Elias Ashmole was educated at Lichfield Grammar School, but did not attend university as an undergraduate, being tutored privately in law.
In the English Civil War he was a committed royalist and was appointed a commissioner of excise by Charles I. His duties brought him to Oxford, and his name appears in the accounts of Brasenose College in 1644. His choice of College is probably explained by the fact that the family of his first wife (Eleanor, 1603–1641, daughter of Peter Manwaring of Smallwood, Cheshire) had contributed more members to Brasenose than any other in that century. He studied mathematics and physics, but was not here long and did not take a degree. It is likely that his status was that of a lodger rather than a member of the College.
He devoted much of his life to academic study and was acquainted with leading figures in many fields. John Tradescant bequeathed his museum of curiosities to Ashmole, who extended it with his own collections. He presented them to Oxford University, to which the material was transferred in 1682 to create the Ashmolean Museum. The Bodleian Library holds a significant collection of MSS and printed books collected by Ashmole.