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.


West Wycombe and Its Architecture

Sir Francis Dashwood, Bt. (1708-1781), is the person with whom the landscape of West Wycombe has become synonymous.  Dashwood was raised by a guardian, his uncle John Fane, 7th Earl of Westmoreland, after his mother’s death in 1710.  It is through Westmoreland that Dashwood was first introduced to one of the great interests of his life, architecture.

Westmoreland hired Colen Campbell to design his seat, Mereworth Castle, Kent (1723-5).

La Rotonda, Venice

Based on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, it is one of the earliest examples of Burlingtonian Palladianism, making a conscious effort to cite classical examples in its interiors.  His gardens included follies, such as Campbell’s 1725 interpretation of Titus’ Arch in Rome.

Dashwood’s further developed an interest in landscape and architecture on several grand tours, which took him not only to France and Italy, but to Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire.  In fact, he was travelling as early as 1726, with tours in 1730-1, 1733, 1735, and 1739-40.  With his companions on these tours, he formed a variety of institutions whose members had active interests in architecture and antiquities, including the Egyptian Society, the Divan Society, and the Society of Dilettanti.[1]  As sites of homosocial conviviality, these organizations shaped Dashwood’s social world.  And, when he redesigned West Wycombe from the 1740s, they played a role in influencing his architectural program.

Flintwork details at the Temple of the Winds, West WycombeDashwood’s country house and grounds were on the south side of West Wycombe’s high street.  On the northwest side of the village was a hill on which sat the parish church, St. Lawrence.  As a supporter of the concept that public works projects should be voluntarily funded by local gentlemen in times of need – in fact, to this ideal he supported a poor relief bill in 1747 – Dashwood was responsible for a series of architectural and topographic works that put locals to work.[2]    With the crop failures of 1750, Dashwood employed the agricultural workers of West Wycombe to excavate chalk from the hill, which he used to repave the Oxford road.  The flint that was excavated with the chalk was used in new buildings across the estate and in the town.  It provided an unfinished rustic look that was popular at mid century.[3]

Likewise, during a period of intermittent grain shortages in the 1760s, Dashwood rebuilt the parish church, St. Lawrence.[4]  This was not only important for the builders, but for the West Wycombe furniture makers as well.  Dashwood hired them to refit the church, which, opened on 10 June 1763 to “a suitable Anthem,” included a £6000 organ, and had “Seats covered with green Cloth.”[5]  The design of this church was, no doubt, the result of his uncle’s influence.  Westmoreland rebuilt the parish church of St. Lawrence, Mereworth between 1744 and 1746.  The design integrated neoclassical themes such as a barrel-vaulted nave with faux-painted coffering.  In conception, the later redesign of Dashwood’s St. Lawrence Church in West Wycombe was similar.  It also used neoclassical themes — most spectacularly, a ceiling painted to resemble one in Palmyra.  Both resemble eighteenth-century assembly rooms as much as they resemble churches.

St. Lawrence, MereworthSt. Lawrence, West Wycombe

In addition to his projects in the village, Dashwood, like his uncle Westmoreland, set out to reimagine his estate.  Beginning with the house, Dashwood hired John Donowell as his architect – or, more accurately, his clerk of works – between 1755 and 1764.[6]  Donowell planned the re-façade of the north and east fronts.  The Palladian north front has similarities to Inigo Jones’s Somerset House, Colen Campbell’s Pembroke House (1724), as well as Isaac Ware’s design for Amisfield House, East Lothian (1756).[7]  And, one historian has claimed that Isaac Ware was in fact the architect.  The east side is a Roman Doric portico, which blends elements of the Ionic entrance at Mereworth Castle, designed by Roger Morris, and the Roman Doric portico on the Mereworth pavilion, probably designed by Henry Flitcroft.  On the south side, a colonnade retains the Palladian themes of the north and east facades.  However, it is much more daring in its execution.  It hass a double-height loggia, with a pedimented center.  With a baseless Roman Doric lower loggia and a Corinthian upper loggia, it is similar to Giovanni Servandoni’s St. Sulpice, Paris (1732).

South Facade of West WycombeSt. Sulpice, Paris

While Servandoni was in England between 1747 and 1751, it is more likely that the designer was his student Maurice-Louis Jolivet, who worked as “Architect” to Dashwood.[8]  The west front, redesigned by Dashwood’s fellow Dilettanti, Nicholas Revett in 1771, was the first neoclassical element of the main building.  Based on the Temple of Dionysus at Teos, Revett’s Ionic portico was a dramatic innovation in architectural approach – using on-site drawings of classical temples as models for modern architecture.[9]  Likewise, Dashwood redesigned his gardens.  Originally “laid out in 1739, into walks which are beautified with water,” Dashwood worked with his architect – in this case, probably Jolivet, who did a 1752 survey of the park – to create a symbolic program similar to Stowe.  Damming the River Wye, Dashwood created the lake and many of the paths to the north.  Jolivet’s program was transformed by Nicholas Revett and Thomas Cook to reflect the picturesque aesthetic during the 1770s.[10]

Thus, the house, garden, and village church initially seem the epitome of eighteenth-century design – reflecting the changing tastes and innovations of the polite arts. That is one story of West Wycombe – the mundane story that, were this any other house, historians would have been content to tell.  However, there is another side to the West Wycombe landscape.  According to local traditions that have since dominated scholarly and popular lore, West Wycombe is much more than the quiet place that it pretends to be.  In the landscape, a code hides – an archive of secret events that has proven too tantalizing to ignore, too profitable to reject, and too convincing to contradict.

Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “West Wycombe and Its Architecture,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (26 February 2012),


[1] Dashwood was also a member of the Beefsteak Club, the Bucks (aka Bloods), Lincoln Club, (ca. mid 1740s), Royal Society (1746), the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (1754), and the Society of Antiquaries of London (1769).

[2] Betty Kemp, Sir Francis Dashwood: An Eighteenth Century Independent (London: Macmillan, 1967), 12, 119.

[3] Nikolaus Pevsner and Elizabeth Williamson, Buckinghamshire, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 27.

[4] Samuel Lewis, A Topographical History of England, vol. 4 (1831), 585; Ashton, Economic Fluctuations in England 1700-1800, pp. 36-7.

[5] Barrows Worcestershire Journal, 14 June 1763; Gentleman’s Magazine (July 1763), p. 359; Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, vol. 7, pp. 683-4.

[6] Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 269–70.

[7] Pevsner and Williamson, Buckinghamshire, 729.

[8] Anne Purchas, “Maurice-Louis Jolivet’s Drawings at West Wycombe Park,” Architectural History 37 (1994): 68–79.

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

[10] Historical Manuscripts Commission, “A Tour in Wales, 1769,” in Report on the Manuscripts of the Earl of Verulam, Preserved at Gorhambury (London, 1906), 243; Pevsner and Williamson, Buckinghamshire, 733.

West Wycombe and the Dashwoods

West Wycombe Village. postcard. ca. 1900West Wycombe is a charming village in the midst of the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire.  The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce saved many of its buildings from imminent destruction in 1929, purchasing it in March of that year.  Successfully breathing new life into the village, The Times claimed in 1934 that revenue from the village had jumped.[1]  In 1933, the society turned over the property to the National Trust, which extended its holdings in the following years.[2]  With Sir John Dashwood’s gift of the Church Hill in 1935, the 300-acre estate in 1943, and an accompanying endowment, the National Trust became the largest property holder in West Wycombe.[3]

West Wycombe’s origins date to Iron Age Britain, when a fort rested on the 600-foot hill that dominates the landscape.  The manor was the property of the Bishops of Winchester until the sixteenth century, and records of it can be found in the Domesday Book.[4]  The village’s modern origins derive from its important location halfway between London and Oxford.  Today, travelers along the High Street can see cottages and houses built between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.[5]   Unfortunately, the traces of this urban connection remain, and much of the bucolic atmosphere for which the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce no doubt saved the village in 1929 is rattled by the A40, which runs through its center.

Sir Francis Dashwood, 1st Baronet (1658-1724_During the early modern period, West Wycombe passed through a series of owners until Thomas Lewes, Alderman of London, transferred the title to his brothers-in-law Sir Samuel and Francis Dashwood in 1698.[6]  The Dashwoods, Levant merchants, specialized in the silk trade and were well connected in London society.  The brothers’ father, Francis Dashwood, was an Alderman of London, and Sir Samuel became Lord Mayor of London in 1702 – the same year that Queen Anne knighted his brother Francis.  Upon Sir Samuel’s death in 1706, Sir Francis purchased his brother’s share in West Wycombe manor from his heir, George Dashwood, for £15000.[7]  At this time, Sir Francis held prominent positions in the Vitner’s Company, the Royal African Company, and the East India Company.[8]  He also made politically successful alliances, marrying Lady Mary Fane (d. 1710) the daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland, in 1705.  The king made Sir Francis a baronet in 1707, and an election to Winchelsea in 1708 solidified the rise in his family’s social status and influence.  By the time he died on 4 November 1724, his first son, Francis (1708-81) was well positioned for a career in government.

Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “Secretism and the Cultivation of Reputation in the Eighteenth Century,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (19 February 2012),

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

[2] Times, 19 February 1934, no. 46682, p. 15, col. c.

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

[4] Great Domesday Book, National Archives, London E 31/2/1/143v-146r.

[5] Nikolaus Pevsner and Elizabeth Williamson, The Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).H

[6] Magna Britannia: Buckinghamshire, vol. 1, part 3 (London, 1813), 679; Hayton et al., The House of Commons, 1690-1715, p. 843; The National Trust, West Wycombe (London, 1996), p. 1.

[7] Hayton, et al., House of Commons, p. 843.

[8] Hayton, et al., House of Commons, p. 843.

Secretism and the Cultivation of Reputation in the Eighteenth Century

Medmenham Caves EntranceOver the last several years, I have been studying a variety of eighteenth-century gentleman’s societies.  They have ranged from the ostensibly scientific and rational – such as the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries – to the intellectual, but hedonistic – for example the Divan Club and the Society of Dilettanti – to the secret – including The Monks of Medmenham Abbey, more popularly known as the Hellfire Club.

One of the things that makes the Monks of Medmenham Abbey so interesting is the fact that they cultivated a reputation for secrecy.  In other words, they were not a secret society in any simple sense.  Rather, they were a private society that publicized the secrecy of their activities.  In effect, it gave them an aura of mystery.  It contributed to their reputations as a select and elite group who had no need to follow the strictures of popular mores in their private lives.

In publicizing their group as a secret society, they were very successful.  The mark that they have left on the popular imagination has been more complete than perhaps any other eighteenth-century British association, with the exception of the Freemasons.  Perhaps this is because groups such as the Society of Antiquaries, with members such as Sir Hans Sloane and Richard Mead, don’t quite evoke the same response in people as a group of hard-drinking men, dressed up as monks, worshipping Satan in a cave filled with prostitutes.

In this post, I survey several theoretical approaches that scholars have taken to secrets and secrecy and how it relates to the  cultivation of reputation in eighteenth-century Britain.  I will use these in forthcoming posts to analyze the practice of cultivating a reputation for secrets by the Monks of Medmenham Abbey.

Anthropologists, historians, and sociologists have long been interested in the role that secrets play in society, and Georg Simmel’s foundational essay on the social function of secrets, “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies,” put their importance to social life in no uncertain terms:

Secrecy . . . is one of the greatest accomplishments of humanity . . . . Secrecy secures, so to speak, the possibility of a second world alongside of the obvious world, and the latter is most strenuously affected by the former.  Every relationship between two individuals or two groups will be characterized by the ratio of secrecy that is involved in it.  Even when one of the parties does not notice the secret factor, yet the attitude of the concealer, and consequently the whole relationship, will be modified by it.[1]

In order to serve a social function, however, a secret must be performed.  In other words, it is not enough to have a secret, but one must use that secret – either through its silent elision in social commerce or through the conscious manipulation of one’s own or others’ secrets.  This “use” of secrets is what Hugh Urban – emphasizing Michel de Certeau’s concepts of tactics and strategies – has said is the key element to the study of esoteric religious traditions.[2]  However, most studies of esoteric groups remain internalist accounts.  The secret simply serves to separate the initiated from the uninitiated, and, in this narrative, secrets serve simple, functionalist purposes of group identity formation.

Secrets can be important components of group identity.  They can work to monitor group boundaries (e.g. separating the initiated and the uninitiated).  The concept of secretism, however, suggests that they do much more.   An idea examined by Paul Christopher Johnson in his 2002 anthropology of Brazilian Candomblé, secretism is “the active milling, polishing, and promotion of the reputation of secrets.”[3]

There are several conclusions that we can draw from studying the history and anthropology of secrets.  The first point I want to make concerns the nature of the secret itself.  Whatever it is – and a secret is many things – the secret is seductive.  In this sense, I am thinking of Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of “seduction.”[4]  Of the secret, he writes,

I know another’s secret but do not reveal it and he knows that I know, but does not acknowledge it: the intensity between us is simply this secret about the secret.  The complicity has nothing to do with some hidden piece of information . . . . Everything that can be revealed lies outside the secret.  For the latter is not a hidden signified, nor the key to something, but circulates through and traverses everything that can be said, just as seduction flows beneath the obscenity of speech . . . . The secret maintains its power only at the price of remaining unspoken, just as seduction operates only because never spoken nor intended.[5]

“The secret is not a hidden signified” – an important observation and one that most scholars have tended to ignore.  It is, instead, the “secret of the secret” that gives a secret its sociological role – especially when the uninitiated search for the hidden signified.  In the context of secret societies, the illusion of secret knowledge, practices, or rituals is important, regardless of whether or not they actually exist.  The search for the hidden signified is the seduction of the secret, perhaps best summarized by the anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson: “Secrets are to religion what lingerie is to the body; they enhance what is imagined to be present.”[6]  In the case of Medmenham Abbey, the seduction of secrecy takes on an added meaning, for the seduction was (and is) not only psychological, but it is also religious and sexual.

That being said, secret societies do institute secret knowledge, practices, and rituals.  However, they usually are only sociologically effective when they hint publicly at the “hidden signified.”  On their own, secret knowledge, practices, and rituals would be nearly meaningless without the exchange of secrets within the wider field of cultural production.  In the language of Pierre Bourdieu, the secret is “symbolic capital.”[7]   The secret functions through the performance of the secret between the initiated and uninitiated, between the esoteric community and the exoteric community, between the sacred and the profane.   Consequently, the Medmenham Monks actively pursued the agenda of secretism in order to reinforce their elite social status as “masculine libertines.”[8]  The secrets of Medmenham began as a private joke in the 1740s, transformed into signs of public social status in the late 1750s and early 1760s, to a politicized marker of deception and duplicity in the late 1760s and 1770s.  As the ideals of masculinity changed in the eighteenth century, the symbolic capital that Medmenham represented for its members changed in meaning and function until, in the 1770s, the members altogether denied the secrets that the Monks of Medmenham Abbey so consciously sought to cultivate.  Thus, the anonymous compiler of a Medmenham manuscript wrote: “The sole Object of our little Society of Franciscans was but to escape from Dullness; & our Proceedings were by no means so licentious as Rumour hath since charitable alleg’d.”

Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “Secretism and the Cultivation of Reputation in the Eighteenth Century,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (14 February 2012),

[1] George Simmel, “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies,” The American Journal of Sociology 11, no. 4 (1906): 441–498, 462.

[2] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life [1974], trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Hugh B. Urban, “Elitism and Esotericism: Strategies of Secrecy and Power in South Indian Tantra and French Freemasonry,” Numen 44 (1997): 1-38, 3-4 and “Sacred Capital: Pierre Bourdieu and the Study of Religion,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15 (2003): 354-89.

[3] Paul Christopher Johnson, Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 3.  Secretism was prefigured by Georg Simmel in his concept of Geheimnistnerei, or the “pretense of secrecy.”  See Georg Simmel, “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies,” The American Journal of Sociology 11:4 (1906): 441-98, 486.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), originally published as De la séduction (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1979).

[5] Baudrillard, Seduction, p. 79.

[6] Johnson, Secrets, p. 4.

[7] Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1984); Urban, “Sacred Capital,” 360-1.

[8] Jason M. Kelly, “Riots, Revelries, and Rumor: Libertinism and Masculine Association in Enlightenment London,” Journal of British Studies 45:4 (2006): 759-95.

Gossip, Rumor, and Gender in the Eighteenth Century

Both in the eighteenth century and today, the secret nature of the Hellfire Club — more appropriately, The Monks of Medmenham Abbey — led to an abundance of gossip and rumor.  Below, is a snippet from my book, The Society of Dilettanti, that discusses the methodologies and methodological problems that scholars face when studying gossip and rumor.

Anthropologists have long concerned themselves with the social and cultural implications of gossip and rumor.  As such, their studies provide historians with a set of tools to talk about these forms of linguistic exchange.  First, there is a difference between gossip – “informal, private communication between an individual and a small, selected audience concerning the conduct of absent persons or events”[1] – and rumor – “unsubstantiated information, true or untrue, that passes by word of mouth, often in wider networks than gossip.”[2]  Secondly, anthropologists have shown that gossip and rumor can function in multiple ways. In the 1960s, Max Gluckman argued that gossip functions to solidify a group’s unity while distinguishing it from other groups.[3]  Gossip can monitor group boundaries while reinforcing social norms.[4]  This point of view seems to be supported by the research of E.P. Thompson and other historians.[5]  Conversely, Robert Paine has suggested that, while gossip can reinforce group identity, it functions in a much more individualistic manner.[6]  In his view, gossip is selfish: “It is the individual and not the community that gossips.  What he gossips about are his own and others’ aspirations and only indirectly the values of the community.”[7]  Many anthropologists have turned away from such functionalist approaches to gossip and rumor.[8]  Following Goffman, they have emphasized that gossip is a social drama, arguing that it is one of the many everyday activities performed by individuals within a community.[9]  In this sense, gossip has a formulaic narrative, with its own culturally determined rules – a linguistic mode and social practice that skirts the boundaries of the public/private divide and the distinction between polite and impolite speech. Patricia Meyer Spacks has thought-provokingly and eloquently examined this ambiguity in her analysis of gossip in eighteenth-century literary productions.[10]

Early modern historians have done an excellent job in fleshing out the history of gendered language in early modern England.  Specifically, scholars such as Laura Gowing, Steve Hindle, and Bernard Capp have shown how women used gossip and rumor to assert their authority and interests in early modern England.[11]  Using sources ranging from prescriptive literature to court documents, these historians have demonstrated that gossip was a form of linguistic exchange that allowed women to elide patriarchal structures.  While early modern gossip and rumor relied upon familial relations, neighborhood networks, and communal association, these practices could give women, both individually and collectively, a powerful voice within the familial sphere as well as the local community.  Because of this, recent scholarship has concentrated on patterns of female gossip – largely ignoring the nature and extent of male gossip.  This emphasis, however, overlooks a powerful force in early modern England, for men also participated in networks of gossip and rumor which they used to work out the boundaries of masculinity.  In fact, understanding how men participated in these practices allows the historian to understand a key element of early modern gender relations and ideologies.[12]

The functions, forms, and practices of gossip and rumor were cut across by the shifting boundaries of eighteenth-century gender and class expectations.  To understand this, it is necessary to briefly summarize the theoretical and methodological foundations of my argument.  With the functionalists, I recognize that gossip and rumor can, and often do, function to preserve social structures – although not necessarily rigid ones.  In fact, gossip and rumor, as modes of communication, thrive in the tensions over social status and gender ideals, providing participants with a discursive space to tactically struggle for meaning. Rather than simply preserving normative social standards as earlier anthropologies of gossip and rumor have suggested, the rituals of gossip and rumor allow actors to both construct and to play-act the existence of widely accepted social norms and values, even if they do not exist concretely in daily life.  Thus, gossip and rumor preserve the illusion of common social values even as they examine practices that seem to undercut these norms.  For instance, as demonstrated by Anthony Fletcher and Mark Breitenberg, early modern Englishmen prescribed masculine practices as they became increasingly concerned with the ambiguities of these performances – what Breitenberg termed “anxious masculinity,” an inescapable product of patriarchal societies.[13]

As a typically banal and even pleasurable everyday social practice, the acts of gossip and rumor create a safe discursive space to work out social anxieties – that is, assuming the symbolism of these communicative rituals are not misinterpreted by the participants. However, since gossip, and especially rumor, depend on a delicate balance between privacy and sociability, actor and audience, knowledge and assumption, form and ambiguity, breakdowns can occur during moments of liminal tension, leading to potentially violent confrontations.[14]  These moments of semiotic disjuncture can become instances of significant social or political importance, such as the scandals described by Anna Clark.[15]

Early modern gossip and rumor present numerous methodological problems.  Gossip and rumor are, by their nature, ephemeral, and, as such, they are two of the most difficult practices to measure and describe.  These modes of communication are often private and personal, relying on assumptions, expectations, and unrecorded calculations.  Unlike the ethnographer, the historian lacks direct access to the speech acts associated with gossip and rumor and must rely on the textual and visual record.  Nevertheless, one must not assume that the presence of the observer necessarily entails a more direct access and understanding, a fact corroborated by numerous works on ethnographic subjectivity and reflexive anthropology.[16]  There are a multiplicity of non-oral texts that reveal gossip and rumor.  Bernard Capp, for example, has shown the potential for court documents to reveal the context of early modern gossip.  In some instances, historians can discover overt gossip and rumor in letters, as I do in my discussion of the Calves-Head Club.  However, descendants have a tendency to destroy the most salacious textual remains, as was the case with John Wilkes’s daughter Polly, who burned the most valuable archive about the events, gossip, and rumor about “St. Francis’s monks” and the events of 1763.[17]  Alternatively, important evidence for gossip and rumor can be found in eighteenth-century print culture. Symbols, allusions, and tropes were part of a complex discursive world in which author, printer, and reader collaboratively created meaning, and the assumptions made by authors and printers in the eighteenth century often point to the “common knowledge” of a document’s readership. [18]  As demonstrated in the work of Hannah Barker and Bob Harris, despite the bribing/patronage of editors and authors by politicians, the print world of mid century London catered to a market of savvy consumers who wielded influence over the content of print productions.[19]  Thus, historians can read the world of print for popular knowledge – left overtly in “gossip columns” or subvertly through innuendo, assumptions, or symbols – for the world of print was an important territory for the fashioning, reproduction, and transformation of gossip and rumor.

[1] Sally Engle Merry. “Rethinking Gossip and Scandal,” in Toward a General Theory of Social Control, vol. 1, ed. Donald Black (Orlando, 1984), p. 275.

[2] Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 38-9.

[3] Max Gluckman, “Psychological, Sociological and Anthropological Explanations of Witchcraft and Gossip: A Clarification,” Man 3, no. 1 (1968): 20-34.

[4] In so doing, gossip and rumor can also serve as a means of resistance to imposed political, social, and cultural structures.  See, for example, Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); Rudrangshu Mukherjee, “‘Satan Let loose upon Earth’: The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857,” Past and Present, no. 128 (1990): 92-116; Patricia A. Turner, “Ambivalent Patrons: The Role of Rumor and Contemporary Legends in African-American Consumer Decisions,” Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992): 424-41.

[5] Gossip, as well as rumor, seems to have played an important role in the formation of class consciousness as well as the maintenance of the “moral economy” in the eighteenth century.  See E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966) and “The Moral Economy of the Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” in Customs in Common (London: Merlin, 1993), 185-258.  The work of other eighteenth-century scholars suggests similar implications.  See such varied examples as Cindy McCreery, “Keeping up with the Bon Ton: The Tête-à-Tête Series in the Town and Country Magazine,” in Gender in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 207-29; Edith B. Gelles, “Gossip: An Eighteenth-Century Case,” Journal of Social History 22, no. 4 (1989): 667-84; Robert Darnton. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press, 1982); George Rudé, Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Viking, 1971).

[6] Robert P. B. Paine, “What is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis,” Man 2, no. 2 (1967): 278-85.

[7] Paine, “What is Gossip About?,” pp. 280-1.

[8] See, for example, the early critique of both Gluckman and Paine in Peter J. Wilson, “Filcher of Good Names: An Enquiry into Anthropology and Gossip,” Man 9, no. 1 (1974): 93-102.

[9] Roger D. Abrahams, “A Performance-centered Approach to Gossip,” Man 5, no. 2 (1970): 290-301; Jörg R. Bergmann, Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip, trans. John Bednarz, Jr. (New York, 1993); Wolf Bleek, “Witchcraft, Gossip, and Death: A Social Drama,” Man 11, no. 4 (1976): 526-41; Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY, 1959).

[10] Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York, 1985).

[11] Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996); Steve Hindle, “The Shaming of Margaret Knowsley: Gossip, Gender and the Experience of Authority in Early Modern England,” Continuity and Change 9, no. 3 (1994): 391-419; Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighborhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2003).

[12] For the significance of masculinity to the field of gender studies, see John Tosh, “What Should Historians Do with Masculinity?: Reflections on Nineteenth-Century Britain,” History Workshop Journal 38, no. 1 (1994): 179-202.  Important studies of masculinity in the early modern period include Michèle Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1996); Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society; Tim Hitchcock and Michèle Cohen, eds., English Masculinities, 1600-1600 (London, 1999); Anthony Fletcher, Gender, Sex, and Subordination in England 1500-1800  (New Haven, 1995); Elizabeth A. Foyster, Manhood in Early Modern England: Honour, Sex and Marriage (London, 1999), Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1998).

[13] Mark Breitenberg, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1996); Fletcher, Gender, Sex, and Subordination.

[14] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York, 1969).

[15] These moments are what Clifford Geertz has described as incongruities “between the cultural framework of meaning and the patterning of social interaction.”  See Geertz, “Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), pp. 142-69, 169.

[16] For examples, see James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, 1988); Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley, 1986); Marcus and Michael J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1999).

[17] John Almon, The Correspondence of the Late John Wilkes, vol. 1 (London, 1805), p. vii.

[18] See, for example, John Brewer, “The Number 45: A Wilkite Political Symbol,” in England’s Rise to Greatness, 1660-1763, ed. Stephen B. Baxter (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 349-80.

[19] Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics and English Society (London, 2000) and Bob Harris, A Patriot Press: National Politics and the London Press in the 1740s (Oxford, 1993).  Cf. Jeremy Black, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1987).

The Monks of Medmenham Abbey

Francis DashwoodThe Monks of Medmenham Abbey were one of the hundreds of clubs and societies that proliferated during the British Enlightenment.  Medmenham was founded by a wealthy nobleman, Sir Francis Dashwood, who helped begin a number of clubs in the 1730s, 40s, and 50s such as the Society of Dilettanti, the Divan Club, the Egyptian Society, and the Lincoln Club.  The interests of these clubs ranged from the serious to the libidinous – with the Monks of Medmenham Abbey falling in the latter category.

The club seems to have developed out of Francis Dashwood’s penchant for dressing up as Catholic clergymen while on his grand tours in Italy.  In 1740, for instance, while in Rome with William Matthias Stafford-Howard, the 3rd Earl of Stafford, these “mauvais catholiques” caused a “vrai scandalum magnatum” by holding a mock conclave and impersonating Cardinal Ottoboni.[i]  From “[c]e damné Huguenot” came a “repertoire de chansons libertines contre la papauté.” [ii]  This incident was, no doubt, part of the popular activity of masquerade.  However, once Dashwood became associated with the practice of masquerading as members of the Catholic clergy, he took his alternate persona as part of his identity.  On his return to England, he had an artist paint him as a somber Franciscan friar.

[i] Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’Italie du Président de Brosses, vol. 2 (Paris, 1986), 445.  It is possible that this is the earliest reference to what would eventually become the Medmenham Monks.  On 5 October 1745, Bodleain MS D.D. Dashwood (Bucks) C.5 B11/1/5, 1r, 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.”

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


Under the Temple lay a cave:

Made by some guilty, coward slave,

Whose actions fear’d rebuke, a maze

Of intricate and winding ways,

Not to be found without a clue;

One passage only, known to few,

In paths direct led to a cell

Where Fraud in secret lov’d to dwell,

With all her tools and slaves about her,

Nor fear’d lest honesty should rout her.