The first of the Hellfire clubs was created by Philip, Duke of Wharton, in London in 1718. Together with his friends, they mocked the idea of piety and good behaviour instead, they embraced alcohol, women, the mysteries of science and gambling. They were usually described as ‘Rakes’ or aristocratic rogues who openly flaunted the morality of the time.
More of these clubs were formed with each trying to outdo the others with bizarre and unacceptable practices. It was around this time that rumours of ‘dangerous practices’ started to circulate including alleged heresy, blasphemy, political manipulation and debauchery of the most extreme kind.
OUTLAWED FOR DEBAUCHERY
They were eventually causing so much trouble that the government outlawed them in 1721. This led to Wharton’s club being disbanded. Other smaller clubs barely noticed and simply started using alternative names. In 1732 a new even more debauched club was started. Known as ‘The Most Ancient and Most Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland it endured for over 100 years.
THE KNIGHTS OF ST FRANCIS
The most notorious of the hellfire clubs was started by Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe around 1752. Rich, powerful and allegedly insatiable, Dashwood converted two of his estates into secret meeting centres for his club. The first was Medmenham Abbey where the group styled themselves as the Monks of Medmenham Abbey – The Brotherhood of St Francis. The second was at the West Wycombe Estate, where a huge underground lair was tunnelled out beneath the Church of St’ Lawrence. These became the famous Hellfire Caves of the Order of the Knights of West Wycombe and St Francis.
Sir Francis was the master architect behind the all the legends of wild orgies, pagan rituals, secret chambers, stolen stalactites, mystic gardens, wild parties, plots against the state and even a baboon dressed as the Devil. He built the interior of a Church in the style of an Egyptian temple, dressed up prostitutes as nuns, influenced and maybe even controlled some of the most powerful men in British politics, quite likely seduced the Tsarina of Russia and got away with rewriting the Common Book of Prayer with his close friend Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United states of America.
For those who know anything about this period of 18th century British History, the mention of the “Hellfire Clubs” seems to provoke swift and polarised reactions. Some immediately respond with mutterings of dark demonic rites and debauchery of the most extreme kind while others simply laugh at the wild tales and dismiss them as exaggerations.
Located in West Wycombe in the British county of Buckinghamshire, the Hellfire Caves have a notorious history and are reputed to conceal many mysteries. They are actually a manmade network of tunnels carved out the chalk and flint of West Wycombe Hill and were commissioned by Sir Francis Dashwood to be one of the secret meeting places of his libertine society “The Knights of West Wycombe”.
The entrance to the caves is designed as the façade of a mock gothic church and can be seen from West Wycombe Park – once the home of Sir Francis Dashwood. Constructed of flint and chalk mortar excavated from the caves it is believed to have been constructed in 1753. There are no symbols, gargoyles, or other quasi-demonic representations. However, it is worth noting the repeated use of three in the design.
The layout of the chalk caves follows a winding path that leads deep under the West Wycombe Hill. Once you pass the gothic entrance made of flint and chalk mortar you enter a brick-lined passage that is perfectly aligned and leading north. It’s said to be designed to represent the reproductive organs of a woman.
As you go deeper into the caves the walls become rougher and the passages start twisting so very soon, you’re quite disorientated. The chambers you discover have names such as The Robing Cave, Lord Sandwich Circle, the Children’s Cave, and the Banqueting Hall.
SECRET CAVES AND MYSTERIOUS LEGENDS
Along the passage between The Circle and Franklin’s Cave you will discover the Roman numerals XXII deeply engraved into the chalk wall. Nobody knows for sure why they were carved at this point and various explanations have been proposed. The most interesting is that they mark the starting point from which an undisclosed tunnel can be discovered that leads to hidden caves and passages that contain the real secrets of the Friars of St. Francis. A contemporary poem from this time refers to this as a possibility:
Take 20 steps and rest a while; Then take a pick and find the stile
Where once I did my love beguile. ‘Twas 22 in Dashwood’s time,
Perhaps to hide this cell divine, Where lay my love in peace sublime.
It may be this passage or entrance leads to the “lost chambers” such as the Cloisters, the Endless Stair and Sarah’s Cave. Several references suggest that a tunnel leads downhill approximately 500 metres to the George and Dragon and another to a spiral staircase that leads to the Nave of St. Lawrence Church.
YOU’RE BEING WATCHED
As you wander deeper into the caves, you’ll suddenly notice that there are strange faces, skulls and imps carved into the stones and chalk of the walls. Once you realise that they are there you start to see them everywhere.
The origin of these carvings is a mystery. One story suggests that every person to take part in the debauchery of the caves had to carve a face to as a representation before they were allowed to become members. In a sense it may have represented a communion with the old Gods.
THE DARK HEART OF THE CAVES
At the deepest point of the tunnels is the Inner Temple where the darkest secrets of the group were discussed, and possibly profane rituals carried out.
Just before the entrance to the Inner Temple there is a narrow stretch of very still water known as the River Styx. It is likely that the original miners stumbled across this natural water flow and enlarged the channel. It is also possible that its waters are drawn down from the “occasional” brook that sometimes flows to the east of the caves in heavy rains. It has been decorated with stalactites and Stalagmites although these are not natural to the excavations and were probably acquired from the Wookey Hole caves in Somerset.
There have several references to a Pagan Alter that once existed as part of the Inner Temple. If this is true, then the name “Inner Temple” would make sense as this is a term sometimes used by ancient Pagans to represent the Inner most secrets of their beliefs. If this Alter ever existed, then it is long gone. Still, there are many references to the “Rite of Bona Dea” the perpetually virginal Goddess Fauna. It is also said that she was the goddess of healing and medicine. Part of the story is that Bona Dea (Fauna) was once beaten for becoming drunk and that men were forever forbidden from her secret rites.
Many believe that not all passages in the cave network have been found and the symbolism of the design may have darker meanings we still don’t understand. The tunnels are said to be haunted by several ghosts and paranormal investigators claim to have had some surprising readings from their equipment.
The caves are open to the public and the really dark and demonic potential of the Hellfire Club of Francis Dashwood is routinely played down.
SECRETS LOST FOREVER
We may never know what exactly went on. The steward of the club, Paul Whitehead, deliberately set fire to all the records three days before he died in 1774. The blaze is said to have burned for three days. It’s clear that he was determined that secrets of the club stayed hidden. Once dead, his heart was cut out and placed in an urn in the Dashwood Mausoleum on the hill above the caves.