My watch list  

Elias Ashmole


Elias Ashmole (23 May 1617 – 18 May 1692), the celebrated English antiquary, was a politician, officer of arms, student of astrology and alchemy, and an early speculative Freemason. He supported the royalist side during the English Civil War, and at the restoration of Charles II he was rewarded with several lucrative offices. Throughout his life he was an avid collector of curiosities and other artifacts. Many of these he acquired from the traveller, botanist, and collector John Tradescant the younger, and most he donated to Oxford University to create the Ashmolean Museum. He also donated his antiquarian library and priceless manuscript collection to Oxford.

Ashmole was above all an antiquary with a strong Baconian bent for the study of nature. His library reflects his intellectual outlook, being quite neatly divided between antiquarian subjects, such as English history, law, numismatics, and chorography, and more scientific ones, such as alchemy (which Ashmole exclusively practised as a form of chemical pharmacology — indeed, in his private writings attacked those fools who believed in the Rosicrucians), astrology (which he used to study the weather as well as comets), and botany.


Solicitor and royalist

Ashmole was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire. His life is a rags-to-riches exemplary story. His father, Simon, was a humble saddler with no recorded education, who left his wife and only son in poverty when Elias was a child. Ashmole attended Lichfield Grammar School and became a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral. In 1638, with the help of Pagit, he became a solicitor. He enjoyed a successful practice in London, and married Eleanor Mainwaring, a member of a poor but aristocratic family, who died only three years later. Still in his early twenties, Ashmole had taken the first steps towards status and wealth.

Ashmole supported the side of Charles I in the Civil War. At the outbreak of fighting in 1642, he left London for the house of his father-in-law, Peter Mainwaring, at Smallwood in Cheshire. There he lived a retired life until 1644, when he was appointed King's Commissioner of Excise at Lichfield. Soon afterwards, he was given a military post at Oxford, where he served as captain for the King's forces. In his spare time, he studied at Oxford University, probably as a gentleman commoner. There he acquired a deep interest in mathematical subjects, such as alchemy, astrology and botany. In late 1645, he left Oxford to accept the position of Commissioner of Excise at Worcester. (Excise Commissioners set taxes on specific locally-produced commodities; at that time, the division between official and personal property was not as rigorously observed as it is today, so such offices could be very lucrative to their holders.) Ashmole was given the additional military posts of Captain of the Horse and Comptroller of Ordnance, though he seems never to have participated in any fighting.



After the Royalist defeat of 1646, he retired again to Cheshire. During this period, he was admitted as a Freemason . His diary entry for 16 October 1646 reads in part: "I was made a Free Mason at Warrington, in Lancashire, with Coll: Henry Mainwaring, of Karincham, in Cheshire." Although there is only one other mention of Masonic activity in his diary he seems to have remained in good standing and well-connected with the fraternity as he was still attending meetings in 1682. On 10 March that year he wrote: "About 5 H P.M., I received a summons to appear at a Lodge to held the next day, at Mason's Hall, London." The following day, 11 March 1682, he wrote: "Accordingly, I went & about Noone were admitted into the Fellowship of free Masons." And, "I was the Senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since I was admitted)." And "We all dyned at the halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapside, at a noble dinner prepaired at the charge of the new-accepted Masons." Apart from these two, solitary entries in his autobiographical notes, there is no evidence whatsoever of Ashmole's involvement with early Freemasonry, whatever that was. Much has been speculated about Ashmole the Freemason; the evidence, however, is virtually non-existent.


In 1649, he married Mary, Lady Mainwaring (daughter of Sir William Forster of Aldermaston), a wealthy thrice-widowed woman twenty years his senior. She was a relative by marriage of his first wife's family and the mother of grown children. The marriage took place over the opposition of the bride's family, and it did not prove to be harmonious: Lady Mainwaring filed an unsuccessful suit for separation and alimony in 1657. The match, did, however, provide Ashmole with her first husband's estates centred on Bradfield in Berkshire which left him wealthy enough to pursue his interests without concern for his livelihood.

Alchemy and the Tradescant Collection


During the 1650s, Ashmole devoted a great deal of energy to the study of alchemy, which he understood as a new form of pharmacology which married herbal remedies to Paracelsian (ie salt-based) chemical compounds. In 1650 he published Fasciculus Chemicus under the anagrammatic pseudonym James Hasholle. This work was an English translation of two Latin alchemical works, one by Arthur Dee. In 1652, he published his most important alchemical work, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, an extensively annotated compilation of metaphysical poems in English. The book preserved and made available many works that had previously existed only in privately held manuscripts. It was avidly studied by other natural philosophers, such as Boyle and Newton.


Ashmole met the botanist and collector John Tradescant the younger around 1650. Tradescant had, with his father, built up a vast and renowned collection of exotic plants, mineral specimens and other curiosities from around the world. Ashmole helped Tradescant catalogue his collection in 1652, and, in 1656, he financed the publication of the catalogue, the Musaeum Tradescantianum. In 1659, Tradescant, who had lost his only son and heir ten years earlier, legally deeded his collection to Ashmole. Under the agreement, Ashmole would take possession at Tradescant's death. When Tradescant died in 1662, his widow Hester contested the deed, but the matter was settled in Chancery in Ashmole's favor two years later. Some scholars consider that Ashmole was an “ambitious, ingratiating” social climber who stole a hero's legacy.[1]. This old view, however, needs to be rejected in the light of the rediscovery of Elias Ashmole's library for the Ashmolean Museum. It consist of about 3,000 volumes, and was Ashmole's real legacy to his Museum, and to posterity. Due to the Victorian reorganisation of Museums, it was partly lost and misplaced, thus letting us believe that Ashmole had founded "his" Museum with someone else's collections. In fact, Ashmole's bequest to Oxford was well balanced: he left his huge antiquarian and scientific library, which Tradescant's natural objects were meant to complement. In Ashmole's vision, knowledge of nature could only be attained by marrying bookish knowledge to observations and experiments. His books (and those of others who soon started to leave their libraries to the Ashmolean Museum) were meant to provide bookish knowledge; Tradescant's (and further acquisitions) would provide natural objects to observe; the laboratory for chemical experiments, which Ashmole had insisted Oxford should give the Ashmolean, was going to be the place for experiments. Seen from this new perspective, Elias Ashmole's modernity appears clearly. The Ashmolean Museum, therefore, justly bears his name.


At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Ashmole's loyalty was richly rewarded. He was given the office of Comptroller for the Excise in London, and later was made a Commissioner of Surinam and the Accountant General of the Excise, a position that made him responsible for a large portion of the king's revenue. These posts yielded him considerable income as well as considerable patronage power.


Ashmole became one of the founding members of the Royal Society in 1661, but he was never an active member due to little free time. Ashmole's most remarkable involvement with the Royal Society was in conjunction with a project for the study of English weather. He recorded the weather, wind and general sky conditions every day for more than a decade. But since his weather collections ended up in the Ashmolean Museum Library, scholars have not been able to connect them to his work for the Royal Society. His most significant appointment, though, was to the College of Arms as Windsor Herald of Arms in Ordinary in 1660. In this position he devoted himself to the study of the history of the Order of the Garter, which had been a special interest of his since the 1640s.

In 1667, he began collecting information for his Antiquities of Berkshire and, five years later, published the fruits of years of research concerning The Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a lavish folio with illustrations by Wenceslaus Hollar. Ashmole performed the heraldic and genealogical work of his office scrupulously, and he was considered the leading authority on court protocol and ceremony. Ashmole's book on the Order of the Garter reflects his criticisms of Charles II's policies, which he coated in the allusive language of heraldry. Far from being supine to his master, Ashmole was a Constitutional Royalist who believed that the King should reign in harmony with Parliament.

In 1668, Lady Mainwaring died, and Ashmole married the much younger daughter of his friend and fellow herald, the antiquarian Sir William Dugdale. In 1675, he resigned as Windsor Herald, perhaps because of factional strife within the College of Arms. He was offered the post of Garter Principal King of Arms, but he turned it down in favor of Dugdale.

As might be expected of a herald, Ashmole possessed a coat of arms. In his case, he was entitled to one by descent from armigerous ancestors. This coat of arms is expressed in heraldic terminology (blazoned) as Quarterly sable and or with a fleur de lis or in the first quarter with a greyhound courant for the crest. In 1661, Ashmole was granted a new crest in place of the greyhound, one which reflected his interest in astrology: On a wreath sable and or the planet Mercury collocated in the middle of the caelestiall Signe Gemini proper his right hand extended toward heaven and left holding a Caducan rod or.

Ashmolean Museum

Main article: Ashmolean Museum


In 1677, Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant Collection, together with material he had collected independently, to Oxford University on the condition that a suitable home be built to house the materials and make them available to the public. The Ashmolean Museum, designed by Christopher Wren, was completed in 1682. According to Anthony Wood, the collection filled twelve wagons when it was transferred to Oxford. It would have been more, but a large part of Ashmole's own collection, destined for the museum, including coins, medals, antiquities, books, manuscripts and prints, was destroyed in a disastrous fire in the Middle Temple on January 26, 1679.

Ashmole's health began to deteriorate in the 1680s, and though he would hold his excise office until he died, he became much less active in affairs. He began to collect notes on his life in diary form to serve as source material for a biography; although the biography was never written, these notes are a rich source of information on Ashmole and his times. He died in Lambeth on May 18, 1692. He was buried at South Lambeth Church. Ashmole bequeathed his library and his priceless manuscript collection to Oxford.

Michael Hunter, in his entry on Ashmole for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, concluded that the most salient points of Ashmole's character were his ambition and his hierarchical vision of the world — a vision that unified his royalism and his interests in heraldry, genealogy, ceremony, and even astrology and magic. He was as successful in his legal, business and political affairs as he was in his collecting and scholarly pursuits. His antiquarian work is still considered valuable, and his alchemical publications, especially the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, preserved many works that might otherwise have been lost. He formed several close and long-lasting friendships, with John Aubrey for example, but, as Vittoria Feola has observed, "antiquity was his master passion".


A note on sources: Both Garnett's 1891 entry in the DNB and Michael Hunter's 2004 entry in the ODNB agree on the facts of Ashmole's life. Hunter's is, however, more detailed and makes use of a wider range of sources and benefits from more current scholarship. Beresiner's article has additional details on Ashmole's connection with early Freemasonry.The most recent intellectual biography of Elias Ashmole is Vittoria Feola's doctoral thesis, "Elias Ashmole and the Uses of Antiquity", University of Cambridge, 2005.

  • Beresiner, Yasha (2004). "Elias Ashmole: Masonic icon." MQ Magazine, Issue 11, October 2004.
  • Churton, Tobias (2004). Magus: The Invisible Life of Elias Ashmole. (Oxford, England: Signal Publ. Co.)
  • Coil, Henry Wilson (1961, repr. 1996). "Ashmole, Elias;" Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, pp. 72–73 (Richmond, VA: Macoy Publ. Co. Inc.).
  • Feola, Vittoria (2005) The recovered library of Elias Ashmole for the Ashmolean Museum in the University of Oxford", Bibliotheca 1 (2005): 259-278.
  • Garnett, Richard (1891, repr. 1973). "Ashmole, Elias (1617–1692)." Dictionary of National Biography (London: Oxford University Press).
  • Hunter, Michael (2004). "Ashmole, Elias (1617–1692)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (London: Oxford University Press).
  • The Tradescant Collection (2002). Oxford: Ashmolean Museum.
  • Godfrey, Walter, Wagner, Anthony, and London, H. Stanford (1963). The College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street : being the sixteenth and final monograph of the London Survey Committee, (London), (contains a biographical list of officers of arms)
  • Webster, Charles (1970). "Ashmole, Elias". Dictionary of Scientific Biography 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0684101149. 
NAME Ashmole, Elias
SHORT DESCRIPTION English antiquary, politician, officer of arms, student of astrology and alchemy
DATE OF BIRTH 23 May 1617
PLACE OF BIRTH Lichfield, Staffordshire
DATE OF DEATH 18 May 1692
PLACE OF DEATH Lambeth, London, England
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Elias_Ashmole". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE