The Hell-Fire Caves
"Everyone loved to think the worst of the aristocratic and powerful men who gathered there"
All over the world there are extraordinary stories that once upon a time were believed to be true, but are today limited to the sphere of ancient myths and legends. The question remains, are those myths and legends based on something that existed in the minds of our ancestors, or were they based on true events?
In the 18th century, for gentlemen of breeding and wealth to finish off what passed for their education at that time, it was commonplace to undertake the obligatory Grand Tour, the equivalent, one would suppose to the modern day gap year. They traipsed around Europe, particularly Italy, taking in the cultural sites by day and carousing by night.
Without Facebook, it was natural that when they returned home they would want to share their experiences with their contemporaries. One such forum was the Society of Dilettanti which was formed probably around 1734, but whose first recorded meeting was held on 6 March 1736 in the private bar at the Bedford Head Tavern in Covent Garden.
The qualifications for membership were not too onerous – to have visited Italy on the Grand Tour and to have been drunk there. In 1743, Horace Walpole sniffily commented that two of the Society’s leading lights, Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, “were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy”.
Oh, that naughty Sir Francis Dashwood. What a rakehell and rotter he was, corralling the local virgins into the caves under West Wycombe Hill so that he and his well-connected friends in the Hell- Fire Club could have their wicked way with them. Orgies, black magic and wild drunken antics, so all the contemporary stories said.
The fascinating story of the Hell-Fire Caves, erstwhile home to the notorious Hell-Fire Club is just such a tale. What actually went on in the caves and high above in the hollow globe on the church tower of the Church of St. Lawrence is purely a matter of speculation. Everyone loved to think the worst of the aristocratic and powerful men who gathered there under the leadership of the local squire, Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer, the English rake and politician.
In its own day, and increasingly thereafter as the legends sprouted wings, the antics of the Hell-Fire Club attracted scandal, opprobrium and delighted shock ‘n’ horror in equal measure. Hidden caves – well, what could be more secretive, spine-tingling and sinisterly sexy? A church with a gambling and drinking den attached – how frightfully blasphemous! A vast grey mausoleum, looming menacingly over the village – quelle horreur, mon cher!
The Hell-Fire Club, more properly or more cautiously known as the ‘Monks of Medmenham’ or the Society of Saint Francis of Wycombe, originally took the form of a mock religious order, perhaps inspired by François Rabelais’s imaginary Abbey of Thelema in Gargantua, a monastic establishment with the motto in old French of ‘Fay çe que vouldras’, meaning ‘do what you will’.
The activities of the Hell-Fire Club have probably been exaggerated, but there’s little doubt that elaborate mock religious ceremonies, banqueting, orgies, drinking and free love played a part in their meetings and parties which took place both at Medmenham Abbey, some six miles from West Wycombe and, of course, in the Hell-Fire Caves themselves.
Walpole recorded that the “monks” had a white costume “more like a waterman’s than monk’s” and dressing up was a favourite pastime of its members. There are several portraits of Sir Francis in fancy dress, including one in oriental costume and another of Sir Francis in the guise of Pope Innocent toasting a female herm. The reality was probably less highly-coloured, though in its way just as interesting. You had to be highborn to get into this most exclusive of clubs. The members were pretty typical 18th century men of power: fond of gambling, boozing, boasting and wenching. Their number included several government ministers and born-with-a-silverspoon aristos, including William Hogarth, the English jurist Robert Vansittart, Philip, Duke of Wharton and the Earl of Sandwich.
The infamous caves themselves were far from being ancient sites of devil worship and witchery: they were excavated by Dashwood between 1750 and 1752 to give employment to local farm workers who were impoverished by a succession of droughts and harvest failures. The chalk and flints removed from the caves were used to repair the local roads, including the main road from West Wycombe to High Wycombe. The caves were all dug by hand and you can still see the individual pick marks etched on the walls.
A tour of the caves takes you along a series of deep winding passages which extend over a quarter of a mile underground and lead past an abundance of small chambers to the Banqueting Hall, and then further down over the River Styx, which according to mythology separated the living world from the underworld, to the sanctum of the Inner Temple. This is some three hundred feet below the Church with its Golden Globe.
The medieval Church of St. Lawrence on top of the hill was also restored in West Wycombe flint by Dashwood, and it was he who topped the tower with its iconic Golden Globe. Inside the ball, circular benches could seat up to 10 bucks of the Hell-Fire Club for sessions of quaffing and cardplaying. It was “the best Globe Tavern I ever drank in,” quoth John Wilkes, the celebrated English radical, journalist, and libertarian politician. It is the hexagonal mausoleum that has the strangest story. Its urns were intended to contain the hearts of these supposed satanic orgiasts, but in the event only one ended up here: that of Hell-Fire Club steward Paul Whitehead, who died in 1774. His heart was later stolen from the mausoleum, and Whitehead is still said to haunt the caves, looking for his purloined organ.
Sir Francis Dashwood himself, lord of all this misrule, was an interesting man: not at all the red-faced and brainless roisterer he is often assumed to have been. He founded the Society of Dilettanti to study classical architecture. He served his country as Postmaster General and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he also produced a new version of the Book of Common Prayer, “for young and lively people”. He seems to have been quite a humane and sympathetic landlord too. He can probably be summed up as a highly intelligent man with a wide-ranging mind, but with a disposition to boredom in an age when men like himself were not expected to think beyond the next bed, booze-up and bezique hand.
Sir Francis certainly enjoyed the charms of the fair sex. In 1774 he was described as “the most careless and perhaps the most facetious libertine of his age”. Walpole described him as having the “staying power of a stallion and the impetuosity of a bull”. In 1745, the year of his marriage to Sarah, daughter of George Gould of Iver, Buckinghamshire, and widow of Sir Richard Ellis, third Baronet of Wyham, Lincolnshire, a friend of Sir Francis teased him for being “like a Publick Reservoir…laying your Cock in every private family that has any Place Fitt to receive it”.
Nowadays, the Hell-Fire Caves are a popular tourist attraction and of course, the old legends are played to the hilt with gothic lighting, a labyrinth of secret tunnels, Wicked Wednesdays and Freaky Fridays, warnings of resident ghosts and spectres, Haunting Experience weekends, Paranormal Investigations and so on. It’s a load of old hokum, but jolly good fun if you’re in the mood.
Related Articles: Christ Church Cathedral