Monthly Archives: August 2012

6 Reasons Dashwood’s Monks Sucked at Satanism

The moralist may want to decry the Monks of Medmenham as holy terrors, devil-begotten and dancing down the moon, but in reality they were Rabelasians. Were they bawdy?  Of course.  Hedonistic?  Definitely.  But Satanists?  I think not.

THE GARDEN OF DELIGHTS (Hortus Deliciarum) c. 1180
by German Miniaturist, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

 6 Reasons the Monks of Medmenham Sucked at Satanism

1.  The monks took “wives” 

Bawds Charlotte Hayes and Elizabeth Dennison may have routinely supplied the monks with hanks of fresh meat but the monks appear carnivorous of one flesh at a time.  It was forbidden for, say, Sandwich to take a bite out of Dashwood’s supper.  This would have caused the monks to go all un-monkly on each other which leads to . . .

2.  The monks had private chambers

This is by far their greatest breach in practicing Satanism.  Do naked witches dancing around a bonfire mean nothing to them?  Were the monks not lurking in the dark forest, their little demons in wait for the ritual orgy?  Nope.  Conjure for yourself an image of spare chambers with beds, two bodies writhing together, and in the next chamber, the same damned thing.  I cannot say the devil would approve.  Even the earliest pagans succeeded in open-field intercourse and what the hell is a vagina shaped into the lawn for if not to roll in it?

National Gallery, London

3.  Gatherings were limited to two weeks a year 

When the monks had to keep the debauchery fresh and exciting by limiting it to 14 days out of 365, how immoral could they possibly be?  We can suppose they sinned the whole year through (and in Lord Sandwich’s case, he likely did) but English has a word for these types: rakes.  Lots of gentlemen were rakes.  Maybe they mocked religion with sexuality, but satanist seems a facile label.  Moreover, for the Georgians it was a lazy justification for the actions many of their contemporaries disdained and/or misunderstood.

4.  A goodly number of the inner circle had pious wives at home

Saying nothing of the education gap between men and women during Georgian England or the standards of female conduct, a zealous wife and a randy husband do not make for good bedroom sport.  Add to this the fact that men were expected to look outside their wives for sexual pleasure and the diversions of home pall even further.   Boredom nags and man, in a state of psychological expenditure, inverts the woes of his existence.  Pious wife becomes whore, restraint becomes revelry, and atheism and/or contempt of the church becomes mock-satanism.

Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid

5.  High-born women visited Medmenham under conditions of anonymity ONLY AFTER they were assured no male relative was present

With the exception of Dashwood’s half-sister Mary Walcot (and it is speculated whether or not she actually participated at Medmenham) the intermingling of monks with blood and familial relatives was taboo.  The revelers had limitations.  But why limit indulgence?  I’m not suggesting a mésalliance á la the Lannisters in Game of Thrones, though maybe that should be on the table as well, but surely a satanist relative would forgive the women under his legislation if they possessed the same fleshly desires as he?  Surely he would not expect her to follow God’s rules and be chaste?

6.   Lord Sandwich and the baboon 

John Wilkes was a trickster who shared a mutual loathing for Lord Sandwich.  He viewed the monks’ fascination with the dark arts as flummery, and so, to amuse himself, he rigged a ceremonial chest used during the Black Mass.  He tied a cord to a spring loaded door and ran said cord beneath the rug to where he could pull it at his leisure.  One night after the Black Mass had commenced and the monks were kneeling before the chest, imploring the Dark Prince to appear and receive their adoration, Wilkes grinned and pulled his cord.  A baboon, dressed as the devil and shrieking with fear and glee, launched onto a startled Sandwich.  And what did this wicked fellow do?  Collapsed in a babbling fit, foreswearing his alliance to Satan.

Satanism, one might surmise, is not for the faint of heart.

Monks Behaving Badly

They were devils who played near the banks of the Thames at Medmenham Abbey as monks with their nuns.

Prayer of the Penitent Monks – Alessandro Magnasco

They were blasphemers whose amusements occasioned mock sermons to cats and arcane rituals in the names of Bacchus and Venus.

Bacchanalian Scene – Alessandro Magnasco (1710s)

They were known as the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, Mad Monks of Medmenham, the Brotherhood, and lastly, simply, a hell-fire club helmed by Sir Francis Dashwood and his 12 disciples.

Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer – William Hogarth (late 1750s)
Painted for Sociey of Dilettanti to parody Renaissance images of Francis of Assisi.

The Club’s Origins

The genesis of Sir Francis Dashwood’s club may be lost to the bowels of history, but the intermingling of Satanism and sex, of profane intellectualism and creaturely delight was hardly a new idea.  The Duke of Wharton’s hell-fire club of 1719 satirized religion, encouraged equality of the sexes, and expressed an intent to rankle the zealous.  Active until 1721, the club was a hiccup, driven out of existence by George I’s Order of Council stating that establishments of the sort were “disruptive”.   By 1722 the dissolute Wharton was bankrupt and removed from parliament by force.  That very year he became a Freemason and assumed the role of Grand Master of the English Grand Lodge.

“Sir Francis and Lady Dashwood at West Wycombe Park”
Painted in 1776, the lady portrayed is not thought to be Lady Dashwood, who died in 1769, but Frances Barry, Dashwood’s mistress with whom he lived after the death of his wife.

Having 11 years of age when Wharton’s Club was founded, the future rake of England would take another twenty years to gather a like-minded assembly.  The members of Medmenham’s inner sanctum—Dashwood’s so-called 12 Apostles—represented a core of powerful politicos.  Dashwood himself was Chancellor of the Exchequer; Lord Sandwich, one of the most prominent monks, held the position of First Lord of the Admiralty for twenty years.

Among those granted exclusive access to the brotherhood’s most secret rites were MPs, an Oxford Don, Dashwood’s brother-in-law, and a smattering of gentlemen and professionals.  John Wilkes, he of scathing wit and enemy of Sandwich, did not rank among the 12 but attended the twice yearly week-long revelries.  He also betrayed the brotherhood by writing a detailed account of the club’s activities.


The first meeting at Medmenham occurred around 1752-1753, either shortly before or after the restoration and new building was finished. By the early 1750s Dashwood had rented the grounds from Francis Duffield and quickly set about converting the three-story house into an Gothic Neoclassical adult playground replete with a cloister, a mock ruined tower, and excavated caves beneath his home of West Weycombe Hall.

Strict standards for privacy ensured that titillation over the project remained at its peak.  Dashwood arranged for workmen’s daily transport to and from London, and the 12 apostles, binding their rituals in a code of gentleman’s honor, pledged to conceal the exact nature of the saturnalia.  In correspondence, they practiced equivogue and cloaked their identities behind the monastic names used at Medmenham.  But not all who passed through Medmenham kept silent.  Horace Walpole, a dinner guest, and John Wilkes, a regular participant, both wrote of the devotions taking place therein and of the Bacchanalian-Venusian grounds.

Bacchus with Nymphs and Cupid – Caesar van Everdingen (1660)

Welcome, Revelers and Debauchers All

What might celebrants see upon their arrival via the Thames?  In short, the puerile delight of fraternities, polished with piles of spare coins.  Phallic reminders, a favorite of the friars, were never far from one’s gaze.  Lengthy statues bore an inscription in Greek, “Savior of the World” which puts to mind Gustave Corbet’s 1866 “Origin of the World.”  On the lawn there was a hobby-horse cock and erotic frescoes within the Old Chapel.  At the entrance, above the heads of the sacrilegious, read “Fay Ce Que Voudras” — Rabbelais’s “Do What Thou Wilt” in Renaissance French.

Lascivious flourishes continued inside the building as well as without.  Occult and carnal literature lined the library shelves, many bound in the religious titles.  Statues, possibly of the gods of silence, provided stern reminders to the monks and their guests.  The walls were adorned portraits of Francis and his 12 apostles, a choice selection of ladies, and a series of english monarchs, Henry VIII given particular deference.  A corridor led to the inner circle’s chapter room where latin mottoes circled the walls.  Behind the mock ruined tower, individual cells for the monks and their chosen lady ensured privacy.  So much for flagrant orgies.

Despite allusions to Satanism and libidinous free-for-alls, the monks followed an agreed-upon set of rules and respected one another’s boundaries.  Compared to the open doors of society, they may have behaved badly, but their pleasures were nothing like that of  Lord Rochester or Colonel Charteris, and their secrecy, more than anything, cemented their unholy reputation.

Sex Education for Women Circa 1802

In this early 19th century version of “the video” females of all ages, from a grandmother to a child who must stand on her tiptoes to view the exhibition, come to learn from the wax-work pregnant woman, her womb and fetus exposed by cut-away flesh beneath a glass box.

“O famous wax-work!” states the satirical poem below, “Where our fair ones come, Like female Neros made to see a womb, To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation, And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.”

The figurines entwined in erotic embraces on the side table serve as further instruction for the curious ladies who, much to the chagrin of those remembering “politer times”, are eagerly “Exploring in the sight of all the world, The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.”

The Poem:

In days of Yore, when modesty reign’d here,
Virgins were bashful, Matrons were severe;
None knew then what it was to chat with Men,
Or in smart Billets-doux to use the pen.
Sermons and Psalm-Books much employ’d their time,
Nor, save the latter, read they ought in Rhime.
If e’er they wrote, ’twas when some choice Receipt 
Was found to cure a Cough, or toss up Meat;
Such th’ Assiduous House-wife sought with Care,
And in her Books preserv’d as Treasure rare.
Each Woman then, the Glory of her Spouse,
Look’d to his Wealth, and constant kept his House.
Decent her Garb; her Language true and plain;
She heightened ev’ry Joy, and softened ev’ry Pain.
In our politer times, the Female Race
An easier mode of Living [by] far embrace.
No more such arduous Methods Women try,
But with the Men in thirst of Pleasure vie:
Like them, they Ride, they Walk, nay Rake and Drink,
And seldom say their Prayers, or deign to Think.
Thus rub thro’ Life, forgetful of its End;
By none Befriended, and to none a Friend;
Wild without Wit, from Spleen — not Judgment — grave;
Despising Faith, but to her Lusts a Slave.
Each courtly Wanton wanders thro’ her Time,
And feels Declension ere she reach her Prime.
But of all Follies, sure the last and worst
Is that with which our learned Age is curs’d.
This bawdy Itch of knowing secret Things,
And tracing human Nature to its Springs;
Exploring in the sight of all the world
The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.
O famous wax-work! Where our fair ones come,
Like female Neros made to see a womb,
To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation,
And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.
That Rake, in time to come, when he convenes,
What copious Drury sends, and Wild-street gleans,
He may have Bawds in Bibs, and Midwives in their teens.
What Vices Greek and Roman Dames defil’d,
How they on Slaves and Fencers often smil’d,
Rode, Drink, and Danced, we’re by old Sat’rists told;
But of no Thais of our modern Mold —
Who ere for Wedlock ripe is wild to see
What must its Joys, and what its Pains must be;
How in the Womb the Foetus is reclin’d;
What Passage thence by Nature is design’d;
With ev’ry other Circumstance beside,
That may inform her ere she be a Bride,
And make her wiser than the Dame who bore
This prying Wench, — or Grandmother before,
Who liv’d when Innocence sway’d here of Yore.
O might the shocking Scene so strike the Mind,
As that true Sense from this strange sight they’d find:
Learn to believe themselves but frail, tho’ fair;
And make their Souls what they deserve — their Care;
Live to those Ends for which their Lives were given,
To bless Mankind, and make this World a Heaven.
The Wax-work then — should be deem’d worthy Fame,
Not be, as now, all its Spectators’ Shame.