23 May 2017

Elias Ashmole, a celebrated
son of Lichfield, was born 400
years ago on 23 May 1617

Elias Ashmole was born 400 years ago on 23 May 2017 … a statue on the side of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks the fourth centenary of the birth of an amazing and at times enigmatic son of Lichfield. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), the founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, was born at 5 Breadmarket Street in Lichfield 400 years ago on this day, 23 May 1617.

Elias Ashmole was a celebrated English antiquary, politician, herald, genealogist, astrologer and alchemist. Ashmole supported the royalist side during the English Civil War, and at the restoration of Charles II he was rewarded with several lucrative offices.

His library reflected his wide range of interests, including history, law, numismatics, chorography, alchemy, astrology, astronomy, and botany. He was one of the founding Fellows of the Royal Society and an early freemason, and his interests ranged from the antiquarian and the mystical to the scientific. An avid collector of curiosities and artefacts, he donated most of his collection, his library and his manuscripts to the University of Oxford to create the Ashmolean Museum.

Throughout his life, he returned constantly to Lichfield, and twice he stood without success in parliamentary elections, hoping to become MP for Lichfield.

Elias Ashmole’s birthplace at No 5 Breadmarket Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Ashmole was born in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield. His mother, Anne, was the daughter of a wealthy Coventry draper, Anthony Bowyer. His father, Simon Ashmole (1589-1634) was a saddler and been a soldier in Ireland during the Earl of Essex’s campaign. His grandfather Thomas Ashmole had been Mayor or senior bailiff of Lichfield in 1604 and 1612, and sheriff of Lichfield in 1593, and his uncle, also Thomas Ashmole, was Mayor in 1651 and Sheriff in 1638 and 1660.

He was given the name Elias, the Latin form of the name of the prophet Elijah, by his godfather Thomas Otley, the sacrist of Lichfield Cathedral.

The young Elias Ashmole attended Lichfield Grammar School (now King Edward VI School) and was a chorister in Lichfield Cathedral, where he was taught singing by the composer Michael East, who was the master of the choristers, and keyboard music by Henry Hinde, the cathedral organist.

Ashmole left Lichfield in 1633 to live in London. He qualified as a solicitor in 1638, and that year he married Eleanor Mainwaring (1603-1641) from Cheshire. Eleanor died while pregnant three years later on 6 December 1641, and Ashmole threw himself into the political and military conflicts of the day.

He supported Charles I throughout the Civil War. At the outbreak of fighting in 1642, he moved to Cheshire, and in 1644 he was appointed the King’s Commissioner of Excise at Lichfield.

From Lichfield he moved to Oxford, where he became an ordnance officer in the King’s forces. While he was in Oxford, he studied mathematics and physics at Brasenose College, where he had lodgings.

He seems never to have taken part in any actual fighting during the Civil War, and after the surrender of Worcester in July 1646, he retired to Cheshire. On his way, he returned to Lichfield, where his mother had died three weeks earlier from the plague.

His first wife, Mary Lady Mainwaring, was a daughter of Sir William Forster of Aldermaston. When they married in 1649, she was 20 years older than him, had been widowed three times, and she was wealthy. The marriage was not a happy one, but when Lady Mainwaring sued for separation and alimony, her case was dismissed by the courts in 1657. Ashmole was now wealthy enough to pursue his interests, including botany and alchemy.

The former Lichfield Grammar School, where Ashmole was a schoolboy, now houses the chamber of Lichfield District Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Ashmole was rewarded richly for his loyalty and was appointed Secretary and Clerk of the Courts of Surinam and Comptroller of the White Office, Commissioner and then Comptroller for the Excise in London, and later Accountant-General of the Excise. He was also involved in organising the coronation.

He was appointed to the College of Arms in 1660 as Windsor Herald. Ashmole performed his heraldic and genealogical duties scrupulously, and in 1663 he was back in Lichfield when he was involved in the Visitation of Staffordshire, which was carried out by the antiquarian and the Norroy King of Arms, Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686).

Dugdale was assisted by two heralds who were born in Lichfield and educated at Lichfield Grammar School – his clerk, Gregory King (1648-1712), who later became Lancaster Herald and a pioneering statistician, and Dugdale’s future son-in-law, Elias Ashmole.

Dugdale and Ashmole, undoubtedly, were familiar with the career of William Comberford: Dugdale had been commissioned in 1641 to make a copy of all the monuments in the main English cathedrals and churches, including Lichfield Cathedral and Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, and received his MA at Oxford with William Comberford in November 1642; William Comberford was also involved in the Civil War in Lichfield while Ashmole was the King’s Commissioner of Excise at Lichfield.

At the time of the Visitation of Staffordshire, William Comberford’s brother, Robert Comberford, was 69 and living at Comberford Hall. On the first day of the Visitation in Lichfield, on 30 March 1663, Robert certified the pedigree for the Comberford family of Comberford, and furnished Ashmole with many of the details of the family.

However, Sydney Grazebrook, who edited the Visitation for publication by the Harleian Society, insightfully asks why Robert Comberford failed to furnish a number of pertinent particulars, including the full name of his father-in-law. In addition, it might be asked why he failed to provide dates of death for his brothers and sisters, or particulars of their marriages and children, some of which ought to have been known to both Ashmole and Dugdale, and all of which would have helped avoid confusion to later generations tracing the family tree.

Ashmole presented the magnificent Ashmole Cup to Lichfield in 1666, and it remains in the civic collection of plate and insignia.

The former Lady Mainwaring died on 1 April 1668, and seven months later, on 3 November, Ashmole married Elizabeth Dugdale (1632-1701), the much younger daughter of his friend and fellow herald Sir William Dugdale. In 1675, he resigned as Windsor Herald, perhaps because of factional strife within the College of Arms. He was offered the post of Garter Principal King of Arms, but turned down this offer in favour of Dugdale.

Ashmole stood as a candidate in the 1678 by-election caused by the death of Richard Dyott. During the campaign, Ashmole’s cousin, Thomas Smalridge, who was his campaign manager, fell ill and died. Ashmole did not visit the constituency, and he lost the election to Sir Henry Lyttelton.

After the Restoration, Ashmole had presented new prayer 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.’

Ashmole still appears to have had an urge to return to Lichfield, and once again in 1685 he stood as an election candidate. But he stood aside at the request of James II. On election day, all votes cast for Ashmole were declared as votes for the King’s candidate, and through this ruse Richard Leveson was elected MP for Lichfield.

Elizabeth’s pregnancies all ended in stillbirth or miscarriage, and Ashmole never had any children. He died at his house in Lambeth on 18 May 1692, and was buried at Saint Mary’s Church, Lambeth, on 26 May. He bequeathed the remainder of his collection and library to Oxford for the Ashmolean Museum, which is considered by some to be the first truly public museum in Europe.

Lichfield Grammar School in Saint John Street, where Ashmole went to school is now the Chamber of the Lichfield District Council Chamber, and Ashmole’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street is now a solicitor's office, marked by a stone plaque.

Later this year, to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth, Lichfield Cathedral is hosting an exhibition, ‘Discovering Elias Ashmole.’ The exhibition, from 19 October 2017 to 18 February 2018, offers an opportunity to find out more about the life and times of this celebrated son of Lichfield.

Elias Ashmole’s statue at the south-east corner of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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