Making History: Elias Ashmole & the Origins of Speculative Freemasonry

Tobias Churton

Part I

Elias Ashmole was initiated, in the midst of Civil War into an apparently non-operative and possibly "occasional" lodge at Warrington in the diocese of Chester on 16 October 1646. Ashmole's diary records how:

I was made a Free Mason at Warrington in Lancashire with Colonel Henry Mainwaring (a Parliamentarian) of Karincham in Cheshire; the names of those that were then at the Lodge, Mr Richard Penket Worden, Mr James Collier, Mr Richard Sankey [a Catholic], Henry Littler, John Ellam, Richard Ellam and Hugh Brewer.

Who was Elias Ashmole?

Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1617, Ashmole began a brilliant career as a lawyer in 1638, entering the ranks of the Royalist Army as a Captain of Horse on the outbreak of Civil War and going on to spend the Inter-regnum studying alchemy, astrology and the natural sciences, the which subjects he soon mastered. On the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, his star rose again, becoming Windsor Herald and a founder member of the epoch-marking Royal Society in 1661. Between 1679 and 1683 he was busy establishing the first-ever public museum in Britain: the Ashmolean in Oxford, a museum of natural science which also included a unique chemical laboratory run by his employee, Dr. Robert Plot. Ashmole died in 1692, described by his contemporary Anthony Wood as "the greatest virtuoso and curioso that ever was known of or read of in England before his time."

Ashmole himself wished to be known as a 'son of Hermes', an Hermetic philosopher (the winged-helmeted god Hermes appears aloft his personal crest): a magus ñ one with an operative grasp of the link between the spiritual and material dimensions of nature. The chief source of Hermetic philosophy was (and is) the Corpus Hermeticum, first printed in English in 1650 by Dr. Everard D.D. who himself called Ashmole "a laborious searcher into that mysterious learning". The Hermetic dialogues featured the timeless wisdom of an allegedly pre-Christian mystagogue known as Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes reputation as the father of philosophy (including alchemy) was widespread among Latin sages in the Middle Ages and it is significant that the Cooke manuscript of Old Charges to operative masons in England (c.1420) regarded Hermes as the principal patron of the Craft. However, there is no evidence of the full scope of Hermetic philosophy being an intrinsic part of the Craft when Ashmole was initiated in 1646. Hermetic philosophy has usually been the province of the 'enlightened few', the aficianado. Then again, the medieval Master Mason was not a common man.

Forty years after Ashmole's historic initiation, his employee Robert Plot published The Natural History of Staffordshire: Ashmoles county. Plot wrote of a custom whereby men were admitted into "the Society of Free-masons, than in the moorelands of this County seems to be of greater request than anywhere else, though I find the Custom spread more or less over the nation." While we find in Plot's account of "accepted" Free-masons information regarding the wearing of gloves, the employment of the term 'Lodge' for a meeting- place, the use of secret signs of mutual identification, the practice of helping members in need with money or work, and the giving of advice to their employees regarding efficacious materials, setting and design for building (these functions could be supplied by others than the sculptors of 'freestone' from which the Craft takes its name), the most overlooked reference concerns the Free-masons', whereabouts. Plot's "moorelands" refers to a specific region in the north of the county: the wild and beautiful moorlands which border on Cheshire in the west and the peaks of Derbyshire to the north and east. This area is significant because from the year 1176 to the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (less than a century before Ashmole's birth) the Staffordshire Moorlands were dominated by three Cistercian monasteries: Croxden in the south (founded by crusader knight Bertram de Verdon in 1176), Dieulacres in the north-east and west (founded by crusader-earl Ranulphus of Chester in 1214), and Hulton in the south-west (founded by the knight Henry de Audley in 1223 on lands adjacent to the Templar preceptory of Keele, founded in 1168). Links with the orient were integral to these foundations.

The Cistercians owed their foundation to the Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who in 1129 provided the Knights Templar with their Rule (S. Bernard's uncle was himself founder of the Templars). Templar knights frequently retired into Cistercian monasteries and there is extant evidence of Templar tombstones both at Dieulaeres and nearby Biddulph. The lord of Biddulph in the early 12th century, Ormus le Guidon, 'the standard-bearer', is reputed to have returned from the Crusades with a Saracen mason whose family settled on Biddulgh Moor (John Sleigh. A History of the Ancient Parish of Leek, 1862). Ormus' descendants married into the de Verdon family (patrons of Croxden). Oriental - style designs can be found in the early 12th century S. Chad's church, Stafford, where in original inscription tells us that "Orm caused me to be established".

The Founder of Dieulacres, earl Ranulphus of Chester (d.1232) is also considered to have benefited from his oriental crusading experience when constructing his spectacular castle at Beeston in Cheshire, a formidably innovative stronghold which has been compared by archaeologists with the Crusader castle at Sahyoun in Syria.

The lodges of masons and free [stone] masons (sculptors in freestone) who set up within the confines of monastic lands in Staffordshire undoubtedly gained from oriental contact. One should beware of thinking, of medieval 'operatives' as simply craftsmen what no intellectual (or, if you like, 'speculative') grasp of their demanding craft. According to the renowned medievalist Jean Gimpel (The Cathedral Builders. Michael Russell. 1983)

The catastrophe for this heady relationship between divine building and natural science in Staffordshire was almost certainly what Ashmole called "the great Deluge" of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (from 1536, in which about 95% of all monastic libraries were destroyed and an estimated 98% of English Art): a late echo of which Ashmole himself witnessed during the English Civil War, when the vandals of Parliament destroyed much of Lichfield's cathedral.

Could lodges of Free[stone] Masons have survived the Dissolution in Staffordshire? It is certain that some form of freemasonic activity persisted. The rector of Biddulph (Biddulph Moor had been in the possession of Dieulacres Abbey) - for one year only - entered the trade of those recorded in his parish register. Thus we learn that in the year:

1600. Baptisrzaata. Mar fr. Joanna, fa[ther]. Rumbaldi DURBAR, freemason.

As Plot recorded eighty-six years later, there was indeed masonic activity in the Staffordshire Moorlands - and is now seems likely that tidy distinction, between 'operative' and 'speculative' did not necessarily apply. Plot's Free-masons' contain both 'accepted' masons and architects among their number. If there was a lodge active in or near to Biddulph (only three miles from Ashmole's father-in-laws' house at Smallwood cover the Cheshire border) why was Ashmole not initiated there in 1646?

In 1643, Biddulph Hall, garrisoned for the Royalist cause, had been practically destroyed by Parliamentarian troops under the command of Sir William Brereton. On March 21 1643, the Committee of Sequestrations at Stafford (on which sat Edward Mainwaring, a relative of Ashmole's in-laws) ordered that "the remainder of Biddulph House be preserved, accordinge to Mr Biddulph's own desire, toward the repayringe of a little old house of his, not above two miles from it," It is possible to conjecture that Biddulph Hall had become a focal-point for the freemasons of the Biddulph area, and, if so, it is further possible that Sir Francis Biddulph was himself an Accepted Free-mason. If this were the case, two possibilities emerge:

  1. The lodge meeting place having been destroyed, members had taken to holding 'occasional' lodges at appropriate locations known only to themselves (such as Warrington to the north).
  2. The sight of Biddulph Hall, which masons themselves having presumably built and decorated, in ruins, did not dispose them to initiating a Parliamentary colonel and his brother-in-later. Sir Francis Biddulph (a direct descendant of Ormus le Guidan) undoubtedly bore scant respect for his neighbours, the Mainwaring family; they had ignored a plea written by King Charles I for loyal service to Philip Mainwaring, knight, of Peover, September 1644). In the absence of a controlling body of lodges. Biddulph freemasons could do as they wished.

To date, research shows that the members of the lodge into which Ashmole was initiated were, "with one possible exception" (John Hamill, The Craft Crucible. 1986.) not operating as masonic tradesmen, and it may be that a number off 'accepted' (i.e a non-sculpting, but professionally interested persons - ie: architects, people with knowledge of related activities or those in a position to commission work) had formed micro-associations of their own.

The key direct relationship then in Ashmole's initiation seems not to he so much Staffordshire Moorland Free Masonry but his close family ties with the ancient Mainwaring family. These we shall examine in Part Two of this series.