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People have been spreading juicy rumors about the sensual indulgences and satanic perversities of the Hellfire Club since 1748.
Of all the secret societies in the world, few arouse as many exotic, erotic fantasy images as the Hellfire Club. If one has heard anything at all of the wicked goings-on at the old Medmenham Abbey on West Wycombe Hill, one immediately visualizes wealthy and aristocratic English libertines frolicking about with buxom ladies of ill repute and conducting blasphemous and obscene satanic rites.
The infamous Hellfire Club was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood (1708–1781), but neither he nor any of its members ever called their gatherings by that name. Sir Francis named his merry group of revelers the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, the Monks of Medmenham, or the Order of Knights of West Wycombe—none of which has quite the ring of the Hellfire Club, the name bequeathed to the group by outsiders.
Dashwood, son of a wealthy businessman, got his title by marrying into the aristocracy. Quite civically minded, for over twenty years Sir Francis sat in the House of Commons as an MP and held the offices of chancellor of the Exchequer, postmaster general, and treasurer to King George III. While this may seem like the résumé of a rigid and conservative gentleman, as a privileged young man Dashwood had gone on the Grand Tour of Europe, the rite of passage for sons of the idle rich. In Italy he came to admire the classical architecture and mythology of the country, but at the same time, he managed to develop a strong distaste for Roman Catholicism. Although, as one who would soon become one of the landed gentry, he seemed an unlikely prospect for recruitment into the Jacobite revolutionary movement, he did become a member, then in short order joined the Rosicrucians.
While staying in Florence, Dashwood met Prince Charles, pretender to the Scottish throne, who had far-reaching associations with Masonic and neo-Templar secret societies. Quite probably under Prince Charles’s sponsorship, Dashwood was initiated into a Masonic lodge.
In London, about 1738, Dashwood founded the Society of the Dilettanti, essentially a private club for the hard-drinking and womanizing of the aristocracy. In 1746 he established the Order of the Knights of St. Francis, whose members initially met at the George and Vulture public house in Cornhill, in a room dominated by a large crystal globe encircled by an Ouroboros, a gold serpent with its tail in its mouth.
In 1751 Dashwood leased as the headquarters for his order Medmenham Abbey, originally a twelfth-century Cistercian monastery, on the Thames near Marlow, about six miles from his ancestral home at West Wycombe. He had stained-glass windows bearing the motto “Do as thou will” placed above the front door. His lifelong fascination with pagan gods and goddesses was architecturally expressed by designing the west wing of the mansion as a replica of a classical temple to Bacchus. To celebrate the temple’s completion, Dashwood composed a pageant and employed actors to play fauns, satyrs, nymphs, and various gods and goddesses. As the Hellfire Friars dined, they were watched over by statues of the Freemasons’ guardians of secrecy, Harpocrates, the Egyptian god of silence, with his finger to his lips, and Angerona, the Roman goddess of silence, indicating to the Friars that nothing that was said or went on in the Abbey was to be mentioned outside its walls.
Dashwood was delighted to discover a prehistoric network of caves under West Wycombe Hill, and he had them enlarged to serve as additional dens of iniquity. In ancient times a pagan altar had existed on the hill, and catacombs under the ground contained the pagan dead. Along with his instructions to excavate and enlarge the old caves, Dashwood ordered the construction of individual “cells” in the passageways for the Friars to dally with their female guests. An underground stream, dubbed “the River Styx,” had to be crossed to enter the Inner Sanctum, where Black Masses were held. As a young man in France, Dashwood had attended a Black Mass, indulging his curiosity about the subject. There is no real evidence that Dashwood ever actually practiced Satanism, but he loved conducting pseu-dosatanic rites to mock the Catholic Church.
Local gossip, which became legends passed down for generations, had the Hellfire Friars ferrying prostitutes down the Thames from London in barges to perform in the Black Mass as nuns. The Black Masses, according to the old stories, were conducted over the naked bodies of aristocratic ladies, as well as prostitutes.
A number of scholars who have researched the Hellfire Club have concluded that the accounts of satanic Black Masses have been exaggerated over the years. Although the club may have included mock satanic rites as a prelude to sexual indulgences, most of the Friars of the Order of St. Francis were hardy and happy disciples of Bacchus and Venus who gathered to celebrate the excesses of both sex and drink. At heart, Sir Francis Dashwood was a disciple of the ancient pagan mystery schools.
It has been said that the members of the Hellfire Club included some of the wealthiest and most influential people in England. Long-suspected members include the Earl of Sandwich; John Wilkes, MP of Aylesbury; the satirical artist William Hogarth; John Stuart, Earl of Bute, who in his later years was briefly the prime minister of England; the Marquis of Granby; the Prince of Wales; and very possibly Benjamin Franklin and Horace Walpole.