On moonlit nights during the reign of England's King George III, immensely powerful members of His Majesty's Government, important intellectuals, and influential artists could sometimes be seen travelling up the Thames River by gondola to a ruined abbey near West Wycombe.
There, to the sonorous tolling of the deconsecrated cloister's bell, they dressed in monkish robes and indulged in every manner of depravity, culminating in a Black Mass celebrated on the naked body of a debauched noblewoman and presided over by that notorious rake Sir Francis Dashwood. Their diabolical devotions concluded, the inner circle would adjourn to plot the course of the British Empire.
This "unholy sodalily," as it has been called, styled themselves, with suitably Gothic flair, "The Friars of St. Francis of Medmenham," though they have been immortalized by their popular epithet "The Hell-Fire Club." In that gossipy age there was much speculation about the infernal activities of the society, and in 1765, Charles Johnstone published a roman a clef entitled Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea, which was popularly believed to reveal the secrets of the "Medmenham Monks."
Unfortunately for those whose prurient tastes are tempered with a dose of critical scholarship, the Hell-Fire Club does not live up to its reputation. Most of the contemporary writers who allude to "Saint Francis" and his "Brotherhood" at Medmenham Abbey had an ax to grind, and the Monks themselves were so secretive that some modern historians have concluded that the whole thing was mere fiction. (1) But perhaps now, over two centuries later, we can attempt to sketch the Hell-Fire Club against the background of its time, tentatively pencilling in the enigmatic features of its putative high priest, Sir Francis Dashwood, Baron Le Despencer.
THE CLUB'S PRECURSORS Although the Medmenham Monks are the most famous band to be dignified with the appellation, they were certainly not the original Hell-Fire Club. The first half of the century saw the establishment of many circles of rakehells throughout the British Isles, and tales of their activities have often been transferred to Dashwood's group. (2) For our purposes the Monks' most important precursor is the Hell-Fire Club founded around 1719 in London by Philip, Duke of Wharton (1698-1731). (3) Wharton was a prominent Whig politician, Freemason, and atheist who sought to ridicule religion by publicly presiding over festive gatherings with "Satanic" trappings. These meetings were often held in a tavern near St. James's Square, although a nearby riding academy was sometimes pressed into service to permit the attendance of ladies of good reputation who could not be decently expected to be seen in a public house. Of the female members, one in particular stands out: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Wharton's mistress and a notable figure in her own right. Lady Mary was a strong-willed individualist who was not content with the polite life of a married lady. She travelled extensively on the Continent without an escort and was rumoured to have infiltrated the Sultan's harem in Constantinople, where she discovered the secret of the smallpox vaccine. (4) The eventual fate of Wharton's group is of interest. In 1720 Parliament passed the South Sea Bill, a dubious piece of legislation which permitted the South Sea Company to assume the entire national debt in order to pay it off out of its profits. This bizarre attempt at privatization resulted in a short-term stock market boom followed by a disastrous crash. Thousands lost their fortunes, including Wharton. A modern reader cannot help comparing the situation to the recent savings and loan scandal. Wharton, who had opposed the scheme from the beginning, soon found himself at the head of a shaky coalition of opposition Whigs and Tories who were unified only by their outrage against the government headed by Lord Sunderland. With this sort of backing, Wharton and his "Grumbletonian" Whigs were a political force to be reckoned with. (5) The majority Whigs unleashed a brilliant counterattack. To divert public attention from the South Sea Bubble and undermine Wharton's political credibility, Sunderland and Sir Robert Walpole denounced Wharton's Hell-Fire activities before Parliament. These charges of immorality alienated the conservative Tories and moderate Whigs, and Wharton's power was broken. The Hell-Fire Club was disbanded, and Wharton went on to become Grand Master Mason of the London Grand Lodge in 1722. During the instalment ceremony, the orchestra played "Let the King Enjoy His Own Again," a Jacobite anthem. This amounted to a dangerous declaration of political allegiance. The Jacobites favoured the Catholic House of Stuart's claim to the British throne over that of the Protestant, but very German, House of Hanover's. There were many reasons why one might support the Jacobite cause, from Catholic sympathies and a mystical sense of sovereignty to xenophobia and a dislike for the character of the Hanoverian King George I (who reigned from 1714 to 1727), an arrogant "foreigner" who never bothered to learn English. Consequently, the moment attracted a wide variety of adherents with differing political philosophics, and the term soon came to be applied to anyone who held subversive ideas, much like the word "commie" in our own time. Whatever Wharton's motivations, he threw himself into the Jacobite cause, was awarded the Star and Garter by the Old Pretender, James Stuart, and died destitute at the age of thirty-two. THE FLEDGLING RAKE Francis Dashwood was born in 1708 into an illustrious line of Turkey merchants (6) who had raised themselves into the ranks of the aristocracy by a combination of hard work, political prowess, and strategic marriage. Dashwood's mother died when he was two years of age and he was soon packed off to Eton for his education. Upon hearing of his father's death in 1724, he locked himself in a cellar for a week to get drunk. In 1726, the fledging rake left England for his grand tour of the Continent. To Dashwood's credit, it must be said that this trip did inspire him with admiration for more than fine wine and courtesans. While in Florence, he made the acquaintance of the Catholic Jacobite Freemason Abbe Nicolini and was entered in the English Lodge there. When the Earl of Middlesex became master of this lodge some years later, a medal was struck to commemorate the event. It bore a likeness of the Egyptian god Harpocrates, the symbol of the newly born aeon, a child whose finger is raised to his lips as an exhortation to silence. (7) Dashwood also became enamoured of classical art and architecture during his tour, and upon his return to England founded the Society of Dilettante. This convivial group discussed the classics over dinner and wine, encouraged the growth of the Palladian style of architecture in Britain, and sponsored an archaeological expedition to Asia Minor. Dashwood did not stay in England long after his return. Soon after the founding of the society, he left with George, Lord Forbes, for St. Petersburg, where he reputedly seduced the Empress Anne of Russia while disguised as King Charles XII of Sweden (who was already dead at the time). (8) In the late 1730s, Dashwood travelled through Greece and Asia Minor, possibly crossing paths with John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich. The two men shared an interest in Eastern esoterica, which would lead them to found the Divan Club, another convivial group, dedicated to the imitation of things Turkish. (9) By 1739, Dashwood was on the homeward leg of his journey. On his way, he stopped in Florence to see the Abbe Nicolini, and it was there that he meet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the late Duke of Wharton's lover. She would eventually join Sandwich and Dashwood in the Divan Club, and tradition suggests that she was a votaress of Medmenham Abbey as well. (10) Unfortunately things were not going well for Freemasonry in Italy. Pope Clement XII had recently issued the bull In Eminenti Apostalatus Specula, unleashing the Inquisition against the lodges. (11) By early 1740, the pontiff was dead, and Dashwood went to Rome for the conclave that would elect the new pope. There he playfully assumed the identity of Cardinal Ottiboni, one of the chief persecutors of the Masons, and lampooned him publicly in a scurrilous mock ritual. (12) Dashwood's next prank had more serious consequences, and did much to establish his infamous reputation. On Good Friday it was the custom for penitents to flagellate themselves in the Sistine Chapel. Whether inspired by the eroticism of the scene or furious at the persecution of his brother Masons, Dashwood, fortified by wine, tested the faith of the pious by thrashing them with an English horsewhip. (13) As can be imagined, this caused no small stir and undoubtedly convinced many of the penitents of the r eality of the devil. There is a tradition that this incident led to a conversion for the instigator as well. According to author Daniel P. Mannix, who does not cite sources, Dashwood retired to his lodgings in a drunken stupor and fell asleep. He was awakened in the dead of the night by inhuman shrieking, and was startled to observe four glowing green eyes peering in through his window. Convinced that he had been visited by a demon from hell, he repented his sacrilegious stunt and embraced the Catholic faith. From that momen t on, he attended Mass regularly and was never seen without a rosary. This unnatural behaviour continued until his travelling companion revealed that he too had seen the apparition, and informed Dashwood that what he took to be a fiend was in fact a pair of alley cats copulating outside the window. This in turn led to a deconversion that galvanized Dashwood's anti-Catholicism and set him on his path as a Satanist. (14)
Although we will reconsider the truth of this story later, it is clear that, whether or not Dashwood flirted with Catholicism, he did flirt with the Jacobite cause. He made the acquaintance of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie," then holding court in Rome." Unfortunately for conspiracy buffs, Dashwood would have just missed meeting the prince's tutor, Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Roman Catholic Freemason and godfather of the Scottish Rite. At the time, Ramsay was in Paris promulga ting his belief that Freemasonry was descended from the orders of crusading knights and that the House of Stuart was its legitimate champion. (16) Dashwood was favourably impressed with the Young Pretender, who was rumoured to be the Knight of the Red Feather, the "unknown superior" of the Masonic Order of the Temple. (17) When Dashwood finally returned to England in 1741, his uncle, the Earl of Westmorland, persuaded him to enter politics. But Dashwood would find England's political landscape to be bleak. The electorate was shrinking and corruption growing. Sir Robert Walpole, now "first minister" to King George II (who had succeeded (George I in 1727), had weathered the South Sea scandal with aplomb and set to using bribery and political appointments to jockey himself into a position of unassailable power, forging the off ice that would presently become that of prime minister. (18) The king, meanwhile, was happily financing his German armies with British tax revenues (he still retained his family domain in Hanover) wehiole busily making the foreign entanglements that would lead to the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Dashwood would also have discovered that the Witchcraft law had been repealed in 1736. THE HELL-FIRE CLUB Tradition asserts that Dashwood's Hell-Fire Club originally met in London at the George and Vulture Inn. (19) It is possible that Dashwood and his friends gathered in a public house to revel in the freedom now implicitly granted to witches, resurrecting Wharton's Hell-Fire Club in a spirit of mockery. On the other hand, in the early eighteenth century taverns were frequently the meeting places for Masonic lodges, so it is also quite possible that the nascent Hell-Fire Club was a cabal of Jacobite Freemason s. Indeed it might very well have been both. In 1750, Dashwood rented Medmenham Abbey and began its restoration the following year. "Restoration," however, is perhaps a misleading choice of words. The original abbey dated from the thirteenth century, and had been added to extensively during the Tudor period. Dashwood added a ruined tower and cloister to enhance the building's Gothic atmosphere. Above the (deliberately) crumbling entrance were emblazoned the words of the sixteenth-century philosopher-satirist Francois Rabelais: "Fay ce que voudras" ("Do what thou wilt"). This folly became the new seat of Dashwood's club, which might very well have been known to its erudite familiars as the "Abbey of Theleme." (20) The abbey's library was said to contain an enviable collection of erotica, although the only volumes it is specifically known to have contained are a Latin Bible published in 1714, a hagiography, and a copy of Conjecture Cabalistica. The walls in one room were decorated with portraits of English kings; Henry VIII's eyes were pasted over with paper. The god Harpocrates, finger to lips, presided over the refectory. (21) The "chapter-room" is the key to understanding the Monks' activities. Its furnishings remain unknown, and consequently the use to which it was put remains a mystery. Sensationalist authors assume it was a Satanic sanctuary, although it seems more reasonable to conclude that it was used for Masonic ceremonies. John Wilkes, an important member of the Medmenham circle who did not become a Freemason until after his parting of the ways with the group, whines in an article defaming his former friend: "No profa ne eye has dared to penetrate into the English Eleusinian mysteries of the chapter-room, where the monks assembled on all solemn occasions, the more secret rites were performed and libations poured forth in much pomp to the BONA DEA." (22) Author Michael Howard has interpreted this mention of the bona dea, or "good goddess," to mean that Dashwood practised druidic rites, for which he was expelled from the eighteenth-century druidic revival gr oup An Ulieach Druidh Braithreachas in 1743. (23) Sir Robert Walpole's son Horace, one of Dashwood's political enemies and certainly a stranger to the abbey, mocked: "Whatever their doctrines were, their practice was 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." (24) On the other hand, the only activity that outsiders ever actually observed t he brethren engaged in was the occasional boating trip on the Thames. (25) The membership roll of the Medmenham Monks no longer exists, if it ever did, (26) but the names most reliably associated with the group include Dashwood's brother, John Dashwood-King; John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich; John Wilkes; George Bubb Dodington, Baron Melcombe; Paul Whitehead; and a collection of the local lesser gentry and professional men. Hardly the "Hell-Fire Cabinet" of popular legend, but a group of men sufficiently in t he public eye to create scandal. SEX AND POLITICS Dashwood married Sarah Gould in 1745, but in an era when prostitution was the surest means for a woman to advance in society and the fate of nations might be determined by syphilis-spawned madness, it would have been unnatural for the Medmenham Monks not to have had some sexual aura about them. Legend portrays the Monks as indulging in sadomasochistic orgies, but given the rumours about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Divan Club, one might well wonder if there is not a hint of Oriental sex magic in all this. Certainly the monks engaged in ribald jesting. One of their members, probably the satirist George Selwyn, praised the Earl of Sandwich's sexual prowess in an Anglo-Saxon-laced lampoon of Popes Essay on Man. John Wilkes printed a private edition of twelve copies of this "Essay on Woman" for distribution to his Medmenham cronies. (27) The Hell-Fire Club does not seem to have had a unified political agenda. Although most of is members were Whigs, the Earl of Sandwich, who became First Lord of the Admiralty, had distinctly Tory inclinations, and John Wilkes eventually became the most notable populist radical since Wat Tyler. Given the club's Rabelaisian motto, however, it is likely that they all shared a common view of humanity's ability to govern itself without an imposed body of law. Dashwood himself was politically an independent, believing that it was more important to vote in accord with his conscience on each issue than to follow a party line. During his long and controversial career, he sat in both houses of Parliament and served as chancellor of the Exchequer and postmaster general. He devoted much energy to public works projects and to a Poor Relief Bill, and continually advocated the formation of a national militia. This would abolish the need for a standing army and German m ercenary troops, implicitly undermining royal power. Dashwood was drawn into the orbit of Prince Frederick, the heir apparent to George II, a Freemason who attracted many Jacobites into his train. Dashwood evidently became a confidant of "Prince Fritz," resulting in a political setback for Dashwood upon the prince's death in 1751. (28) When "Bonnie Prince Charlie" embarked on his ill-fated attempt to invade England and regain the throne with Franco-Scottish support in 1744, the House of Commons was whipped into a patriotic frenzy. An "Address of Loyalty" to George II was made mandatory; Dashwood proposed an amendment which warned the sovereign not to infringe on the liberty of his subjects. He was branded a Jacobite for his efforts. In 1770, Dashwood and his fellow Mason Benjamin Franklin produced a plan of reconciliation for Britain and her increasingly rebellious colonies in North America. The plan was ignored, with well-known consequences. But of all the Medmenham fraternity, it was the "false brother" (29) John Wilkes who achieved the highest political profile. Passed over for a government appointment, Wilkes published a satirical weekly called The North Briton to vent his spleen on Prime Minister Bute. Waving the banner of "Liberty," issue number 45 of this magazine precipitated a series of popular riots that led to Wilkes's being charged with sedition in 1763. For good measure, the "Essay on Woman" was read before the scandalized House o f Lords. Wilkes's Medmenham cronies deserted him, and he was charged with salacious libel as well. Undeterred by being convicted as a pornographer, Wilkes stood for reelection in the Commons and won, presenting himself at King's Bar Prison as soon as the results were in. A constitutional crisis followed when Parliament declared that a prisoner could not sit in its ranks and overturned the result of the election, causing more riots and political skulduggery. Wilkes was eventually elected Lord Mayor of London, leading to a series of confrontations which did much to define the relationship between the cro wn and the city government. Although often criticized as an opportunist, Wilkes did much to establish the right to freedom of the press, forced England to reexamine its rules of suffrage, and inspired the American colonists in their demand for liberty. (30) RELIGION In 1773 Dashwood and Benjamin Franklin revised the Book of Common Prayer - an odd activity for a supposed Satanist. Possibly the two Freemasons were trying to bring the Anglican Church in line with Masonic Deism. In his introduction to this work, Dashwood stressed the usefulness of the church to the community and affirms the teachings of Jesus Christ in such a way that his allegiance to the Church of England is equivocal at best. Most of their changes involve removing all references to the Old Testament and eliminating repetitions wherever possible. This liturgy is still used by some Protestant sects in America. (31) The whole question of religion is central to the fascination that Dashwood continues to exercise. One could simply accept the popular belief that he was a Satanist and leave it at that. A more sophisticated interpretation might seize upon the rumours of sexual magic, the abbey's kabbalistic book, the recurring image of Harpocrates, Dashwood's tenuous connection with the Masonic Order of the Temple, and of course the Thelemic motto on Medmenham Abbey to conclude that the Hell-Fire Club was an early manifes tation of "Crowleyanity." A more sober-minded approach would pick out Dashwood's Masonic contacts and conclude, probably correctly, that the "chapter-room" was a Masonic temple. It may also be significant that most of Dashwood's Masonic associates were Catholic Jacobites. As a newly arrived peer, Dashwood would have been very conscious of his lack of lineage and might have been attracted to the chivalrous glamour of the Jacobite "Templar" orders. Bearing this in mind, we might pause to reconsider Dashwood's "conversion" in Rome. Wilkes mentions "mock celebrations of the more ridiculous rites ... of the Church of Rome." (32) Is it possible that Wilkes got it all wrong? Catholics were not allowed to hold public office in England until the end of the eighteenth century. Might what Wilkes took to be a parody of the sacraments, a "Black Mass," have actually been a Roman Mass? Ever since Henry VIII had usurped Rome's spiritual authority over his subjects, Catholicism had been "demonized" in England. The Satanic monk was becoming a stock figure in the increasingly popular "Gothick Romances" of the time. To English eyes, anything " Papist" might seem Satanic. The Latin Bible, the hagiography, the defaced portrait of Henry VIII, the equivocation in the Book of Common Prayer - is it possible that Sir Francis Dashwood, the notorious Satanist, was in fact a Jacobite Freemason and secret Roman Catholic?