The Rosicrucians

Elias Ashmole

Remembered for founding the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Elias Ashmole was a historical figure. Born in the city of Lichfield in May 1617, Ashmole studied Latin, Greek, poetry and arithmetic at school, setting him up well for a varied life that included roles as a politician, astrologer, student of alchemy and, perhaps most famously, an antiquary.

Mention of Ashmole in this novel is mostly accurate. His interest, at times obsession, with alchemy and astrology, is well documented, and reference to him as Mercuriophilus Anglicus, or the English mercury lover, definitely occurred. The story concerning his coming into possession of John Dee’s Book of Mysteries – which catalogued events from December 1581 to May 1583 – really happened, and it’s more than likely his founding of the Ashmolean was his way of establishing Dee’s library. In 1651, Ashmole came into possession of an extensive collection of texts, including those by Heinrich Khunrath and Michael Maier concerning alchemy. In 1659, his collection was swollen by the benefaction of John Tradescant. His priceless treasure of books and keepsakes would serve as the main contents of his first museum.

Equally well documented is Ashmole’s criticism of the Dissolution, not least due to the loss of invaluable manuscripts. Being entrusted an essential secret by his neighbour and ‘father’ William Backhouse is also recorded as having happened; it has been speculated the ‘father’/‘son’ process was inspired by the relationship between Hermes Trismegistus and his key pupils.

Exactly what secret Backhouse entrusted to him, alas, remains unknown.

Certain researchers have long pointed out Ashmole’s initiation into the Freemasons in 1646 is one of the earliest on record and that connection with the possible existence of the Rosicrucians and the emergence of the Royal Society is inseparable from the enigmatic brotherhood. Not only did he apply to become a member of the Rosicrucians, but he was also known to have penned a copy of the Fama. It is mentioned in his papers, now kept at the Bodleian, that the ‘Fratres RC: live about Strasburg seven miles from thence in a monstry’. Incidentally, Strasbourg was the same city where the Chymical Wedding was first published. Curiously, another anonymously written document entitled Recherches sur Les Rose-Croix, penned the year of The Frightful Compacts, made a similar, albeit geographically different, claim that the brotherhood consisted of ‘protestant monks, formerly of the Cistercian order, who live on a rock on the shores of the Danube in an almost inaccessible place’.

Whether they did or how he knew of this is also a mystery.