Anthony  D  Buckley

‘The Orange, Royal Arch Purple and Black Institutions and their degrees’.

Anthony D Buckley

Note in Ulster Folklife, 2001, 47, 82-84.


Ritual is central to the activity of the Orange Order and more especially to that of its sister institutions, the Royal Arch Purple Order and the Royal Black Institution.  Despite this, remarkably little has been published on the rituals of these bodies.  Important exceptions include the historical study of the Royal Arch Purple Order by Cargo, Kilpatrick and Murdie , and an article with the appropriately intriguing title, "Black, Scarlet, Blue, Royal Arch Purple or any other colour" by Kilpatrick .  Despite the efforts of these and other writers , there is indeed a remarkable ignorance of some basic facts about the religious life of these organisations.  In consequence, claims by these organisations that they are, at root, religious are often met with scepticism.

The purpose of this short note is to outline the organisational structure and to list the degrees of these three bodies.  Also given are the biblical texts that provide the basis for the different rituals of initiation, and the emblems associated with each degree.


The organisations

The Orange Order is organised into local Lodges.  Each Lodge elects its own officers, Worshipful Master, Deputy Master, Secretary, Treasurer, Chaplain and doorkeeper or Tyler.  Orange Lodges, however, are highly democratic, and the officers of a Lodge generally act only with the express agreement of the brethren.

Representatives of several Orange Lodges meet in a District Lodge, and the District Lodges in turn are represented at County Grand Lodge and Grand Lodge levels.  Each level of this hierarchy has officers comparable to those found in a local Lodge.  Despite this hierarchical structure, each local Lodge is highly autonomous.  The Order is organised from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Though most Orange Lodges are exclusively for men, there are also Women's Orange Lodges and Juvenile Orange Lodges.

The Royal Arch Purple Order. After some time as a member of the Orange Order, an Orangeman may be invited to join a Royal Arch Purple Chapter.  Typically, he will be asked to join a Chapter attached to his home Orange Lodge.  This Chapter will bear the same number as the corresponding Orange Lodge and it will draw on that Lodge for its members.  For example, a member of LOL 638 can join RAPC 638 , but he may join no other Chapter.  His Chapter, however, will have different officers from the corresponding Lodge.  In the same way as the Orange Order has a District, County and Grand levels of organisation, so too with the Royal Arch Purple Order.  However, the District Chapter, the County Grand Chapter and the Grand Chapter are organisationally separate - and have a different membership - from the equivalent Orange organisations.  The Royal Arch Purple Order is an exclusively male organisation.

The Royal Black Institution.  After a time in a Royal Arch Purple Chapter, a member is likely to be invited to join a Preceptory of the Royal Black Institution.  While an Orangeman can only join the Royal Arch Purple Chapter attached to his home Lodge, a Royal Arch Purpleman is free to join any Preceptory of his choice.  Here again, the Royal Black Institution, at local, District, County and Grand levels, is organisationally quite separate from comparable bodies in the Orange and Royal Arch Purple Orders.


The Degrees

Each of the three institutions that make up this Orange family of organisations has a strong religious component.  This is most notable in their rituals of initiation.  The Orange Order has comparatively simple rituals of initiation, though prayer and religious ceremonial are nevertheless a major focus for their activities.  The initiation rituals of the Arch Purple and the Black are much more intricate.  They are heavily rooted in imagery and narrative taken from the Bible.


The Orange Order

This order has two degrees, each with a comparatively simple ritual of initiation.

The Orange Degree, in the late eighteenth century, was based on the stories of the Passover and Exodus.  This ritual was simplified in 1800 and is now a simple catechism and address.

The Plain Purple Degree originally told of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the setting up of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  The colour Purple refers to the Blue, Purple and Scarlet curtains around the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 36 verse 8).  The ritual was simplified in 1820 and now consists of a simple session of questions and answers.

Emblems: King William, Crown, Bible


The Royal Arch Purple Chapter degree.

This order, open only to Orangemen, has only one degree.

Originally known as “Purple Marksman”, this degree was based on the story of the crossing of the Jordan and the leaving of a “mark” of twelve stones.  From the very early nineteenth century, it was extended to include material from the earlier Orange and Purple degrees.  It now tells of Jacob’s dream (Genesis, 25-28); the Exodus; the Ark; the arrival in the Promised Land (Book of Exodus); and the two and a half tribes who first crossed the Jordan (Joshua, 22).  The “Royal” in the order’s title refers not to British Royalty but to the “King of Kings”.

Emblems: arch; three stepped ladder; goat; five pointed star; (formerly) two and a half triangles; heart with sword; heart, cross and anchor; three branched candlestick; coffin; Bible; sun, moon and stars.


Royal Black Institution degrees

The Black Institution is open only to members of a Royal Arch Purple Chapter.  It has eleven degrees, each with a ritual associated with at least one Bible story: -

Royal Black Degree: - Joseph and his coat of many colours (Genesis, 37-50); The Exodus (Book of Exodus); Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings, 16-19).

Emblems: skull and cross bones; coffin; hand; burning bush.

Royal Scarlet Degree: - Joshua, Rehab and the battle of Jericho (Joshua, 2 and 6).

Emblem: trumpets; the Ark of the Covenant.

Royal Mark Degree: - The crossing of the Jordan (Joshua, 3 and 4).

Emblems: 12 stones.

Apron and Royal Blue Degree: - Solomon and the building of the temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings, 5-8; 2 Chronicles, 2-8).  The wise men and slaughter of the innocents (Matthew, 2).

Emblems: square and compasses; plumb; level; apron.

Royal White Degree: - David and Goliath (1 Samuel, 17-18).

Emblems: five stones; a sling.

Royal Green Degree: - Adam and Eve (Genesis, 2-3); Noah’s Ark (Genesis, 6-9).

Emblems: gardeners’ tools; Noah’s ark; dove.

Royal Gold Degree: - Two and a half tribes creating a separate altar in Gilead (Joshua, 22).

Emblem: Gold crown.

Star and Garter Degree: - Melchizedek and the priesthood of all believers (Exodus, 28; Hebrews, 7; Revelation, 5)

Emblem: Seven-pointed star.

Crimson Arrow Degree: - Jehu’s purge (2 Kings, 10-12).

Emblems: arrow; arrow through heart.

Link and Chain Degree: - Daniel, his dreams, Belshazzar’s feast; Daniel in the lions’ den  (Daniel, 2, 3, 5 and 6).

Emblem: balance.

Red Cross Degree: - The death and resurrection of Christ (John, 19-21; the New Jerusalem (Revelation, 21).

Emblem: red cross.