Robert Ashley 1565-1641

From Book Owners Online

Robert ASHLEY 1565-1641

Biographical Note

Born in Wiltshire, the son of Anthony Ashley of Damerham, and a member of a gentry family. BA Magdalen College, Oxford 1582, fellow 1584, MA 1587. Admitted at Middle Temple shortly afterwards, called to the Bar 1595. Around 1590 he served in France in the war against the catholic league, as aide-de-camp to Sir Thomas Baskerville. In 1591 he joined the household of Sir Thomas Puckering as an amanuensis, though this did not lead to the patronage or advancement he hoped for. His essay on honour, written ca.1596 and dedicated to Sir Thomas Egerton, but never published, survives among the Ellesmere manuscripts at the Huntington Library. He was MP for Dorchester 1597-98, but after then held no public offices; he spent the remainder of his life as a barrister with rooms in the Middle Temple, where his practice was apparently modest. Fluent in several European languages, he travelled in France and Spain in 1618; he published translations from Italian of Cristoforo Borri’s Cochin-China (1633) and Virgilio Malvezzi’s Davide perseguitato (1637), and from Spanish of Miguel de Luna’s Almansor (1627).


Ashley built up a library of ca.5000 volumes, housed during his lifetime in his chambers at the Middle Temple (where he rented a second room in order to accommodate it). He bequeathed the entire collection to the Middle Temple, for the ongoing use of its members, but stipulating that other British or foreign students should be allowed access to material not easily found elsewhere. He also bequeathed £300 to create an endowment to fund a librarian’s post (to be “some able student … chosen by the Bench”). The books were to be kept in the order in which he left them. His will also includes a bequest of £5 to Samuel Josselyn, his bookbinder, who appears to have rented his shop through Ashley.

A characteristic annotation in Ashley's hand, from the titlepage of a copy of Livy, Historiae Romanae ... decades tres, 1552, Middle Temple Library

New presses to house the books were constructed during the 1640s. No separate contemporary listing of the collection survives, but many of the ca.5000 entries in Charles Worsley’s 1734 Catalogus librorum … Medii Templi are Ashley books, and a substantial proportion of the bequest survives there today. The collection was wide-ranging in subjects, with coverage across theology, science (including astronomy and mathematics), law, geography, history and politics. It has been speculated that Ashley may have acquired a significant part of John Donne’s library, though this needs to be more fully tested.


  • Adams, S. ‘Robert Ashley: barrister and bibliophile’, The Middle Templar 39 (Trinity 2005).
  • Ferris, John. "Ashley, Robert (1565–1641), translator and book collector." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Heltzel, V. ‘Robert Ashley: Elizabethan man of letters’, Huntington Library Quarterly 10 (1946-47), 349-363.
  • Hopwood, C. (ed), Middle Temple records, 1904, v.2, 917-9.
  • Satterley, R. ‘The libraries of the Inns of Court’, Library History 24 (2008), 208-219.
  • Satterley, R. ‘Mathematical books and Frankfurt book fair catalogues: the acquisition of mathematical works by Robert Ashley in early modern London’, British Journal for the History of Mathematics (2021)
  • Whitlock, K. ‘The Robert Ashley founding bequest to the Middle Temple Library and John Donne’s library’, Sederi 14 (2004), 153-175.
  • Robert Ashley in Material Evidence in Incunabula.