Category Archives: History

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.

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.

A Nymphaeum and a Temple to Venus in an Eighteenth-Century English Garden

The Temple of Venus was one of the earliest features of West Wycombe’s gardens, which Sir Francis Dashwood began designing in the 1740s.  It is a round temple, perched on a small hill.  Below it was a section of the garden, known as Venus’ Parlor, which was cleared when Humphrey Repton re-landscaped West Wycombe beginning in 1796.  As a consequence, Dashwood’s baroque figurative program for this section of the garden was destroyed.   However, from remaining evidence, we can piece together what it looked like.

A view by William Hannan from the 1750s portrays the temple as it originally looked.

William Hannan. West Wycombe Park from the North. ca. 1751-3. Courtesy of Sir Edward Dashwood

On a manmade hill, a circular temple – an allusion to the rotunda at Stowe but situated in gardens with a very different moral program – housed a copy of the Venus de Medici.  A path led down the hill to a grotto built underneath the temple.  A design for the grotto still exists in the Dashwood collections.

[Anonymous]. Venus’ Parlor. ca. 1740s. Courtesy of Sir Edward Dashwood

It appears that this section of the garden followed the design of a nymphaeum similar to those found in the gardens of Renaissance Italian villas.  In effect, it is similar to Palladio’s nymphaeum for the Villa Barbara, although on a much smaller scale.

Palladio. Nymphaeum. Villa Barbaro, Veneto, Italy. ca. 1550s.

The oval entrance to the grotto alluded playfully to sexuality and temptation, with symbols that all but the most obtuse visitor could understand.  Perched above the “door of life” – as John Wilkes later referred to it, was a lead copy of Giambologna’s sixteenth-century Mercurio – an iconic figure throughout the early modern period.[1]  The lead Mercury can be seen in Hannan’s view.  While Mercury’s association with commerce and communication are well known, eighteenth-century libertines often associated Mercury with sexual commerce as well.

Giambologna. Mercurio. 1564. Museo del Bargello, FlorenceWhile few textual descriptions of the site exist – and those that do are dubious descriptions – the tone of the site is embodied in John Wilkes’s description of West Wycombe.  In 1763, he wrote that “you find at first what is called an error in limine; for the entrance to it is the same entrance by which we all come into the world, and the door is what some idle wits have called the door of life.”[2]  He continued that Lord Bute had encouraged Dashwood to erect a Paphian column – a reference to the Temple of Venus at Paphos on Cyprus – in front of the entrance:

There are in these gardens no busts of Socrates, Epaminondas, or Hampden [a reference to the Temple of Ancient Virtue and the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe]; but there is a most indecent statue of the unnatural satyr [the famed Satyr with a Goat in the King of Naples’ collection]; but at the temple I have mentioned, are two urns sacred to the Ephesian matron, and to Potiphar’s wife, with the inscriptions Matronae Ephesiae Cineres, Dominae Potiphar Cineres.[3]

The reference to the Ephesian matron was from Petronius’ Satyricon in which the chaste Matron Ephesia despairs at her husbands death and begins to starve herself in his tomb.  Eventually, she is seduced by a soldier who brings her food.  Potiphar’s wife was the woman who attempted to seduce Joseph in the biblical story.  Thus, two of the most “sacred” items in the gardens were models of female infidelity.

It is no surprise that Repton cleared the site of its most explicit references to sexuality, libertinism, and anti-virtue in 1796.  Likewise, it is perhaps not surprising that Dashwood’s descendants would commission a replica of the original grotto in the 1980s.  By this time, West Wycombe had become an important National Trust Property – not only because of its architecture, but because of the ability of its illicit history to draw visitors.  In 1982, Quinlan Terry completed his reconstruction of the grotto and temple for Sir Francis Dashwood.  This commission was part of an overall plan to re-infuse the landscapes of West Wycombe with references to the world of the Hellfire Club, a draw for tourists which was meant to raise both the profile and income of the estate.

Quinlan Terry, Temple of Venus and Venus' Parlour. 1982. West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, UK

Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “A Nymphaeum and a Temple to Venus in an Eighteenth-Century English Garden,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (8 March 2012),

[1] Not only did Giambologna produce several copies himself (Museo del Bargello, Florence; Villa Medici, Rome; Museo Nazionale, Naples originally in Farnese collection; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna), but collectors such as Sir Hans Sloane and Lawrence Dundas added copies to their own collections.  See, for example, Johann Zoffany’s Lawrence Dundas and Grandson in the Zetland Collection and Jeremy Warren, “Sir Hans Sloane as a Collector of Small Sculpture,” Apollo (2004): 8.

[2] New Foundling Hospital for Wit, vol. 3 (London, 1784), p. 78.

[3] New Foundling Hospital for Wit, vol. 3 (London, 1784), p.

Francis Dashwood, Portraiture, and the Origins of the Hellfire Club

The Monks of Medmenham Abbey, more popularly known as the Hellfire Club, were one of thousands of associational groups that formed in Britain and Ireland during the eighteenth century.  During the 1750s and early 1760s, they met at the estate of Sir Francis Dashwood, a baronet whose family derived their wealth from trading silks in the Levant.  Dashwood took numerous grand tours in the 1720s and 1730s, travelling to France and Italy, but also to Russia and the Ottoman Empire.  He was well known for his interest in architecture and politics, as well as women and wine.  And, like many of his fellow Britons, he had a particular fondness for masquerade, which found itself expressed through a penchant for dressing up as priests, monks, and popes.

Definitive proof of the group’s existence is not available until the 1750s.  However, a variety of circumstantial evidence points to the origins of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey in the Grand Tour world of the 1730s and 40s.  On his Grand Tour in 1740, Dashwood was signing letters to his friends as “St. Francis,” and in a letter to Lord Boyne, he noted that he longed “to make a party of Monks with you into the Country, remember that I am a Franciscan.”[1]  He had travelled with Boyne on a tour to Italy in 1730-31, and it is possible that this was a reference to their earlier revelries on the continent.[2]  But, in any case, it suggestsFrancis Dashwood that Dashwood was already holding parties where he dressed up as a friar as early as the 1730s.  His letter to Boyne further indicated that he had composed a dozen songs for Lord Middlesex – perhaps the same songs that he performed a few weeks later in a mock conclave upon the death of Pope Clement XII.  Written from Rome, this note to Boyne may be the first evidence of Dashwood’s interest in a creating a group in which members masqueraded as clergymen.

In 1740, Charles de Brosses reported that Dashwood and William Matthias Stafford-Howard, 3rd Earl of Stafford – “mauvais catholiques” as he called them – caused a “vrai scandalum magnatum” by holding the mock conclave and impersonating Cardinal Ottoboni.[3]  From “[c]e damné Huguenot” came a “repertoire de chansons libertines contre la papauté.” [4]  A portrait – probably from the late 1730s or early 1740s – portrays Dashwood as a somber Franciscan friar.  This is the first recorded evidence of him portraying himself as a member of the Roman Catholic church.  In it, his left hand rests on a Bible next to a momento mori.

George Knapton. Francis Dashwood. 1742. Brooks's Club, LondonIn 1742, Dashwood commissioned George Knapton to paint him as a Franciscan.  It was one of over twenty portraits that Knapton completed for the Society of Dilettanti, which required its members to present Kit-Kat style paintings of themselves to the organization.[5]  In a reference to his grand tour alter ego, Dashwood plays the role of SAN: FRANCESCO DI WYCOMBO.  In his hands, he holds a goblet on which is inscribed the words MATRI SANCTORU[M] – “the mother of the saints.”  The phrase had a double-entendre, referring, in part, to the metaphysical status of the Roman Catholic Church as mother of all Christians.  On the other hand, the wine and the Venus de Medici reminded the viewer of the corporal world – of the senses, of desire and lust.  It was the sexualized body of women that actually produced saints.  To encourage this reading, Knapton removed the hand of the Venus revealing “the hallow’d gloom of maidenhead thicket” as John Wilkes would later describe it.[6]  But, removing the hand of the Venus provided the viewer with another reading as well.  At the time, there was much debate about the quality of craftsmanship on the statue’s extremities.  Jonathan Richardson declaimed the fingers as “excessively long” with poor detail.[7]  Removing the hand suggested that Dashwood had come to a similar conclusion, deciding that it was an inferior restoration.  So, in addition to portraying himself as a libertine, Dashwood evoked his taste and knowledge of classical statuary.

By 1745, evidence suggests that Dashwood may have been organizing a club at West Wycombe.  George Bubb Dodington wrote to Dashwood about a small group that met at Dashwood’s residence, “I must confess, I never mett with more Improvement, as well as Entertainment, in so small a Company; & do verily believe, there are as many Sallies of true Witt, & Humour in Them, as most of the Societies in Town, which most pretend to Both can boast of.”[8]

Carpentier, Dashwood, West Wycombe

In the early 1750s, Dashwood once again commissioned a painter to represent him as a member of the clergy.  Adrien Carpentiers showed Dashwood dressed as Pope Innocent III.  He performs the act of transubstantiation next to a herm topped with the visage of his wife Sarah Ellys, described by Walpole as “a poor forlorn Presbyterian prude”[9]  Her relationship with her rakish husband was no doubt strained.  Two months before their wedding in 1745, Dashwood was writing to friends bragging that he was “employing 20 of the 24 hours wither upon [his] Belly, or from thence, like a Publick Reservoir, administering to those of other People, by laying [his] Cock in every private Family that has any Place fitt to receive it.”[10]

The first certain evidence of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey meeting comes from a letter from Richard Grenville, Earl Temple to Dashwood from October 1754. He refers to three other members of a club – a “wicked company” of John Wilkes, Paul Whitehead, and Sir George Lyttelton – who celebrated a “Love feast” and sat together at a “table of the Saints.”  While the references are obscure, later documentation reveals that these were all members of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey and that the religious symbolism was used widely in their private writings and letters to each other.  Earl Temple wrote to Dashwood,

It is very gracious and kind in the pious Aeneas, after his conversion, after the Love feast, to keep up that of friendship with one, who has so slender a claim to be admitted to the table of the Saints; but I am sorry to hear you are exalted to so high a story of faith and godliness, because great may be the fall thereof, and this Scotch taste of architecture is so contrary to the fashionable style of building in this country, that I fear it will never prevail, and that you will return to your humbler roof of mortality and every social virtue, with as much ardor, as if you had never deviated into the higher regions of cherubim and seraphim, or the conversion of [John] Wilkes, compared with that of St. Paul [Whitehead]; however, if I should live to see you in the bosom of our father Sir George [Lyttelton], I shall only now and then drink to the pious memory of the delightful moments I have passed in your wicked company, and begin to attach myself to all the interested pursuits of this world, as the sure road to a better.[11]

Hogarth. Sir Francis at His Devotions. 1757. Private CollectionIn 1757, Dashwood commissioned William Hogarth to mimic Knapton’s painting in yet another portrait as a member of the Roman Catholic clergy.  Sir Francis Dashwood at His Devotions, modelled on Agostino Carracci’s St. Francis Adoring the Cross portrays him leering at a naked, prostrate woman.  An open book, referring to the poems of Ovid, and a masquerade mask lie nearby as a tray of fruits and wine tumbles to the floor, referring the viewer to the excess of Carnival and the attendant rites of Bacchus and Venus.  The nimbus over his head is the profile of his friend and fellow Medemenham Monk John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.  This is a pivotal piece in the history of the group, one which will be the subject of future posts.

These early visual depictions and writings point to a decades-long development of the group.   The association seems to have emerged from the male libertine sociability of the Grand Tour and the rage for masquerade that was such a feature of elite social life in the early eighteenth century.

[1] Dashwood to Boyne, 30 January 1740 NS, West Wycombe Archives, copy from an unidentified auction catalog in the West Wycombe Archives.

[2] Brinsley Ford and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy, 1701-1800 / Ingamells, John. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1997), 278.

[3] Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’Italie du Président de Brosses, vol. 2 (Paris, 1986), 445.

[4] Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’Italie du Président de Brosses, vol. 2 (Paris, 1986), 445.

[5] 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), 37–56.

[6] 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 Public Advertiser, 2 June 1763.

[7] Jonathan Richardson, An Account of Some of the Statues, Bas-reliefs, Drawings and Pictures in Italy (London, 1722), 55.

[8] George Bubb Dodington to Dashwood, 5 October 1745, Bodleain MS D.D. Dashwood (Bucks) C.5 B11/1/5, 1r.

[9] Walpole, Corr., 19.224

[10] George Bubb Dodington to Francis Dashwood, 5 October 1745, Bodleain MS D.D. Dashwood (Bucks) C.5 B11/1/5.  The marriage took place on 11 December 1757 according to Joseph L. Chester and George J. Armytage, Allegations for Marriage Licences Issued by the Bishop of London, 1520 to 1828, Harleian Society, vol. 26 (London, 1887), p. 345.

[11] Earl Temple to John Wilkes, 12 October 1754, The Grenville Papers: Being the Correspondence of Richard Grenville Earl Temple, K.G., and the Right Hon: George Grenville, vol. 1, ed. William James Smith (London: 1852), 125-7.