Here we have Churtons biography of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) “Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society”. Both Ashmole and Churton have lived in the city of Lichfield and Churton took it upon himself to not only clear the name of Ashmole of centuries of misinformation, but also to sift through archives for new information. The result is the interesting story of an interesting man.
After an introduction, we start in Ashmole’s early years of course. He had an overly stern father and a mother who tried to help him become an independent thinker within the range of her possibilities. Ashmole left his parental house as soon as he could (with a little help from his mother) only to loose his mother to the plague shortly after. This sets the tone of a life with highs and lows.
Ashmole lived in troubled times. There was a political war in which he served what later turned out to be the losing side. The Reformation took hold of religious life and its churches. There was the mentioned plague. Last but not least, the witch-craze started to develop as well, which made it hazardous to be interested in things such as alchemy, Rosicrucianism and the like.
Ashmole was mostly an antiquarian. He gathered information and objects and initially gathered that in books, towards the end of his life, he was found the very first public museum. Especially his successful book about the Order of the Garter made his name. He was quite familiar with other antiquarians and intellectuals of his time and had a bunch of long time friends even though he lived across the country.
Ashmole married three times, two wives he outlived. He could not really be without a partner, both for emotional and for financial reasons. He remained on good standing with his families in law, especially the first. He was even initiated into “Free Masonry” in 1646 together with a nephew of his first wife who had long passed.
The author looks at people close to Ashmole painting an interesting picture of early Freemasonry, but also of other pursuits that Ashmole was involved in, such as the Royal Society. Later in his life his name of “magus” did not have the negative marking it was likely to have in his days and even resulted in him being given a large part of the diaries of his big hero John Dee (1527-1608).
The not-so-good name that Ashmole still has, mostly comes from unjust legal actions against him. Some of his former family in law kept coming with new lawsuits over things that had been settled, but worse for his name was the incident in which he was given a large collection of rarities of a fellow collector, while by the time the man had died, his widow would accuse Ashmole of theft and also sue him. This suggestion of unjustly having acquired a large part of what would later become the collection of the Ashmolean Museum still stains his name. Churton sheds more light on these events.
Elias Ashmole was an interesting man with ideas that our quite ‘far out’ in our own time, but were less so in his own days. Also he was ahead of his time in his capacity as antiquarian, scientist and scholar.
2004 Inner Traditions, isbn 1594771227