in the Temple of Jupiter, which was the first of the Roman temples constructed there. The enormous stones necessitated the use of multiple anchorages to enable them to be lifted and placed into position. The largest of them were more than 20 metres long and square in cross-section with sides of almost 5 metres, weighing some 800 tonnes each and requiring at least 160 lifting points. One of these massive stones that did not pass inspection is still in the quarry a kilometre or so from the temple site. Other stones requiring skilful handling and multiple lifting anchorages were the ceiling slabs over the external colonnade in the Temple of Bacchus, which had to be lifted to a height of more than 25 metres. Those stones were 5 metres long, 3 metres wide and 1.2 metres thick, weighing 45 tonnes each. Various stones with multiple lifting anchorages are easily found among the ruins of Baalbek. Dr Friedrich Ragette, previously the Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut, discusses the use of the lewis in his interesting book entitled Baalbek.

The Romans introduced the lewis into Britain when they commenced the construction of Hadrian’s Wall to prevent the incursions of invaders from Scotland into England. This defensive fortification was commenced after the Emperor Hadrian visited England in 122 CE, was completed in about 80 years and was abandoned in 383 CE. An astute observer can still find mortices in many of the more massive stones in the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. Later, when Oswey was king of Northumberland, the Saxons used the lewis when they constructed the abbey at Whitby, which was founded by St Hilda in 657 to accommodate the monks and nuns of the Irish Church. Whitby Abbey was the chief seat of learning in the north of England, until the Danes destroyed it in the ninth century. After the construction of Whitby Abbey the lewis was used widely in England, but it was not known as a lewis until Dr James Anderson introduced the name from Scotland when preparing the second edition of the Book of Constitutions issued in 1738.


Although the lewis is a remarkably simple device, a great deal of skill and precision is required when fabricating its components and when locating and cutting the mortice in the stone. To choose the wrong size of the device; to choose the wrong location for the hole; to orient the undercutting of the hole incorrectly; or to fail to match the size of the mortice and its undercut surfaces accurately with the assembled tenon, at the very least would damage the stone, but even worse could split it or allow it to fall. Provided that everything is done correctly, the stone can be raised with ease, rotated as required and placed in position accurately and without damage. Symbolically therefore, the lewis comprehends the teachings of all the working tools of an apprentice freemason. It reminds us that knowledge, grounded on accuracy, aided by labour and sustained by perseverance will, in the end, overcome all difficulties, raise ignorance from despair and promote happiness in the paths of science. Furthermore, having regard to the way in which it is used, the lewis is a most appropriate symbol of strength.

It is clear from the derivation of its name that lewis, when used with reference to the son of a freemason, almost certainly originated with the Compagnonage or Travelling Masons of France. Many of the Compagnonage were engaged in Scotland on the construction of the Abbey of Kilwinning during the 1150s. The expression lewis, when used to distinguish the son of a freemason, was transmitted from operative freemasonry in Scotland to speculative craft freemasonry in England, possibly as early as during the seventeenth century in the north of England. However, as mentioned earlier, it was not until the eighteenth century that an eminent Scottish freemason established its presently accepted usage in England. The lewis is mentioned in the catechisms of speculative craft freemasons in England from the eighteenth century, when it was said to denote strength and to be depicted in a freemason’s lodge as a cramp of metal dovetailed into a stone. The catechisms define the duties of a lewis, as the son of a mason, to be:

“To bear the heavy burden of his aged parents, so as to render the close of their days happy and comfortable.”

The catechisms also define his privilege for so doing as:

“To be made a mason before any other person, however dignified by birth, rank or riches, unless he through complaisance waives this privilege.”

The references to a lewis that are found in modern speculative rituals are derived from these old catechisms. The lewis is also represented on most versions of the first tracing board, though it may not be immediately evident. The lifting rings that are the uppermost component of the lewis, to which the hoisting tackle can be attached, are usually to be seen protruding upwards from the rough and perfect ashlars depicted on the squared pavement. In modern speculative craft lodges, as well as the representation of a perfect ashlar on the first tracing board, a miniature perfect ashlar is often displayed suspended from a tripod by a cable and winch, the hoisting cable being connected to the stone by means of lewis. This perfect ashlar is customarily raised from its base when the first tracing board is displayed after the lodge has been opened, then set back on its base when the tracing board is covered after lodge has been closed. The raising of the perfect ashlar signifies that the lodge has been properly formed and that it has commenced labour. The lowering of the perfect ashlar signifies that the lodge has ceased labour and is going to refreshment.

An anachronism

In olden times, when an apprentice serving his indentures in a Scottish operative lodge failed to complete his practical training and could not pass his tests, he could not be recorded in the books as an Entered Apprentice. When this occurred the apprentice was released from his bond and thereafter was described in the old Scots tongue as a lowsance, which sometimes was spelled incorrectly as lousance. This old Scots word signified freedom from bondage, denoting liberty. It was derived from the verb lowse, which has a pronunciation midway between the words loose and louse in English. The verb lowse means to loose, to unyoke or to redeem. In common usage it was customary to use the verb lowse instead of the longer noun lowsance, which often happens in modern English.

In Scotland a lowsance was not precluded from all stonework but, like the cowan or dry-stone diker, he was not allowed to be engaged on any tasks requiring special skills, nor was he allowed to participate in any of the ceremonial work restricted to those who were in possession of the Mason Word. There is a curious error, which obviously is a clerical error, that is to be found in the Harris MS No 1 dating from the second half of the seventeenth century. It occurs in the rehearsal of the Charges to a Free Mason, where the charges refer to a Lewis incorrectly in the following statement:

“You shall not make any Mold, Square or Rule for any that is but a Lewis; a Lewis is such a one as hath served an Apprenticeship to a Mason but is not admitted afterwards according to this manner and Custom of making Masons.”

Clearly the Lewis that is referred to in this manuscript was used incorrectly and should have been written as a Lowse. The English draftsman obviously had been confused, because almost certainly he would not have known that in Scotland the verb lowse was commonly used in place of the noun lowsance.

An Anglo-Saxon lewis

Although lewis was not used in England in a masonic context until 1738, the word evolved in the Anglo-Saxon language with a very similar usage many centuries earlier. Britain is renowned for its interesting place names, the origins and evolution of which aptly illustrate the derivation, diversity and richness of the English language. Countless articles have been written on the subject, including an extensive series called Notes and Queries, which includes an article on Lewisham, a suburb of London south of the River Thames. The name literally means the home of Lewis, which is derived from the Old English ham meaning a home, whence hamlet also is derived and means a tiny village.

It is recorded in the Charter of Ethelbert, which is dated 862, that Lewisham was then known as Liofshema mearc, meaning the place of Liofshema, which is derived from the Old English mearc, meaning a boundary or a limit. This Ethelbert was not the famous sixth century King of Kent who became the first Christian ruler of Anglo-Saxon England, but the son of King Ethelwulf who became King Ethelbert I of England when his father died in 858. As Liof or leof means dear and sunu, suma or shema means son, the name Liofshema literally means “dear son”. By the seventeenth century the place name had been abbreviated to Lews’am, whence the present name of Lewisham evolved through changes of etymology. Thus the English word lewis evolved through Old English meaning “dear son”, while at the same time coming to us through Latin and French and denoting “son of a mason”.