Elias Ashmole

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AshmoleRiley.jpg
Portrait of Elias Asmole c. 1681 by John Riley. Now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Elias Ashmole (May 23, 1617May 18, 1692) was an antiquarian, collector, politician and student of astrology and alchemy. 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 books, manuscripts, curiosities and other artifacts, most of which he donated to Oxford University to create the Ashmolean Museum.

Contents

Solicitor and royalist

Ashmole was born in Lichfield. His family had been prominent, but its fortunes had declined somewhat by the time of Ashmole's birth. His father, Simon Ashmole, was a soldier and a saddler; his mother Anne was a relative of James Pagit, a Baron of the Exchequer. 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 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 devoted most of his time to study and acquired a deep interest in alchemy, astrology and magic. He studied physics and mathematics at Brasenose College, though he did not formally enter as a student. In late 1645, he left Oxford to accept the position of Commissioner of Excise at Worcester.

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 (the earliest documented admission of a Freemason in England), though he seems to have participated in Masonic activity on only one other occasion.

In 1649 he married Mary, Lady Mainwaring (nee Forster), 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, leave Ashmole 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. 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 alchemical poems in English. The book preserved many works that previously existed only in manuscript, and was avidly studied by other alchemists.

In 1653, the alchemist William Backhouse, who had made Ashmole his alchemical "son," confided the secret of the Philosopher's Stone (a substance or object that had the power to convert base metals to gold, among other mystical virtues) to Ashmole when he believed himself to be close to death. Ashmole is said to have passed the secret on in turn to Robert Plot, the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Ashmole published his final alchemical work, The Way to Bliss, in 1658. There is no evidence of him personally carrying out any alchemical operations.

Ashmole met the botanist and collector John Tradescant 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 did die in 1662, his widow Hester contested the deed, but the matter was settled in Chancery in Ashmole's favor two years later.

Restoration

With 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. His most significant appointment, though, was to the College of Arms as Windsor Herald 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 1650s. In 1672, he published the fruits of his years of research, 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 ceremonial.

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 King of Arms, but he turned it down in favor of Dugdale.

Though his interest in alchemy cooled somewhat after the 1650s, he never lost interest in magic and astrology. He was often consulted on astrological matters by Charles II and members of his court. In 1672, he acquired some of John Dee's previously unknown spiritual diaries describing his conferences with angels. He devoted much time and energy to the intensive study of these manuscripts, and contemplated writing a biography of Dee.

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 heirarchical 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 we 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 Richard Garnett has observed, "Acquisitiveness was his master passion."

References

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.

  • Beresiner, Yasha (2004). "Elias Ashmole: Masonic icon." (http://www.mqmagazine.co.uk/issue-11/p-06.php) MQ Magazine, Issue 11, October 2004.
  • 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 (http://www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk/ash/amulets/tradescant/tradescant00.html) (2002). Oxford: Ashmolean Museum.

External links

  • Two letters to Elias Ashmole from Sir Thomas Browne (1658 and 1674) about Arthur Dee available at Wikisource (http://sources.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Arthur_Dee)
  • Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (http://dewey.library.upenn.edu/sceti/printedbooksNew/index.cfm?textID=ashmole&PagePosition=1) (1652) from the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image at the University of Pennsylvania Library.
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