From the (historical) ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ file, we remember today the Brotherhood of St Francis of Wycombe, founded in 1749 by Sir Francis Dashwood. You are forgiven if you thought that the ‘St Francis’ referenced is he of Assisi, of Caricciolo, of Paolo, of Sales, or of Xavier – all recognized and venerated hallows of Christendom. Instead, it references the founder, Dashwood, which may suggest that this organization is not one’s standard religious order.
Other suggestions that this group was far from standard includes their motto, fay ce que voudras, which translates to “do as you please,” along with their initial meeting place, London’s George and Vulture pub.
This fraternity was dedicated to debauchery, the Enlightment’s anti-clericism meeting Animal House.
This wouldn’t be so notable were it not for the fact that, over two decades, many prominent member of British society counted themselves as members, and regularly attended the conclaves.
There was Dashwood himself, 15th Baron le Despencer, Chancellor of the Exchequer. There was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, Postmaster General and First Lord of the Admiralty. There was George Dodington, 1st Baron Melcombe, close friend and financier of the Prince of Wales who also ran a highly-regarded anti-Jacobite spy ring. There was John Wilkes, a prominent member of Parliament who was an early radical pamphleteer and supporter of the American colonies. There was also another well-known MP, Thomas Potter, an accomplished attorney who also happened to be the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Members referred to themselves as ‘brothers,’ the leader as ‘abbot,’ and the women of loose virtue in attendance as ‘nuns.’ The group ate, drank, gambled, and fornicated at will, always a winning combination when trying to recruit add’n converts. As the brotherhood grew, Dashwood, no longer satisfied with the pub, leased Medmenham Abbey, a rundown former haunt of the Cistercians, close to his ancestral home and residence. He proceeded to rebuild the ruin, and excavated an extensive network of caves and tunnels that reached over 1500 feet into a nearby hillside. This honeycomb came to be known as the Hellfire Caves, where the group – by then sometimes called the Order of the Monks of Medmenham – conducted, er, business. It was over the caves’ entrance that was found the motto carved into a granite cornice.
In Nocturnal Revels (1779), a two volume anonymously-authored work on Georgian nightlife and prostitution, there is a contemporary if wordy description of activities of the meetings:
“They always meet in one general set at meals, when, for the improvement of mirth, pleasantry, and gaiety, every member is allowed to introduce a lady of cheerful lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity. Male visitors are also permitted, under certain restrictions, their greatest recommendation being their merit wit and humour. There is no constraint with regard to the circulation of the glass, after some particular toasts have been given: the ladies, in the intervals of their repasts, may make select parties among themselves, or entertain one another, or alone with reading, musick, tambour-work, etc. The salt of these festivities is generally purely antic, but no indelicacy or indecency is allowed to be intruded without a severe penalty; and a jeu de mots must not border too much upon a loose double entendre to be received with applause.”
Or as parliamentarian and Brother John Wilkes said more succinctly, the club was “a set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury.”
While rumors grew of Satanist rituals being conducted, other than their general licentiousness, there is no evidence to support that anything darker was actually occurring. Interestingly, Dashwood was a major benefactor and protector of the nearby St Lawrence’s Parish, a real house of worship that had fallen on hard times.
Dashwood may have been a most convivial host, but he was tone-deaf in his respectable professional role. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he imposed a tax on adult beverages by passage of the Cider Bill of 1763, an act which resulted in riots and his hasty resignation… odd for a man who threw alcohol-fueled bacchanals in his free time, albeit for a very limited and well-heeled crowd.
The aging of the attendees, and Dashwood’s resignation, spelled the end of the Order. By 1766, the Hellfire Caves were silent, stripped of their scandalous adornments, and the wild rumpuses had ceased. But not, it should be noted, before a diplomat and scientist from the Colonies, one Benjamin Franklin, was documented to have attended a number of the meetings when he was in London on, er, business.
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