It may be said that never in the annals of Freemasonry
has so much been attributed by so many to one man: Elias
Ashmole. Yet Ashmole’s own direct patronage of the Craft
was minimal at best. Why then the attention? And, more
intriguingly, why should a man of Ashmole’s standing
become a Freemason in the first place?
Ashmole was born in modest surroundings on 23rd May
1617 at Lichfield, Staffordshire. The well-respected family
was not wealthy and the young Elias was an ambitious man.
He pursued, from a young age, a diversity of interests that
were to become the hallmark of his life. He also pursued
money and wealth and his second marriage in 1649 to Lady
Mainwaring, 20 years his senior, was the transparent fulfilment
of his ambition.
He was now able to begin to amass the large collections of
manuscripts, coins, astrological and archaeological specimens
and medical artefacts of which we are today the beneficiaries.
In 1675 his whole collection was donated to Oxford
University and the world-famous Ashmolean Museum,
the first museum in Great Britain, opened its doors.
By 1633 the talented 16-year-old had finished music school
in his home town to find himself following a legal career in
London. This served him well. Ashmole was constantly
embroiled in litigation, which he invariably won.
The culmination of his legal career was the prestigious
admission to the Middle Temple in 1657. By age 25 Ashmole
appears to be retired. Having given up his legal activities
he returned to Peter Mainwaring’s house in Smallwood,
Cheshire in 1642 just as the Civil War was about to engulf
He spent the next few years in leisure, composing poetry,
reading and acting as legal consultant. Ashmole was a staunch
Royalist and in May 1644 he was appointed a Collector of
Excise and sent to Oxford where he decided to remain.
His name is closely associated with Brasenose College,
although he does not appear to have graduated from Oxford
University, being given an honorary degree later in life.
During the course of 1645 and 1646, crucial years in the
Civil War, Ashmole’s political and military careers developed
on parallel lines.
In May he was appointed as one of the King’s Gentlemen
of the Ordnance of the Garrison. In December 1645 Charles I
appointed him commissioner, receiver and registrar of excise
of the City and County of Worcester.
In March 1646 he was made Captain of the Foot by Lord
Astley, commander of the Royalist infantry. Two months
later, as Assistant Master of Ordnance, Ashmole witnessed the
surrender of Worcester to Cromwell’s forces and the final
defeat of King Charles in September 1646.
It was during this lull that he took a six-month ‘break’
returning to Smallwood and on 16 October 1646 he was
made a Freemason in Warrington. His initiation took place
at 4.30 in the afternoon. The precise time can be given thanks
to what are known as the Elias Ashmole diaries, but were in
fact biographical annotations.
Ashmole only began the chronological ‘collection of
occurrences and accidents for my life’ on 26 December 1679.
It was intended as source material for a future biography,
which never materialised.
He did keep a cipher diary between 1645 and 1649 in
which his initiation is recorded; otherwise the entries prior to
1679 were inserted from memory. His last diary entry is dated
1692. In the whole of his extensive manuscript annotations
there are only two references to his Masonic activities, dated
1646 and 1682. The first 10-line entry is lucid and typical
of his entries:
1646 Oct. 4H.30pm I was made a Free-Mason at Warrington
in Lancashire with Coll. Henry Mainwaring of Karincham in
Cheshire. The names of those that were of the Lodge, Mr Rich:
Penkett Warden. Mr James Collier, Mr Rich Sanchey, Henry
Littler, John Ellam, Rich: Ellam, Hugh Brewer. continue
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