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.
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 the country.
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.
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 earlier date.
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 was initiated.
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 political boundaries.
The structure of the Lodge is also hinted at by the significant 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.
The official design of The Royal Society, however, is not that designed by Ashmole. But he was a founding member of The Royal Society, whose first president, Sir Robert Moray, had been initiated five years before Ashmole.
In May 1641 Moray was serving with the Scottish forces besieging Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and on 20th May he was admitted a Mason at St Mary’s Chapel Lodge of Edinburgh, the first recorded Masonic initiation on English soil. It is interesting to speculate whether the two men discussed Freemasonry.
The second and only other Masonic mention in the 1,850- odd manuscript pages that comprise his annotations and diaries is dated 10th March 1682, 35 years after his initiation, and states:
About 5 pm I reced a summons to appr at a lodge to be held the next day at Masons Hall London
with an additional entry on the next day:
11th Accordingly I went & about Noone were admitted into the fellowship of Freemasons, Sir William Wilson Knight, Capt. Rich: Borchwick, Mr Will: Woodman, Mr Wm Grey, Mr Samuel Taylour & Mr William Wise. I was the senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since I was admitted). There were present beside myself the Fellowes after named. Mr Thos: Wise Mr of the Masons Company this present yeare. Mr Thomas Shorthose, Mr William Hamon, Mr John Thompson, & Mr Will: Stnaton. We all dyned at the Half Moone Tavern in Cheapside, at a Noble Dinner prepared at the charge of the New-accepted Masons.
The same questions arise in this instance as they did with regard to the first entry. What ceremony did Ashmole exactly attend? He was the senior Fellow among them, thus a speculative gathering in an operative environment of the Masons Company of London. Of the ten who ‘dyned at the Half Moone Tavern’ eight were operative Masons employed by Christopher Wren.
Ashmole ‘reced a summons to appr’ implying that he was known to be a Mason. The recorded ceremony of the ‘acception’ in the Masons Company has yet to be explained. It appears to be a ‘club within the club’ to which selected individuals were admitted as members.
Ashmole’s presence here may be seen as evidence, or at least suggest, that Ashmole’s own Lodge into which he was initiated in 1646 was of a similar composition, namely an operative lodge with non-Masons as members, and that the ceremony Ashmole experienced at his making was the same ‘acception’ ceremony that Ashmole was now attending in London. The arguments continue.
Once again, the first printed version of the diaries published in 1717 deviated from the original entry in a manner which was misleading at best. The word ‘by’ was inserted before Sir William Wilson, reading:
11th Accordingly I went, and about Noon were admitted into the fellowship of Freemasons, by Sir William Wilson…
This implies that the candidates or ‘newly accepted’ Masons were their own hosts, which was certainly not intended by Ashmole. James Anderson, in his second Book of Constitutions, published in 1738, makes an equally misleading statement. Paraphrasing Ashmole’s words, Anderson quotes him as saying ‘…when we admitted into the Fellowship…’ implying that Ashmole actively participated in the ceremony.
From 1675 Ashmole lived quietly in south Lambeth in the grounds that once belonged to the Tradescant family. For the next decade he continued writing, completing works on the Antiquities of Windsor and a Biography of John Dee. He also gathered material for various projects never completed.
John Hart, curator of the Worcester Museum, recently commented: “What a pity Elias Ashmole never anticipated Robert Gould and wrote a history of Freemasonry.”
However, Ashmole appears to have had plans for a history of Freemasonry, evidenced in several writings and references. All the more pity that this project never took off and that none of the material collected, outside of minor references to details of the Temple in Jerusalem, survived or has been located.
Elias Ashmole died on 18th or 19th May 1692, well into his seventies, and no doubt oblivious to the speculative legacy that was to follow his long and fulfilling life.
Selected Bibliography and Sources
Aligh Josten, Elias Ashmole, Oxford, 1966.
Churton Tobias, Elias Ashmole 1617-1692: Notes on his life with special attention given to his connections with Freemasonry & Rosicrucianism. Privately printed folio, 1992.
Ovenell R.F, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894, 1986.
Page Bryan F, Elias Ashmole: The First recorded English Freemason. Prestonian Lecture, 1988.
Rogers Norma, The Lodge of Elias Ashmole, 1646. AQC 65, 1952.
Rylands W H, Freemasonry in the 17th Century. Published in the Warrington Masonic Magazine, December 1881.
Scanlan Matthew, The Mystery of the Acception, Heredom Vol II, 2003.
Tuckett J E S, Dr Richard Rawlinson and the Masonic Entries in Elias Ashmole’s Diary. AQC 25, 1912.