The Correspondence of Elias Ashmole

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge and Helen Watt

Elias Ashmole, by John Riley. 1681–2. Oil on canvas, 124 by 101 cm. (Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, acc. no. WA1898.36)

Elias Ashmole (1617–1692)

Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) was an antiquary, early freemason, and a founding Fellow of the Royal Society, but he is known best as a collector, having donated to the University of Oxford in 1683 his collections of books, manuscripts, and artefacts, many of which had belonged previously to John Tradescant the younger. He stipulated that a special repository be constructed to house them, the Ashmolean Museum, of which the first two keepers were Dr Robert Plot and Edward Lhwyd respectively, Lhwyd’s correspondence featuring in EMLO already as one of the founding projects of Cultures of Knowledge.

Ashmole is known for much else besides his collections, however. He was an astrologer, with a keen interest in alchemy, publishing on that subject firstly under the pseudonym James Hasolle Fasciculum Chemicus (London, 1650), and following this with Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652) and The Way to Bliss (London, 1658). Between 1660 and 1675, he was an officer-of-arms, acting as Windsor Herald of Arms in Ordinary, assisting after the restoration of Charles II in the revival of heraldic visitations. Between 1665 and 1666, he was involved in carrying out the visitation of Berkshire and, after his death, his research into the history of the county was published as The Antiquities of Berkshire by Elias Ashmole, Esq., 3 vols (London, 1719). In the years following the Restoration, Ashmole assisted in the revival of the Order of the Garter and his work on its history was printed in The Institution, Lawes and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (London, 1672). From 1660, he was comptroller of the excise for the City of London, becoming accountant-general in 1668, both lucrative offices.

A native of Lichfield, Ashmole lived in London and, latterly, in Lambeth, but retained close ties with his birthplace, becoming involved in local politics on two occasions, standing as a Parliamentary candidate for Lichfield borough in the by-election of 1675. He would have stood again in 1685 had he not stepped down after his nomination. Although Ashmole was married three times — firstly to Eleanor Manwaring (1603–1641); secondly to Mary, Lady Mainwaring (1597–1668); and thirdly, to Elizabeth Dugdale (1632–1701), daughter of William (later Sir William) Dugdale, the antiquary and herald —  he remained childless.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for the correspondence in this catalogue was collated for EMLO by Helen Watt from Elias Ashmole: His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, ed. C. H. Josten, 5 vols (Oxford: OUP, 1967), available from Oxford University Press and on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online; and from Discovery, the online catalogue of The National Archives, Kew. In addition, Helen conducted detailed calendaring — the first time this work has been done —  of the prognostications on the weather, held in the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, that were sent almost monthly between 1677 and 1689 to Ashmole by John Goad (1616–1689), headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London between 1661 and 1681.

Ashmole’s correspondence is held predominantly among the Ashmole Manuscripts and in other collections in the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, but further material may be found also in the British Library, London; Warwickshire County Record Office; The National Archives, Kew, with a few isolated items also held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the College of Arms; the library of the Society of Antiquaries of London; and elsewhere. This calendar of correspondence in EMLO was compiled to coincide with the four hundredth anniversary of Ashmole’s birth on 23 May 1617.

Cultures of Knowledge is most grateful to Dr Adrian Ailes, formerly Principal Records Specialist (Early Modern Records), The National Archives, Kew, for his assistance, especially for providing information from his thesis ‘Elias Ashmole’s ‘Heraldicall Visitacion’ of Berkshire 1665–66’ (unpublished University of Oxford D.Phil. thesis, 2008). Thanks are due in addition to EMLO’s Editorial Assistant, Charlotte Marique, for her help with preparation of the metadata for upload.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

C. H. Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole: His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, 5 vols (Oxford: OUP, 1967).


The catalogue comprises 764 letters, dating between 1634 and 1692, written mostly in English, with a number of letters in French and Latin, but with many of the earlier letters existing as copies made by Ashmole or in the form of notes made by him. Many are written in Ashmole’s own cipher, but these were deciphered by C. H. Josten and published in plain English in C. H. Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole: His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, 5 vols (Oxford: OUP, 1967).

Ashmole’s correspondence reflects his interests in alchemy and astrology, also his close friendship with the astrologer, William Lilly (1602–1681) and his brief contact with the physician and alchemist Dr Arthur Dee (1579–1651), son of the alchemist John Dee, some of whose papers were collected by Ashmole. Other correspondents include the antiquaries Anthony Wood (1632–1695); John Aubrey (1626–1697), whose correspondence (collated by Professor Rhodri Lewis, Dr William Poole, and Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams) features also in EMLO; and the diarist John Evelyn (1620–1706). Many letters relate to Ashmole’s duties as Windsor Herald of Arms in Ordinary while assisting in the Herald’s Visitation of Berkshire between 1665 and 1666, and these highlight his friendship with William Dugdale (1605–1686), the antiquary and herald, who became Ashmole’s father-in-law in 1668 and who was knighted in 1677. There are many letters both concerning the distribution of Ashmole’s book on the Order of the Garter among dignitaries at home and abroad, especially European royalty and nobility, and also providing detailed evidence of his involvement in the Parliamentary elections for Lichfield borough in 1678 and 1685.


The bulk of Ashmole’s correspondence, whether original manuscripts or copies, particularly copies made by Ashmole, is held among the Ashmole Manuscripts in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, having been transferred from the Ashmolean Museum in the mid-nineteenth century. Further material relating mostly to business matters in connection with Ashmole’s office of comptroller of the Excise is held among the State Papers Domestic and Treasury Out-Letters and Out-Letter Books in The National Archives. Other letters, including correspondence with William Lilly, is found among the Sloane MSS and Additional MSS in the British Library, London, and Ashmole’s correspondence with Basil Feilding (1608–1675), second Earl of Denbigh, either in the form of original letters or copies, is split between the Bodleian Libraries and the Warwickshire County Record Office. Two letters relating to the Herald’s Visitation of Berkshire, 1665–6, are held in the College of Arms and a single letter from Ashmole to Dr Robert Plot is held in the library of the Society of Antiquaries, London, with another isolated letter in Lichfield Cathedral Library and a letter mentioning Ashmole in Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Scope of Catalogue

Many of Ashmole’s letters and papers, including notes on material now no longer extant, are written in Ashmole’s own cipher, therefore the originals may be difficult to consult. However, C. H. Josten deciphered this material and it is either noted, calendared, or transcribed in his edition, Elias Ashmole: His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, 5 vols (Oxford: OUP, 1967) and the letter records in EMLO link to this work in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, where users in a subscribing library may consult the relevant volume online.

Further resources

Selected Print Editions

C. H. Josten, ed., Elias Ashmole: His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, 5 vols (Oxford: OUP, 1967)

Some letters or references to letters, some now lost, are also printed in:

‘The Diary of the Rev. Henry Newcome’, ed. T. Heywood, Chetham Society, vol. xviii (1849).

‘The Autobiography of Henry Newcome, M.A.’, ed. R. Parkinson, Chetham Society, vol. xxvii (1852).

Some letters to and from Ashmole relating to the visitation of Berkshire, 1665–6, are printed in:

Walter C. Metcalfe, ed., The Visitation of Berkshire 1664–6 by Elias Ashmole,Windsor Herald, for Sir Edward Bysshe, Clarenceux (Harl. MSS 1483, 1530) (Exeter, 1882).

W. Harry Rylands, ed., ‘The Four Visitations of Berkshire, 1532, 1566, 1623, 1665-66’, Harleian Society, vols. lvi (1907); lvii (1908).

Selected Bibliography

Adrian Ailes, ‘Elias Ashmole, the Order of the Garter, and Restoration Windsor’, Annual Review: Friends of St George’s Chapel, vol. ix, no. 4 (2012–13), pp. 229–38.

Adrian Ailes, ‘Elias Ashmole’s ‘Heraldicall Visitacion’ of Berkshire 166566’, University of Oxford unpublished D.Phil. thesis (2008).

Vittoria Feola, Elias Ashmole and the Uses of Antiquity (Paris, 2013).

Michael Hunter, et al., Elias Ashmole, 1617–92: the founder of the Ashmolean Museum and his world (Oxford, 1983).

Arthur Macgregor, ed., Tradescants’s Rarities. Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, 1683, with a Catalogue of the surviving Early Collections (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).


Online resources and biographical information

Bodleian Libaries, University of Oxford, Ashmole Manuscripts.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Michael Hunter, ‘Ashmole, Elias (1617–1692)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [, accessed 15 May 2017].

Finding-aids to Ashmole’s manuscripts and additional resources

William Henry Black, A descriptive, analytical, and critical catalogue of the manuscripts bequeathed unto the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole, Esq., MD, FRS, Windsor Herald, also of some additional MSS. contributed by Kinglsey, Lhuyd, Borlase, and others (Oxford, 1845).

W. D. Macray, Index to the catalogue of the manuscripts of Elias Ashmole, formerly preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, and now deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Oxford, 1866).

Falconer Madan, et al., A summary catalogue of western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford which have not hitherto been catalogued in the Quarto series, 7 vols. in 8 [vol. II in 2 parts] (Oxford, 18951953; reprinted, with corrections in vols. I and VII, Munich, 1980), vol. II, nos 66168465, vol. V, nos 2516625205.


Launch letters in C. H. Josten, ed. (OUP, 1967)

Letters in all EMLO catalogues from, to, or mentioning Ashmole

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