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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Hellfire Club

Or as it was spelled in the day, The Hell-Fire Club. I like my way better. More 21st century than 18th.

What was the Hellfire Club? If you guessed a place for like-minded individuals to gather and indulge in all manner of sexual exploits, you'd be right. Half right. Because despite that, or because of it, the Club was also a place for political intrigue.

This is from The Victorian Web. No--I don't know why the Victorians have an article on the mid 1700s Hell-Fire Club, but their information condenses much of what I've found.

West Wycombe, a village in the Chiltern Hills, was where the Dashwood family owned its landed estate. Sir Francis Dashwood founded the "Order of the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe" — better known as the Hellfire Club.

Below the mausoleum is the entrance to the West Wycombe caves, carved to look like the entrance to a Gothic church. The caves were enlarged by Sir Francis Dashwood in the 1750s in order to create work for the local men who were unemployed because of a succession of harvest failures. (As an aside, he couldn't have been all debauched if he willingly did this for his workers. He could have ignored their plight, after all.)

The chalk from the caves was used for building part of the road to London but Sir Francis also had the caves cut in intricate patterns. The caves crossed a stream of water known as the 'River Styx', a reference to the Greek mythological river of Hades, over which the souls of the dead were ferried by Charon.

Medmenham Abbey is situated on the River Thames between Hambleden and Hurley Locks. It was founded as a monastery by the Cistercians in 1200 but at the Dissolution of the Monasteries it passed into the hands of the Duffield Family. In the late eighteenth century, Francis Duffield granted a lease of Medmenham to Sir Francis Dashwood where he and his wealthy friends held the infamous 'Hell Fire Club' meetings and lived up to its motto Fay ce que voudres Do whatever you will.

The Hell Fire Club initially was based at Medmenham Abbey, which Sir Francis bought and converted into an erotic garden. The members of the Hell-Fire club took part in mock religious ceremonies and used masks and costumes to allow them to indulge in varying degrees of debauchery. Medmenham gained some notoriety so the Hell Fire club moved to a more secluded site at West Wycombe caves. Members of the club included Sir Francis Dashwood, the Earl of Sandwich, Thomas Potter (the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury), John Wilkes, William Hogarth, the Earl of Bute, the Marquis of Granby, the Prince of Wales, and possibly Benjamin Franklin and Horace Walpole.

It was alleged that the 'monks' took prostitutes down the Thames from London in barges to act as masked 'nuns'. The members of the Club also were accused of celebrating the Black Mass over the naked bodies of aristocratic ladies, one of whom was Lady Mary Montagu Wortley, the mother-in-law of the Earl of Bute.


  1. I have always been fascinated with the Hellfire Club. History channel has a really great documentary on it. so cool!

  2. They do? How do I not know this? I'm addicted to the History Channel. I know, an odd addiction but they have such fascenating stuff. :)

    Must check out this documentary! Thanks for the heads-up!