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  • Writer's pictureClyve Rose

The Infamous Hellfire Club

Welcome to my second post regarding these infamous establishments. This one is devoted entirely to the most referenced Hellfire Club (you'll find my previous post about the other ones here). Unlike Wharton's satirical gatherings, or the various incarnations thereof, Sir Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club had a lot more going on, which is why it deserves a post all its own. So, who was Sir Francis?

Sir Francis Dashwood:

Like the Duke of Wharton, Dashwood was a well-known prankster and delighted in irreverence. He and his great friend, John Montagu (the 4th Earl of Sandwich), are alleged to have attended meetings at The George & Vulture Inn in the 1730s. These meetings evolved into regular events, and so began the next incarnation of The Hellfire Club, though it was not yet known by this name. Their initial membership was only 12 (scandalously referred to as The Apostles), but news of their antics spread, and more soon joined. In 1746 Dashwood named these 'gatherings' the Order of the Knights of St Francis, and they continued to meet at the inn.

An order sounds benign enough, right? Practically monastic, you'd think, but a penchant for blasphemy mixed with alcohol, can get even the most exalted of gentlemen into hot water. The membership continued to increase rapidly, and is rumoured to have included many notable gentlemen of the time, including Benjamin Franklin. The American is said to have attended some gatherings in 1758 during his time in England. (All records of attendees were bunt in 1774 mind you, so we're dealing in scandal and gossip only - but when did that ever stop London tongues from wagging?)

In 1752 the meetings moved to Dashwood's home at West Wycombe, while their new quarters were being developed. Dashwood's gardens contained numerous statues and shrines to relevent deities; Daphne and Flora, Priapus and those excitable divine personalities, Venus and Dionysus.

By now their club was known under several names: Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wy, Order of Knights of West Wycombe, The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, and so on. It's notable that St Francis's name features prominently in these variegated monikers. When Sir Francis secured a crumbling ruin (Medmenhan Abbey) as the club's new headquarters, his notoriety was assured.

Medmenham Abbey:

In 1751 Dashwood leased Medmenham Abbey from a friend and had the ruin rebuilt as the headquarters of his Order. The architect was Nicholas Revitt, and his remit was to recreate something along the lines of a Gothic theme. This, Revitt did, complete with the order's motto Fais ce que tu voudras immortalised in stained glass above the main doorway. The rebuilt abbey, and redesigned gardens, were decorated extensively with murals and statues of phallic and sexual symbols. There was much focus on Priapis, the Greek god of male fertility (mostly symbolised via a large, unabated erection). The club became know as The Knights of Medmenham, or the Medmenham Monks (this last was clearly ironic).

Reports from Wycombe villagers indicate that the members performed "obscene parodies of religious rites" . According to Horace Walpole, these rites were "rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits."

In 1748, Sir Francis started clearing out the tunnels of a former mine in West Wycombe Hill (beneath his family church), creating an intricate network of caves and tunnels. Here, he set up his inner temple, where only his apostles might go. It was exactly 100 metres below the church. The club's pattern of macabre ceremonies began around this time. Eventually the meetings shifted from the nearby abbey, to the prepared caves and tunnels. Men, in caves, wearing robes, and worshipping erections. You read that correctly.

In the Caves:

Meetings were held twice each month, with an AGM lasting a week or more in June or September. All members addressed each other as "Brother" and the leader, who changed regularly, was known as "Abbot". During their meetings, members of the Order wore ritual clothing, which included a jacket and cap, as well as white trousers. The "Abbot" wore the same style, though entirely clad in red.

Female "guests" (i.e. prostitutes) were referred to as "Nuns", and wore masks or face coverings to hide their identities. Dashwood's meetings often included rituals mocking those of the Church, pornographic presentations (one can only assume these were audio-visual events), much drinking, wenching and banqueting. Rumours of Black Masses and Satanism and demon worshipping are now inseparable from Dashwood's Hellfire Club, though these stories go back no further than the late 1800s (well after the club's winding up).

The Hellfire Club’s gatherings began in the banqueting hall. After a dinner, served by Dashwood’s servants, the members entertained themselves in the niches about the room (this part sounds so much like a sex club - or a college frat party - I truly think it's accurate). The Apostles (remember the 'superior 12'?) separated themselves from the others, walking on through more symbolic tunnels, over an underground stream (the river Styx) to the inner temple where no one really knows what occurred because no one told tales. The First Rule of Hellfire Clubs was always the same it seems...

A Litany of Lords:

A Parish history from 1925 stated that members included:

Frederick Prince of Wales

Duke of Queensberry

Earl of Bute

Lord Melcombe

Sir William Stanhope

Sir John Dashwood-King,

Sir Francis Delaval

Sir John Vanluttan

Henry Vansittart

Governor of Bengal

Paul Whitchead the poet

Again, there is no proof any of these gentlemen attended these gatherings. Much was based on gossip and rumour, but the caves are still there should anyone wish to visit. They are known as the Hellfire Caves. The abbey is also still there to visit.

Baron Le Despencer:

The Earl of Bute appointed Dashwood his Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1762, at which our friend was an abysmal failure (he introduced a cider tax that almost caused a riot). However, Dashwood now sat in the House of Lords after taking up his title of Baron Le Despencer when the incumbent passed.

In 1763 came the attempted arrest of rumoured 'member of the Order' John Wilkes for seditious libel against the King. During a search authorised by a General warrant a version of The Essay on Woman was found on the press of a printer whom Wilkes likely used. The work has since been attributed to Thomas Potter, and dated to around 1755. This work was illegal under the laws of the time, and Parliament used it to drive Wilkes into exile.

The novel Chrysal:

Another publication caused even more trouble for the Order. Between 1760 and 1765 Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea (by Irish author Charles Johnstone) was published. It contained stories easily identified with Medmenham. In one, Lord Sandwich was ridiculed as mistaking a monkey for the Devil. This book is largely responsible for the indelible connection between the Medmenham Monks and the Hellfire Club. By 1765, many of the 'Friars' were either dead or too far away for the club to continue as it did before. Medmenham was finished by 1766.

Heart of a Poet:

Writers, as always, have the last word here. Paul Whitehead (the poet from the list above, remember?) had been the Secretary and Steward of the Order at Medmenham. When Whitehead died in 1774, his will stipulated that his heart be placed in an urn at West Wycombe. It was occasionally taken out to show to visitors - but was stolen in 1829 and has never been recovered.

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