Ashmole, Elias

English historian, astrologer, alchemist and Freemason. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, to middle-class parents, Ashmole (1617–92) studied law and worked for a short time as a solicitor, then went up to Oxford in 1644, where he became a member of Brasenose College and studied astrology and mathematics. His studies were interrupted by the final phases of the English Civil War, and he served with distinction in the Royalist cause, helping defend Oxford and Worcester against Parliamentary armies.

After the final collapse of the Royalist cause in 1646, Ashmole went to live with relatives in Cheshire. While there, on October 16, 1646, he was initiated into Freemasonry, becoming one of the first two “accepted Masons” (Masons not employed in the building trades) in England; the other, initiated on the same evening, was his brother-in-law Henry Mainwaring. He remained active in Masonry for the rest of his life and appears to have played a significant role in its spread in seventeenth-century England. See Freemasonry.

As the chaos of the Civil War faded, Ashmole returned to scholarship and took up the study of alchemy. He collected many of the papers of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer and magus, and Dee’s alchemist son Arthur. In 1651 he became the “son,” or alchemical student-initiate, of the alchemist William Backhouse of Swallowfield, Berkshire. The next year he published the immense Theatrum Chymicum Britannicum, an invaluable anthology of English works on alchemy. In 1653, according to Ashmole’s diary, Backhouse told him the secret First Matter of the philosopher’s stone – though Ashmole, true to his alchemists’ oaths, did not write down the name of that elusive substance. See Alchemy.

Ashmole’s loyalty to the Royalist cause finally paid off in 1660, when Charles II returned from exile to receive the British crown. The new king, recognizing Ashmole’s scholarship, gave him the position of Windsor Herald, which allowed Ashmole to carry out the research that resulted in his magisterial 1672 work The Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Charles also gave his support to a project backed by Ashmole, among others: the foundation of “a College for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimen-tall Learning.” As a result, 1661 saw the establishment of the Royal Society, the first institute for scientific research in the modern world, with Ashmole as one of its founding members. See Order of the Garter; Royal Society.

From 1679 to 1683 Ashmole devoted his energies to another project of great historical importance, the founding of the first public museum of the natural sciences in Britain. The Ashmolean Museum was duly established in Oxford, where it remains today, one of the world’s most famous centers of scientific education. Throughout the last three decades of his life Ashmole also found time to support the rebuilding of Lichfield Cathedral, which had been wrecked by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. He died quietly in his sleep in London in 1693.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006