West Wycombe, a village in the Chiltern Hills, was where the Dashwood family owned its landed estate. West Wycombe Park is a typical Palladian building. Above West Wycombe is a steep hill at the top of which is St. Lawrences church, built by the Dashwoods and next to it is the huge flint mausoleum of the Dashwood family. Sir Francis Dashwood founded the "Order of the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe" — better known as the Hellfire Club.
Below the mausoleum is the entrance to the West Wycombe caves, carved to look like the entrance to a Gothic church. The caves were enlarged by Sir Francis Dashwood in the 1750s in order to create work for the local men who were unemployed because of a succession of harvest failures. The chalk from the caves was used for building part of the road to London but Sir Francis also had the caves cut in intricate patterns. The caves crossed a stream of water known as the 'River Styx', a reference to the Greek mythological river of Hades, over which the souls of the dead were ferried by Charon.
Medmenham Abbey is situated on the River Thames between Hambleden and Hurley Locks. It was founded as a monastery by the Cistercians in 1200 but at the Dissolution of the Monasteries it passed into the hands of the Duffield Family. In the late eighteenth century, Francis Duffield granted a lease of Medmenham to Sir Francis Dashwood where he and his wealthy friends held the infamous 'Hell Fire Club' meetings and lived up to its motto Fay ce que voudres (Do whatever you will).
The Hell Fire Club initially was based at Medmenham Abbey, which Sir Francis bought and converted into an erotic garden. The members of the Hell-Fire club took part in mock religious ceremonies and used masks and costumes to allow them to indulge in varying degrees of debauchery. Medmenham gained some notoriety so the Hell Fire club moved to a more secluded site at West Wycombe caves. Members of the club included Sir Francis Dashwood, the Earl of Sandwich, Thomas Potter (the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury), John Wilkes, William Hogarth, the Earl of Bute, the Marquis of Granby, the Prince of Wales, and possibly Benjamin Franklin and Horace Walpole. It was alleged that the 'monks' took prostitutes down the Thames from London in barges to act as masked 'nuns'. The members of the Club also were accused of celebrating the Black Mass over the naked bodies of aristocratic ladies, one of whom was Lady Mary Montagu Wortley, the mother-in-law of the Earl of Bute.
Last modified 4 March 2002