Riots, Revelries, and Rumor: Libertinism and Masculine Association in Enlightenment London

Ghosts, Satanism, and 19th-Century Tourism at West Wycombe

Decades after the group ceased to meet, the stories of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey circulated in the form of rumors and gossip.  And, as members of the club passed away, popular interest remained.  At the turn of the nineteenth century, tourism in Britain increased, and West Wycombe became a popular destination.  Not only was curiosity piqued by the famed gardens and walks of the Monks, but rumors of hauntings also fueled interest.

From Earth to Heaven

From Earth to Heaven. Music [for four voices] Performed at the Ceremony of Depositing the Heart of the late Paul Whitehead in the Mausoleum at HighWycombe, etc. [London, 1784]

Ghost stories about West Wycombe were already in circulation in 1781 when Francis Dashwood, aged and sick, as well as servants on the estate began claiming that they had seen Paul Whitehead’s ghost in the house and gardens.[1]  Paul Whitehead was a member of the abbey and rumored lover of Francis Dashwood.  When Whitehead died in 1775.  Dashwood built a mausoleum in his honor, holding a procession, commissioning music, and placing Whitehead’s heart in an urn in the mausoleum.

Locals soon saw the potential for profit.  They led tourists to the supposed meeting sites of the Medmenham Monks – the ball at the top of the St. Lawrence Church and the West Wycombe caves, chalk tunnels which Dashwood had excavated in the 1750s to employ the local population.  They told the tourists ghost stories.  Visitors were even given the opportunity to hold Paul Whitehead’s heart — until it was stolen by an unnamed Australian in 1829.[2]  The ghost stories became more and more popular in the nineteenth century.  For example, in the 1870s, Mortimer Collins wrote that Medmenham was

Right famous for a veritable ghost;
The hell-fire club at Med’nam turn’d men pale;[3]

Although he decided not to tour the caves in the 1870s, Mortimer Collins noted that any visit to the St Laurence Church of West Wycombe entailed visiting the caves, passing “an hour or two in dirt and darkness,” “the victim of a guide.”[4]  Another author noted that he toured the caves in 1875, and on this visit, he also visited the golden ball at the top of the church, now covered with the autographs of visitors.  He was charged 6 pence for an entry fee, and it was so popular that it brought the church £120 revenue per annum – in other words, about 4800 visitors every year.[5]

The local tour guides, who received tips from the visitors, must have been telling and retelling the story of the Monks of Medmenham with some consistency, for the stories about West Wycombe tended to be fairly consistent.  Most authors noted that while the monks’ sexual appetites were excessive – and that the men had poor morality – they were not abnormal for the eighteenth century.[6]  One Oxford student remembered them thus:

In Medmenham Abby they passed the day,
Those jolly Abbots, ‘mid wine and lay:
There Hugh le Despencer, gallant and free,
Bid “fay ce que voudras” their motto be.[7]

Likewise, the men were generally represented as areligious, or agnostic, not openly atheistic.[8]  The story of Whitehead and Dashwood’s romantic relationship had disappeared, even though the story had been printed with every edition of William Cowper Works during the first half of the nineteenth century.  And, as they had been in the 1750s, the monks and their world were a source of curiosity.  They had become part of the community’s imaginary landscape – part of its heritage – a set of stories and attractions that brought visitors to a small Georgian town along the road to Oxford.

Then, within just a few years at the turn of the 20th century, the stories about the West Wycombe landscape changed.  They became more terrifying, and the topography of West Wycombe became potentially threatening.  In 1894, Charles Henry Pearson made the first reference to satanic rituals at West Wycombe:

The worst acts imputed to the monks of Medmenham are, I believe, the invocation of the devil by Lord Sandwich, [and] the giving [of] the sacrament to a dog by the same worthy.[9]

In 1901, another author claimed that Medmenham was haunted by the blasphemous monks, who indulged in “beastly pleasures and beastly humors.” [10]  Another author claimed that “the wraith of the last of the mad monks of Medmenham” haunted the landscape as a “homicidal ghost.”[11]  Who started these more threatening versions of the area’s history is unknown, but one contemporary claimed that they were being circulated by “local mystery-mongers.”[12]

It seems that the new stories at West Wycombe and Medmenham did nevertheless contribute to the local tourist economy.  And, one writer from the Times recognized the value of the mysteries and secrets of West Wycombe in an analysis in 1920:

The oldest of us never loses that part of youth which sees romance in sheer villainy.  We disapprove for righteousness’ sake, but such a motto as – “Fay ce que voudras” – the very text of hedonism charms reputable persons into curiosity and ever into a shame faced sympathy . . . No one knows accurately what were the revels in this mysterious place.  The proceedings were secret, but rumour said that wild rites were practiced.  Satan received the crapulent homage of the pseudo-monks.[13]

While the church and caves were consistent tourist attractions in the 1920s – and, in fact, the ghost of Paul Whitehead had been joined by Sukie, the ghost of a murdered, love-scorned chambermaid from the George and Dragon Inn – the rest of the village struggled financially.[14]  To save the pristine village, which Victorian aesthetics had left virtually untouched, the Royal Society of Arts, Commerce, and Manufacture purchased it in March 1929.[15]  Transferring the title to the National Trust in 1934 was followed by Sir John Dashwood’s grant of the church hill and the caves in 1935 and 300 acres and an endowment in 1943.[16]  The postwar years escalated the mythmaking at West Wycombe, and stories of poltergeists and villainous monks found their way into an increasingly broad array of popular culture.

[1] William Copwer to Rev. William Unwin, 24 November 1781, Works of William Cowper, vol. 2 (London, 1853), pp. 373-4.

[2] West Wycombe Park, The Dashwood Mausolem [n.d.], p. 8.

[3] Collins to T.E. Kebbel, 13 September 1872, Mortimer Collins, Mortimer Collins, His Letters and Friendships with Some Account of His Life, vol. 1, ed. Frances Collins (London, 1877), p. 113.

[4] Mortimer Collins, Pen Sketches by a Vanished Hand: From the Papers of the Late Mortimer Collins, ed. Tom Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1879), p. 101.

[5] Edward Verrall Lucas, Pleasure Trove (Books for Libraries Press, 1968), p. 123.

[6] Alfred Rimmer, Rambles Round Eton & Harrow, new ed. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1898), pp. 36-43.

[7] “On the Thames: A Summer Idyll,” College Rhymes, vol. 7 (Oxford, 1866), p. 147.

[8] Cf. Edward Walford, Tales of Our Great Families, vol. 2 (London, 1877), pp. 187-8.

[9] Charles Henry Pearson, National Life and Character:  A Forecast (London: Macmillan, 1894), pp. 211-12 fn. 3.

[10] Justin McCarthy, History of the Four Georges, vol. 3 (New York, 1901).

[11] Eliakim Littell and Robert S. Littell, The Living Age, 7th series, vol. 18 (1903), p. 420.

[12] Charles George Harper, The Oxford, Gloucester, and Milford Haven Road (1905), p. 120.

[13] Times, 29 March 1920, no. 42371, p. 17, col. f.

[14] The caves were drawing thousands of visitors even in the midst of the depression in 1935.  See Times, 23 July 1935, no. 47123, p. 11, col. e.  Supposedly, Sir Francis Dashwood had a secret passage between the house and the George and Dragon, which the locals claimed to have partially excavated in 1963.  See Times, 11 June 1963, no. 55724, p. 7, col. f.

[15] Times, 6 February 1934, no. 46671, p. 11, col. d.

[16] Times, 23 July 1935, no. 47123, p. 11, col. e; Times, 23 December 1943, no. 49736, p. 7, col. b.

Pop Culture and Medmenham

Mannix, Hellfire ClubAs those of you who follow this blog know, it’s been inactive for a while.  This is because I took a new position at my university and haven’t had time to do the necessary research.  One of the things that I have been working on is adding pop culture references to Dashwood, Medmenham, the Hellfire Club, etc. to my research folder.  This is because I think the afterlife (a.k.a. memory) of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey is as interesting and important as their existence during the 1740s through the 1760s.  Many of you probably know a number of these references, which include The Avengers, the X-Men, Ghost Hunters, and more.

As I have been collecting these references, I have been thinking that it might be useful to create a master list and add it to the blog.  And, I was hoping that you might help me.  In the comments section below or on the Facebook page, would you post any pop culture references to Medmenham and the Hellfire club that you know?  These could include music, theater, film, art, or even Hellfire themed restaurants.  If you have any ephemera that might be interesting, please provide links to images.  I will of course cite you as co-contributors to the blog post when I put the master list together.

To get us started, here is a clip from The Hellfire Club (Regal Films, 1961).  If you haven’t seen it, I wouldn’t say that you’re missing much, but it has great visual references to the histories (real and imagined) of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey.  Check out the baboon skull embedded in the cave walls in the opening sequence.

The Public Reputation of the Medmenham Monks

How much did the London public know about the existence of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey during the 1750s and early 1760s?  It is clear that its members had little reticence about publicizing their activities or worry about gossip and rumor.  I have already posted about Francis Dashwood’s penchant for dressing up as monks and commissioning satirical religious portraits of himself (   It seems that he and his fellow members took great pleasure in encouraging gossip about their “secret” society.

George Knapton. Francis Dashwood. 1742. Brooks's Club, LondonIn one instance, Dashwood used his association with the Society of Dilettanti to publicize the group of “monks.”  The Dilettanti required its members to present portraits of themselves to be hung in their meeting room, and the painter to the Dilettanti, George Knapton, painted Dashwood as “SAN FRANCESCO DE WYCOMBO” in 1742.  Importantly, the Dilettanti’s meeting room was in a public tavern, and tavern-goers had access to it.  In effect, the space became an informal art gallery.  Because of this, a larger population came into regular contact with Dashwood’s image as St. Francis of Wycombe.  The consequences of continuous public contact with Dashwood’s painting were described by John Wilkes.  He said of Dashwood’s portrait, which had continuously hung at the King’s Arms from 1742 to 1757 before it was transferred to the society’s new home at the Star and Garter:[1]

There was for many years in the great room, at the king’s arms tavern, in Old Palaceyard, an original picture of Sir Francis Dashwood, presented by himself to the Dilettanti club.  He is in the habit of a Franciscan, kneeling before the Venus of Medicis, his gloating eyes fix’d, as in a trance, on what the modesty of nature seems most desirous to conceal, and a bumper in his hand, with the words MATRI SANCTORUM in capitals.  The glory too, which till then had only encircled the sacred heads of our Saviour and the Apostles, is made to beam on that favourite spot, and seems to pierce the hallow’d gloom of maidenhead thicket.  The public saw, and were for many years offended with so infamous a picture, yet it remain’d there, till that club left the house.[2]

Consequently, the lascivious and anti-religious connotations of this painting caused Londoners to confuse the activities of the Dilettanti with the private lives of its members.  Even Horace Walpole, typically “in-the-know,” succumbed to conflating the Dilettanti and the “Order of St. Francis,” writing that Dashwood’s club was a “more select order” of Dilettanti:

These pictures were long exhibited in their club room in Palace Yard; but of later years St. Francis had instituted a more select order.  He and some chosen friends had hired the ruins of Medmenham Abbey near Marlow.[3]

This confusion persisted throughout the 1760s and did much to link the Society of Dilettanti’s reputation to the Monks of Medmenham Abbey.

It seems that the “monks” of the Order of St. Francis were both cavalier about their activities and took pleasure in the notoriety – good and bad – that their excesses garnered.  For example, Paul Whitehead’s membership in the Medmemnham Monks is one of the reasons that Boswell gives for Samuel Johnson’s dislike of the poet.[4]  In 1762, John Wilkes was proud to claim that he had slighted (for a second time) William, Lord Talbot by postponing their duel because of a hangover that he had incurred at Medmenham.  Writing to Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, on 6 October, the day after the duel actually took place, Wilkes wrote about his sarcastic exchange with Talbot.

I was come from Medmenham Abbey where the jovial monks of St. Francis had kept me up till four in the morning, that the world would therefore conclude I was drunk, and form no favourable opinion of his lordship from a duel at such a time.[5]

Temple’s response suggests familiarity with the group and that Wilkes’s behavior in this incident was a confirmation of his masculinity: “Firmness, coolness, and a manly politeness, makes up the whole of this transaction on your part . . . I was sure you would extricate yourself like a man.”[6]

Adapted from Jason M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009), chapter 2.

[1] The Society moved their room to the Star and Garter Tavern in May 1757. See SDSM, 1 May 1757.

[2] Reprinted in A Select Collection of the Most Interesting Letters on the Government, Liberty, and Constitution of England, vol. 2 (London, 1763), p. 37.  This was an extension of [John Wilkes], Public Advertiser (2 June 2 1763).

[3] Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George III, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 114.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman (Oxford, 1980), p. 91.

[5] Wilkes to Temple, 6 October 1762 in Letters between Duke of Grafton . . . and John Wilkes, vol. 1 (London, 1769), pp. 22-3.

[6] Temple to Wilkes, 6 October 1762, Grenville Papers, vol. 1, p. 478.

Bibliography: John Wilkes

Richard Houston, John Glynn, John Wilkes, and John Horne Tooke by Richard HoustonAs a follow-up to my recent post on John Wilkes, I thought that it might be useful to include a bibliography of works on the life of and politics of John Wilkes.  The list below includes works since 1960.  I believe that I have covered everything, but if there is something that I may have missed, please let me know so that I can add it.

Brewer, John. “The Number 45 : a Wilkite Political Symptom.” In England’s Rise to Greatness, 1660-1763, edited by S.B. Baxter, 349–80. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

———. “The Wilkites and the Law, 1763-74.” In An Ungovernable People? The English and Their Law in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, edited by John Styles and John Brewer, 128–71. London: Hutchinson, 1980.

Cash, Arthur H. “Samuel Johnson and John Wilkes.” Age of Johnson 18 (2007): 67–130.

———.  John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Christie, Ian R. “The Wilkites and the General Election of 1774.” Guildhall Miscellany 2, no. 4 (1963): 155–64.

———. Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform: the Parliamentary Reform Movement in British Politics, 1760-1785. London and New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Clark, Anna. Scandal: the Sexual Politics of the British Constitution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

———. “The Chevalier d’Eon and Wilkes: Masculinity and Politics in the Eighteenth Century.” Eighteenth-century Studies 32, no. 1 (1998): 19–48.

Colley, L. “Eighteenth-century English Radicalism Before Wilkes.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Fifth Series) 31, no. 1 (1981): 1–19.

Conlin, Jonathan. “Wilkes, the Chevalier D’Eon and ‘the Dregs of Liberty’: An Anglo-French Perspective on Ministerial Despotism, 1762–1771*.” The English Historical Review 120, no. 489 (2005): 1251–1288.

———. “High Art and Low Politics : a New Perspective on John Wilkes.” Huntington Library Quarterly 64, no. 3–4 (2001): 356–81.

Dew, Ben. “‘Waving a Mouchoir à La Wilkes’ : Hume, Radicalism and the North Briton.” Modern Intellectual History 6, no. 2 (2009): 235–60.

Dickinson, Harry Thomas. “Radicals and Reformers in the Age of Wilkes and Wyvill.” In British Politics and Society from Walpole to Pitt, 1742-1789. Ed. Black, Jeremy, 123–146, 254–58. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990.

During, Simon. “Taking Liberties : Sterne, Wilkes and Warburton.” In Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty, and Licence in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Peter Maxwell Cryle and Lisa O’Connell, 15–33. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Engelmann, Frank. “A Late Eighteenth-Century Ballad Opera and John Wilkes: The Bow-Street Opera (1773).” In John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, 1728-2004: Adaptations and Re-writings, edited by Ines Detmers, Uwe Böker, and Anna-Christina Gionvanapoulos. Internationale Forschungen Zur Allgemeinen Und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft, 105. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006.

Hellmuth, Eckhart. “‘The Palladium of All Other English Liberties’: Reflections on the Liberty of the Press in England During the 1760s and 1770s.” In The Transformation of Political Culture: England and Germany in the Late Eighteenth Century. Ed. Hellmuth, Eckhart, 467–501. Studies of the German Historical Institute London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Kelly, Jason M. “Riots, Revelries, and Rumor : Libertinism and Masculine Association in Enlightenment London.” Journal of British Studies 45, no. 4 (2006): 759–95.

Maier, Pauline. “John Wilkes and American Disillusionment with Britain.” William and Mary Quarterly 20 (1963): 373–95.

Merriam, Carol, and John Sainsbury. “The Life of John Wilkes.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, no. 6 (2008).

Money, John. “The Masonic Moment; Or, Ritual, Replica, and Credit: John Wilkes, the Macaroni Parson, and the Making of the Middle-Class Mind.” The Journal of British Studies 32, no. 4 (1993): 358–395.

Nichol, Donald W. “An Annotated Facsimile of John Wilkes’s Notes on the Fragment of a Dedication.” Bodleian Library Record 21, no. 2 (2008): 169–93.

Rauser, Amelia F. (Amelia Faye). “Embodied Liberty : Why Hogarth’s Caricature of John Wilkes Backfired.” In The Other Hogarth: Aesthetics of Difference, edited by Bernadette Fort and Angela Rosenthal, 240–59. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Robinson, Roger. “The Madness of Mrs Beattie’s Family : the Strange Case of the ‘Assassin’ of John Wilkes.” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 19 (1996): 183–97.

Rudé, George F. E. “John Wilkes and the Re-birth of British Radicalism.” Political Science 14 (1962): 11–29.

———. “John Wilkes, the 18th Century Radical.” Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers & Proceedings 9, no. 4 (1962): 146–60.

———. Wilkes and Liberty: a Social Study of 1763 to 1774. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Sainsbury, John John Wilkes: The Lives of a Libertine. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

———. “‘Cool Courage Should Always Mark Me’ : John Wilkes and Duelling.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 7 (for 1996 1997): 19–33.

———. “John Wilkes, Debt, and Patriotism.” The Journal of British Studies 34, no. 2 (1995): 165–195.

———. Disaffected Patriots: London Supporters of Revolutionary America, 1769-82. Gloucester: Sutton, 1987.

Thomas, Peter David Garner. “John Wilkes and the Freedom of the Press, 1771.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 33 (1960): 86–98.

———. John Wilkes: a Friend to Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Trench, Charles P. C. Portrait of a Patriot: a Biography of John Wilkes. London: Blackwood, 1962.

West, S. “Wilkes’s Squint: Synecdochic Physiognomy and Political Identity in Eighteenth-Century Print Culture.” Eighteenth-century Studies 33, no. 1 (1999): 65–84.

Wilkes, John, and Thomas Potter. An Essay on Woman. Edited by Arthur H Cash. New York: AMS, 2000.

Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “Bibliography: John Wilkes,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (30 March 2012), ‎