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.

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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.

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7 thoughts on “Monks Behaving Badly

  1. The most disruptive time for a young fellow to learn about Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hell-Fire Club is when he is 15 or 16 years old. Imaginations of young gentlemen at that age need little in the way of prurient encouragement.

    Add to that unstable mindset a vivid picture of an 18th Century soiree populated by a lecherous men and a conflagration of pretty, cupid-faced (yet worldly) ladies, Satan-worshiping and reveling, drunk, with powdered bosoms exposed to the world – you threaten to seriously derail a youth before it’s had time to leave the station, as it were.

    Eventually and thankfully, real life wrested control of my imagination and my sense of what it was probably like became more measured and not diabolical as I’d believed.

    I can still let my imagination set the scene – the estate, viewed at night from a nearby copse. The great house with lanterns lit dimly through the windows. The crashing of an upturned silver platter onto the great hall’s stone floor – occasional bursts of loud laughter and melodramatic screaming; is that a guitar and viola? The breaking of glass. A click as a side door opens – the interior volume now echoes out across the open lawn – a lantern follows two pairs of bare feet running; a couple, unclothed except for wigs, giggling, chasing each other around the side of the house, followed quickly by another lantern and another quartet of naked feet with more giggling and shouting. From the hall, loud singing, soon joined by others – they are yelling the words of a hymn and laughing. A sudden silence is punctuated by a loud burp followed by more laughter…

    I realize that this sounds like most people’s Wednesday evenings, but it’s what I still like to imagine it was like – not vile, criminal or depraved, just lewd fun.

    1. No, I haven’t read Barchas’s article but I intend to shortly! I’m all agog now to see where the Hellfire Club intersects with Jane Austen.

  2. I honestly believe (and know) that Sir Francis Dashwood was a far deeper man than has so far been guested at, or indeed sort for. I first came across the caves in 1967 aged just ten, I was inspired, I read Rabelais book which was in part one text that set Dashwood on his quest to found his own club, in truth Geometric shapes, Greek Myths, the joy of life and deep meditation on the soul. Not hell and the devil-never, they are nowhere to be found, unless in the darkness of one’s own imagination.

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