DO WHAT YOU WILL!
The Lives & Times of the Hellfire Club
Does anything support the conjecture that England’s most notorious secret society of libertines became a hidden hand in the politics of a troubled empire and the New World?
It was an age of ambition and the ambitious, the social animal, the talented animal. The period where the best of times was about to meet the worst of times.
The British Empire is prospering at the height of world power. The New World colonies are restive, but the money’s still flowing in from them, and keeping that income going is one of the main government priorities. From all corners of the Earth, luxuries are entering England: sugar, tobacco, tea, coffee, silk, and porcelain, fuelling the imaginations of the masses, and the coffers of the government. At the centre of the expanding English universe, the affluent ends of society, are making their plans and deals. The number of people wanting to get in on the good times is booming, a class of mercantiles elbowing-in between the serfs and the gentry. The East India Company is growing a credit bubble such as the banks have never known.
At the centre of this empire of trade and gratification is London, growing faster than any city on earth. Gangs of wealthy, boisterous, sometimes violent men like the Mohocks roam the streets. Dodging them are often less noisome rakes, well-credited gentlemen who are drawn to fashionable clubs, casinos and houses of St. James and Covent Garden where they can satisfy any vice since owing to enterprising molls like Frances Murray. Anything a man can want to do to or have done to him by a woman can be provided for a price. Sex in London is commercialised on a scale unmatched by any society in history, an annual turnover double that of the building trades, a billion pounds in today’s money, and it is in context of the legal age of consent being just twelve. Tourists are surprised by how many women are streetwalkers.
Revised and expanded version of an article originally published in BEYOND magazine, issue 12.
Sex in London is commercialised on a scale unmatched by any society in history, an annual turnover double that of the building trade.
The Rake's Progress (3rd scene) by William Hogarth (1697-1764)
Sir Francis Dashwood is one of the most important people in government. An Etonian whose contemporaries include the (eventual) politicans William Pitt, and Henry Fox, and the novelist Henry Fielding, the death of his father means Dashwood inherits an estate at West Wycombe and a fortune just as he is understanding how to spend it, at 16. He embarks on a Grand Tour of Europe, accompanied by his suffering tutor Colonel Fane who warns Dashwood about making acquaintances with well-dressed Chevaliers who could draw him to a card game with other impressively titled swindlers and murderers. Dashwood is a man of vigour and imagination, a blunt speaker, as well as being a highly social character. In Venice, the ‘superior brothel of Europe’, he finds ladies of the professions wearing pearls "the size of Bantam’s eggs". There is the rumour that he becomes a Freemason in Florence since he was friendly with one named Frolich, staying friends with him later in London, although there is no direct proof.
In Rome something very significant happens. For reasons that have ever since given conjecture, Dashwood runs wild in the Sistine Chapel, dressed in a long cloak and flailing a whip at penitents who flee screaming ‘Il Diavlo! Il Diavlo!’ This mania continues all over the city, with Dashwood reeling from taverns to churches, lashing at their idolatries. That night the terrors continue with a pair of cats on his windowsill inspiring a powerful demoniacal vision, from which Fane rescues him. The very shaken baron becomes preoccupied by faith and religion, planning to build a Catholic cathedral in the heart of London on his return. His conversion becomes the joke of London society.
In 1733 Dashwood visits Russia, and moves up into the European superleague of rakishness by becoming lover of the Tzars wife, Catherine. For living the most scandalous life in Europe she inspired many rumors, including how the furious Peter had decapitated one of her lovers and insisted his pickled head be stored in a jar to decorate her bedroom. The Dictionary of National Biography is content enough with its sources to relate that Dashwood masqueraded as King Charles XII of Sweden to seduce Catherine. Either he was unaware or unbelieving of the gossip, it must be assumed. It may be a joke that this has cruelly gone into history since no amount of a portraitist’s flattery could show her as anything other than obese and unappealing, but there it is.
Sir Francis Dashwood,
Lord Le Despencer (1708-1781)
Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796)
Dashwood as an Ottoman Pasha
The year after his Russian escapade, Dashwood and other nobles formed the Society of Dilettanti, a dinner gathering held on the first Sunday of every month at the Bedford Head Tavern, Covent Garden at 3pm with the aim to "correct and purify the taste of the country". Having been to Italy is the qualification for membership. The members number seventy-odd. Traditions include having oneself painted in ‘fancy dress’ so Dashwood depicts himself as a Franciscan monk, punning on his name and indicating his fascination with religion. While this actually involved a great deal of drinking, the club subsidized artists and the first important work on the ruins of Ancient Greece, as well as the archaeologist who discovered Pompeii and Herculaneum. Within two decades it was instrumental in establishing the Royal Academy of Arts.
A few years later Dashwood starts the Divan Club, for confirmed Ottoman Empire-venturing Orientalists. Members are expected to wear colourful robes and turbans, and to carry daggers. At some point around the 1740s a group of these men are developing their clubs interests beyond mere recollections of great journeys, and plans for what ruins to put in the garden, into things like adultery and whoring; drink being all that's what's needed to help make the leap there. By around 1749 this group of libertines has coalesced into Sir Francis Dashwood's Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, known today as the Hell-Fire Club.
Dashwood’s club is just the most infamous inheritor of the eighteenth century Hell-Fire spirit. In the 1720s there were tales of three clubs mocking religion, associated with libertines of both sexes. A group that met at Somerset House held orgies. By 1720 it was common knowledge that Philip, Duke of Wharton, a rebellious Whig politician with a reputation for brawling in public, was president of a hell-fire club. The following year George I issued an order suppressing the clubs, and Wharton denied being a patron of blasphemy to the House of Lords. He was Grand Master of English Freemasonry five years after the society was established, and founded a lodge in Madrid. Enmired in terrible debt and alcoholism, he drifted colourfully around Europe and died at a Cistercian Abbey of Poblet in Catalonia in 1731. Samuel Richardson, based his rake Lovelace on memories of Wharton in the hugely influential novel Clarissa.
Irish hellfire clubs had a more violent and demonic edge. Limerick had a hell-fire club, and so did Dublin, founded around 1735 by Richard Parsons, first Earl of Rosse, and Colonel Jack St. Leger. The five members toasted Satan, and encouraged duelling with pistol notches for each kill. Orgies were held at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, at Daly’s Club on College Green, and later at Killakee Dower House, later to become one of Ireland’s most haunted sites.
Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton (1698-1731)
With no clear record of what actually happened at its meetings, it's difficult to know with any certainty what Dashwood's purpose for the group was besides carousing, much less if it was guided by anything resembling a philosophy.
It is unknown if any of these groups influenced England's most notorious Hellfire Club founded by Sir Francis Dashwood. It seems unlikely. Debauchery and drinking are part of a certain caste of gentlemen's 'culture', coupled with a general air of suspicion towards religious orthodoxy and high morals. The Age of Enlightenment is underway, and Dashwood's club can be seen as either a group dedicated to a 'Grand Tour' of the outermost limits of enquiry in a spirit of Enlightenment reason. Or else a kind of counter-Enlightenment throwback to an idealised free-spirited pagan past. With no clear record of what actually happened at its meetings, it's difficult to know with any certainty what Dashwood's purpose for the group was besides carousing, much less if it was guided by anything resembling a philosophy or strategy, but given Dashwood's background and connections these cannot be ruled out.
The club secretary and treasurer of was Paul Whitehead. This tradesman’s son turned political pamphleteer, satirist and poet, became a friend of the Prince of Wales on account of some witty verses against monarchy. Mannix says he was sent for by the Hell-Fire Club when he dressed cripples and prostitutes in Freemason’s robes to go on ahead of real Masonic procession. Robert Lloyd called him “learned in lechery, a sedulous and patient seducer and a veritable troubadour of blasphemy.” He organised the Hell-Fire Club with the diligence of a country fair committee chairman, and ensured its secrets never reached posterity.
Other prominent members included (as far as can be ascertained):
John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792)
John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, one of the most rakish men of the day. Sandwich’s pleasures were (apart from sandwiches which he named) gambling, flagellation and young ladies. He is said once to have preached a sermon to a congregation of cats. His office was the First Lord of the Admiralty, and as one of the select and powerful ‘King’s Friends’ group, opposed democracy in the interests of the established order. Mr. Popularity he wasn’t. "The art of robbing vice of its disgust and throwing about it the mantle of conviviality," wrote the Earl of Chesterfield, "belongs in a very peculiar manner to this nobleman. I understand that from his youth to this present time he has proceeded in one uniformly unblushing course of depravity and dissipation. His conversation is chiefly tinctured with indecent expressions and coarse allusions." Charles Churchill (1732-1764), another Hell-Fire member, and a mordant wit, said Sandwich had the face of "a man who had been half-hanged and cut down by mistake."
John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute had exploited the lucky situation of a card game with a young Hanoverian to become the future George III’s most dependable advisor, later Prime Minister. William Thackeray wrote that "He was hated with a rage of which there have been few examples in English history." Plenty of this was due to his Scottishness, and to his influence over the monarchy. Bute seduced the wife of the Prince of Wales, using it to exert more influence over the government than the then Prime Minister, William Pitt. Later his ruthless stance against the American Colonists won him few lasting admirers.
John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792)
George Bubb-Dodington, Lord Melcombe (1691-1762)
George Bubb-Dodington (later Lord Melcombe) inherited one of the largest fortunes in England on the death of his uncle. He acquired his Parliamentary seat then was appointed by Walpole to the Treasury. This utterly dissipated individual would do anything to be noticed by the aristocracy. The Prince of Wales and he enjoyed the company of Lady Deloraine and Miss Vane. He gave his mistress Strawbridge a bond of £10 000, then when he married someone else, forced his wife to keep the marriage a secret so he wouldn’t forfeit the bond, making his wife his mistress until Mrs. Strawbridge died. Dashwood got him into the Dilettanti Society, and they became mutual allies.
John Wilkes, M.P. (1725-1797)
John Wilkes, M.P. The rhetorical gifts of the energetic member for Aylesbury, along with his enthusiasm for dallying with ladies found in directories, brought him to the attention of Dashwood who put him second-in-command of his Buckinghamshire militia. Wilkes was not a member of the club’s inner circle, but he was a key participant involved in its running. A famed seducer in spite of his looks, he claimed the Mademoiselle Charpillion over Casanova. His rift from other Hell-Fire members would later have national consequences, events sparked by an erotic poem (see below). Wilkes’ wit is celebrated. When one voter at an election meeting heckled him with “I’d sooner vote for the devil!" Wilkes replied, "Certainly! But if your friend doesn’t run can I count on your support?” He also coined the expression “I have no minor vices” when refusing snuff.
Dashwood’s personal physician, Bates was noted for his lavish tastes and lifestyle. He apparently joined in the ‘second wave’ of memberships, but was ranked by a later author as a superior. A patron of the arts, Bates gave up his practice in 1781 to join Dashwood on a continental tour, but Dashwood died before the trip began. In 1797 he was appointed Commander of the Devonshire Forces, and participated in the Anglo-Spanish War from 1796.
Benjamin Bates II (1716-1820)
Other members of the brotherhood thought to have been in attendance included at least ten M.P.s, among them Thomas Potter (1718-1759), son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. "Wilke’s evil genius" as he was known was an M.P. who became Vice-Treasurer for Ireland, not bad for an Aylesbury lad. He squandered a fortune on exploring his indulgences then married twice for money. The accusation that he murdered his first wife has been made. Potter was instrumental in the literary scandal that would later engulf Wilkes and the government.
Additionally, there was the popular poet Charles Churchill, who made his name with satirical verses scattered with juvenilia, for which many men in the armed forces praised the cut of his gib. The painter and satirical illustrator William Hogarth. Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones. General William Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Harrington (1719-1779), known as "the goat of quality." And George Selwyn, M.P. This noted and fashionable wit, a prolific writer of letters, had a morbid sense of fun. He attended executions disguised as an old woman, and had a standing arrangement with undertakers to view any body brought to them. The sexton at Westminster Abbey quipped about his "necrophiliac leanings." (As did Lord Holland on his death bed, telling his servants “Should Mr. Selwyn call, show him up at once. If I’m alive, I’ll be glad to see him, and if I’m dead he’ll be glad to see me.”) Selwyn went to Paris and pushed to the front to see Robert Damiens, the servant who tried to kill Louis XV, torn apart by red-hot pincers and four horses. Selwyn claimed to have fathered several bastards, yet it was rumoured that he was a eunuch.
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
William Hogarth (1697-1754)
George Selwyn (1719-1791)
Charles Churchill (1732-1764)
The men started meeting in the George and Vulture Inn, off Lombard Street in the City of London. This venue, still popular with City workers, is cosy but hardly private unless gathering in the cellars, as the Hell-Fire Club is supposed to have done. As well as the limits of the venue, Dashwood had concepts beyond the confines of tavern talk that he wanted to impress on the society’s members, an aesthetic he needed to impart by using his fortune.
Frederick, Prince of Wales, is not positively known to be one of the brotherhood of Sir Francis but given his known friendships (notably Bute) and licentious tastes, his attachment to them is plausible. He was the most English of the Hanoverians, holding no attachment to his German roots. He was generous and favoured ‘politics without party’, kingship without faction as in the teachings of Bolingbroke. He was crowned George III in 1761 in a sometimes farcical ceremony which did not bode well for things to come: war in the colonies, seclusion and eventual madness.
Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751)
In the late 1740s Dashwood constructed a system of caves in the hill opposite his West Wycombe house, ostensibly to provide chalk to pave a road between his village and High Wycombe. The cave and tunnel layout, however, is designed in the tradition of symbolic landscaping, when follies were fashionable. Over the entrance he created the facade of a Gothic church and courtyard. Upon entering the caves, the visitor follows a gentle downward incline to a left turn where the tunnel narrows. A few yards later Whitehead’s Cave houses a seated figure of the steward, poised at his roster. A long straight passage has the carved numerals XXII, possibly indicating a secret passage. Then there is Franklin’s Cave, named for a known visit after which he wrote to a friend, ‘His Lordship’s imagery, puzzling and whimsical, as it may seem, is as much evident below the earth as it is above it.’ Bearing right, past the creepy figures of children and craved skulls, one enters the impressive Banqueting Hall, 40 feet in diameter with four niches to house statues (or assignations.) Next, the Triangle is thought to symbolise the female sex. After the Miner’s Cave, the River Styx, theatrically evoked with stalactites, refers to the mythological river that carried the souls of the dead to the underworld. The final cave, the Inner Temple, is 300 feet down beneath the church Dashwood built on the hilltop.
Most accounts assume that something club-related happened there, yet the caves have an uncomfortable, dank ambience. The modern Sir Francis Dashwood inclines to write that costumed revels were held there, adding “the maze may represent something mythical or even part of the human anatomy.” Since 1951 the caves have been opened to the public, so you can judge for yourself by visiting them.
In the early 1750s Dashwood rented an old Cistercian abbey and dilapidated Elizabethan house called Medmenham near Henley-on-Thames, and set about making improvements. John Wilkes summarised the results thus: "I was full of astonishment that any man should take so much pains and be at so great expense only to show a public contempt of all virtue." The interior was lavished with Italian frescoes, a ‘Chapter Room’ covered with prints and portraits of kings, monks, and nuns. The library shelves groaned with satirical novels, occult subjects, and titles like Satan’s Harvest Home or the present state of Whorecraft, Adultery, Fornication, Procuring, Pimping, Sodomy and the Game at Flatts (lesbianism). There were also the Poems of John Wilmot the Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), the rakish great-grandfather of the Earl of Sandwich. Perhaps Johnson’s Dictionary, the era’s Google, was a talking point. Over the archway at the entrance to the abbey was inscribed the words ‘Fay ce que voudras,’ Do as you will, from Rabelais. At the other end of the passage was ‘Aude, hospes, contemnere opes,’ Dare, O guest, to despise wealth.
In the garden, where there was an even more theatrical mien, Dashwood installed a legendary amusement. When a member of the clergy expressed interest in the gardens, Dashwood had him view them from the roof. Looking down, the minister saw how the shrubbery and hedges had been arranged to form the naked figure of a woman. With the clergyman scratching his chin, Dashwood gave a signal to servants who released fountains which shot milk into the air from the horticultural breasts. The minister fainted and had to be revived. In the centre of the orchard stood a statue of proud Priapus, the Roman god, with the motto ‘Peni tento, non penitenti,’ a tense penis, not penitence. The god of drinking and revelry, Bacchus, was also found there.
The Knights of St. Francis are known to have existed in eight ‘missing years’ before 1754 during which Earl Temple wrote effusively to John Wilkes, the year the MP became the High Sheriff of Buckingham: "It is very gracious of the pious Aeneas, after his love-feast, to keep up friendship with one who has so slender a claim to be admitted to the table of the Saints. I shall only now and then drink to the pious memory of the delightful moments I have spent in your wicked company." It doesn’t sound much like a cricket match.
Before these delightfully unguessable moments (all of which certainly involved copious quaffing) there were rituals to observe. The piece de resistance was said to be in the chapter room or chapel where only the innermost members were allowed. ‘The most important ceremony,’ according to Fergus, “appears to have been the initiation of a new member. Held after dark, it began with the tolling of a bell in the tower. The abbot and his 12 disciples performed their secret rites in the chapter room.... When the rites were finished, music from the chapel summoned them. They advanced two by two and their leader knocked three times on the door of the chapel. Sir Francis opened it and then retired behind the altar rail, where he and his 12 disciples stood facing the incoming procession. The light from the wax tapers flickered on the obscene wall decorations.” The decor was courtesy of Horace Walpole who went snooping and tipping servants at Medmenham Abbey, relating how he’d heard it was ‘furnished with bawdy pictures,’ despite not actually visiting the locked chapter room himself. He spoke for practically everyone who had heard about it but never really been there, which by the 1750s was increasing through the Westminster-St. James-Piccadilly gossip network. It even reached the point where boats were bringing tourists along the river from London to see the infamous Abbey and, if they were lucky in the summer months, its notorious ‘monks.’ The ‘secret rites’ are conjectured to be English Elusinian observances, otherwise known as Masonic, and given Dashwood’s love of Orientalism and the Bacchanalia, there would have been more pungency, drinking, and eroticism.
The ‘secret rites’ are conjectured to be English Elusinian observances, otherwise known as Masonic, and given Dashwood’s love of Orientalism and the Bacchanalia, there would have been more pungency, drinking, and eroticism.
Unfounded claims of Satanic observances continue to the present day, and must be appraised in historical perspective. After the Reformation, scepticism against both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches was rife. None of the five medical hospitals built in London during the century involved the Church. Prisoners paid for their cell and board in filthy, disease-ridden gaols. There was no Church outcry at executions. Indeed, the clergy “appeared to hold the view that overmuch interest in its parishioners was unbecoming.”
It is in this context that many gentleman rakes were passionately anti-religion. But there is nothing persuasive to suggest that Dashwood’s ‘apostles’ went in for Satanic rituals or idolatry. The concepts of Hell and eternal damnation were offensive to the gentleman’s sense of English justice. Hell was Roman Catholicism's’ big threat for not conforming with their rules of morality, and some of Dashwood’s circle were non-conformist, clever, and politically ambitious. They would have had little patience with wasting much of an evening ragging the Church, the flow of conversation being the prized condition of all clubs and gatherings, although it must sometimes also have depended on the presence of noted blasphemers like Sandwich.
Whatever was done, the ladies participated fully, they were allowed to be members. The delectable courtesan Frances 'Fanny' Murray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, is strong favourite for being one of the nuns. Celebrated brothel-keeper Charlotte Hayes would have supplied ‘revirginised’ girls. Well-born women becoming masked nuns include Elizabeth Roach, and Agnes Perrault, both mistresses of Dashwood, his half-sister Mary Walcott, Lady Betty Germain, and Dashwood’s step-mother Lady Mary. The members elected an ‘abbot,’ and he had first pick of the women. A later Francis Dashwood writes:
"In order that the ladies should not have the embarrassment of unwittingly coming upon their husbands or acquaintances, they appeared masked and would not disclose their identity until all the members had ‘passed them in review. Should they recognize someone they did not wish to meet, they were allowed to retire without revealing themselves.... The offspring of these connexions are styled the Sons and Daughters of St. Francis and are appointed in due order officers and domestics in the Seminary, according to their different attributes, or by drawing lots."
Fanny Murray (1729-1778)
What happens next is as significant as the time Dashwood went berserk in Rome. It started with a baboon, probably a gift from a governor in the East Indies. In 1762 it found its way to Wilkes who smuggled it into the chapel before the ‘devotions’ were due to start. At a point in the ceremony, just as Sandwich was orating some of the choice blasphemies that later got him thrown out of the Beefsteaks club, Wilkes pulled a cord and the baboon flew from its hiding place, dressed in something that hid its true form. The men, formerly in some state of semi-religious rapture, came crashing down to earth, and as the poor creature leapt about the monks, Sandwich was so out of his mind with fright that he begged this ‘devil’ to spare him, pleading that he is not as wicked as he pretends. How they must have laughed afterwards. The details of the story are from Chrysal published in 1766, by which time the enmity between Wilkes and Sandwich had become so fierce that they were openly working to destroy each other, and it is likely that the story records the bones of a real occurrence. In any event, Wilkes was expelled from the group.
What happens next is as significant as the time Dashwood went berserk in Rome. It started with a baboon, probably a gift from a governor in the East Indies.
In 1762, the Earl of Bute, favourite of George III, was appointed Prime Minister. Bute, the staunch monarchist, did not see eye-to-eye with Wilkes and refused him a ministerial job, so Wilkes launched an anti-government, anti-Bute tirade in his The North Briton newspaper. For months, Wilkes maintained a stream of pro-libertarian rhetoric, and anti-Scottish racism. When it got around the capital’s streets that Wilkes was publishing a disguised commentary on the sexual relationship between Bute and Augusta, the King’s mother, Bute was burned in effigy and hired muscle for protection against mobs. Wilkes also ridiculed the cider tax of Dashwood, by then appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Walpole complained he, "with the familiarity and phrase of a fish-wife, introduced the humours of Wapping behind the veil of the Treasury." Dashwood’s unsuitability for the job has saddled him with the reputation of being Britain’s worst ever Chancellor.
John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute
In office 26 May 1762 – 8 April 1763
As the North Briton matter was culminating, with Wilkes getting into trouble in the House of Commons over it, he was being assailed by Sandwich in the House of Lords over the publication of the Essay on Women, a bawdy parody dedicated to Frances Murray, former mistress of Sandwich. The verses were probably written by Thomas Potter, with a droll commentary by Wilkes. A copy reached a man called Kidgell who denounced it. The government took interest and in November 1763 Wilkes was accused in the Lords of libelling Bishop Warburton, under whose guise he had commentated. In one of the most comic scenes to ever happen in the chamber, Sandwich, rising to become WIlkes’ avowed nemesis, read out the essay, feigning displeasure. The verses began:
Awake, my Fanny, leave all manner things,
This morn shall prove what rapture swiving brings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just a few good fucks, and then we die)
Expatiate free o’er that lov’d scene of Man;
A mighty maze! for mighty pricks to scan.
The irony of the most noted rake of the day feigning disgust at verses extolling his former lover was music to their Lordships who roared at Sandwich to ‘Go on!’ when he tried to refrain. Dashwood was heard to quip how it was the first time he had heard Satan preaching against sin. The House huddled and decided the material was ‘a most scandalous, obscene and impious libel’ and ‘the most audacious defiance of authority.’ Wilkes was challenged by a politician to a duel that seriously injured him, and went to Paris to recover. Sandwich became a public figure of fun.
When Wilkes’ returned to carry on with Parliamentary activity (buying seats like everyone else) he was expelled, and re-elected four times, becoming a popular hero and enemy of the Establishment. After days of serious rioting and assaults by a mob too numerous to ignore, he removed himself to prison. This only inflamed the mob’s rage, and seven people were killed on May 10, 1762 in the George’s Field Massacre. Two years later he was freed, and repeatedly contested for Parliament until he got in. A shaken government gradually moved into place measures to curtail the power of the monarchy. What started with the mutual loathing of two or three men (and a baboon) ended up enabling the biggest leap for civil liberties up to that time: freedom of the press, and the right to take an elected seat regardless of the opposition of the monarch or even Parliament. Wilkes now openly championed the colonists in America in their causes against harsh English taxations.
Wilkes by Hogarth
What started with the mutual loathing of two or three men (and a baboon) ended up enabling the biggest leap for civil liberties up to that time: freedom of the press, and the right to take an elected seat regardless of the opposition of the monarch or even Parliament.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
Mediating the growing hostility between the American colonies and England, Benjamin Franklin was in England for over a decade after 1757 and became a close friend of Dashwood (they were both postmasters on early acquaintance). An ardent womaniser and lifelong Freemason, Franklin probably went to Medmenham Abbey and his visits could easily have coincided with a chapter meeting. Dashwood’s views had been staunchly loyal to George III’s dictatorial position against the rebellious Colonists, but substantial exposure to Franklin, with whom he had much in common, softened his position. He arranged for Franklin and Lord North, the Prime Minister from 1770-1782, to stay with him at West Wycombe, but North refused to speak to Franklin the entire time. Franklin used his Hell-Fire contacts to obtain letters written by prominent colonists to the King’s Friends, and sent them to John Hancock who had them published, stoking further anger against George III and his ministers. After another despised levy on colonial goods triggered the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, Franklin was called before the Privy Council to account for where he got the letters. When he refused, Sandwich called him “one of the bitterest and most mischievous enemies this country has ever known.” Dashwood helped Franklin meet with William Pitt, the elder statesman, who agreed to make an appeal on behalf of the Colonists. The speech he gave became known as one of his greatest orations, after which he fainted, and was helped by Dashwood. In 1770 Dashwood produced a Plan of Reconciliation, approved by Franklin, but nothing came of it, not until North came up with something similar by which time it was too late, and the Revolutionary War of Independence was unstoppable.
The most enduring result of the friendship between Franklin and Dashwood was their revised Book of Common Prayer, which omits the sacraments, the Apostles Creed, and the divinity of Christ, and is still used in American Protestant churches. It is curious, their collaboration. Geoffrey Ashe writes that Franklin "was more anti-clerical, heavier in his drinking, and laxer in his sexual attitudes and outlook than American hagiography cares to admit." Dashwood and Franklin were strangely attracted by their paradoxes, and Franklin’s membership of the society, though obscure, has not been refuted, and probably never will be.
Benjamin Franklin’s membership of the Hellfire Club, though obscure, has not been refuted, and probably never will be.
The last well-remembered event to have occurred at Medmenham Abbey involved a French secret agent, the Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont, who excited great interest owing to his ambiguous gender. Working as a diplomat for Louis XV, he became friendly with Dashwood’s circle. Although he was a captain of the French dragoons and a noted swordsman, he dressed as a woman and had carried off a mission to Russia in this guise. There was enough doubt about his gender that bets amounting to over £10 million in today’s money were deposited at the Bank of England by members of London clubs (including Wilkes), and the Chevalier was protected by Sandwich against the possibility of being kidnapped. On May 24th 1771 a group of women at Medmenham met with d’Eon to settle the question one and for all. After ‘a most thorough examination’ they declared the issue was still ‘doubtful.’ A second scrutiny ruled he was female. D’Eon continued to live as a woman in England until his death in 1810, when a post-mortem finally established him as male.
Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810)
The society began to wane through the 1770s with the abbey at Medmenham abandoned as a meeting place, and members growing old and dying. When Whitehead went, after destroying virtually all the order’s secrets except for a few copious wine tabs, Dashwood staged an elaborate funeral with soldiers, cannon, and choir to send off his heart to the mausoleum overlooking the estate (image below right). The heart was later stolen by an Italian soldier. His ghost appeared at times in 1781, days before Dashwood joined him on the hill, in the shadow of St. Lawrence, his quasi-Egyptian church topped by a giant golden ball.
The Knights of St. Francis has become one of the contentious bones between his historians and biographers of just what political strategy can be gained by secret gatherings. The lack of writings to unpick the precise political machinations of the group shows the case to be unproven – not the same as being innocent.
Dashwood’s brotherhood of rakes, some of the most powerful and politically-astute men in, or about to be in, government in the Western hemisphere, ultimately failed in its political dimensions. Undone by a clash of personalities. Their significance for history is greater than the sum of their parts, however, for in their web of low and high society connections they are a prime example of why conspiracy theorists overplay the role of secret societies in shaping history, while the opposite is true for historians who cling to the fiction that nothing truly important happens that doesn't leave a physical trace – a note, an artefact – to be brought to light on some future day.
Perhaps the real significance of Dashwood's Hellfire Club is as a shining demonstration of the paradoxical risk facing secret societies intent on the political shaping of history; for in proving most alluring to those with the strongest proclivity for ambition and talent for intrigue, such organisations unavoidably undermine the effectiveness of their conspiracies by the very individuals most likely to comprise their membership. In order to survive and thrive, therefore, the organisation with secret political goals cannot recruit those with the greatest talents for its purposes without exposing itself to a heightened risk of auto-sabotage. It therefore best pays not to play its whole hand to its recruits, to compartmentalize its membership.
Which to a great extent is what happens in Freemasonry, and was extended even further by Adam Weishaupt, a philosopher who, as the Hellfire Club had all but faded out in 1776, founded the order of the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society within a secret society (Freemasonry), and whose influence on the conspiracy theory of history has been immeasurably greater than his English predecessor. Dashwood and his friends were far too busy having a good time than to seriously get involved with Enlightenment ideals.
Or so the lack of Hellfire history has led us to believe...
What if all the drinking and the whoring was merely a cover for, or prelude to, what they were really up to? See how much is known about the Bavarian Illuminati, a society supposed to set the gold standard of how to do secrecy and yet is known to just about everyone (thanks mainly to Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Shea, Steve Jackson, Umberto Eco, and Dan Brown). Compare that to what is known about Dashwood's Hellfire Club. The latter makes the former look like the Hare Krishnas. Weishaupt could have learned a thing or two from Dashwood, had he known him.
Now that's how to do a real secret society, he might have thought.
Johann Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830)
1. Charles Churchill’s verse “Whilst Womanhood in the habit of a nun / At Mednam lies, by backward monks undone; / A nation’s reckoning like an alehouse score, / Which Paul the Aged chalks behind the door” is one source of Whitehead’s part in Hell-fire lore.
Geoffrey Ashe, The Hell-Fire Clubs, A History of Anti-Morality
E. Beresford Chancellor, The Lives of the Rakes: Volume IV, The Hell Fire Club,
Sir Francis Dashwood, Bt., West Wycombe Caves (pamphlet)
Charles Johnstone, Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea
Fergus Linnane, The Lives of the English Rakes
Daniel Mannix, The Hell-Fire Club
Eric Towers, Dashwood: The Man and the Myth