An eighteenth-century British Satanist society of rich men,
politicians, and eccentrics based at Medmenham Abbey in
Buckinghamshire and later in caves at High Wycombe. The
founder was the notorious profligate Sir Francis Dashwood
(17081781), a member of parliament who was appointed
chancellor of the exchequer in 1762. His ignorance and incapacity
for the latter post resulted in his resignation a few
As a young man Dashwood plunged into a life of pleasure
and dissipation. When only 17, he became a member of one of
the earlier Hell-Fire clubs, which conducted secret orgies in a
cellar. There were rumors that during Dashwoods subsequent
Hellawes Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
European travels he was initiated into a diabolic cult in Venice
and brought back to England various magical grimoires and
About 1745, Dashwood founded the brotherhood known as
the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe or the Franciscans of
Medmenham, more popularly known as the Hell-Fire Club. In
1750 Dashwood rented the old Cistercian abbey of Medmenham
on the river Thames, near Marlow, originally founded in
1201. He made costly renovations to the premises, which he
furnished with an altar in the chapel, candlesticks, and pornographic
pictures. The entrance to the abbey bore the inscription
Fay ce que voudras (Do what thou wilt), derived from the
Abbey of Thelema in Rabelaiss Gargantua. The same motto was
adopted by Aleister Crowley for his own Abbey of Thelema
nearly two centuries later.
Although it has been claimed that Dashwoods Franciscans
(derived from his own forename) were largely rakes of
the period seeking drunken sex orgies, there was an inner circle
or superior order of 12 members who held obscene parodies
of Catholic ritual in the chapel as an elementary form of
Satanism. As grand master, Dashwood used a communion cup
to pour libations to pagan gods, and even administered the sacrament
to a baboon in a contemptuous mockery of sacred ritual.
Members of this superior order included Lord Sandwich,
the libertine Paul Whitehead, the debauchee George Selwyn,
and Thomas Potter (son of the archbishop of Canterbury). A
fictionalized account of the Franciscans was published in
Charles Johnstons novel Chrysal (1760).
The brotherhood flourished at Medmenham for 12 years,
until it was exposed by John Wilkes, who had joined in 1762 but
was later expelled, probably through political quarrels. At one
of the Satanic rituals, Wilkes secretly brought an ape with horns
tied on its head, dressed in a long black cloak. The creature was
released at the height of the ceremony and sprang upon the Satanists,
who screamed with fear at the devil they thought they
had raised by their mockery. Wilkes and the politician Charles
Churchill exposed the brotherhood in an issue of the North
Briton newspaper, and a satirical print appeared entitled The
Saint of the Convent.
In the face of public exposure, the Medmenham chapel was
hastily stripped and its contents taken away to West Wycombe,
where Dashwood attempted to revive his ceremonies. He built
a church on Wycombe Hill, where he and his companions
drank heavily and blasphemed the Psalms. In the caves underneath
the hill, they attempted to revive the orgies and rituals
of Medmenham, but some of Dashwoods friends had died and
others tired of their activities.
After resigning from the post of chancellor of the exchequer,
Dashwood retired from the ministry, and in 1763 became
the fifteenth Baron Le Despencer, premier baron of England.
In 1763 he became lord-lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. He
died at West Wycombe after a prolonged illness on December
11, 1781, and was buried in the mausoleum he had built there.
Other Hell-Fire clubs existed in eighteenth-century England
at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as in Scotland (Edinburgh)
and Ireland (Dublin). The contemporary influences
that brought about such societies were an increasing religious
skepticism, the growth of free thought, romantic Gothic literature
with mad monks and devils, and male chauvinism in an atmosphere
of class privilege and debauchery.
Mannix, Daniel P. The Hell Fire Club. New York Ballantine
McCormick, Donald. The Hell-Fire Club. London Jarrolds
Publishers, 1958. Reprint, London Sphere Books, 1975.
Towers, Eric. Dashwood The Man and the Myth. U.K. Crucible,