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Hell, no damnation

The Hellfire Caves are located just outside of West Wycombe. Built around 1750 by the second Sir Francis Dashwood, the Earl of Rosse (1708-1781), they are an intriguingly named site… named after the Hellfire Club, founded by the same earl… and for more than two centuries linked with an awful lot of intrigue…

Philip Coppens


The Hellfire Club. It is a spectacular name, in which the name seems to impart that anyone who was a member may perhaps have liked some of life’s luxuries that may have warranted a future imprisonment in the hellfire. Indeed, they did. The club had a steward, Paul Whitehead, whose job it was to keep inventories of drinks and other material used by the members at their meeting centre of Medmenham Abbey, on the Thames, 8 miles from West Wycombe.
Though today the Hellfire club is remembered through the name of the caves, the club began its meetings in London, before moving to the permanent location of Medmenham Abbey. The caves were even a later folly of Dashwood and it remains unclear whether the club ever actually used the caves for any of their meetings.

The club began in the 1740s and went on swimmingly until 1763, when its existence was made known through a series of controversial articles. The original meetings are said to have taken place in the George and Vulture Inn in the City, though some meetings were also held in Dashwood’s house in Hanover Square, as well as members’ houses elsewhere. It seems the club needed a home of its own and Dashwood leased Medmenham Abbey in 1751 and had it fitted for the benefit of the members of his club – all belonging to the highest rank of English society. From then on, the former Cistercian abbey would be home to the Hellfire club, where they would meet, apparently all dressed in a white hat, white jacket and white trousers, whilst the Prior – Dashwood – himself had a red hat and a red bonnet.
It was only when the club was already going smoothly that Dashwood decided to create the caves, which were dug between 1748 and 1754. Though it is often said that this was done to keep the local people at work during perilous economic times, the truth of the matter is that Dashwood used a labour force coming from Cornwall to build his subterranean world.

The caves are one long tunnel, along which various niches and halls have been inserted. Towards the end is an artificial river, ending in the so-called “Inner Temple”, which sits 300 feet underneath St Lawrence’s Church, located at the top of the hill. The entrance to the caves is through at Gothic façade.
Why did he build them? According to the present Sir Francis Dashwood: “I believe that Sir Francis was just having a bit of fun. It was a time when follies and artificial caves were fashionable – Horace Walpole had built a cave in his London house, Strawberry Hill, and had purloined some stalactites from the natural caves at Wookey Hill in Somerset, and there were many other examples such as those at Stourhead and Stowe – but Sir Francis’ artificial cave is the largest and most curious of all.”
The caves were open to visitors ever since they were built, though it seems that no-one besides the locals knew of them and thus they can only have attracted a small number of visitors. The caves were officially reopened in 1951, but they remained a dangerous site, if only because the local vicar stated that evil influences emanated from the cave. 10,000 visitors passed through them that summer. But specifically the Great Hall was in a perilous condition (its ceiling collapsing), as a result of which a corridor bypassing the Great Hall was dug in the 1950s. In the following decades, the Great Hall was made safe and today, visitors can once again pass through it.

As far as the Dashwood family is concerned, there is no immediate mystery to his ancestor’s life. Still, the caves themselves have some details that have become the subject of intrigue.
Inside the caves are two Roman numerals. The first is “XXII”, 22, located on the left hand side of the wall some distance inside the caves. Some believe that they are a measurement in poles of the distance from the entrance. But why would anyone need to know such information? Furthermore, why 22, and not 20, or any other number? No wonder then that two poems have it that the location of the number XXII marks the location of a secret passage, which is said to run from the caves to the church above.
The other number is XXXIV – 34 – which is carved before the entrance of the tunnel which leads to the main chapter room. Again, no logical reason for its presence has been offered.
The end of the cave system is the so-called “Inner Temple”, where it is believed that meetings of the Hellfire Club were occasionally held. Some have labelled the room as the “vulva” of the Great Mother goddess. Just before is an artificial river, known as the “River Styx”. In 1796, a Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys stated that the pool of water had to be crossed on stepping stones, whereas previously there had been a boat. Later in 1863, the pool of water was described as the river Styx. Today, a bridge has been built over the “river”.

What does it all mean? Most agree that the design had to do with the Eleusian mysteries of ancient Greece. Modern visitors will feel that the statues in the niches of the Great Hall, some of which are of Mithraic design, underline this possibility. However, these statues are fairly modern additions, for the benefit of the modern visitors. What was in the niches originally, is not known.
What was the club up to? The name “Hellfire Club” is open to various interpretations. We know that the group were also known as the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe and the famous painter Hogarth painted Dashwood as a Franciscan friar. But Dashwood’s first name was Francis, so this cannot be seen as a major clue to uncover the mystery…
A clue does come from the actions of Dashwood himself. In 1738, he visited Italy and developed an antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. But rather than become an atheist, he seems to have embraced another religion. In paintings, he has himself depicted in the presence of a statue of Venus. Furthermore, he adopts the motto “Fay ce que voudras, Do as you wish”, which he has taken from Rabelais and which is the same motto that Aleister Crowley will use in the 20th century. Rabelais himself lent it from St Augustine of Hippo. For his part, Dashwood has it inscribed over the archway at the entrance of Medmenham, which thus can be seen as the theme under which the club operated.
Dashwood made another journey to Italy in 1752, without his wife, which most label as “mysterious” as its purpose remains unknown. Some assume he went to Venice, as it was still the centre of esoteric studies. Dashwood’s library discloses books about magic that were bought in Venice, but the date of purchase is unclear. Others have proposed a visit to Naples, which he had visited on his first voyage, to view the initial excavations of the Herculaneum (Pompeii). His return visit, some argue, was to visit the art in the “House of Mysteries”… a Roman brothel.

Dashwood definitely created an ancient Egyptian-Graeco-Roman theme for the club. The visitor to Medmenham was welcomed by a statue of Harpocrates, the Egyptian god of silence, as well as of his female equivalent, the goddess Angerona. They seem to be there to remind the members that they are required to be silent about what goes on inside.
As was customary of the time, specific care was not only given to the house, but also to its gardens. At the entrance, there was a statue of Venus, stooping to pull a thorn out of her foot. There is also an inscription from Virgil:

Hic locus est, partes ubi se via findit in ambas;
Hac iter Elyzium nobis ; at laeva malorum
Exercet poenas, et ad impia Tartara mittit.

“Here is the place where the way divided into two; this on the right is our route to Heaven, but the left-hand path exacts punishment from the wicked, and sends them to pitiless Hell.” They were, after all, the Hellfire club.

Most prominent is a statue of Priapus. In myth, Priapus was the son of Pan and Venus, and was born with constant erection. The phallus of the statue was tipped with a flame, underlining the “fire” aspect of the club. And if anyone was left in any doubt, there was another inscription:

PENI TENTO
non
PENITENTI

“A tense penis, not penitence”, suggesting the club is not a Christian penitent movement… but a sex club. That sex was on the agenda, is no longer in any doubt. Next to the chapel in Medmenham were some cells which, according to Horace Walpole, were fitted with cots and the “brothers take their women there”. “Among the amusement”, John Wilkes said, “they had sometimes a mock celebration of the more ridiculous rites of the foreign religious orders, of the Church of Rome, of the Franciscans in particular…” Yet, Wilkes stated he was never admitted to the chapter-room where these rites occurred, so his opinion is just that; it is not evidence. At the same time, it is known that women were allowed to partake in the joys of the flesh too.

To dismiss the club as “just” a sex club would not do it justice. Though sex was important, the members placed sex in a religious framework, as it had existed in ancient times. In 1977, Jesse Lasky Jr and Pat Silver argued that Dashwood was indeed restoring pagan worship. Thus, the Friars drink in honour of Bacchus, or Dionysos. Lt.-Col. Towers stated: “My interpretation of the caves remains as stated, that they were used as a Dionysian oracular temple, based upon Dashwood’s reading of the relevant chapters of Rabelais.” The dining room in Dashwood’s house also had depictions of Bacchus. The east wing, built in 1754, is based on a Greek temple; the west wing is a reconstruction of the temple of Bacchus, as seen by Dashwood at Smyrna. Their food is consumed in his tradition and the subsequent sexual exploits are deemed to be nothing but the famous drinking, eating and sexual activities that were known to be held for the deity in ancient times. It seems that the members even considered masturbation a sacred act, as long as it was pledged to the goddess – just like Bacchus drank in honour of the Goddess.
It should also not come as a surprise that many have observed that Dashwood was influenced by The Golden Ass by Apuleius, in which the central theme is an initiation into the Mysteries of Isis – the Egyptian Venus – which also involves sexual rites.

Medmenham or the caves – with only the number 22 and 34 as “decoration” – are not the only constructions that incorporate aspects of Dashwood’s vision. The church of St Lawrence, built above the cave system, has a ceiling that is a copy of that of the ruined Temple of the Sun at Palmyra. The church itself has a golden ball on top. Both elements reveal that Dashwood was not only influenced by the ancient mysteries, but also by the ancient sun cults.
Still, Dashwood’s library reveals that he was also interested in the Kaballah. Thus, the number 22, found inside the cave, can be linked with the number of paths between the various spheres of divine emanation in the Tree of Life. As for the local poem that talks about a secret passage that is rumoured to be present near the number 22:

Take twenty steps and rest awhile
Then take a pick and find the style
Where once I did my love beguile
T’was twenty-two in Dashwood’s time
Perhaps to hid this cell divine
Where lay my love in peace sublime.

Sir Francis Dashwood

The presence of a secret “cell” in which a loved one is resting in a sublime peace is very reminiscent of the tomb of Venus, as she is portrayed in the Rosicrucian literature, which revolves around the discovery of this secret chamber by Christian Rosenkreutz, the mythical founder of the movement. As this literature had circulated across Europe at the beginning of the 17th century, Dashwood was no doubt familiar with it.

Those who have studied Dashwood, believe they can sum up his vision in the following statements:
- Britain should be ruled by a wise elite.
- This elite should represent true aristocracy.
- This elite should practice a religion based on the truths of Nature.
- Women should be admitted, as equal partners.

When we note that there were supposed to be always nine members present, if we are to take the word of John Hall Stevenson, who founded the Demoniacks, we should wonder – in light of his interest in sex, including masturbation, and the sun cult – whether Dashwood had perhaps been exposed to a system of political thought, known as synarchy, that would be defined by Saint-Yves d'Alveydre in the latter half of the 19th century, and which would equally incorporate ancient symbolism, much of which is prominent in the Hellfire club. Both Dashwood and Saint-Yves d'Alveydre furthermore wanted this concept to bring about political change.

The Hellfire club had at one point the most prominent members of British society amongst its members. Suster notes that the Friars, by 1762, dominated the government of Great Britain. That same year, their existence was made public, and it was revealed that the Prime Minister, The Marquis of Bute, along with The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Francis Dashwood and another Cabinet member, were members. This public outing, in a controversial manner, meant that most members decided not to attend. It began to signal the decline of the club. Still, no harm or ridicule to came to Dashwood personally, becoming friends with Benjamin Franklin, the future mastermind behind the American Revolution. But the club had had its day. In 1766, the chapter room and other rooms in the abbey were apparently stripped naked. Eventually, the lease on the abbey was not renewed in 1777, whereby the last meeting of the club is believed to have been held in 1774.

The caves thus entered centuries of neglect. Though Medmenham had been the centre of the club, the caves seem to have played a role too – though any precise purpose has never been revealed. Dashwood had a daughter, Rachel Fanny Antonina, who after her father’s death got a reputation as being a “magnificent witch”. She studied the occult books her father had left her. She once said about the caves: “The clue to all my troubles can be found in the heart of the hill”, never explaining fully what she meant by that, but obviously referring to the caves, if not the Inner Temple and what went on in there.

It is clear that the Club practiced sexual activity, but perhaps there was also a magical dimension to it. This may have been why the caves were later believed to be “evil”. The caves are unlikely to ever reveal their final secret, if only because the club went apparently to great lengths to make sure no-one would ever know. Gerald Suster writes: “It is said that the steward, Paul Whitehead, spent the three days before his death painstakingly burning all papers. If he did, one wonders why. If he didn’t, one wonders why it was said.”
Whitehead died in 1774 – the year when the final meeting of the club is believed to have taken place – and left his heart to Sir Francis, together with 50 pounds for a marble urn. On August 16, 1775 a procession occurred on Wycombe Hill, in which the heart of Paul Whitehead, placed in an urn with a marble medallion representing Asclepius, was carried to the newly constructed mausoleum. A band of 31 musicians with a military escort carried the urn to the graveyard.

The Great Hall

The oeuvre of Dashwood, however, can best be interpreted in light of the club’s key message: “Do what you want…” In Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), relates the story of Gargantua, the giant, who gives him an estate along the Loire, where John, a Friar, realises his dream in founding the Abbey of Theleme. Rabelais gives its exact dimensions, which are taken from the Kaballah. It has six sides, which echoes the design of the mausoleum that Dashwood created at West Wycombe. But that is not all. Medmenham was an abbey that was located on the river Thames. Francis considered him and his club to be “friars”. Like Friar John realises his dream in the abbey of Theleme on the river Loire, Friar Francis realised his dream in Medmenham Abbey on the river Thames – and later in the creation of the cave complex. Finally, let us not forget that it was believed that the river Thames itself was named after Isis, the Egyptian Venus…

Members of the abbey in Rabelais’ account “did as they wanted”. Or to quote Rabelais: “All their life was regulated not by laws, statutes or rules, but according to their free will and pleasure. They rose from bed when they pleased, and drank, ate, worked and slept when the fancy seized them. Nobody woke them; nobody compelled them either to eat or to drink, or to do anything else whatever… In their rules there was only one clause: do what thou wilt.”
And this is what no doubt the true purpose of Medmenham abbey was: to provide a safe-haven for the top echelon of British society to “do as they wanted”. No strings attached. Still, as to what went on inside the caves… that is another matter, one that may forever be condemned to the fire of hell…