John Ashe, MP for Freshford and Westbury (1597-1658)

John Ashe was the oldest son of James Ashe (1554-c.1642) and Grace Pitt (1556-c.1647).  In 1621, at the age of 23, John Ashe decided to make his fortune and moved away from the village of Batcombe, where the Ashe family had prospered for many years, to marry Elizabeth Davison (1600-1673). They had seven sons and five daughters.

Both the Ashe and Davison families were involved in the cloth business and John quickly built up his own business in Freshford, where his father-in-law, Henry Davison, lived. John realised that the market for cloth had changed to a lighter, smoother material called medleys. The process involved striking an abb of soft, fine gauge Spanish wool on a warp of stronger, coarse homegrown yarn. These medleys were then woven from previously dyed wool of two or more colours producing an appealing range of new colours. Within a decade he completely reversed the decline in the western cloth industry with the new cloths.

With his base in Freshford, John used his profits to purchase property and land. In 1627 he bought Freshford Mill from Henry Davison and built himself a mansion called “Freshford House” adjoining it. John’s whole family prospered from his success and both his father, James, and his four brothers were involved. It became a highly organised operation with his brothers Samuel and Edward in London selling their goods through their shop or selling overseas. In this way they were able by-pass the wholesalers in Blackwall Market. In time they even had a base in Antwerp which was run by John’s son, also called John, and by his brother-in law, John Shaw. Another brother, Jonathan, went periodically to France to deal directly with the Drapers who purchased a high proportion of their cloths.

By 1656, it was reputed that John was earning over £3,000 a year and was worth over £60,000, a colossal fortune in those days. Writing of him in 1686, John Aubrey described John Ashe as “the Greatest Clothier in his time”. As well as being an entrepreneur, he improved and developed his cloths and ensured they were of good quality. In about 1650 he brought clothiers over from Holland to show them how to master the difficult skill of using Spanish wool to make the warp. In 1659, his son-in-law, Paul Methuen, did the same thing in Bradford when establishing his own business in the town.

With his wealth, John bought up most of the village of Freshford and estates in Beckington, Teffont, Fifield and elsewhere, which were inherited later by his family. It was not only his own family that prospered, but the whole area around Freshford benefited from his initiative because he put out his wool to hundreds of families in the area for carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving before bringing the cloth back to Freshford for finishing.

He was elected as Member of Parliament for Westbury in both the Short and Long Parliaments of 1640, and became involved, on the parliamentarian side, in the long-running English Civil War between the monarchy and Parliament which began in 1642.

In August 1642, a petition records that John Ashe “raised, armed, and for many weeks paid a troop of horse, a company of foot and a company of dragoons for ye service of ye west country, before ye contribution was any way settled for ye payment of soldiers in those parts.. and paid for powder, match and bullet expended by them all which cost him above £3,000″.

John Ashe was now a member, with Alexander Popham, John Horner and William Strode, of the Somerset Committee which was to raise about 12,000 men at Chewton, near Wells on 5 August 1642. In Wells itself there were in the region of 900 Royalists under the Marquis of Hertford. However, as John Ashe was to write about the Royalists ” they had got into Wells by faire means and by foule, about 400 of the Trayned bands and Volunteers, but that Friday at night, they all stole away out of the towne, and some of them came up the hill unto us upon Saturday morning”. Hertford withdrew to Sherbourne without a battle, but a year later there was a decisive battle nearer to home at Lansdown, and John Ashe played an important part in raising the men and money for the Parliamentarians under Sir William Waller. There were several skirmishes before the decisive Battle of Lansdown on 4 July 1643. Parliament had a resounding victory with only 12 dead, while the Royalists lost 200 men. John Ashe excitedly wrote that “his ground was well stocked with 60 cavalier horses, who fled from the Army the night after the Battell”.

An interesting insight into the difficulties the Ashes must have had in maintaining their business is shown in a Royalist News Sheet of 1643: “Certain news also came this day that Sir Arthur Aston (the royalist Governor of Reading) had seized on seven cart loads, one waine-loade, and 24 horse loads of broad fine cloth, amounting in the whole unto 380 clothes, and that in many of the packs were found some Belts and Bandoleers, and great store of Match, and a considerable sum of Money. All which were sent towards London from one Mr. Ashe, the greatest clothier in the Kingdom, as it conceived, but of so turbulent a spirit and so pernicious a practicer in the maintaining and fomenting of this Rebellion, that he stands excepted by his Majesty amongst some others, out of his majesties general pardon for the County of Somerset.” This item clearly shows John Ashe was using his weekly deliveries to London as a way of assisting the Parliamentarian Cause often at personal sacrifice to himself.

As John Ashe was one of the leaders of parliament’s war effort in Somerset, he became a marked man and for a while left Freshford for London. His wife, Elizabeth, managed his business and estates in his absence. For a while the area was governed by the Royalists but was recaptured in 1645 by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. John Ashe continued to spend much of his time in London as a Member of Parliament and a leading member of various committees.

The parliamentary cause was more and more led by Oliver Cromwell, who was a friend of John Ashe. When King Charles I was tried for treason by a High Court of Justice in 1649, it was Cromwell who signed his death warrant and the king was executed on 30 January 1649. The civil war continued until 1651 when the son of Charles I, Charles II, was defeated in battle by Cromwell. In 1653, Oliver Cromwell was declared the Lord Protector of England in what was a de facto Republic, which continued until his death in 1658 and the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

In the meantime, on 19 January 1657, John Ashe stood up in parliament to propose that Cromwell “take upon him the government according to the ancient constitution”, and Parliament agreed to offer the crown to Cromwell, which he refused.

John Ashe died in 1659, and was buried in Beckington Vault in Somerset. His wife, Elizabeth, continued to live at Freshford House until her death in 1673, when the village and estates passed to Mary, the 12 year old daughter of Edward Ashe (third son of John Ashe).

John Ashe’s eldest son, also named John, moved to the Teffont estate, and his son, also called John, was “The Agent” in London representing the the North Carolina colony in America. His son, John Baptista Ashe, emigrated to North Carolina and was the father of Major-General John Ashe and Governor Samuel Ashe, who were instrumental in the Revolution that threw off the yoke of rule by the monarchy in England.

John Ashe obtained large grants of land in Tipperary, consolidated afterwards at the Restoration, and in part confirmed to him through the influence of his brother, Sir Joseph Ashe Bt. of Twickenham, who had always espoused the Royal cause. The principal of these Irish estates were the lands known as Ashgrove and Knockerdon, both in the barony of Clanwilliam and including a large portion of the Galtee Mountains as well as their rich and fertile valleys. When he died, his landed estate was estimated at £6,000 a year, and he divided it amongst his sons.