Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sir Francis Dashwood, Medmenham and the Hellfire Club by Jacqueline George

 Please welcome a regular guest, the incomparable Jacqueline George!


Sometimes I get so fed up with our politicians. They are so negative, so small minded, and they treat us like idiots. You know, and I know, that many of them would love to behave like lecherous old goats. (I am pointing at the boys here only because they are the most common offenders.) Given half a chance and a locked door, they would be all over their interns, and secretaries, and constituents, and anyone else who offers.

It is what rich and powerful men have always done. That’s OK by me, as long as it is truly consensual. If a silly girl or boy wants to give the old goat a thrill, that’s their business. Go right ahead - I don’t care. What makes me sick (gets my goat?) is the hypocrisy we have to put up with. Someone’s mistress is pregnant, or he has been caught playing with pretty young men in an airport toilet, and The World As We Know It is about the end. Their photograph is all over the papers, and talking heads everywhere are condemning the politician’s frivolity. His career is on the scrap heap, and reporters are badgering his wife and family with inane questions like How do you feel about your husband’s/father’s mistress? In fact, the only question that matters is the one we would like to ask the sinner himself - if you lied to us about your morals, why should we believe anything else you told us?

There was a time, perhaps even a golden age, when the great and good in society did not lie about these things - because they did not have to. What the upper classes did in private, stayed private. Indulging in a little fun and frivolity was accepted behaviour, although not discussed openly with the priest, or a gentleman’s wife (she did not discuss what she had been up to either, although her opportunities were more limited). A politician could be a man of principle no matter what playthings he took to bed with him.

In the secret English countryside, there is a monument to those enlightened days. Medmenham is a small village on the banks of the River Thames, between High Wycombe and Maidenhead. Nowadays it is a quiet place, home to executives and stockbrokers who work in London. Its past is much more interesting. A few years ago, in 1201, a Cistercian abbey was founded there. It survived for three hundred years until that well known job creator and private equity specialist Henry VIII threw out the monks, trashed the building, and sold the land off to his friends. The abbey remained a peaceful ruin for another two centuries, until it fell into the hands of Sir Francis Dashwood.

Now, if you knew half there is to be known about Sir Francis! Outwardly he was a respectable aristocrat. A member of Parliament, one time Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Royal appointee in the time of King George III and he died holding the office of Post-Master General.

So why do we remember him? As young man he was handsome, dashing, and caressed in the courts of Europe. He was a great success with women, and was even rumoured to have talked his way into the bed of Tsarina Anna I of Russia. Sir Francis was an unashamed party animal and felt that, as good food, good wine and naughty women were so enjoyable, indulging in them could not possibly be wrong. He indulged in all three with such gusto that he became known to everyone as the ultimate rake.
He had also acquired another trait familiar to us today - a distrust or even hatred of organised religion and its pompous leaders. This flowered when he established the Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey.

The Hellfire Club consisted of gentlemen who loved the good things in life. They started by simply dining together, but good food and wine were not enough. They needed women too...
The Hellfire Club came to Medmenham, and brought women along with them. What sort of women? The puritans of the time insisted that they were mere prostitutes, but we can be fairly certain that they included wives and sisters of the club members, and especially Lady Mary Montagu Wortley.

What did the Hellfire Club do? What they absolutely did not do was talk about their rural activities when they were back in town. What happened at Medmenham Abbey, definitely stayed at Medmenham Abbey. The few records made were destroyed when the club broke up. Visits to the Abbey were not something a lady would want her grandchildren to hear about. All we know is gleaned from gossip, and solid gold truth is hard to come by.

Secret or exclusive societies were a fashion of the times. They had their own rules and customs, and frequently their own uniforms, perhaps a jacket or special buttons. The uniform of the Hellfire Club went further. It was a monk’s habit. Of course, the women were not dressed as monks. They wore nuns’ clothing, at least until the parties really started to swing.

And then? Well, as far as we can make out, the parties were a strange mixture of religious parody and Roman orgy and sound like a lot of fun. Although there is no positive indication of Satanism, the parties sometimes did involve spreading naked, blindfolded nuns over an ‘altar’, for everyone’s enjoyment. Presumably including the nuns concerned.

That all seems fun, but not so very special by modern standards. Sir Francis’s special touch was in his art and architecture. His personal motto, carved in stone over the Abbey door, was Fais ce que tu voudras or ‘Do What you Wish’, a very suitable thought for a rich hedonist. Inside the house was comfortable and full of erotic paintings and statues. It also held the finest library of erotica in England (long since gone, unfortunately).
Around the house, Sir Francis created wonderful gardens for his guests to wander in and presumably recover from their efforts of the evening before. Even here they were impressed with Sir Francis's towering devotion to sex. Apart from other statuary, by the entrance to a cave on the property was a very famous marble statue of Venus, stooping to remove a thorn from her foot. She was facing away from the entrance, positioned so that an inattentive visitor would bump into the upraised bum of the Goddess of Love. As the famous politician John Wilkes described her, ‘Just over the two nether hills of snow were these lines of Virgil Hic locus est, partes ubi se via findit in ambas: Hac iter Elysium nobis...’ The words over this beautifully provocative statue mean At this place the road divides into two directions; Here is our path to Paradise. Do What you Wish indeed, and at the Goddess’s invitation!

So who were the club members? The rich, powerful and randy. Lords (and a few of their ladies), at least one serving Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers galore, minor royalty. Benjamin Franklin may well have been a member, although you will not find that admission in his own writing.

We don’t do that sort of thing nowadays, and certainly would not vote for any politician who dressed in a monk’s habit and played with half-naked nuns. We’re much more serious now. Still, Sir Francis makes me feel a little wistful. Not that you would catch me at a sumptuous banquet dressed in only a nun’s veil. I would never accept an invitation like that. Although, I wonder... Perhaps just once. Just to have a peep, maybe.


gemma parkes said...

What a fascinating insight into the history of the day! And what fun it must have been without the TV and all things electrical! I think it would have been fantastic to go as a voyeur, preferably in an invisibility cloak!

Jacqueline said...

Gemma, I cannot imagine you would keep your invisibility cloak for long. I've read your books...