Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club

West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire
If you find yourself in Buckinghamshire, you might enjoy stopping in the little village of West Wycombe.

It is very nearly as pretty as dear old Lacock, although the road to Oxford goes right through it and the odd oversized lorry rather spoils the effect of the several Tudor cottages and coaching inns.

West Wycombe Park is open in the summer months and you can admire this gorgeous residence, exquisite inside and out, set to advantage by the side of the lake.

Dashwood Mausoleum and St Lawrence Church
You will not fail to notice that, high up on the opposite hill, there is a rather grandiose structure that dominates the landscape.

It is the Dashwood Mausoleum, crowned by the tower of St Lawrence’s Church.

They were both commissioned in the late 1740s by the then owner of West Wycombe Park, Sir Francis Dashwood.

Sir Francis Dashwood

By everybody’s standards, Sir Francis was not a religious man and even the building of this church was dismissed by his contemporaries as for show rather than prayer. Indeed, why else build a church at the top of a hill, when the entire congregation lives at the bottom?

As the story goes, during his visits to Italy on his Grand Tours, Sir Francis had developed a profound antipathy for the Roman Catholic Church. This was later shown in a variety of ways, not least in having himself painted as a Franciscan monk in irreverent parodies of Renaissance art. 

In one of those paintings, the deity ‘San Francisco di Wycombo’ worships is Venus, and the book he reverently peruses is not the Bible, but a copy of an erotic novel, while the profile of Dashwood’s friend and partner in mischief, Lord Sandwich, peers from the halo.

Sir Francis Dashwood and the Earl of Sandwich were members of the notorious club that began by meeting at the George and Dragon inn as the Order of the Knights of St Francis, then at Medmenham Abbey where they became the Friars of Medmenham, and lastly in the caves dug under the hill crowned by the Dashwood Mausoleum, known to this day as the Hellfire Caves.

The Hellfire Caves are a network of man-made caverns excavated by the local villagers who were employed to mine chalk and flint. The chalk was used to build the road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe, and also the church, the Mausoleum and some of the houses in the village.

Hellfire Caves Entrance
The caves were used as a meeting place for Sir Francis Dashwood’s gathering of ‘friars’, by then renamed the Hellfire Club. Its members included various important XVIII century figures such as William Hogarth, John Wilkes, Thomas Potter and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Though not believed to have been a member, Benjamin Franklin was a close friend of Dashwood’s who visited the caves on more than one occasion.

Two of those notable personages are immortalised in the names chosen for some of the chambers. The route through the caves progresses from the Entrance Hall to the Steward’s Chamber and Whitehead’s Cave, then passes through Lord Sandwich’s Circle, Franklin’s Cave , the Banqueting Hall, the Triangle, the Miner’s Cave and finally, across a subterranean river named the Styx, into the Inner Temple, where the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held.

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.”

Meetings occurred twice a month, with a gathering of all members for a fortnight or so in June or September, and rumours of black magic, satanic rituals and orgies circulated in the area and beyond. Nevertheless, it would appear that the majority of the participants were merely interested in drinking, singing bawdy songs and meeting in privacy with their mistresses, while a handful of others, which included Sir Francis himself, were genuinely interested in the revival of some ancient ‘pagan’ cults.

A satirical engraving of John Wilkes
There is a very entertaining story about a practical joke played on Lord Sandwich at one of the meetings of the club. John Wilkes, the notorious radical, contrived to bring a baboon to the proceedings, dressed the animal in ‘phantastic garb’, kept him secreted away, and eventually released him at a chosen moment without being noticed, by means of an elaborate contraption. Finally freed from his place of confinement, the baboon leapt on Lord Sandwich’s shoulders. Shocked by the sudden appearance of the shrieking creature, his lordship was gripped by the fear that it was the very Devil whom they had been invoking, come to carry him away. The harder he tried to shake the baboon off, the tighter it clung, while Sandwich cried: “Spare me gracious Devil! Spare a wretch who never was sincerely your servant. I sinned only from vanity of being in the fashion. Thou knowest I never have been half so wicked as I pretended, never have been able to commit the thousandth part of the vices which I have boasted of. Leave me therefore and go to those who are more truly devoted to your service. I am but half a sinner!”

Whether half- or full-measure sinners, and whatever the Hellfire Club had been up to in the bowels of the earth, by the late 1760s the party was over. The club was disbanded in 1766 and the caves, disused after Sir Francis Dashwood’s death in 1781, fell into disrepair. However, after the Second World War, they were renovated and turned into a visitors’ attraction by another Sir Francis Dashwood, a descendant of the notorious sybarite, and the profits used to refurbish the dilapidated family home.

If you find yourself in the area, do visit the caves for a remarkable experience.

So far I have heard no tales of naughty spectres haunting the caverns, but maybe this is just a story waiting to be written. So here’s to the Ghost of the Banqueting Hall :)

(Art and history sources:; and Wikipedia. Contemporary photos J. Starnes).


Jane Odiwe said...

A fascinating post, Joana! I hadn't seen that painting of Sir Francis Dashwood poring over his 'religious' books before - it makes me shiver to think about the grisly goings-on.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Wonderful. I love this house and the gardens, I know Sir Francis D has a bad reputation but he looks so jolly and the house has such a warm and happy feel. Or maybe I am just very insensitive!

Fenella J Miller said...

I'd love to go there but doubt I ever will. Great post.

Joana Starnes said...

Thanks, Jane! So glad you liked the post. Apparently he's had himself painted in a similar pose in at least 2 other portraits, one of which is still in the house, but I missed it last time I was there. I didn't know the story at the time and I must have thought it was just another Renaissance portrait and didn't stop to look for the details :D

Joana Starnes said...

I think so too, Melinda, about both the house and Sir Francis. I think he was just unimpressed with the ideas of chastity, obedience and poverty and decided he'd rather go the other way, thank you very much. Can't say I blame him :)

Joana Starnes said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Fenella, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I really enjoyed this post, Joana. I was particularly interested to see what the entry to the Hellfire Club actually looked like. Somehow, I thought the entrance would be a simple hole in a cliff face leading to a cavern, rather like one I visited in the Yorkshire Dales (Star Cross, I think).

I should have known better! An aristocratic bon viveur like Francis Dashwood was obviously going to want a suitably creepy atmosphere for his evenings of Pagan goings-on, and an impressive Gothic entrance obviously fitted the bill much better than a mere hole in the rock!

Claudine Pepe said...

Wow! This is quite scandalous. To think it was the women who "couldn't be trusted to do the right things!" Makes me laugh and cry at the same time! Great post, as always. I am always learning from you!!

Liz Hanbury said...

Great post Joana, thank you :) I've visited the caves and although I'm not superstitious they had a *very* strange atmosphere... Was glad to get outside afterwards! Two ghosts are supposed to haunt the caves and I blogged about them here, at the end of the post :)

Joana Starnes said...

Thanks, Elizabeth, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post! The entrance is really something, isn't it? Not quite so creepy in the light of day and with a cafe up front, but I imagine it would have been something completely different 200 years ago, illuminated by flickering torches. Sir Francis really didn't cut corners, by the looks of it :)

Joana Starnes said...

Thanks for the lovely comment, Claudine! I'm ever so glad you liked the post.
It's so true, what you say. The hypocrites! :D

Joana Starnes said...

I know the feeling, Liz. I couldn't make it to the Inner Temple. I'm determined to go back again and be brave, but next time I'm not going alone!

Thanks for the link to your amazing post, I never knew that. So spooky! I'm *definitely* not going on my own next time.

Anne Hoile said...

Dashwood couldn't have existed except for inclusion for plots!! Ever so horrifying; especially terrifying for the heroines and for the heroes who need to rescue them! He was just a "regular" guy who liked his wine, women and song!!

Monica Fairview said...

All deliciously macabre, Joana! I love the way you tell the tale, too. And the portraits are great! Of course his descendant is going to paint him in a better light than he really was. I wonder where the truth lies? (no pun intended ;) )

Unknown said...

I just found out this past week, who he was and that I'm related to him. My family has a picture they are looking it up I'd love to post it once it's found is that ok?