Elias Ashmole


Elias Ashmole : biography

23 May 1617 – 18 May 1692


Ashmole embarked on further catalogues, including one of the Roman coin collection of the Bodleian Library, which he finally completed in 1666 after eight years of work. It may have taken so long because Ashmole’s progress was interrupted by the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, when Ashmole’s loyalty was richly rewarded with political offices. He was appointed Secretary and Clerk of the Courts of Surinam and Comptroller of the White Office. While these two titles do not seem to have provided either an income or any specific duties,Josten, vol. I, pp. 137, 153 he was also given the office of Commissioner and then Comptroller for the Excise in London, and later was made the Accountant General of the Excise, a position that made him responsible for a large portion of the King’s revenue. These latter posts yielded him considerable income as well as considerable patronage power.

The King commissioned Ashmole to prepare a catalogue of the coins and medals held in the Royal Collection, and appointed him to the commission responsible for tracing items from the collection which had been dispersed or sold by the parliamentary regime. Ashmole also appears to have been involved in the organisation of the coronation, or at least set himself up as an expert upon it.

Elias Ashmole wearing a [[tabard as Windsor Herald, painted by Cornelius de Neve in 1664.Private Collection of Sir William Dugdale, Blyth Hall, Warwickshire.]]

Ashmole became one of the founding members of the Royal Society in 1661, but he was not a very active member. His most significant appointment was to the College of Arms as Windsor Herald of Arms in Ordinary in June 1660. In this position he devoted himself to the study of the history of the Order of the Garter, which had been a special interest of his since the 1650s, and proposed a design for the Royal Society’s coat of arms.

By 1665, he was collecting information for his county history, The Antiquities of Berkshire; and in 1672 he published The Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a lavish folio with illustrations by Wenceslaus Hollar, for which he had conducted years of research. An earlier attempt to promote himself as the official historiographer of the order had failed but this work firmly established Ashmole as an expert. He had written a large part of it in 1665 while living in the country to escape the Great Plague which was then raging in London.Josten, vol. I, pp. 155–156 Presentation copies sent to the foreign members of the order were reciprocated by gifts of gold insignia from the King of Denmark, the Elector of Brandenburg and the Elector Palatine. Ashmole performed the heraldic and genealogical work of his office scrupulously, and he was considered a leading authority on court protocol and ceremony.

On 1 April 1668, Lady Mainwaring died, and on 3 November the same year Ashmole married Elizabeth Dugdale (1632–1701), the much younger daughter of his friend and fellow herald, the antiquarian Sir William Dugdale. All of Elizabeth’s pregnancies ended in stillbirths or miscarriages, and Ashmole remained childless.Josten, vol. I, pp. 172–173, 219, and 243 In 1675, he resigned as Windsor Herald, perhaps because of factional strife within the College of Arms.Josten, vol. I, p. 195 He was offered the post of Garter Principal King of Arms, which traditionally came with a knighthood, but he turned it down in favour of Dugdale.

Ashmole’s coat of arms is here shown in the first and last quarters of the shield. His crest placed the god Mercury between the twin constellation of Gemini (here used as supporters).

Ashmole possessed his own coat of arms. In his case, he was entitled to one by descent from armigerous ancestors, expressed in heraldic terminology as Quarterly gules and or a fleur de lis argent in the first quarter with a greyhound courant for the crest. After the Restoration, Ashmole was granted a new crest in place of the greyhound, one which reflected his interest in astrology: On a wreath sable and or the planet Mercury collocated in the middle of the caelestiall Signe Gemini proper his right hand extended toward heaven and left holding a Caducan rod or. The new grant also altered the tinctures of his arms to quarterly sable and or a fleur de lis in the first quarter.Josten, vol. I, pp. 114–115, 131