Making History: Elias Ashmole & the Origins of Speculative Freemasonry

Tobias Churton

Part II

In Part One we explored the question of how, according to Ashmole's friend Dr. Robert Plot (writing in the 1686), there came to be so many Free-masons in Ashmole's home county of Staffordshire. We now look at Ashmole's crucial relationship with the ancient Cheshire family of ....


On 27 March 1638, Elias Ashmole married Eleanor Mainwaring. While it seems that the couple had met in London (where Ashmole was soliciting in Chancery), Eleanor seems to have spent most of her short married life at her father's house at Smallwood in Cheshire, just over the Staffordshire border. Ashmole visited regularIy and look a keen interest in his wife's family. Ashmole's new father-in-law, Peter Mainwaring, belonged to one of the most significant families of the comity.

The Mainwarings derived their name from the River Guarenne or Varenne and the small town of that name near Arques in Normandy. The name was anglicized to Warenne, or Warren, Warin, and later Waring, (there are a great number of variant spellings). Main-wiring means the house of the Warings (Peover) in Cheshire. The records of the Mainwarings of Whitmore (now held by the Stafford Record Office) contain a number of 15th. century deeds of confraternity. The confraternities involved commitments made between lay people and religious orders and constitute a link between guilds of masons and such orders, possibly providing the milieu in which the knights of the Mainwaring family and freemasons of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance period could easily have met. There are other links between the Mainwarings and the world of medieval masonry.

Between 1301 and 1360, extensive alterations were made to Ranulphus earl of Chester's original design for the Cheshire Castle of Beeston. Volume 59 of the Translations of the Lancashire and Cheshire Record Society (1910) records that the Master-mason in charge of all the masons working at the castle was one Master Warin. Warin, as we have seen, was the family-name of the Mainwarings or 'Mein-warms' is the name was sometimes spelt in the Middle Ages. Roger de Meinwarin witnessed Ranulphus Earl of Chester's instruction to his barons regarding the founding of Dieulacres abbey in 1214. (According to the Dieulacres chartulary, Roger de Menilwarin also give the monks of Dieulacres "free common in his wood of Pevere [Peover]" and other valuable privileges).

The church of S. Lawrence at Peover is a treasure-house of Mainwaring remains, containing a number of fine alabaster tombs carved by freemasons. Six miles north of Peover is Peover's mother church of Rostherne, near Warrington. In 1578 an arbitration award was made to Thomas Legh against Sir Randle Mainwaring who had claimed possession of the Legh chapel in Rostherne church. According to Raymond Richards' Cheshire Churches. (Batsford. 1947): "The Legh Chapel at Rostherne stood ruinous in the sixteenth century for want of glass, [and] Sir Randle Mainwaring repaired it at his own expense," assuming possession for himself and his family "only to be turned out by Thomas Legh". Law suits handled by the Consistory Court in Chester from the year 1617 also reveal the interest of Henry Mainwaring of Kermincham (Ashmole's father-in- law's father) in the nearby church at Goostrey (the Advowson for Goostrey had been held by Dieulacres Abbey until the Dissolution). The suits concern burial-places and seating in the chancel of S. Luke's. Henry Mainwaring was permitted to build an out-aisle on the north side of the chancel. Mainwarings and masons had been in close proximity for centuries.


At the age of twenty-nine, Ashmole rode up the Warrington Road (which meets the western end of the Smallwood lane, in sight of the Staffordshire moorlands), to shore with Colonel Henry Mainwaring, (his late wife's cousin, of Kermincham, four miles north of Smallwoad), initiation into the craft. Ashmole's diary gives us the names of those present: Richard Penket "Worden" (presumably the warden of the lodge), James Collier, Richard Sankey, John Ellam, Richard Ellam, Henry Littler and Hugh Brewer. From the name of the (possible) warden we may get a clue as to why the lodge was convened at Warrington. In 1487, Friar Thomas Penketh (the Penkeths held land from the Boteler family), died at Warrington's Friary of S.Augustine (suppressed under Henry VIII). The Penkeths also patronised the church of Farnworth to the west of Warrington, and it is now clear that it was the ecclesiastical world which provided the chief medium of contact between gentlemen and operative freemasons.

As regards the particular Richard Penket whom Ashmole encountered, Warrington and Farnworth parish records mention a large number of persons of that name for the period, and we cannot be sure which (if any) of them was involved with the lodge. It is sufficient for our purposes to observe that the Littlers were of a gentle Cheshire family, that the Sankeys of Great and Little Sankey held lands - like the Penkeths - from the Boteler family, that one of the Ellains, Richard, may have been an operative freemason (a will of 1667 calls Richard Ellom of Lymm, co. Chester, a "freemason"), that Hugh Brewer may have been the Lancashire yeoman who served in Lord Derby's Royalist regiment of horse (a Hugh Brewer was buried at Warrington in May 1658) and that Mr. James Collier may have been the Royalist James Collier of Newton, gentleman who on 3 June 1640, at the age of 32, married Elizabeth Stanley whose grandfather was Sir Randle Mainwaring of Peover (Record Society of Lancs. and Ches., Lancashire Funeral Certificates, Vol vi, p.207).

Warrington was a lodge of principally accepted Free Masons, almost certainly working an operative (ie: traditional) ritual: probably an old interest of old landed families with private interests in the 'old religion' (pre- Reformation - though not exclusively). Who but the adherents of the old religion (including its Anglican formulation) would have the greatest concern with old family chapels &c. and their ornamentation? The lodge at Warrington may have been only part of a larger body (no master is recorded to have been present), separated for the purpose of initiating gentlemen as fellows, or a micro- association formed by accepted Free Masons for their own purposes.

The balance of current scholarly opinion is of the view that only two degrees were worked in the seventeenth century: entered apprentice ('interprintice') and 'fellow crafte'. There was, as far as we know, no 'third degree' (nor any reference to the Master Hiram legend). When recording a lodge- summons of 1682 to Masons Hall in London, (an operative establishment, note) Ashmole described himself as the 'Senior Fellow' in attendance on Sir William Wilson's (and others') initiation. In this diary entry, a Mr. Thomas Wise is described as Master of the Masons Company "this present year", suggesting that the term "Master' may generally have been used of those who had undergone operative (seven year) apprenticeships. Gentlemen who became accepted Free Masons would naturally wish to attain the lodge's highest position of honour, without the practical apprenticeship - and this honour would be encapsulated in the term 'fellow craft' or simply 'Fellow'. Educated accepted Free Masons could offer what the monasteries used to offer: an exchange of ideas of a general spiritual, mythological, scientific and symbolic character. Furthermore, operative freemasons had, perhaps unwittingly, provided the ideal gentlemens' club-format: a place (and the lodge was almost an imaginary place, built up from memory and imagination), to get away from current religious and political strife, and where one could be immersed in more ancient ideals and tried certainties. Taking all this into account, it is likely that Ashmole and Mainwaring's initiation contained some kind of both entered apprentice and - swiftly - fellow craft ritual.

A document preserved by Sir Hans Sloane F.R.S. (1660- 1753), Sloane MS. 3848 (British Library), gives us material from what are called the Old Charges of freemasons, which were read out to initiates. The manuscript not only gives us the symbolic and mythological history of the craft, but in the case of this particular document, may even contain the actual words read out at Warrington in 1646, for the document was penned by one Edward Sankey in October 1646, the date of Ashmole's initiation, and Sankey may well have been a relative of the Richard Sankey who was present at Warrington. Unfortunately, we do not know how Sloane came by this precious manuscript. Perhaps it had been in the hands of Aslmole's employee Dr Robert Plot, who, in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686) referred to the "false" and "incoherent" account of the history of the craft held by "Free-masons" in that county. Reading the charges, one becomes immediately aware of it's appeal to the magical mind of the mercurial Ashmole:

and these children [of Lameth - before the flood) did knowe that god would take vengeance for sinne either by fire or water; Wherefore ye writ ye Sciences wch weare found in 2 pillars of stone; yt ye might be found after the flood; The one stone was called Marble that cannot borne wth fire; The other was called Letera that cannot drowne with water; Our intent is to tell you truly how and in what manner these stones weare found; where these Crafts weare written in Greek; Hermenes that was sonne to Cus; & Cus was sonne to Shem wch was ye sonne of Noath: The same Hermenes was afterwards Hermes; the ffather of wise men and hee found out ye 2 pillars of stone where ye Sciences weare written, & taught ym forth;

And there was a King of au other Region yt men called Hyram and hee loved well Kinge Solomon; and gave him timber for his worke; And hee had a sonne that was named Aynon and he was Mr of Geometry; and hee was chiefe Mr of all his Masons; and Mr of all his grayed works; and of all other Masons that belonged to ye Temple; & this Witneseth the Bible in libro 2 Solo Capite 5.

It is significant that the accompanying oath contains strict guidelines regarding loyalty to the monarch, to God, 'ye holy church" and to the avoidance of heresy, thieves, treason and falsehood. If Colonel Mainwaring did swear the oath, in spite of his having fought for parliament, it is likely that he had fought for "king and parliament". Many who fought for the rights of the English parliament never envisioned the judicial murder of the King (1649).

That the Free Masonry known to Ashmole contained both operative and accepted (non-operative) elements is beyond real doubt. Ashmole's familiarity with operative traditions is attested by his diary record of March 10 1682:

About 5pm I received a summons, to appear at a Lodge to be held the next day at Mason's Hall London. Accordingly I went, and About Noone Were admitted into the Fellowship of Free Masons, Sir William Wilson Knight, Capt. Rich: Borchwick, Mr. Will: Woodman, Mr Wm Grey Mr. Samuell Taylour & Mr. William Wise. I was the senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since l was admitted). There were present beside my selfe the Fellowes after named. Mr. Thos: Wise Mr. of the Masons Company this present yeare. Mr. Thomas Shorthose, Mr. William Hamon, Mr. John Thompson, & Mr. Will: Stanton.

We all dyned at the Halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapside, at a Noble Dinner prepared at the charge of the New-accepted Masons.

The Masons Hall referred to was in Mason's Avenue, Basinghall Street, and the venue may have been chosen in line with the Masons Company connections of some of those present. Sir William Wilson (1641-1710) architect and stonemason, had been knighted a few days before. A native of Sutton Coldfield, eight miles from Lichfield, he was responsible for carving a still extant statue of Charles II which once stood above the west-door, clearly linking the reconstruction of the cathedral (initiated by Ashmole in 1660) to the patronage of the guardian of the privileges and tradition of the Church of England. (Charles is boldly described as Restaurator at the foot of the statue). Who would have thought that this eroded life-size statue (now standing by the south-door), represents Ashmole's union of Monarchy Church and Free Masonry in a single lump of durable sandstone?

Freemasonry Today 2 August 1997