Vol. XXV No. 10 — October 1947

Elias Ashmole

Interred in a tomb in the church of St. Mary, Lambeth — the Surrey side of the Thames — are the remains of Elias Ashmole. One wonders at times if they lie quiet or turn occasionally at the storm of suggestion, criticism, praise, blame, speculation, fancy, which two small entries in his diary have created in the Masonic world for the better part of a century and more.

Elias Ashmole was an English gentleman of parts and ability, reputation, education, and culture.

The eminent Irish Masonic authority W. J. Chetwode Crawley, wrote of Ashmole in 1898:

Elias Ashmole was born at Lichfield in 1617, just a hundred years before the birth of the Grand Lodge that has spread throughout the world the Speculative Freemasonry of which his Diary gives us the first assured notice. His father, a saddler by trade and a soldier by choice, was fain to secure a career for his son by entering him as a singing-boy in the Cathedral choir of his native city. The boy so profited by his education, that, on going to London, he succeeded in getting himself admitted as a Solicitor in 1638, at the earliest legal age. In the same year, he greatly bettered his social position by marrying the daughter of Peter Mainwaring, a Cheshire landowner.

When the Great Rebellion broke out, he abandoned the forum for the camp, and followed the King’s fortunes. At first, he served in the Ordnance at Oxford, but was shortly afterwards sent to Worcester as the King’s Commissioner of Excise and Revenue. He presently reappears with the rank of Captain in Lord Ashley’s Regiment. Reverting to his former corps, he advanced to the post of Comptroller of the Ordnance. It seems odd to read that amidst this bustle of war, he found means to enter himself at Brasenose College, Oxford, and to pursue, with no small success, studies that suited the future herald, rather than the present soldier, or the whilom solicitor.

On the surrender of Worcester in 1646, Ashmole (rid out of the Town, according to the Articles) and betook himself to his father-in-law in Cheshire. This was a momentous visit for Freemasons, for, while ensconcing himself from the Roundheads, he was made a Free-Mason at Warrington. From Cheshire he came to London, and grew into intimacy with the three most noted Astrologers of the time, Moore, Lilly and Booker. His first wife having died a few years after marriage, he contracted a second union with the widow of a wealthy City Knight, and stepped at once in affluence. After the Restoration, Ashmole was created Windsor Herald, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was honored with the Degree of M.D. by the University of Oxford.

On the death of his second wife, Ashmole took for a third the daughter of Sir William Dugdale, his chief friend. He had long since bid a civil farewell to the astrologers and alchemists who had been the friends of his middle life. In 1682, he again attended Lodge, this time in London, and left in his Diary the only record of the meeting, just as he had done for the Lodge at Warrington thirty-five years before. In 1683, he bestowed on the University of Oxford the magnificent collection known as the Ashmolean Museum, which he had spent half his lifetime in amassing.

He died in 1692, having led a life of almost bewildering diversity. Chorister, Solicitor, Artilleryman, Commissioner of Excise, Cavalry Captain, Astrologer, Alchemist, Botanist, Antiquary, Historian, Herald, Collector of Curiosities, and Doctor of Medicine, it is no wonder he added Free-Mason to his string of titles to consideration.

But for all of his local fame and evident culture, he might be as unknown to Freemasonry as the most anonymous of his brethren, had he not written those two small entries in his diary which have been examined, analyzed, commented on, fought over, made the basis for countless papers and publications.

Here are the entries which — seemingly innocent enough — have brought him Masonic fame such as has come to none of his contemporaries:

1646. Oct: 16. H 4.30 P.M., I was made a Freemason at Warrington, in Lancashire, with Colonel Henry Mainwaring, of Karincham, in Cheshire. The names of those that were then of the Lodge, Mr. Richard Penket Warden, Mr. James Collier, Mr. Rich: Shankey, Henry Littler, John Ellam, Rich: Ellam and Hugh Brewer.

1682. March 10. About H 5. P.M., I received a summons to appear at a Lodge to be held the next day at Masons’ Hall, London.

11. Accordingly, I went, and about Noone were admitted into the Fellowship of Freemasons, Sir William Wilson, knight, Capt. Richard Borthwick, Mr. William Woodman, Mr. William Wise.

I was the senior fellow among them, (it being thirty-five years since I was admitted;) there was present besides myself the Fellowes after-named: Mr. Thomas Wise, Master of the Masons’ company this present year; Mr. Thomas Shorthofe, Mr. Thomas Ahadbolt,—Waindsford, Esq., Mr. Nicholas Young, Mr. John Shorthofe, Mr. William Hamon, Mr. John Thompson, and Mr. William Stanton. We all dyned at the halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapside, at a noble dinner prepared at the charge of the new Accepted Masons.

For many authorities the first of the entries was evidence that Ashmole was the first English gentleman to be admitted as a Speculative (non-operative) Mason into an English lodge, but riper scholarship soon discovered that he was not; indeed, the very entry itself seems to disprove this claim to uniqueness, since it mentions another (Mainwaring) also “admitted” at the same time. Indeed, it is known that one Robert Morey was “made” at Newcastle May 20, 1641.

But so far, Ashmole’s diary is the earliest self-made written record of any English gentleman who became a Freemason, and because of the reputation and abilities of the diarist, much has been made of his having become a Mason at all, and — proved by the second entry — having maintained some interest in the order for thirty-five years.

Masonic delvers into the past have uncovered much of interest about “The Mason’s Company” which Ashmole mentions. It was incorporated in 1410 and received a grant of arms from Edward IV. Its “rules” or “by-laws” were written in 1356.

Was this Masons’ Company an ancestor of Freemasonry? Was it anything more than a commercial organization? Did it have a speculative side? Such are questions aroused by Ashmole’s reference. Nor have answers been either all of one mind, or few in number.

No attempt here can be made to settle such a question. But reference is made to The Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons, a book by Edward Condor, who was convinced that there was a strong connection between The Masons’ Company and Freemasonry of the early days — the days when the operative Craft was in process of being changed to one wholly speculative.

Associated with The Mason’s Company was some organization, group or club called “The Accepcon” (old spelling for Acception). This body met in the small hall that housed The Mason’s Company, and there was a connection between them; Edward Condor, Jr., says:

Unfortunately no books connected with this Acception — i.e., the Lodge — have been preserved. We can, therefore, only form our ideas of its working from a few entries scattered through the accounts. From these it is found that members of the Company paid 20s. for coming on the Acception, and strangers 40s. Whether they paid a lodge quarteridge to the Company’s funds it is impossible, in the absence of the old Quarteridge Book, to state. One matter, however, is quite certain from the old book of accounts commencing in 1619, that the payments made by newly accepted Masons were paid into the funds of the Company, that some or all of this was spent on a banquet and the attendant expenses, and that any further sum required was PAID OUT OF THE ORDINARY FUNDS OF THE COMPANY, proving that the Company had entire control of the Lodge and its funds.

Freemasonry’s change from an operative to a speculative Craft is of course of intense interest to all who care for the historical background of the Craft as we know it. At one time Masons were wholly and only builders, especially builders of Cathedrals. Their skill was hard to come by; men spent years learning to square and lay stones; a certain amount of geometrical and engineering skill was then as now required of both architect and builder. The “King’s Master Mason” who had charge of the erection of a great Cathedral was necessarily an educated, intelligent, learned man. Naturally he wanted only the best and most highly-trained workmen for his building; it followed, since a Cathedral was long in erection, that he would want to employ young men and train them. Hence there were apprentices; when a young man was accepted for training, he had first to prove his intelligence, willingness to learn and character, after which he was “entered” on the records as an apprentice. Later he became a Fellow of the Craft, if, after the usual period of seven years, he could make his “Master’s Piece” — some carving, stone cutting, laying, designing, or other feature of the work, sufficiently good to assure the authorities that he was able to take his place as a full-fledged workman.

It was inevitable that as character and decency entered into the making of an apprentice into a fellow, that morality, truth, justice, decency, should be taught him. How teach him better, than by references to the familiar tools of the trade? Hence — and no one knows when or how or by whom — the tools of the workmen began to have a symbolic or speculative meaning. The square was an essential; stones not square could not successfully be used; an unsquare stone threatened the whole wall. The stone had to be “right.” So had the man. It is not difficult to imagine how the square became a symbol of rectitude; nor is it hard to imagine how level, plumb, gavel, rule, line, etc., also became associated with the virtues and their teaching. Even the point within a circle was an operative device, since by it the Master Mason could prove a square.

Gradually other accessories to building became parts of the speculative side of Masonry; the lodgebuilding in which the workmen slept, ate, held meetings; the lights, developed from the windows on three sides of the building (the fourth or north side was against the wall of the structure being built) the aprons which the workmen wore, the mortar or cement between the stones, the cornerstone, the time of labor and the time of refreshment — all easily became part of a simple teaching.

This process was not one of a moment, a year, perhaps not even of an era. It was gradual, and of it we know but little; a few old manuscripts, a few references in contemporary literature — these are all the source material of that development which we have.

In proportion to their scarcity — compared to the source material in other arts and activities of mankind — all such records become increasingly important. Hence the emphasis put upon the Ashmole diary entries, as dating the interest of a highly-educated gentleman in Masonry — an interest which by no stretch of the imagination could include the actual practice by him of the builder’s art. Hence, too, the eagerness with which antiquarians and historians have explored every possibility suggested by Ashmole’s few words, including his reference to The Masons Company.

But it is not only to that but to other matters that researchers have given their attention.

Ashmole’s diary appeared in print in 1717, 1738, 1747, and 1774. None of the reprints is an exact copy of Ashmole’s original. It is in the variations that ground for speculation and controversy have been found. As one near-contemporary wrote “Mr. Ashmole is made to have written abundance of things since his death (!)

Most of the speculation centers about the interpolation of the word by in the printed editions of his second entry; he is thus made to say “According I went, and about noon were admitted into the fellowship of Free Masons by Sr. William Wilson Knight, etc.” This version makes Sr. William Wilson Knight and his several companions, also named, already members of the lodge and taking part in the ceremonies. Ashmole’s original entry omits the word by which can be interpreted to mean that the several gentlemen named were also “admitted into the fellowship of Free Masons” which is decidedly different. The group was either initiated or initiators, but could not be both!

There are other differences between the written diary and the printed versions, all of which, while minor, nevertheless throw some doubt, not to say obscurity, over the facts as Ashmole tried to record them. Why printers, editors, publishers altered his words is in question; was it because of knowledge, or was it carelessness, or was it intentional deception, or was it bungling ignorance? One theory has it that “by” was inserted merely to fill up a vacant space in the original diary, and was done quite innocently; another theory is that it was an intentional change in the facts, apparently so innocent that it would not be noticed.

Other changes between writing and print are minor matters of spelling and capitalization, but taken together are of sufficient importance, at least in the minds of earnest scholars, to provide much material for speculation and attempts to solve “the reasons why.”

However pleasant such by-paths of research may be to those who follow them, they should not be permitted to obscure the main facts which the diary sets forth: that an English gentleman of education and ability was made a Freemason — obviously a Speculative Freemason — in 1646; that he retained his interest in the Fraternity through a long life; that he was in company of a number of distinguished men of his time on both occasions he mentions; that he found the matter of sufficient importance to include it twice in a diary which is not given, as a whole, to unimportant matters.

It is on this basis that Ashmole’s place in Masonic history is established. In spite of the expenditure of countless sheets of paper, pounds of ink, hours of time, patient research, and imaginative speculation, the Masonic world is indebted to the famous antiquary for establishing speculative Freemasonry as a matter of common knowledge and practice among the elite of his time at so early a date.

The Masonic Service Association of North America