Elias Ashmole

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Elias Ashmole : biography

23 May 1617 – 18 May 1692

The Restoration led to the re-establishment of the Church of England, and Ashmole presented new service books to Lichfield Cathedral. In 1684, Dugdale wrote to his son-in-law that "the vulgar sort of people" were not "yet weaned from the presbyterian practises, which was long prayers of their own devising, and senseless sermons".Josten, vol. IV, p. 1742 Like many royalists, Ashmole’s circle was contemptuous of non-conformity. Though Ashmole was "one of the earliest Freemasons, [and] appears from his writings to have been a zealous Rosicrucian", John Gadbury wrote that "Anthony Wood hath falsely called him a Rosicrucian, Whereas no man was further from fostring such follies."Josten, vol. I, pp. 681–682 Ashmole’s involvement with Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism may have been social or the interest of an antiquarian, rather than born out of any religious fervour. However, the notion of a repository of universal knowledge is described in Rosicrucian writings and this idea may have partly inspired Ashmole’s desire to found a great museum.

Wealthy collector

Frontispiece to Ashmole’s translation of [[Fasciculus Chemicus.]] [[Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652), Ashmole’s annotated compilation of alchemical poems in English.]] In 1646–47, Ashmole made several simultaneous approaches to rich widows in the hope of securing a good marriage. In 1649, he married Mary, Lady Mainwaring (daughter of Sir William Forster of Aldermaston), a wealthy thrice-widowed woman twenty years his senior.She was the widow of Sir Edward Stafford (d. 1623), John Hamlyn (d. 1633) and Sir Thomas Mainwaring (d. July 1646), recorder of Reading, Berkshire (Josten, vol. I, p. 43). She may have been a relative by marriage of his first wife’s family and was the mother of grown children. The marriage took place over the opposition of the bride’s family, and it did not prove to be harmonious: Lady Mainwaring filed suit for separation and alimony but it was dismissed by the courts in 1657. Nevertheless, the marriage provided Ashmole with Mary’s first husband’s estates centred on Bradfield in Berkshire which left him wealthy enough to pursue his interests, now including botany and alchemy, without concern for his livelihood. He arranged for his friend Wharton to be released from prison and appointed him to manage the estates.

During the 1650s, Ashmole devoted a great deal of energy to the study of alchemy. In 1650, he published Fasciculus Chemicus under the anagrammatic pseudonym James Hasolle. This work was an English translation of two Latin alchemical works, one by Arthur Dee, the son of John Dee. In 1652, he published his most important alchemical work, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, an extensively annotated compilation of metaphysical poems in English. The book preserved and made available many works that had previously existed only in privately held manuscripts. There is little evidence that Ashmole conducted his own alchemical experiments. He appears to have been a collector of alchemical writings and a student of alchemy rather than an active practitioner, and refers to himself as a pupil of William Backhouse. His final alchemical publication was The Way to Bliss in 1658, but thereafter his interest seems to wane in favour of his other pursuits. Ashmole promoted the use of therapeutic remedies drawing on both Galenic and Paracelsian principles, and his works attempt to merge the two schools. The Way to Bliss recommends ways to prevent illness: a balanced diet, moderate exercise and enough sleep. (pdf) His works were avidly studied by other natural philosophers, such as Isaac Newton.

Ashmole met the botanist and collector John Tradescant the younger around 1650. Tradescant had, with his father, built up a vast and renowned collection of exotic plants, mineral specimens and other curiosities from around the world at their house in Lambeth. Ashmole helped Tradescant catalogue his collection in 1652, and, in 1656, he financed the publication of the catalogue, the Musaeum Tradescantianum. In 1659, Tradescant, who had lost his only son seven years earlier, legally deeded his collection to Ashmole. Under the agreement, Ashmole would take possession at Tradescant’s death. When Tradescant died in 1662, his widow, Hester, contested the deed, claiming her husband had signed it when drunk without knowing its contents, but the matter was settled in Chancery in Ashmole’s favour two years later. Hester was to hold the collection in trust for Ashmole until her death. Ashmole’s determined aggressiveness in obtaining the Tradescant collection for himself has led some scholars to consider that Ashmole was an ambitious, ingratiating social climber who stole a hero’s legacy for his own glorification. (Subscription required)