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Founding Fathers, The Hell-Fire Club; Sex, Politics, and Religion in Eighteenth-Century England

Founding Fathers, The Hell-Fire Club; Sex, Politics, and Religion in Eighteenth-Century England

 On moonlit nights during the reign of England’s King George III, immensely powerful members of His Majesty’s Government, important intellectuals, and influential artists could sometimes be seen travelling up the Thames River by gondola to a ruined abbey near West Wycombe. There, to the sonorous tolling of the deconsecrated cloister’s bell, they dressed in monkish robes and indulged in every manner of depravity, culminating in a Black Mass celebrated on the naked body of a debauched noblewoman and presided over by that notorious rake Sir Francis Dashwood. Their diabolical devotions concluded, the inner circle would adjourn to plot the course of the British Empire.
This “unholy sodalily,” as it has been called, styled themselves, with suitably Gothic flair, “The Friars of St. Francis of Medmenham,” though they have been immortalized by their popular epithet “The Hell-Fire Club.” In that gossipy age there was much speculation about the infernal activities of the society, and in 1765, Charles Johnstone published a roman a clef entitled Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea, which was popularly believed to reveal the secrets of the “Medmenham Monks.”
Unfortunately for those whose prurient tastes are tempered with a dose of critical scholarship, the Hell-Fire Club does not live up to its reputation. Most of the contemporary writers who allude to “Saint Francis” and his “Brotherhood” at Medmenham Abbey had an ax to grind, and the Monks themselves were so secretive that some modern historians have concluded that the whole thing was mere fiction. (1) But perhaps now, over two centuries later, we can attempt to sketch the Hell-Fire Club against the background of its time, tentatively pencilling in the enigmatic features of its putative high priest, Sir Francis Dashwood, Baron Le Despencer.
Although the Medmenham Monks are the most famous band to be dignified with the appellation, they were certainly not the original Hell-Fire Club. The first half of the century saw the establishment of many circles of rakehells throughout the British Isles, and tales of their activities have often been transferred to Dashwood’s group. (2)
For our purposes the Monks’ most important precursor is the Hell-Fire Club founded around 1719 in London by Philip, Duke of Wharton (1698-1731). (3) Wharton was a prominent Whig politician, Freemason, and atheist who sought to ridicule religion by publicly presiding over festive gatherings with “Satanic” trappings. These meetings were often held in a tavern near St. James’s Square, although a nearby riding academy was sometimes pressed into service to permit the attendance of ladies of good reputation who could not be decently expected to be seen in a public house.
Of the female members, one in particular stands out: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood From a sign in the Hellfire Caves
Francis Dashwood was born in 1708 into an illustrious line of Turkey merchants (6) who had raised themselves into the ranks of the aristocracy by a combination of hard work, political prowess, and strategic marriage. Dashwood’s mother died when he was two years of age and he was soon packed off to Eton for his education. Upon hearing of his father’s death in 1724, he locked himself in a cellar for a week to get drunk.
In 1726, the fledging rake left England for his grand tour of the Continent. To Dashwood’s credit, it must be said that this trip did inspire him with admiration for more than fine wine and courtesans. While in Florence, he made the acquaintance of the Catholic Jacobite Freemason Abbe Nicolini and was entered in the English Lodge there.
Tradition asserts that Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club originally met in London at the George and Vulture Inn. (19) It is possible that Dashwood and his friends gathered in a public house to revel in the freedom now implicitly granted to witches, resurrecting Wharton’s Hell-Fire Club in a spirit of mockery. On the other hand, in the early eighteenth century taverns were frequently the meeting places for Masonic lodges, so it is also quite possible that the nascent Hell-Fire Club was a cabal of Jacobite Freemason s. Indeed it might very well have been both.


“Mysteries of the Hellfire Caves and the Church of St. Lawrence.” For those who know anything about this period of 18th century British History the mention of the “Hellfire Clubs” seems to provoke swift and polarised reactions.Some immediately respond with mutterings of dark satanic rites and debauchery of the most extreme kind while others simply laugh at the wild tales and dismiss them as exaggerations.  The elusive truth is probably somewhere in the middle – a very complicated middle!This section of the Aquiziam website focuses on the “club” and “caves” established by Sir Francis Dashwood which has assumed the reputation of being a “Hellfire Society” although, allegedly it never officially referred to itself as such – perhaps because of government edict outlawing the “Hellfire” clubs in1721.
Dashwood married Sarah Gould in 1745, but in an era when prostitution was the surest means for a woman to advance in society and the fate of nations might be determined by syphilis-spawned madness, it would have been unnatural for the Medmenham Monks not to have had some sexual aura about them. Legend portrays the Monks as indulging in sadomasochistic orgies, but given the rumours about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Divan Club, one might well wonder if there is not a hint of Oriental sex magic in all this.
Certainly the monks engaged in ribald jesting. One of their members, probably the satirist George Selwyn, praised the Earl of Sandwich’s sexual prowess in an Anglo-Saxon-laced lampoon of Popes Essay on Man.
In 1773 Dashwood and Benjamin Franklin revised the Book of Common Prayer – an odd activity for a supposed Satanist. Possibly the two Freemasons were trying to bring the Anglican Church in line with Masonic Deism. In his introduction to this work, Dashwood stressed the usefulness of the church to the community and affirms the teachings of Jesus Christ in such a way that his allegiance to the Church of England is equivocal at best. Most of their changes involve removing all references to the Old Testament and eliminating repetitions wherever possible. This liturgy is still used by some Protestant sects in America. (31)
The whole question of religion is central to the fascination that Dashwood continues to exercise.


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