The Medmenham Monks, a.k.a. The Hell-Fire Club
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Monks or Friars of Medmenham was a gentleman's club founded by Francis Dashwood. It was 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.
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.
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 Duke of Wharton's Club, rumours of Black Masses, orgies and Satan or demon Worship were well circulated during the time the Club was around. Dashwood's Club meetings often included mock rituals, items of a pornographic nature, much drinking, wenching and banqueting.
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.