The Collectors - Elias Ashmole (1617-1692)

Elias Ashmole was born in 1617 in Litchfield, Staffordshire. His father was a saddler, his mother 'from a good family'. He went to Litchfield Grammar School where he was a good scholar. By the time he was 21 he had married Eleanor and trained for the law. At 24 he was attorney in the Court of Common Pleas. This did not suit so he returned to live with his in-laws in Cheshire, where Eleanor died in childbirth shortly after. He then became a collector of the newly levied Excise Duty and in that capacity visited Oxford. This was much to his liking and he stayed a year, falling under the spell of the University. During this time in Oxford he studied natural philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, and had a commission as one of His Majesty's Gentlemen of the Ordnance.

Elias Ashmole
Elias Ashmole

His career took a turn for the worse with the decline of the Royalist cause, but a second advantageous marriage in 1649 to Lady Manwaring, who was 20 years older than him, meant his need to earn a good living was not urgent, and with the help of her money was able to build his collection of astrological, medical and historical manuscripts. With the Restoration of the crown, Ashmole was then appointed Comptroller of the Excise.

In 1659 John Tradescant gave him 'The Ark', which he and his father, John, had collected. In 1675 Ashmole began to make arrangements for this combined (Tradescant and his own) collection to be given to Oxford University. It was housed in a brand new building, built especially for the purpose, and became the first public museum in the British Isles. The Ashmolean Museum was completed in 1683 and not only was it a museum, it was a centre for scientific research.

Ashmole did not forget his roots in Staffordshire. He gave various gifts including music manuscripts and a silver drinking vessel, the Ashmole Cup, which can be seen in the heritage centre in Litchfield.

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