Monday, April 2, 2007

Welcome to Weirdsville: Hellfire!

History has not been kind to them. If you can even find references to their Brotherhood it’s usually shaded with Christian hysteria, whispered tales loaded with the usual Catholic shockers of Satanism, sacrifice, the black mass, rituals - you name it. They say that the winners write the history books - well, I consider it a bad sign that it takes a lot of digging to uncover the truth: while they haven’t won they certainly have a good enough foothold to pretty badly taint the memory of the Amorous Knights of Wycombe.

Even if you travel to their later meeting place, the sleepy little hamlet of West Wycombe, the locals spout the nonsense - telling tales laced with those Christian bogeymen images: hooded figures droning a litany of forbidden words while a naked offering is laid out on cold granite, awaiting the ritual blade in the hands of a Satanic Priest.

While the truth about the membership of the Monks of Medmenham, and later the Amorous Knights of Wycombe, isn’t as - well - Hammer Films material, the tale of its founding, membership, and rites is fascinating.

Oh, to be in England in the 1760s. The Colonies were behaving themselves, the Great British Empire was just that, and everyone - so it seemed - belonged to a club. There was one for just about every class, interest, or occupation: The Lying Club, where the truth was banned; the Ugly Club where the qualifications for membership were unhandsome, at best; the Golden Fleece where members took on such names as Sir Boozy Prate-All, Sir Whore-Hunter, and Sir Ollie-Mollie.

Then there was the Monks of Medmenham Abbey. Meeting clandestinely on a spot of land somewhere along the Thames near London, this circle of Gentlemen came to typify the age, the era of the Great English Clubs.

Sir Francis Dashwood is one of my heroes - roguish, yet always the stalwart Gentleman; a prankster and jape, yet the author of the Book of Common Prayer - Sir Francis was the center and guiding force behind the very special club, the one later to be known by the misnomer, the Hellfire Club.

Born in 1708, and a indirect descendent of Milton (“tis better to rule in Hell, than serve in Heaven”), Sir Francis was a great supporter of reforms as well as artistic advances. His estate at West Wycombe became a example progressive architectural design and intelligent land management. He was elected an MP 1762, in appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer the following year - and then the year after that elevated to the House of Lords. To add to these wonderful accomplishments, in 1766 (under Pitt) Dashwood was appointed Postmaster-General. Sir Francis, you see, was a man of accomplishment, of intelligence, ability, and - most certainly - wit.

Oh yes, for while Sir Francis was elevating his way through Parliament, he also created, and pretty much single-handedly maintained, his own special club. Unlike those other eccentric clubs of the time the Monks of Medmenham Abbey was a special organization - one dedicated to japing the Papists, providing a place where a gentleman of sophistication might find a place to meet, drink, and - in general - raise a little hell.

The Monks certainly did that. First at their hidden little island, set inside a false ruin of an old Abbey, they met - clandestine greetings across the cool waters of the Thames, lanterns and torches lighting the way, the Monk-robed members gathering together to eat, drink, share amusing anecdotes and fuck like bunnies.

While there were definitely intellectual intercourse at those meetings of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey, it was rather plain-old-simple intercourse that kept them coming back. After 1763, when the cloaked and torch-bearing Monks had attracted some undue attention, they moved local to Dashwood’s own estate in West Wycombe - where the Lord de Despencer had constructed a veritable erotic, playful interpretation of Hades on - and under - Earth.

The hills around West Wycombe are soft chalk, ideal for tunneling and that’s just what Sir Francis did. With his artistic and architectural eye he created a maze of tunnels, underground rivers, chambers and gardens on his property, decorated with elaborate erotic sculptures, teasing portraits of the Knights of Wycombe (such as depicting Sir Francis with halo), and many small chambers for intercourse of both kinds. It was at Wycombe that the real Hellfire club began, a festive playground where the political, artistic, and intellectual elite of England met - engaging in dalliances with some of the most famous of London prostitutes. My favorite little jape of the society is that while it is pretty much incontrovertible that Ladies-of-Rentable-Virtue were present, it is also believed that - since both ‘Monks’ and ‘Nuns’ wore veils or masks, and identities kept very secret -lovers, wives, sisters, and daughters of other members were also there.

Now before you imagine (you filthy creature you!), English artists and intellectuals running around in a white-wig version of Porky’s, let me reassure you that while Eros was a major focus of the Knights, it was handled with grace and dignity - the Nuns could refuse any offer, or accept any offer, as they saw fit. It was a place of playful perversity, where free-thinkers could gather together to titter and mock the oppressive Jacobites and their domineering Pope. Rituals were held, yes, but with all the seriousness of rowdy jesters.

And what jesters they were - and this is what elevated the Amorous Knights of Wycombe to memorable heights. I’ve told you of Sir Francis, peer by day, Monk by night, but the other members - particularly the inner circle - shine with their own randy double-lives. Just listen to this litany of the famous and infamous who all took part in the elaborate games and fanciful parties in and under West Wycombe hill: The Earl of Sandwich (for whom the food was named), First Lord of the Admiralty; Thomas Potter, Paymaster-General, Treasurer for Ireland and son of the Archbishop of Canterbury; John Wilkes, MP, and Lord Mayor of London; Frederick, the Prince of Wales; Horace Walpole, Politician and author; Edmund Duffield and Timothy Shaw, the Vicars of Medmenham; Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont, French diplomat; and - even possibly - our own bawdy intellectual, Benjamin Franklin. In addition to these noteworthies, West Wycombe also admitted the well-spoken rake or two, and some famous artists such as Giuseppe Borgnis, and Robert Lloyd.

Alas, nothing is forever. The tide turned, and when the now-Papal friendly popular opinion discovered the existence of our festive Monks, the scandal almost brought down the government with them. Even its own sense of nasty jape seem to have had a hand in the club’s fading. During one particularly intense mock black mass, ever-the-rogue John Wilkes took an ape, affixed it with a devil mask and released it during the service. The outrage was wonderfully hysterical - though telling that the Earl of Sandwich (said by many to be very ugly, and very ugly tempered) was said to have fallen to his knees and said, “Spare me, gracious devil. I am as yet but half a sinner. I never have been so wicked as I pretended!”

The last meeting took place in 1762, shaken by scandal, internal conflicts, the Monks simply fell apart. The caves fell into disrepair after the death of Dashwood, and soon the horror stories of the evil rites held there had hidden the truth; that it was once the festive and mocking domain of the Amorous Knights.

On a closing note, I have to relate one of my favorite events during the later part of the society. In a bitter hypocrisy after the floundering of the club, that disreputable Earl of Sandwich had the notorious wit John Wilkes on the stand - in no doubt an act of revenge. Proving himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was completely, utterly wicked, Sandwich belabored his previous fellow-monk until, in a fit of frustration at Wilke’s calm and witty rejoinders proclaimed, “Sir, you will either die on the gallows, or by the pox!”

To which, in a perfect closing to this tale of elegant mischief, Wilkes responded, without batting an eye: “That depends, Sir, on whether I embrace your principals - or your mistress.”

- and, of course, who wouldn't also mention the recreation of the Hellfire club from The Avengers, specifically for Miss Peel's outfit as "The Queen of Sin."

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