The Ashmolean, the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, was officially founded in 1683. It is perhaps most famous for being the earliest public museum in England. Named after Elias Ashmole, it was originally founded as a scientific institution for research and education, where Ashmole’s collection, along with items from John Tradescant’s Ark were displayed. So what has the history of the Ashmolean got to do with Brasenose?
2017 marks the 400th year since Elias Ashmole’s birth. He did not attend University, having been educated at Lichfield Grammar School and tutored privately in Law. He subsequently practiced in London before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. A committed royalist, in 1644 he was appointed King’s Commissioner of Excise at Lichfield and was then given a military post at the royalist stronghold of Oxford. During his time at Oxford Ashmole was able to devote time to study, and developed an interest in natural philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Whilst in Oxford Ashmole lodged in Brasenose, though he does not appear to have matriculated as a student in the College’s records. During the Civil War era Brasenose remained loyal to the King; indeed as the King’s headquarters Oxford was full of strangers – ‘soldiers, life-gauards, grromes, mayds, King’s pastrymen and yeomen, Lieftenants, Lords and ladyes’. The Colleges themselves effectively became hotels for these supporters and several resided at Brasenose, including Ashmole. Also in residence at Brasenose were Sir John Spelman (member of the King’s Council 1642) and Sir Henry St. George (Garter King of arms). Of course, Ashmole may have encountered the Brasenose Fellows still in residence, including Thomas Sixesmith, a Senior Fellow, who had been responsible for publishing Edward Brerewood’s writings, including Tractatus quidam logici in 1628. Brerewood was in fact a Brasenose student who became the first professor of astronomy in Gresham College. Ashmole’s presence at Brasenose can perhaps be explained by his connection to the Mainwaring family; he had married Eleanor Mainwaring in 1638, which affiliated him with the wealthy Cheshire family, many of whom studied at Brasenose. Ashmole left Oxford in 1645, but his period residing at Brasenose clearly greatly influenced him.
Later members of Brasenose also played an important role in the history of the museum. No less than three Brasenose men would become Keepers of the Museum. These included:
- John Whiteside (Keeper 1714-1729), a student of Brasenose from 1696 to 1700. Whiteside was an experimental philosopher, keen astronomer and is regarded as the founder of physics teaching at Oxford.
- Sir Arthur Evans (Keeper 1884-1908, BNC 1870-1874) who was in fact the first undergraduate to take archaeology as a special subject in the Modern History School at Oxford. His work at the Ashmolean transformed the institution, establishing its world-wide reputation as a museum of important archaeology. It was during Evans’ tenure that the Museum moved from Broad Street (now the Museum of the History of Science) to Beaumont Street. Evans is chiefly remembered for his discoveries at Knossos on Crete, but left the museum in 1908, it having been amalgamated with the University Galleries.
- Edward Thurlow Leeds (Keeper 1928-1945, Fellow of BNC 1938-1946, Honorary Fellow 1946-1955). Leeds was from 1908 to 1928 Assistant Keeper of the Museum and focused much of his research on Anglo-Saxon archaeology. He was the first to integrate documentary and archaeological evidence to study the historical past with particular reference to Oxfordshire, as well as the first to excavate an Anglo-Saxon settlement site (at Sutton Courtenay).
To find out more about current events at the Ashmolean please visit http://www.ashmolean.org/