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  Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), by John Riley, 1683 Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), by John Riley, 1683
Ashmole, Elias (1617–1692), astrologer and antiquary, was born on 23 May 1617 at Lichfield in Staffordshire, the son of Simon Ashmole, a saddler, and his wife, Anne, daughter of Anthony Bowyer, a Coventry draper whose family was of gentry status. Ashmole's grandfather Thomas Ashmole had been a person of standing in the city, but his father punctuated his not particularly successful career as a saddler with bouts of soldiering in Ireland and on the continent. Ashmole received his initial education at Lichfield grammar school and was also a chorister at the cathedral.

In 1633, when he was sixteen, he was given the opportunity to go to London as a companion to the sons of a distant relative of his mother, James Pagit, a baron of the exchequer. He exploited the useful stepping-stone to preferment with which her genteel connections provided him by taking up the potentially lucrative profession of the law, which he began to practise in 1638. On 27 March 1638 he married Eleanor (1603–1641), daughter of Peter Manwaring of Smallwood, Cheshire, from an impoverished gentry family.

Astrology and alchemy

Though hardly, if at all, involved in the fighting, Ashmole's sympathies in the civil war were unreservedly royalist, and this loyalism was to characterize his entire subsequent career. In 1644 he was appointed royalist excise commissioner for Lichfield, taking up a similar commissionership for Worcester in 1645; in 1645 he also accepted the post of gentleman of the ordnance in the garrison at Oxford, though he mainly devoted his time there to study, being linked with Brasenose College. It was apparently at this time that he became interested in astrology, in which he was encouraged by George Wharton, the leading royalist astrologer of the time, whom he met in March 1645 and at whose suggestion he had been offered his ordnance post. In 1646 he was introduced to William Lilly, with whom he was to strike up a lifelong friendship despite the fact that Lilly was at that time writing astrological predictions strongly favourable to the parliamentarians. Indeed, Ashmole's first appearance in print comprised translations of two prophetic works which appeared in Lilly's The Worlds Catastrophe (1647).

From this time on, for the rest of his life, Ashmole was to spend hours in astrological pursuits. Among his papers are preserved thousands of notes in which he sought horoscopic elucidation about the propitiousness of the heavens at a certain time for a particular action. He also took a strong interest in magical sigils, often cast at astrologically propitious times. In addition, he noted that on 16 October 1646 he was admitted to a masonic lodge at Warrington, the earliest such reference known in England; later, he recorded his attendance at a lodge held at Masons' Hall in London in 1682.

Ashmole's first wife died on 6 December 1641. In 1649 he married a rich widow, Mary, Lady Mainwaring (1597–1668), daughter of Sir William Forster of Aldermaston and widow of Sir Thomas Mainwaring, recorder of Reading, who had died in July 1646. Though disagreements between him and his second wife were to lead to lawsuits in the 1650s, this prudent match provided Ashmole with a steady income which allowed him (in his own words) to ‘be enabled to live to my selfe & Studies, without being forced to take paines for a livelyhood in the world’ (Autobiographical and Historical Notes, 1.47). It also made it possible for him to start collecting books, scientific instruments, and the like, and to patronize others who shared his interests.

The years around 1650 saw a climax in Ashmole's interest in alchemy, the earliest evidence of his interest in which dates from 1648. In 1650, under the pseudonym James Hasolle, he brought out Fasciculus chemicus, a translation of two Latin alchemical works, one of them by Arthur Dee, son of the famous Elizabethan magus John Dee. Then, in 1652, he brought out his great Theatrum chemicum Britannicum, a collection of alchemical poems in English designed to supplement the massive European Theatrum chemicum (1602 and subsequent editions) and to draw attention to English achievements in the field. Ashmole put much effort into collecting together and annotating these texts and his book remains one of the key sources for the history of alchemy, putting into print numerous works that had previously existed solely in manuscript. He also included an introduction which illustrates his wide reading of relevant writings and his understanding and acceptance of the principal tenets of alchemy. Though little evidence survives to indicate the extent to which Ashmole himself engaged in practical alchemical operations, he prided himself on his place in the oral tradition of alchemical secrets. In the early 1650s he refers to himself as a pupil of the adept William Backhouse, and in 1653 he notes that Backhouse, ill and thought to be close to death, passed on to him the secret of the philosopher's stone. Later there are indications that he in turn passed on such secrets to Robert Plot, first keeper of the Ashmolean.

Ashmole produced a further alchemical volume, The Way to Bliss, in 1658, but a projected second volume of the Theatrum chemicum Britannicum never materialized. Though he remained casually concerned with alchemy for the rest of his life, the level of his activity in this field in the early 1650s was not paralleled thereafter. The topics in which he maintained a more continuous interest were the three to which (perhaps significantly) he devoted the longest extraneous excursuses in his notes to the Theatrum. One was magic and the efficacy of magical sigils; the second was astrology, there defended at length for all affairs of life; and the third, linked to this, was John Dee, a figure of unfailing interest to Ashmole, who devoted a lengthy section in the Theatrum to him and later considered writing his biography.

Curiosities and antiquities

In the early 1650s Ashmole was cataloguing the renowned collection of rarities assembled by the Tradescant family, then housed at the residence of John and Hester Tradescant at Lambeth. He had first visited the Tradescant collection in 1650 and in 1652 undertook to catalogue it in conjunction with the physician Thomas Wharton, finishing the work later that year although it was not published until 1656. Not only did Ashmole jointly write this earliest published catalogue of an English cabinet of curiosities, he also paid the expenses of the work. It seems to have been this above all that sealed the link between him and the Tradescants and resulted in the gift to him of their collection by a deed dated 16 December 1659, though Hester Tradescant was to dispute this on the death of her husband in 1662. A chancery suit ensued, which was adjudicated in Ashmole's favour in 1664, but relations between the two continued to be strained until Hester's death in 1678.

From the mid-1650s Ashmole became increasingly concerned with antiquarianism and especially with heraldry, interests for which before this date there is little evidence. This probably owed at least something to the fact that about 1655 Ashmole met the great antiquary , with whom he established a close relationship. After the death of his second wife, on 1 April 1668, he married Dugdale's daughter Elizabeth (1632–1701) on 3 November the same year.

Ashmole shared with Dugdale an interest in heraldry, but his own special antiquarian enthusiasm was for the history of the Order of the Garter. Not only was this the oldest chivalric order in Europe, it was also a quintessentially royalist cult, and Ashmole's championship of it in the interregnum might be seen as a deliberate espousal of monarchist values in defiance of the prevailing republican regime. When writing up his notes after the Restoration he claimed that he began work on his history of the order in 1655, explaining how concerned he had been about its ‘low esteem among us’, and how anxious he was to provide a ‘Formulary’ for posterity of both the legal and the ceremonial aspects of the order. Much of Ashmole's dense archival research for the project was done in the late 1650s—research manifesting an appreciation of the significance of documentary sources that undoubtedly owed much to Dugdale. In these same years Ashmole also spent much time (some of it with Dugdale) travelling around the country making ‘church notes’ on coats of arms and epitaphs; he thereby served an apprenticeship in heraldry which made him rapidly expert on the rules and technicalities of pedigrees and descents.

In 1658 Ashmole embarked on a further antiquarian task, the cataloguing of the Bodleian Library's collection of Roman coins, which he undertook at the behest of Thomas Barlow, Bodley's librarian. This ‘very laborious worke … which he did with his owne hand’ (Autobiographical and Historical Notes, 4.1394), though begun in 1658, was not completed until 1666, Ashmole's progress in the project being slowed by his official commitments after the Restoration. It was probably partly as a reward for this that the degree of MD was conferred on him by the University of Oxford in 1669.

Activities after the Restoration

Ashmole celebrated the Restoration by publishing a congratulatory poem, Sol in ascendente, and for him, as for many royalists, the Restoration ushered in a new era of public activity. On 3 September 1660 he was granted the office of comptroller of the excise for the City of London, and in June 1668 he became accountant general of the excise, an office involving the supervision of one of Charles II's chief sources of revenue. The emoluments of these posts made him better off than ever. He was also provided with further forms of patronage through the offices of the excise to which he had the right of appointment.

The early years of the Restoration saw Ashmole executing various tasks at the behest of Charles II. In 1660 he was given the job of preparing a catalogue of the king's coins and medals, while in 1662 he was a member of a commission for tracking down the valuables of Charles I, dispersed or sold by order of the parliamentary regime in the late 1640s. His precise part in planning Charles's coronation in 1661—the most lavish English coronation up to that time—is uncertain: Sir Edward Walker was officially responsible for the ceremony, but Ashmole collected accounts of previous coronations and he may have assisted Walker in its planning. He certainly contributed retrospectively to the propaganda value of the coronation, for a narrative of it by him was appended to John Ogilby's The Entertainment of his Most Excellent Majestie Charles II in his Passage through the City of London to his Coronation (1662). In 1661 Ashmole published a list of peers of the realm in order of precedence, and it is clear that he was regarded as an expert adviser on rules of protocol after the Restoration, to whom courtiers and others frequently applied for advice. In addition Ashmole made his personal contribution to the re-establishment of Anglicanism by presenting new service books to the cathedral of his native city of Lichfield in 1662.

The Restoration also saw Ashmole taking an official role as a herald. On 18 June 1660 he was appointed Windsor herald at the College of Arms, the same day that his friend Dugdale, who was already Chester herald, was appointed Norroy king of arms. For the next decade and a half, Ashmole took part in the heralds' official activities, assisting in the revival of their traditional functions which had suffered some neglect during the interregnum. He also played a part in the system of heraldic visitations that was revitalized (not least due to Dugdale's initiative) after the Restoration. Ashmole's own copy of his ‘Visitation of Berkshire’, executed in 1665, illustrates the painstaking care which he took in his heraldic duties: the original manuscript of this survives, in addition to a defective edition of it published in 1719. He was also energetic in collecting subscriptions for the rebuilding of the College of Arms after it was destroyed in the fire of London in 1666. All this activity continued until 1675 when, evidently disillusioned by factional strife within the college, Ashmole resigned as Windsor herald and, despite pressure from many in high places, refused to take heraldic office of any kind thereafter.

Ashmole's other chief concern in the years following the Restoration was with the revival of the Order of the Garter. His extensive researches during the later years of the interregnum made him an obvious candidate for consultation on the procedural details of the lavish Garter processions mounted after the Restoration. He also drafted the royal warrant for the replacement of Garter plate in the early 1660s, and, though his application in 1660 to become official historiographer of the order came to nothing, he continued to work on his definitive history of the order. This finally appeared in 1672 as The Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a lavish folio densely packed with detail about the history and personnel of the order, and attractively illustrated with plates by Wenceslaus Hollar. On the book's appearance Ashmole was warmly commended by the duke of York, while copies which he sent to foreign members of the order—complete with specially printed personal dedications—brought him gratifying compliments: the king of Denmark, the elector of Brandenburg, and the Elector Palatine all presented him with gold insignia, which are preserved at the Ashmolean Museum.

In the 1670s Ashmole continued to be as interested as ever in astrology and magic. His astrological expertise was exploited by Charles II and his courtiers, who applied to Ashmole for astrological elucidation of questions concerning the outcome of their negotiations with parliament at various points from 1669 to the 1680s, not least during such events as the exclusion crisis. He also remained interested in John Dee, a new climax in his concern with whom was stimulated by his acquisition in 1672 of hitherto unknown accounts of séances in which Dee was supposed to have indulged with angels, manuscripts which Ashmole greatly valued, studying and analysing them at length.

Ashmolean Museum and final years

It was also in the 1670s that Ashmole decided that a permanent home was needed for the curiosities that he had inherited from the Tradescants, and for his own collections. In 1675 he entered into negotiations with the authorities of the University of Oxford, possibly thereby realizing an ambition of the Tradescants themselves. He stipulated that he would bequeath the university his collections on condition that a proper building was erected to house them. The university accepted the offer and building was commenced in 1679, to be completed and opened in 1683 as the Ashmolean Museum—said to be the first public museum in modern Europe. The Ashmolean also served as the centre for the study of science in the university.

In fact not all of the collections that Ashmole intended for the museum ever reached it, for, although the Tradescants' rarities, together with Ashmole's books and manuscripts, were safely housed in Lambeth, others were kept at Ashmole's chambers in the Middle Temple, and on 26 January 1679 the great fire in the Middle Temple destroyed most of these. Some 9000 brass, copper, and silver coins and medals were lost or defaced, and the value that Ashmole attached to them is illustrated by the costly efforts he made to salvage their remnants from the wreckage of the building. Also destroyed were numerous printed books, many volumes of notes, and the bulk of his other collections, including his series of seals (presumably linked to his heraldic concerns) and his remarkable collection of prints. The latter included engravings of topographical subjects and of coronations, funerals, and other ceremonies in which Ashmole had a professional interest, while there was also a very extensive series of portraits of famous persons.

Hence, when Ashmole's collections were transported to Oxford in 1683 to be placed in the new museum, a higher percentage of the items involved came from the Tradescants than would otherwise have been the case, and this helps to explain why Ashmole has sometimes been criticized for taking an undeserved share of the credit for the collection. However, partly in 1687 and partly after Ashmole's death in 1692, the museum received such rarities as he had accumulated to replace his losses in the Middle Temple fire—over a thousand ancient and modern coins, various Roman antiquities, mineralogical and zoological specimens, and other curiosities—together with his huge accumulation of books and manuscripts. The latter, like his coins, had been collected since the late 1640s. His holdings mainly reflected the interests that have already been mentioned and included the entire literary remains of such eminent astrologers as Simon Forman, Richard Napier, John Booker, and William Lilly. Ashmole seems also to have acquired some items of purely bibliophilic interest, including various illuminated medieval manuscripts, of which he is one of the earliest collectors known.

Ashmole remained loyal to the city of his birth all his life, making various gifts to the city after the Restoration. In addition, in 1678 he stood unsuccessfully as candidate for Lichfield in a parliamentary election, and he would have stood again in 1685 had he not been commanded by James II to stand down. His health started to deteriorate in the early 1680s, and he became steadily less active in his later years, though he continued to be involved in governmental and courtly activity, while in 1685 he was called on by the archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, for advice on the coronation of James II. He survived the revolution of 1688 and retained his excise post under William III and Mary, relinquishing it only on his death. In 1690 he was entertained at Oxford in the museum bearing his name. He died at his house at Lambeth on 18 or 19 May 1692, and was buried at St Mary's Church, Lambeth, on 26 May.

Character and influence

Ashmole was a strong-willed, ambitious man, who knew exactly what he wanted in life, and who did not hesitate, when necessary, to have recourse to law to obtain it. His career was highly successful, not least because of the extent to which he benefited from his unswerving loyalty to the monarchy. His most lasting legacy was the museum which bears his name, which from the outset acted as a centre for the study of the natural world in Oxford and further afield. Though the core collection was that of the Tradescants, Ashmole's own contribution was significant, and would have been greater but for the regrettable losses in the Middle Temple fire. In addition, he is rightly remembered for his own writings. That which perhaps had greatest contemporary impact was his Institution … of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672), in which he consciously used his antiquarian researches to underwrite a traditionalist, hierarchical view of society. Equally significant was his Theatrum chemicum Britannicum (1652), perhaps the most important of all English alchemical publications. This reveals a hierarchical view of the universe mirroring his political views, but it also shows a deep awareness of the mysterious powers of nature, which a magus could exploit. In Ashmole's case, he deployed the insights that he derived from such knowledge both for his own benefit and in the service of his royal master, Charles II, through the astrological advice that he purveyed. Intellectual developments of his time may have presented a challenge to his view of the world, but Ashmole's magical concerns were completely compatible with the milieu in which he lived.

Michael Hunter


Elias Ashmole (1617–1692): his autobiographical and historical notes, ed. C. H. Josten, 5 vols. (1966 [i.e. 1967]) · M. Hunter and others, Elias Ashmole, 1617–92: the founder of the Ashmolean Museum and his world (1983) · W. H. Black, A descriptive, analytical and critical catalogue of the manuscripts bequeathed unto the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole, 2 vols. (1845–66) · A. MacGregor, ed., Tradescant's rarities: essays on the foundations of the Ashmolean Museum (1983) · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Ashmole · E. Millington, Bibliotheca Ashmoliana: a catalogue of the library of … Elias Ashmole [1694] [sale catalogue, Roll's Auction House, London, 22 Feb 1694]; repr. in A. N. L. Munby, ed., Sale catalogues of libraries of eminent persons, 11, ed. H. A. Feisenberger (1975), 13–35 · F. Bowers, ‘Ogilby's coronation Entertainment, 1661–89: editions and issues’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 47 (1953), 339–55 · John Ogilby's ‘Entertainment’, ed. R. Knowles, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies (1988) · F. S. Taylor, ‘Alchemical papers of Dr Robert Plot’, Ambix, 4 (1949–51), 67–76


AM Oxf., benefactors' book and catalogue of Bodleian coin collection · BL, astrological works and other papers, Sloane MSS 970, 2175, 3188, 3677–3679, 3822, 3856 · BL, statutes for the Ashmolean Museum, Add. MS 6214 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers; diary · Coll. Arms, MS C. 12 · Queen's College, Oxford, biographical note on knights of the Garter |  BL, corresp. with William Lilly, Add. MS 4293 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Anthony Wood · Bodl. Oxf., Stafford church notes with William Dugdale


W. Faithorne, engraving, c.1656, repro. in Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole, pl. 10 · C. de Neve, portrait, 1664, repro. in Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole, pl. 13 · J. Riley, portrait, 1683, repro. in Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole, pl. 19, 22 [see illus.] · Lely, drawing (of Ashmole?), repro. in Hunter and others, Elias Ashmole, cover [destroyed in Second World War] · engravings, repro. in Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole, pl. 15, 16