Elias Ashmole


Elias Ashmole : biography

23 May 1617 – 18 May 1692

Ashmolean Museum

John Riley, c. 1683.Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.]] The Old Ashmolean Building, now the [[Museum of the History of Science.]] The main entrance of the current Ashmolean Museum building.

In 1669, Ashmole received a Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Oxford. He maintained his links with the University and, in 1677, Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant Collection, together with material he had collected independently, to the University on the condition that a suitable home be built to house the materials and make them available to the public. Ashmole had already moved into the house adjacent to the Tradescants’ property in 1674 and had already removed some items from their house into his. In 1678, in the midst of further legal wrangling over the Tradescant Collection, Hester was found drowned in a garden pond. By early 1679, Ashmole had taken over the lease of the Tradescant property and began merging his and their collections into one.Swann, pp. 40–54 The Ashmolean Museum was completed in 1683, and is considered by some to be the first truly public museum in Europe.Unlike previous collections assembled by aristocrats, the museum was open to anyone, regardless of rank, who could afford the entrance fee (Swann, pp. 40–54). According to Anthony Wood, the collection filled twelve wagons when it was transferred to Oxford. It would have been more, but a large part of Ashmole’s own collection, destined for the museum, including antiquities, books, manuscripts, prints, and 9,000 coins and medals, was destroyed in a disastrous fire in the Middle Temple on 26 January 1679.Ashmole’s collection had escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666; it was evacuated by barge before the fire reached the Temple precincts, which were, in any case, largely spared from the fire (Josten, vol. I, p. 158). As a result of the fire, the proportion of the collection derived from the Tradescants was larger than originally anticipated and in the opinion of Professor Michael Hunter this misfortune has contributed to criticisms that Ashmole took an unfair share of the credit in assembling the collection at the expense of the Tradescants.

In 1678, Ashmole stood as a candidate in a by-election for the Lichfield borough parliamentary constituency caused by the death of one of the two incumbent members. During Ashmole’s campaign his cousin, Thomas Smalridge, who was acting as a kind of campaign manager, fell ill and died. Ashmole did not visit the constituency, and, as Ashmole’s own horoscope had predicted, he lost the election.Josten, vol. I, pp. 220–225 He also put himself forward as a candidate in the general election of 1685. Surviving documents indicate that he was the most popular candidate, but after King James II requested he stand down (in an age when monarchs were likely to interfere with parliamentary elections), Ashmole did so. On election day, all the votes cast for Ashmole, instead of being declared invalid, were declared as votes for the King’s candidate, and only as a result of this ruse was the candidate favoured by the Court (Richard Leveson) elected.Josten, vol. I, p. 268

Ashmole’s health began to deteriorate in the 1680s and, though he would hold his excise office throughout the reign of James II and retained it after the Glorious Revolution until his death, he became much less active in affairs. His home cures included hanging three spiders around his neck which "drove my Ague away".Probably live spiders trapped inside nutshells (Josten, vol. IV, p. 1680). He began to collect notes on his life in diary form to serve as source material for a biography; although the biography was never written, these notes are a rich source of information on Ashmole and his times. He died at his house in Lambeth on 18 May 1692,According to his tombstone and a Treasury warrant, or 19 May according to John Gadbury (Josten, vol. IV, pp. 1889–1890). and was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth on 26 May. Ashmole bequeathed the remainder of his collection and library to Oxford for the Ashmolean Museum. Two-thirds of his library now resides in the Bodleian at Oxford; its separation from the museum collection in the Victorian era contributed to the belief that Ashmole designed the museum around the Tradescant collection, rather than his own. Ashmole’s widow, Elizabeth, married a stonemason, John Reynolds, on 15 March 1694. They had no children and on her death seven years later the house and lands in Lambeth passed into Reynolds’s hands.Josten, vol. I, pp. 300–301

Vittoria Feola, in her recent monograph, Elias Ashmole and the Uses of Antiquity (Paris, 2013) has described Ashmole as an antiquary first and foremost, who understood the value of the New Science, which he promoted through his Museum. Feola, however, has warned that antiquity was Ashmole’s greatest passion, as well as his main tool for self-fashioning. Michael Hunter, in his entry on Ashmole for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, concluded that the most salient points of Ashmole’s character were his ambition and his hierarchical vision of the world—a vision that unified his royalism and his interests in heraldry, genealogy, ceremony, and even astrology and magic. He was as successful in his legal, business and political affairs as he was in his collecting and scholarly pursuits. His antiquarian work is still considered valuable, and his alchemical publications, especially the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652), preserved many works that might otherwise have been lost. He formed several close and long-lasting friendships, with the astrologer William Lilly for example,Samuel Pepys describes in his diary an evening at Lilly’s house on 24 October 1660, where Pepys met Ashmole and thought him "a very ingenious gentleman". but, as Richard Garnett observed, "acquisitiveness was his master passion".Garnett, Richard (1891, repr. 1973). "Ashmole, Elias (1617–1692)." Dictionary of National Biography (London: Oxford University Press).