Hellfire Club  

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Image:Hogarth Dashwood.jpg
Portrait of Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer by William Hogarth from the late 1750s, parodying Renaissance images of Francis of Assisi. The bible has been replaced by a copy of the erotic novel Elegantiae Latini sermonis, and the profile of Dashwood's friend Lord Sandwich peers from the halo.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
British underground, The Medmenham Monks, a.k.a. The Hell-Fire Club

The Hellfire Club was a name for several exclusive clubs for high society rakes established in Britain and Ireland in the 18th century, and was more formally or cautiously known as the "Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe".

These clubs were rumoured to be the meeting places of "persons of quality" who wished to take part in immoral acts and the members were often very involved in politics. The clubs are still today shrouded in mystery, no one can prove many rumours associated with the Club, including its activities and members.

The most infamous club associated with the name Hellfire Club was established in England, by Sir Francis Dashwood and met irregularly from around 1749 to around 1760 and possibly up until 1766. Another notable club and the very first, was founded in 1719 in London by Philip, Duke of Wharton and a handful of other high society friends. Other clubs using the name "Hellfire Club" were set up throughout the 18th century. Most of these clubs were set up in Ireland after Wharton's was dispelled.

Unlike the more determined Satanists of the 18th century, the club motto was Fay ce que vouldras (Do what thou wilt), a philosophy of life associated with François Rabelais' fictional abbey at Thélème and later used by Aleister Crowley.


Founders and members

The two most infamous Hellfire Clubs were founded by Philip, Duke of Wharton and Sir Francis Dashwood. Lord Wharton, made a Duke by George I, was a prominent politician with two separate lives; the first, "a...man of letters" and the second, "...a drunkard, a rioter, an infidel and a rake". The members of Wharton's club are largely unknown. Blackett-Ord assumes that members included Wharton's immediate friends; Earl of Hillsborough, cousin - the Earl of Lichfield and Sir Ed. O'Brien. Aside from these names, other members are not revealed.

Sir Francis was much more of a trickster than his predecessor Wharton. He was well known for his pranks: for example, while in the Royal Court in St Petersburg, he dressed up as the King of Sweden - a great enemy of Russia. The membership of Sir Francis' club was initially limited to twelve but soon increased. Of the original twelve, some are regularly identified: Dashwood, Robert Vansittart, Thomas Potter, Francis Duffield, Edward Thompson, Paul Whitehead and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. The list of supposed members is immense; among the more probable candidates are George Bubb Dodington, a fabulously corpulent man in his 60s; William Hogarth, although hardly a gentleman, has been associated with the club after painting Dashwood as a Franciscan Friar and John Wilkes, though much later, under the pseudonym John of Aylesbury. Benjamin Franklin is also said to have occasionally attended the club's meetings during 1758 as a non-member during his time in England. However, some authors and historians would argue Benjamin Franklin was in fact a spy. As there are no records left (if there were any at all), many of these members are just assumed or linked by letters sent to each other.

Meetings and club activities

At the time of the "London's gentlemen's club", where there was a meeting place for every interest, including poetry, philosophy and politics. Philip, Duke of Wharton's Hell-Fire Club was, according to Blackett-Ord, a satirical "gentlemans club" which was known to ridicule religion, catching onto the trend of the time in England of blaspheming religion. The club was more a joke, meant to shock the outside world, than a serious attack on religion or morality. The supposed president of this club was the Devil, although the members themselves did not apparently worship demons or the Devil, but called themselves devils. Wharton's club admitted men and women, not as whores but as equals. Very unlike other clubs of the time. The club met on Sundays at a number of different locations around London. The Greyhound Tavern was one of the meeting places used regularly, but because women were not to be seen in taverns, the meetings were also held at members houses and Wharton's riding club .

Despite rumours of devil worship and other dark arts being practised during the meetings there is no evidence to prove this. According to a number of sources their activities included mock religious ceremonies and partaking in meals containing dishes like Holy Ghost Pie, Breast of Venus and Devil's Loin, while drinking Hell-fire punch. Members of the Club supposedly came to meetings dressed as characters from the Bible.

Sir Francis' club was never originally known as a Hellfire Club, it was given this name much later. His club in fact used a number of other names, such as the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, Order of Knights of West Wycombe and later, after moving their meetings to Medmenham Abbey they became the Monks or Friars of Medmenham . The first meeting at Sir Francis' family home in West Wycombe was held on Walpurgis Night, 1752; a much larger meeting, it was something of a failure and no large-scale meetings were held there again. In 1751, Dashwood leased Medmenham Abbey on the Thames (about six miles from his childhood home of West Wycombe) from a friend, Francis Duffield. On moving into the Abbey, Dashwood had numerous expensive works done on the building. It was rebuilt by the architect Nicholas Revett in the style of the 18th century Gothic revival, at this time, the motto Fait ce que voudras was placed above a doorway in stained glass. It is thought that William Hogarth may have executed murals for this building; none, however, survive. Underneath the Abbey, Dashwood had a series of caves carved out from an existing one. It was decorated again with mythological themes, phallic symbols and other items of a sexual nature.

According to Horace Walpole, the members' "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." Dashwood's garden at West Wycombe contained numerous statues and shrines to different gods; Daphne and Flora, Priapus and the previously mentioned Venus and Dionysus.

Meetings occurred twice a month, with an AGM meeting lasting a week or more in June or September. The members addressed each other as "Brothers" and the leader, which changed regularly, as "Abbot". During meetings members supposedly wore ritual clothing; white pants, jacket and cap while the "Abbott" wore a red ensemble of the same style. Like Wharton's Club, rumours of Black Masses, orgies and Satan or demon Worship were well circulated during the time the Club was around. Other clubs, especially in Ireland and Scotland were rumoured to take part in far more dubious activities. However, these activities were, according to Noblitt and Perskin, to cover the real reason for the club's existence - sexual activities. Many of the Hell Fire Clubs were allegedly created to provide male members with opportunities for "sexual debauchery". Other rumours saw female "guests" (a euphemism for prostitutes) referred to as "Nuns". Dashwood's Club meetings often included mock rituals, items of a pornographic nature, much drinking, wenching and banqueting.

Later years

Wharton's club came to an end in 1721 when George I, under the influence of Wharton's political enemies namely Robert Walpole, put forward a Bill "against 'horrid impieties'" (or immorality) aimed at the Hellfire Club. Despite the fact that there has never been proof that Wharton's Hellfire Club ever did more than hold mock religious ceremonies and drink excessively, Wharton's political opposition used his membership as a way to pit him against his political allies thus removing him from parliament. After having his Club disbanded, Wharton became a Freemason and in 1722 he became the Grandmaster of England .

The downfall of Dashwood's Club was much longer and far more intricate due to a number of events in the early 1760s. In 1762 the Earl of Bute appointed Dashwood his Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite Dashwood being widely held to be incapable of understanding "a bar bill of five figures". (Dashwood resigned the post the next year, having raised a tax on cider which caused near-riots). Dashwood now sat in the House of Lords after taking up the title of Baron Le Despenser when the previous holder passed away. Then there was the attempted arrest of John Wilkes for seditious libel against the King in the notorious issue No. 45 of his The North Briton in early 1763. During a search authorized by a General warrant (possibly set up by Sandwich, who wanted to get rid of Wilkes), a version of The Essay on Woman was discovered set up on the press of a printer whom Wilkes had almost certainly used. The work was almost certainly principally written by Thomas Potter, and from internal evidence can be dated to around 1755. It was scurrilous, blasphemous, libellous, and pornographic, unquestionably illegal under the laws of the time, and the Government subsequently used it to drive Wilkes into exile. Between 1760 and 65 Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea by Charles Johnstone was published. It contained stories easily identified with Medmenham, one in which Lord Sandwich was ridiculed as having mistaken a monkey for the Devil. This book sparked the association between the Medmenham Monks and the Hellfire Club. By this time, 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.

The Caves in which the Friars met are now a tourist site known as the Hell Fire Caves.

In 1781, Dashwood's nephew Joseph Alderson (an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford) founded the Phoenix Common Room, but it was only in 1786 that the small gathering of friends asserted themselves as a recognised institution. The Phoenix was established in honour of Sir Francis, who died in 1781, as a symbolic rising from the ashes of Dashwood's earlier institution and to this day the dining society abides by many of its predecessors' tenets. Its motto uno avulso non deficit alter is from the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid and is relevant first in the more overarching sense of having replaced the Monks of Medmenham; then in establishing the continuity of the society through a process of constant renewal of its graduate and undergraduate members. The Phoenix Common Room's continuous history until the present day is a matter of great pride to the college.

In popular culture


The Hellfire Club has appeared in numerous literary works:

  • The Avengers episode "A Touch of Brimstone" had Steed and Peel infiltrate a modern incarnation of the club whose pranks were expanding to destroy the government.
  • In Blackadder the Third, Prince George makes numerous comments about spending time at 'The Naughty Hellfire Club'.
  • In the Jeremy Brett – Edward Hardwicke The Return of Sherlock Holmes series episode The Priory School, mention is made that ancestors of the Duke of Holdernesse, apart from being cattle thieves, may have provided a member of the Hellfire Club; however, no such reference is set forth in the original story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Priory School.
  • Dashwood's "Hellfire Club" makes many appearances in the anime Le Chevalier D'Eon.
  • Mentioned by Frank Zappa on CNN television series Crossfire March 28, 1986.

See also


  • Blackett-Ord, Mark. Hell-Fire Duke. Berks: The Kensal Press, 1982.
  • Noblitt, James Randall, and Pamela Sue Perskin. Cult and ritual abuse : its history, anthropology, and recent discovery in contemporary America. Westport: Praeger, 1995.
  • Ashe, Geoffrey. The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality. Great Britain: Sutton Publishing, 2005
  • Mannix, Daniel. The Hell Fire Club. London: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
  • The Hellfire Consipracy, by Will Thomas, Touchstone, 2007, ISBN 0-7432-9640-0.
  • Willens, Daniel. Sex, Politics, and Religion in Eighteenth-Century England.
  • Suster, Gerald. The hell-fire friars . London: Robson, 2000.

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