The historical importance of this early record does not
lie in what Ashmole did. He did, after all, nothing more
than record his initiation. The importance lies in this being
the first evidence of the initiation of an English speculative
mason. That is notwithstanding the fact that those present
and listed would have certainly have been initiated at an
Yet, because of the very limited detail in the entry, there
have been as many questions raised, as have been resolved,
by this historic event. The most interesting argument still
extant is the exact nature of the Lodge in which Ashmole
There is little dispute that, with the possible exception of
Richard Ellom (sic) who styled himself a ‘Freemason’ in his
will, those present did not belong to the stonemasons trade.
The Lodge, however, will have consisted of several additional
members not present at the initiation and who may well have
been working operative stonemasons.
This may be read in the context of the London Masons
Company, which Ashmole was to attend in 1682 and which
is discussed in further detail below. There are also interesting
hints at the nature of Masonic activity at the time.
Colonel Henry Mainwaring, with whom Ashmole was
initiated, was a Roundhead parliamentarian friend, related to
Peter Mainwaring, Ashmole’s father-in-law and Warrington
was at this time a parliamentary stronghold. The implication
is that Freemasonry, from these very early days, recognised no
The structure of the Lodge is also hinted at by the signifi-
cant reference to Richard Penkett as a Warden (if one overlooks
the unsubstantiated suggestion that Warden was
Richard Penkett’s last name). Furthermore, the conclusion
has been reached that Ashmole took his obligation not on a
bible, but on what is now known as the Sloane Manuscript
No. 3438. The text to the manuscript was written by an
Edward Sankey, related to the Richard Sankey mentioned
by Ashmole, who signed and dated the ancient charge ‘16
October 1646’. It was probably expressly composed for the
ceremony of Ashmole’s initiation.
An interesting problem arose with the first printed edition
of his diaries in 1717, published to coincide with the formation
of the first Grand Lodge. The printed text differs from
the manuscript version in a minor detail. It reads: ‘The names
of those that were then at the Lodge’ instead of ‘then of the
lodge’ as written by Ashmole.
The difference is significant, the former version implying
that those present were not members of the Lodge. There are
two perennial questions raised with regard to Ashmole’s initiation.
Why did he join? And why is there no other mention
of Freemasonry in his extensive diaries until his visit to
London in 1682?
The answer may lie in that Freemasonry was not an organisation
of consequence. Ashmole joined because by nature he
was a joiner. He could not have resisted the temptation to discover
the nature of what even then was a mysterious association,
and he may well have found nothing of consequence
in the fraternity. It is also possible that he may have attended
meetings unrecorded in his annotations until the summons
to the Masons Company in London.
Ashmole was an extraordinarily accomplished man. By
1648 he had extended his studies in astrology and anatomy to
botany and alchemy. This last subject, which was to occupy
him considerably, culminated in several publications, the first
in 1650 under the pseudonym of James Hasolle.
This was followed by two further well-known works:
Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum in 1652 and The Way to
Bliss in 1658. Much has been written of Ashmole’s undoubted
fascination with esoteric and hermetic studies. He often
consulted oracles and chose Mercury as his personal sign.
He also became the spiritual son of William Backhouse who,
in 1653, bequeathed him the secret of ‘the true Matter of the
Philosopher’s Stone’. Yet Ashmole made a point of not allowing
his enthusiasm for alchemy to obscure his factual historical
research, and he never saw himself as a practicing alchemist.
He specifically stated that he never went past the stage of
speculative enquiry. Ashmole’s many lawsuits – as he says in
preface to The Way to Bliss – deprived him of the tranquillity
of mind he wanted in order to pursue alchemy. There is no
evidence that Ashmole’s hermetic and esoteric interests
extended into his restricted involvement with Freemasonry.
Ashmole’s loyalty to the King paid off with the Restoration
of Charles II in 1660. A year later he was nominated Windsor
Herald, where he was registrar and treasurer 1688-1671.
It is here that he wrote the monumental publication The
Institution, Laws & Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the
Garter, completed in 1672.
It was also as Windsor Herald that he saw himself qualified
to propose the design for the coat of Arms of the Royal
Society, of which he was elected a member in January 1661,
a few months after the Society’s foundation. His submission,
inspired by the biblical reference in Amos 7, vv. 7&8 had, in
the use of the plumb rule, also Masonic connotations of which
Ashmole would no doubt have been aware.
The drawing shows a shield divided into two, the upper
half with the Royal coat of arms on the top lefthand side.
A hand protruding from a folded sleeve holds a plumb rule
between thumb and index finger descending into the lower
half of the arms.
At the base the legend Rerum Cognoscere Causas, abbreviated
from Virgil’s full sentence: felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere
causas which translates: happy the man who could learn the
causes of things.
Web site created by Mark Griffin