The Education of an Eighteenth-Century Squire: John Wilkes (1725-1797)

Robert Edge Pine. John Wilkes. 1768Much of the knowledge that we have of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey derives from the scandals and political debates surrounding John Wilkes, who was a key proponent of political reform in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.  It is easy to overlook Wilkes’s education in a rush to explore the controversies of the 1760s and 1770s.  However, the nature of Wilkes’s education provides insight into the intellectual milieu of the Hellfire Club.

Wilkes was the son of an Anglican brewer, but his education seems to have been controlled by his Presbyterian mother.  In 1734, she sent John and his two brothers to study with the Presbyterian schoolmaster John Worsley.[1]  His father eventually had him study with Matthew Leeson, a Presbyterian minister, who abandoned his church at the age of 60 during a crisis of conscience that led him to embrace the Arian creed.[2]

In 1742, Wilkes entered Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, to study law.  He was fifteen years old at the time.  It was clear that the boy did not want to become a lawyer, but entering the Inns of Court gave him access to court circles and was one way that the son of a middling brewer could expand his social network and advance his status.

Wilkes, accompanied by Leeson and another student named Hungerford Bland, enrolled in the University of Leiden in 1744.  Leiden was a haven for Dissenters who could not enter Oxford of Cambridge.  The young man made many friends there, including Alexander Carlyle.  Carlyle recorded that Wilkes’s tutor, Matthew Leeson, was “an old ignorant pedant” who was a poor educator.[3]  And, it seems that he did little to control Wilkes’s activities.  The ability to break away from the strictures of rural life in England led the eighteen-year-old to a debauched lifestyle.  Wilkes recounted his life at Leiden to James Boswell in Naples in 1765:

At school and college I never read; always among women a Leyden.  My father gave me as much money as I pleased.  Three or four whores; drunk every night.  Sore head morning, then read.  I’m capable to sit thirty hours over a table to study.[4]

Nevertheless, it is clear that Wilkes was a scholar – an independent one at that.  This caused consternation to his tutor Leeson.  As Carlyle later reported, Leeson’s

chief object seemed to be to make Wilkes an Arian also, and he teased him so much about it that he was obliged to declare that he did not believe the Bible at all, which produced a quarrel between them, and Wilkes, for refuge, went frequently to Utrecht, where he met with Immateriality [Andrew] Baxter, as he was called, who then attended [Walter Stuart, 8th] Lord Blantyre and Mr [William] Hay of Drummellier, as he had formerly done Lord John Gray.

Abandoning Christian theology, Wilkes looked for other men who would join him in philosophical inquiry.  These individuals included Andrew Baxter (1686/7–1750).  Baxter and Wilkes became close friends – perhaps even lovers – and Wilkes looked to the older man as a substitute tutor.[5] Baxter was a Newtonian and supporter of Samuel Clarke against the criticisms of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his followers.[6]  He engaged Wilkes in debates over natural philosophy and metaphysics.  The two men held long, speculative conversations, evidenced in Baxter’s dedication of his final work to Wilkes.[7] In 1747 in an unpublished dialogue defending Newtonianism, Baxter even based his main character, Histor, on Wilkes.[8]

From his association with Baxter, it is clear that Wilkes was reading some of the works of the great philosophers of his age.  And, his knowledge of the Newtonians and Leibniz and his followers was probably quite extensive.  But, Wilkes pursued studies beyond what Baxter encouraged.  In 1745, Wilkes presented an English translation of the works of Spinoza to Baxter.[9]  Spinoza (1632-77), the central thinker of the radical Enlightenment, was decried by both moderate and traditionalist segments of the intelligentsia, who labeled him an atheist who threatened to erode the moral foundations of society.[10]

Wilkes and Baxter cultivated their friendship among a circle of Britons who formed a club, based in Leiden.  They met three times a week, most often at members’ lodgings at the boarding house of Mademoiselle Van der Tasse, but sometimes at the home Mr. Gowans, a Scottish clergyman.  They “drank coffee, and smoked tobacco, and chatted about politics, and drank claret, and supped on bukkam (Dutch red-herrings), and eggs, and salad, and never sat later than twelve o’clock–at Mr Gowan’s, the clergyman, never later than ten, unless when we deceived him by making such a noise when the hour was ringing as prevented his hearing it.”[11]  At Mademoiselle Van der Tasse’s house, the coffee was the best in the city and a small bottle of claret cost only a shilling.  Alexander Carlyle described her and the house as follows.

Vandertasse’s was an established lodging-house, her father and mother having carried on that business, so that we lived very well there at a moderate rate — that is sixteen stivers for dinner, two for coffee, six for supper and for breakfast.  She was a lively little Frenchwoman, about thirty-six, had been tolerably well-looking, and was plump and in good condition.  As she had only one maid-servant, and five gentlemen to provide for, she led an active and laborious life; insomuch that she had but little time for her toilet, except in the article of the coif, which no Frenchwoman omits.  But on Sundays, when she had leisure to dress herself for the French Church, either in the morning or evening, then who but Mademoiselle Vandertasse!  She spoke English perfectly well, as the guests of the house had been mostly British.[12]

The members of the group who met at Van der Tasse’s made up about half of the roughly 22 British students in Leiden according to Alexander Carlyle’s estimate.[13]  They included the poet Mark Akenside and his lifetime companion, Jeremiah Dyson; Hungerford Bland; the Greek scholar, Anthony Askew; John Campbell, Jr. of Stonefield with his tutor Professor Morton of St. Andrews; Alexander Carlyle; William Dowdeswell, later Chancellor of the Exchequer; John Freeman of Jamaica; John Gregory, afterwards a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen and a doctor in Edinburgh; James Johnstone, later 3rd Bt. of Westerhall, Dumfries; Charles Townshend, later Chancellor of the Exchequer; and John Wilkes.  Those peripheral to this club were Mr Wetherell of the West Indies; Dr. Charles Congalton; a Mr. Keefe of Ireland; Willie Gordon, later KB; Dr. Dickson; and Nicholas Monckly, according to Carlyle, “an ignorant vain block-head”; and a Mr. Skirrat.[14]

Louis Carmontelle. Baron d'Holbach. 1766Most importantly for Wilkes was a foreign member of the club, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (1723-89), who arrived in Leiden in 1744.  It is unclear to what extent d’Holbach influenced Wilkes or vice versa.  D’Holbach was not yet the atheistic materialist that he would be in the following decade.  But, their membership in the club pointed to the freethinking radicalism of the circle.  D’Holbach and Wilkes remained close friends for life, and the budding philosopher was emotionally wrought when Wilkes left Leiden to return to England: “I need not tell you the sorrow our parting gave me, in vain Philosophy cried aloud nature was still stronger and the philosopher was forced to yield to the friend, even now I feel the wound is not cur’d.”[15]  Wilkes was his closest intellectual companion, and d’Holbach wrote to Wilkes that “I want in this country a true bosom friend like my dear Wilkes to converse with, but my pretenssions [sic] are too high, for every abode with such a company would be heaven for me.”[16]

The importance of the intellectual circle at Leiden shaped all of the young gentleman to greater and lesser degrees.  For both d’Holbach and Wilkes, sociability and clubability defined their public lives.  When he settled in Paris, d’Holbach held twice-weekly meetings at his house on rue Royale Saint-Roche (now 8 rue des Moulins) – a center of philosophical radicalism from the 1750s through the 1780s.  When he became an outlaw in 1763, partly because of his activities at West Wycombe, Wilkes eventually went to stay with d’Holbach and attend the salon.  For his part, Wilkes became central to a number of coteries, including the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks (1754) and, of course, the Monks of Medmenham Abbey.  Not surprisingly, several of his friends from Leiden joined him as friars.

In some ways, John Wilkes’s education was not uncommon for a middling child of a Dissenter household.  He had a number of tutors, studied at the Inns of Court, and went abroad to university where he never took a degree.  What made Wilkes’s education unique came as a result not of his education, but as a consequence of the sociable world of the continent.  As it happened, he fell into a group of exceptional individuals – both politically minded and philosophically freethinking.  To what extent Baxter, d’Holbach, or Spinoza each influenced him is impossible to gauge because many of his papers were burned by his daughter Polly.  However, the radicalism of each of them and Wilkes’s own desire to push himself intellectually no doubt shaped his outlook on the world – to the extent that his notion of mores were less dominated by Christian theology and his politics were more egalitarian than many of his contemporaries.


Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “The Education of an Eighteenth-Century Squire: John Wilkes (1725-1797),” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (25 March 2012),


[1] Peter David Garner Thomas, John Wilkes: a Friend to Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 2.

[2] Alexander Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk: Containing Memorials of the Men and Events of His Time (Cambridge, 1860), 168–69.

[3] Ibid., 138.

[4] James Boswell, The Journals of James Boswell: 1762-1795, ed. John Wain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 143–44.

[5] George Sebastian Rousseau, “‘In the House of Madame Vander Tasse’: A Homosocial University Club,” in Perilous Enlightenment: Pre- and Post-modern Discourses : Sexual, Historical, ed. George Sebastian Rousseau (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), 111–12.

[6] A Collection of Papers, Which Passed Between the Late Learned Mr. Leibnitz, and Dr. Clarke, in the Years 1715 and 1716 (London, 1717).

[7] Andrew Baxter, An Appendix to the First Part of The Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul (London, 1750), iii.

[8] John Almon, ed., The Correspondence of the Late John Wilkes: With His Friends, Printed from the Original Manuscripts, in Which Are Introduced Memoirs of His Life, 1805, 15; Arthur Hill Cash, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty (Yale University Press, 2006), 14.

[9] Rousseau, “‘In the House of Madame Vander Tasse’: A Homosocial University Club,” 118.

[10] Jonathan Irvine Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Jonathan Irvine Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[11] Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, 167.

[12] Ibid., 166.

[13] Ibid., 167.

[14] Ibid., 171.

[15] D’Holbach to Wilkes, 9 August 1746, Max Pearson Cushing, Baron d’Holbach: a Study of Eighteenth Century Radicalism in France (Columbia University, 1914), 6.

[16] D’Holbach to Wilkes, 3 December 1746, Ibid., 10.

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