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It was formed in Ireland in 1797, two years after the formation of the Orange Order in Daniel Winter's cottage, Loughgall, County Armagh. The society is formed from Orangemen and can be seen as a progression of that Order although they are separate institutions. Anyone wishing to be admitted to the Royal Black Institution must first become a member of an Orange Order Lodge, and many are members of both. The Royal Black is often referred to as the senior of the loyal orders.
Its headquarters are in Lurgan, County Armagh. Members of the Order refer to each other as "Sir Knight" whereas in the Orange Order members are referred to as "Brother" or "Brethren". The Order's basis is the promotion of scripture and the principles of the Protestant Reformation. It has preceptories throughout the world, mainly in the major English speaking countries, and is particularly strong in Newfoundland.
In Northern Ireland it holds a very colourful annual parade in the village of Scarva, County Down on the 13th July (the day after the Orange Order's 12th July celebrations) and often has as many as 100,000 people in attendance. It is commonly referred to as The Sham Fight. The other major parade of the year is "Black Saturday", also known as "Last Saturday", held on the last Saturday in August at several locations throughout Northern Ireland. The Royal Black Institution has adopted a more conciliatory attitude to contentious parades than the Orange Order, and is less overtly political, though not without political influence.
Jarman and Bryan stated that the difference the Royal Black Institution and the Orange Order is that "The Black Institution is best understood as reflecting the more middle class, rural, respectable, even elite elements of Orangeism". The stronger emphasis on religion as opposed to politics or history is shown in their parade banners which usually depict Bible scenes rather than scenes from history.
The origins of the Institution are clouded with much secrecy however information does exist that demonstrates its true roots. The predominate Protestant church in the late 1700s was the Anglican (Church of England) which is know today as the Church of Ireland. Freemasonry in Ireland was then, as now, based in Anglican Dublin while in the North of the island Freemasonry was more closely linked to the Scottish rites and the Presbyterian Church, the black-mouths, a derogatory name given to those of Scots descent (from where the nickname used in Dublin to this day for Northern Ireland is the 'Black North'). Presbyterians were linked with their Catholic neighbours through the United Irishmen during the rebellions in Ireland in the 1700s and for this reason serving Freemasons, such as Dan Winters in County Armagh broke away to found an exclusively Protestant Masonic based organisation. This original organisation built upon the agrarian Orange Order by adding the obvious masonic degree of Arch-Purple. The deeply masonic links being the cause of the Orange Orders clear statement that the Arch-Purple Lodges are a separate organisation that has nothing to do with the Orange Order. To bring the middle class Protestants on-board the Black Institution was organised, following closely on the degrees and rituals used by the Scots Freemasons with their clear link to the Templar Lodges and Knights of Malta (mainly Catholic organisations). For some time there were two Black Orders operating in Ireland, the Anglican purely Protestant one and the original Scots Masonic Presbyterian one. A letter outlining the historically provable facts was published in the press during the early 1900s in Ireland. The aprons worn by the Order startd out as black but then became royal blue to make a further distinction between the two. The first warrant for the Black Order in Ireland was in fact issued by the Masonic Grand Lodge of Scotland and subsequently this Order disappeared underground leaving the Anglican Order that can be seen during the parades and exists around the world where Protestant Irish have emigrated over the years. The rule forbidding previous membership of any other order referred to the original Presbyterian and United Irishmen linked Order.
The Royal Black Institution possesses eleven initiatory degrees. These are, in order, the Royal Black degree, the Royal Scarlet degree, the Royal Mark degree, the Apron and Royal Blue degree, the Royal White degree, the Royal Green degree, the Gold degree, the Star and Garter degree, the Crimson Arrow degree, the Link and Chain degree, and the Red Cross degree.
Certain Preceptories (also known as 'Encampments') carry out specific ritualised 'travels' for their candidates. This means that the candidate takes on a mystical persona and undertakes a symbolic journey that is accompanied by the Lecturer narrating a story that has its origins in the Old Testament. The story is accompanied by the Chaplain reading portions of scripture from the Old Testament and the candidate performing various tasks that represent the main character in the scripture. In Preceptories that do make candidates travel this is normally for the first, sixth and eleventh degrees. Many Preceptories don't make candidates travel, this is only as the Lecturers need a large number of props and the tradition is dying out among younger Lecturers. In the first degree of Royal Black, for example, the candidate takes the role of the servant of Elijah in the book of Kings (1 Kings 8) and sets out in the traditional unshod, blindfolded and breasts bared state with a knapsack containing 12 stones over his shoulder. When Elijah climbs Mount Carmel he tells his servant to look over the sea and on the seventh time he returns he has seen 'a little cloud no bigger than a man's hand, coming up from the sea'. The candidate is led up a ramp at the top of which the blindfold is removed temporarily and he sees an illuminated left hand representing the cloud. The 'seventh time' also provides the candidate with the 'mystic' number of the Black Preceptory '7'. The significance of this can be seen when any candidate knocks on the Preceptory door to gain entrance or when a Knight arrives late to a meeting. The knock is given as two raps of three followed by one single rap as in 'tap tap tap - tap tap tap - tap'. During the course of this degree the candidate is also reminded of his own mortality and a symbolic link is made with Joseph with the candidate being shown a human skull below which are a pair of crossed femurs. This would remind readers of a skull and cross-bones pirate symbol but to the Black it is known as 'the Blackman's Crest'. The initiation is completed by the candidate drinking water from a vessel (usually water in place of wine as the black purports to be Christian and therefore no alcohol is permitted during the meeting at least). The vessel is referred to as 'the Mystic Cup' which is actually the crown of a human skull, the candidate only being shown this after completing the travel. One writer suggests that this ritual is the Ordeal of Bitter Water and while this 'may' be the origin of this ritual there is no eveidence to suggest so. As one who has taken part in this degree withn the black I can confirm that there is nothing but tap water in the 'cup'.
- A member of good standing in Loyal Orange Lodge
- Having read and understood the Rules of the Imperial Grand Black Chapter
- Belief in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as held by most of the Protestant churches
- At least 18 years of age, and have received the Royal Arch Purple Degree at least three months
- If married, wife is also a Protestant
- No previous membership in any other Association professing to be of the Black Order
- Never been proposed in, rejected by, or expelled from any Preceptory
Included in the admission application is a promise that if admitted one will "always conduct myself in a manner becoming the dignity of the Order, and I will never knowingly violate the Rules of the Grand Black Chapter".
The reasons behind the rule regarding other 'black' orders stem from the origins of the institution and its roots in Scots Freemasonry.
Sovereign Grand Masters
A list of Sovereign Grand Masters of the Royal Black Preceptory:
- 1846: Thomas Irwin
- 1849: Morris Knox
- 1850: Thomas Johnston
- 1857: William Johnston
- 1902: H. W. Chambers
- 1914: William Lyons
- 1924: William Allen
- 1948: Norman Stronge
- 1971: Jim Molyneaux
- 1995: William Logan
- 2008: Millar Farr