THE HELL-FIRE CLUB
No library of the occult would be complete without a volume about the immoral Order of Saint Francis which held its unholy rites first in the ruined Abbey on Medmenhan Island, in the Thames, and later in a series of man-made caves under West Wycombe Hill, during the middle of the eighteenth century.
I have chosen this book by Donald McCormick because it was first published in 1958; so the research is more up to date than any of the many other accounts of the doings of those lecherous ‘monks’ and ‘nuns’.
But it must be stated here that in my view the author has done his utmost to whitewash the Order, as he asserts that there is no foundation for the general belief during the past that the rites performed were worship of the Devil. So, if the reader wants descriptions of Black Masses, he must turn to Huysmans’ Down There, Francis Mossiker’s The Affair of the Poisons, volumes 23 and 28 in this library, or to some of my own books.
Personally, I do not agree with the author. If he is right why, before the Order was established, was its founder, Sir Francis Dashwood, so anxious to obtain that extremely rare book on Satanism which was brought to him in secret one night in 1746 at the Sign of the George and Vulture in Cornhill? The inner circle of the Order consisted of thirteen men. Why that particular number unless they formed a Satanic coven? Again there are many accounts of the notorious John Wilkes, a prominent member, having smuggled a baboon, wearing a mask with horns, into a chest under the altar in the chapel of the Abbey, then having released the animal in the middle of a service; upon which the ‘monks’ panicked and fled in terror. Why should the effect upon them have been so shattering if it was not that they believed they really had raised the Devil?
No, I regard Mr. McCormick’s whitewash as very thin, and there is little doubt that Satanic rites were regularly performed at Medmenham Abbey. But the author does produce ample evidence that, with the exception of Lord Sandwich, most of the ‘monks’ were by no means wicked men; particularly Dashwood himself.
He was the most generous of men and liked by all classes. It is, too, interesting to learn that it was he who inspired and collaborated with the famous American, Benjamin Franklin – another of the ‘monks’ – in producing a revised and greatly shortened Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England; his reason being not to denigrate the service but ‘to prevent the old and faithful from freezing to death through long ceremonies in cold churches, to make the services so short as to attract the young and lively, and to relieve the well-disposed from the infliction of interminable prayers.’
The Hell-Fire Club at Medmenham had many similarly called predecessors and other successors well into the following century. The popular interest shown for over 200 years in this particular one is due to the distinction of the membership. Its founder, Sir Francis Dashwood, was for a year a very incompetent Chancellor of the Exchequer and. later, after elevation to the peerage as Lord le Despencer, an exceptionally able Post-Master General. The Prime Minister, the Earl of Bute, was a member in its early days. So were Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Potter, the Paymaster General. Poetry, drama, painting, literature and wit were represented by leading lights of their era: Paul Whitehead, Charles Churchill, Robert Lloyd, George Selwyn and William Hogarth. Among those who are said to have participated from time to time are Frederick, Prince of Wales, the Duke of Kingston, the Marquis of Granby, the Earls of Oxford, March, Westmoreland and many other members of the aristocracy; their common bond of course, being lecherous revelry with the ‘nuns’ they brought down from London.
As the book gives so much information about many prominent people of that period, it is certain that lovers of history will enjoy it. And I fully endorse the comparison made by the author near the end of the book between the abilities of the average Member of Parliament in that, in many ways corrupt, era with those of the M.P.s of our own day.
The Dilettante Club, which Dashwood helped to found when only twenty-four years old, still exists with a very limited membership. It owns the fine paintings of the most distinguished ‘monks’ of Medmenham and, having no premises of its own, has loaned these to the St. James Club, of which I happen to be a member. So when I lunch or dine there I can enjoy being looked down on by the portraits of those gay rakes who disported themselves at the most notorious of all Hell-Fire Clubs.