They were devils who played near the banks of the Thames at Medmenham Abbey as monks with their nuns.
They were blasphemers whose amusements occasioned mock sermons to cats and arcane rituals in the names of Bacchus and Venus.
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.
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.
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.
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.