Elias Ashmole is probably best-known today as the founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the oldest university museum in the world. As well as being a collector he was a politician, an astrologer, an alchemist, an officer of arms … and a Warrington freemason! In fact Elias Ashmole’s account of his initiation into freemasonry in Warrington in October 1646 is the first recorded account of an English speculative Freemason.
Elias was born in Lichfield on 23rd May 1617 into a family whose fortunes were in decline. His father Simon was an ex-soldier and saddle maker while his mother, Anne, was the daughter of a wealthy Coventry draper. They were, however, able to afford to send the young Elias to Grammar School in Lichfield.
In 1633 Elias moved to London where he qualified as a solicitor and soon established a successful legal practice. In 1638 he married Eleanor Mainwaring, a member of an aristocratic family from Cheshire, who unfortunately died in 1641.
Elias sided with the supporters of King Charles I during the English Civil War and left London for the house of his father-in-law, Peter Mainwaring of Smallwood in Cheshire. In 1644 he was appointed King’s Commissioner of Excise for Staffordshire and Lichfield and soon afterwards he was made ordnance officer for the king’s forces at Oxford. Joining Brasenose College he studied mathematics, physics, English history, law, numismatics, chorography, alchemy, astrology, astronomy and botany. Leaving Oxford in late 1645, he accepted a position as Commissioner of Excise at Worcester and as a Captain in Lord Astley’s Regiment of Foot. The regiment was part of the Royalist Infantry but his Elias’ mathematical skills meant he was seconded to artillery positions and he never seems to have seen active service.
His diary for the 24th June 1646 reads:
“Worcester surrendedred, and thence I rode out of the town according to the Articles and went to my Father Mainwaring in Cheshire.”
It was during this stay in Cheshire that Elias became a Freemason for his diary for the 16th October 1646 reads as follows:
“1646 October 16, 4.30 PM – I was made a Freemason at Warrington in Lancashire, with Colonel Henry Mainwaring of Karincham in Cheshire. The names of those that were then of the Lodge (were) Mr Rich Penket, Warden; Mr James Collier, Mr Rich Sankey, Henry Littler, John Ellam, Rich Ellam and Hugh Brewer.”
It is thought that many of those attending the Lodge that day were relations of Ashmole and appear to have been local figures as their surnames are still found in the Warrington area.
There is also another mention of Masonic activity in his diary:
“March 10-1682 – about 5 PM I received a summons to appear at a lodge to be held the next day at Mason’s Hall London. Accordingly I went and about noon were admitted into the fellowship of the Freemasons: Sir William Wilson Knight, Captain Rich Borthwick, Mr Will Woodman, Mr William Grey, Mr Samuel Taylor and Mr William Wise. I was the senior fellow among them (it being 35 years since I was admitted). There were present beside myself the fellows after named: Mr Thomas Wise, Master of the Masons Company this year; Mr Thomas Shorthouse, Mr Thomas Shadbolt Wainsford Esquire, Mr Nicholas Young, Mr John Short Shorthouse, Mr William Hamon, Mr John Thompson and Mr William Stanton. We all dined at the Half Moon Tavern in Cheapside, at a noble dinner prepared at the charge of the new-accepted Masons”.
The almost 35 year gap between diary entries on freemasonry have led some historians to believe that he was not an active freemason but the fact that he was summoned to attend a meeting in the prestigious Mason’s Hall would suggest that he was well-regarded by his fellow masons.
Ashmole married again in 1649 but the marriage was not a happy one and his second wife Mary soon filed suit for separation and alimony. The marriage did provide Ashmole with extensive estates in Berkshire which left him wealthy enough to pursue his many interests.
Upon the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Ashmole’s loyalty to the crown was richly rewarded with political offices. He became Commissioner and then Comptroller for the Excise in London and later the Accountant-General of the Excise. This position made him responsible for a large portion of the King’s revenue, gave him a considerable income and allowed him an important power of patronage.
Throughout his life Elias was an avid collector of curiosities, many of which he acquired from the traveller, botanist and collector John Tradescant the Younger. His library reflected his intellectual outlook and his interests, particularly the antiquarian, mystical and scientific studies of the time. He was one of the founding Fellows of the Royal Society, a key institution in the development of experimental science.
Elias Ashmole died at his house in Lambeth on 18th May 1692 aged 76 years and was buried in St Mary’s Church yard in Lambeth on 26th May. He bequeathed most of his collections to the University of Oxford to create the Ashmolean Museum while the bulk of his antiquarian library now resides in the nearby Bodleian Library.
You can learn more about Freemasonry at our Masonic Tercentenary Display at the museum until Saturday 6th January 2018. Alternatively why not visit the nearby Warrington Museum of Freemasonry – see http://museum.westlancsfreemasons.org.uk/displays/visiting/for details.