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Hell-Fire Club

Hell-Fire Club

An eighteenth-century British Satanist society of rich men, politicians, and eccentrics based at Medmenham Abbey in Buckinghamshire and later in caves at High Wycombe. The founder was the notorious profligate Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), a member of parliament who was appointed chancellor of the exchequer in 1762. His ignorance and incapacity for the latter post resulted in his resignation a few months later.

As a young man Dashwood plunged into a life of pleasure and dissipation. When only 17, he became a member of one of the earlier Hell-Fire clubs, which conducted secret orgies in a cellar. There were rumors that during Dashwood's subsequent European travels he was initiated into a diabolic cult in Venice and brought back to England various magical grimoires and manuals.

About 1745, Dashwood founded the brotherhood known as the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe or the Franciscans of Medmenham, more popularly known as the Hell-Fire Club. In 1750 Dashwood rented the old Cistercian abbey of Medmenham on the river Thames, near Marlow, originally founded in 1201. He made costly renovations to the premises, which he furnished with an altar in the chapel, candlesticks, and pornographic pictures. The entrance to the abbey bore the inscription Fay ce que voudras (Do what thou wilt), derived from the Abbey of Thelema in Rabelais's Gargantua. The same motto was adopted by Aleister Crowley for his own Abbey of Thelema nearly two centuries later.

Although it has been claimed that Dashwood's "Franciscans" (derived from his own forename) were largely rakes of the period seeking drunken sex orgies, there was an inner circle or "superior order" of 12 members who held obscene parodies of Catholic ritual in the chapel as an elementary form of Satanism. As grand master, Dashwood used a communion cup to pour libations to pagan gods, and even administered the sacrament to a baboon in a contemptuous mockery of sacred ritual. Members of this superior order included Lord Sandwich, the libertine Paul Whitehead, the debauchee George Selwyn, and Thomas Potter (son of the archbishop of Canterbury). A fictionalized account of the Franciscans was published in Charles Johnston's novel Chrysal (1760).

The brotherhood flourished at Medmenham for 12 years, until it was exposed by John Wilkes, who had joined in 1762 but was later expelled, probably through political quarrels. At one of the Satanic rituals, Wilkes secretly brought an ape with horns tied on its head, dressed in a long black cloak. The creature was released at the height of the ceremony and sprang upon the Satanists, who screamed with fear at the devil they thought they had raised by their mockery. Wilkes and the politician Charles Churchill exposed the brotherhood in an issue of the North Briton newspaper, and a satirical print appeared entitled "The Saint of the Convent."

In the face of public exposure, the Medmenham chapel was hastily stripped and its contents taken away to West Wycombe, where Dashwood attempted to revive his ceremonies. He built a church on Wycombe Hill, where he and his companions drank heavily and blasphemed the Psalms. In the caves underneath the hill, they attempted to revive the orgies and rituals of Medmenham, but some of Dashwood's friends had died and others tired of their activities.

After resigning from the post of chancellor of the exchequer, Dashwood retired from the ministry, and in 1763 became the fifteenth Baron Le Despencer, premier baron of England. In 1763 he became lord-lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. He died at West Wycombe after a prolonged illness on December 11, 1781, and was buried in the mausoleum he had built there.

Other Hell-Fire clubs existed in eighteenth-century England at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as in Scotland (Edinburgh) and Ireland (Dublin). The contemporary influences that brought about such societies were an increasing religious skepticism, the growth of free thought, romantic Gothic literature with mad monks and devils, and male chauvinism in an atmosphere of class privilege and debauchery.

Sources:

Mannix, Daniel P. The Hell Fire Club. New York: Ballantine Books, 1959.

McCormick, Donald. The Hell-Fire Club. London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1958. Reprint, London: Sphere Books, 1975.

Towers, Eric. Dashwood: The Man and the Myth. U.K.: Crucible, 1986.

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