The villagers of West Wycombe and Medenham, about 30 miles from London, knew something sinister was afoot. From time to time, crouched on the riverbank after dark, they’d hear the bawdy laughter as boatloads of women passed up the river Thames. Those who were bold enough to hide among the yew trees and willows watched as coaches unloaded parties of men dressed as monks outside the Gothic arch that led to the mysterious chalk caves under West Wycombe Hill. There were rumors of pagan rites, orgies, Black Masses, and even Satanic rituals.
Could it be true, the locals wondered, that the man behind this debauchery was Sir Francis Dashwood, their landlord? It hardly seemed likely. After all, he was a friend of the Prime Minister, and himself a Member of Parliament for 20 years. They’d have been even more convinced of his innocence had they known that, later in life, he’d become Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Postmaster General, and finally treasurer to King George himself.
It was indeed Sir Francis, the 15th in a line of barons who, born in 1708, inherited his father’s title and estate when he was sixteen. He grew up to be one of the great rakes of his century, presiding over a secret society that called itself The Monks of Medenham, The Order of the Knights of Medenham and, ironically, The Knights of St. Francis of Wycomb. But whatever they called their mysterious group, it became notorious throughout England and beyond as The Hellfire Club.
Sir Francis grew up at West Wycombe Park, a magnificent Palladian mansion in the county of Buckinghamshire. In his early twenties he made the Grand Tour of Europe, and spent long enough in Italy to fall in love with its history, its classical buildings, its rich mythology, and at the same time develop a deep a hatred of the Catholic Church. All of these influences had a profound effect on his life. On his travels he became absorbed with the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, Satanism and the pagan cultures of Ancient Britain. In France he even attended a Black Mass as a fascinated observer.
On his return to England, Sir Francis founded The Society of the Dillettanti in London that, like many other such clubs for drinking and womanizing, was frequented by young royals and aristocrats like himself. But after five years, mere debauchery may have grown too tame for his tastes, and he embraced a more depraved interest much closer to home. In Medenham, a few miles from the Dashwood mansion in West Wycombe, he acquired a ruined abbey on the bank of the River Thames. Originally built by Cistercian monks in the 12th Century, the abbey was a long walk from the nearest road, and well hidden in a triangular wood. The best way to reach it was by boat on the river, which made it easy for those attending the profane rituals to come and go unseen.
Dashwood spent a huge amount of money rebuilding the abbey, with marble columns, painted ceilings and stained glass windows. Charles Johnstone, a contemporary novelist, was clearly alluding to goings on at Medenham Abbey when he described a “group of noted persons who met on an Island in the Thames . . . for the purpose of indulging in nameless vices, and worshiping the Devil.” He describes the ceiling of the chapel as “covered with emblems and devices too gross to require explanation, and portraits . . . in attitudes and actions horrible to imagine.”
Other writings describe the surroundings of the abbey as a “garden of lust.” It was said that the little groves around the abbey were “filled with statuary in indecent poses,” and there was a cave that contained images of “sexually robust animals and birds.” In one room the walls were hung with paintings copied from indecent Roman frescoes. Another contained portraits of notorious English prostitutes.
To remind members about the secrecy of the rituals practiced at the abbey, statues of two historic figures were said to stand at each end of the dining hall, both with fingers to their lips – Angerona, the little known Roman goddess of secrecy, and Harpocrates (not Hippocrates), her Egyptian counterpart. Dashwood’s ‘knights’ and ‘monks’ must have taken the gods’ message seriously, because little is known about the rites and rituals at their meetings. However, after seeing the artwork, anyone with only half an imagination could provide several interpretations of the words of Rabelais carved over the Abbey’s entrance in archaic French – “Fay Ce Que Voudras” – “Do what you wish.”
If Medenham Abbey was intriguing, a new temple that Sir Francis built was no less macabre. Three years before he acquired the abbey, Dashwood rebuilt a two mile stretch of road near West Wycombe, allegedly to give work to locals ruined by recent failed harvests. To obtain chalk for the road he burrowed into some long-neglected caves at the bottom of a hill on which the village church stood. The caves were said to have been catacombs for pagan worship in England’s earliest history. Workers in Dashwood’s ‘chalk quarry’ noticed that the place had such a strange lacework of tunnels and chambers that many believed to have some magical or occult purpose. At the far end of the tunnels, a quarter of a mile from the entrance, lay a little circular chamber that seemed to have some quite different intended use.
A few years after he bought Medenham Abbey, Dashwood began developing the caves under West Wycomb hill as a meeting place for his ‘monks’ and ‘friars.’ A number of the small chambers were furnished and used by members of the club to entertain the ‘nuns’ and other visiting women. Further down, across a subterranean stream they called The Styx, (a river to the underworld in Greek mythology) beyond which various ceremonies took place in the little circular chamber, said to include Black Masses conducted over the naked bodies of aristocratic women.
Yet another mystery is a golden ball, twenty-two feet in circumference, built by Sir Francis in 1752 atop the spire of West Wycombe’s St. Lawrence Church, on the hill above the caves. There were wooden seats inside, where several people could sit in a tight little circle. All that seems to be known about the use of the tower was that, in the words of John Wilkes, himself a ‘friar,’ there was singing “very unfit for the profane ears of the world below.”
When writer Charles Johnstone described the members of the Knights of St. Francis as “a group of noted persons,” he was right. Mike Howard, a present day writer about cults and witchcraft, claims that suspected members included the Prince of Wales, Thomas Potter, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Wilkes, a radical Member of Parliament and Lord Mayor of London. Others were William Hogarth, Britain’s greatest satirical artist, Sir Horace Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, and the Earl of Bute, another Prime Minister.
Perhaps the most unlikely suspect of all was Ben Franklin, who was Postmaster to the Colonies when Sir Francis held the same post for the British Isles. Franklin had three long summer stays at Dashwood’s country seat. They no doubt talked business and, incongruously, collaborated on an abridgement of the Church of England Book of Common Prayer. However, a book called Temple and Lodge, published in the US in the 90s, claimed that “this proponent of temperance, frugality . . . moderation and cleanliness, while primly exhorting his readers not to use ‘venery,’ became a member of Dashwood’s ‘Franciscans.’”
Were all the stories true about Dashwood and his elite club? It’s hard to say. There’s ample written and physical evidence that he was a hard drinking, whoring and depraved rake. But Satanism, occult rituals, pagan rites? Some believe that Dashwood was no more than a dirty-minded and debauched joker, and a brilliant publicist who’d found a way to titillate and befriend the leaders of the British Establishment. Then again, maybe it was no more than an ingeniously concocted façade, and the club simply “a cross between the Dead Poets Society and a risqué Playboy club,” in the words of the family archives of one of the ‘friars,’ Lord Sandwich.
I guess we’ll never know.