Libertine turned home into an orgy
By Tim Harris
September 9 2002
Opportunities for fun were limited in the 18th century. For common folk, the main amusements were gin and public executions. People of means had more options, and manufactured their own fun. Gangs of powdered and perfumed dandies would roam the streets of London, beating up anyone who incurred their displeasure, while others of the moneyed class, such as Sir Francis Dashwood, distracted themselves less confrontingly.
Dashwood, however, was so dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure that he became a figure of lurid legend.
He was born in 1708 to a landed family. He was educated at Eton, and at the age of 16 inherited a baronetcy, a fortune and the family estate at West Wycombe, England. In 1726, as was customary for young gentlemen of the time, he set off on a grand tour of Europe to complete his education. In the company of a tutor, he was to visit the royal courts of Europe and take in as many edifying sights as possible.
The young Sir Francis was interested in art and culture. He was also just as interested in alcohol and women, and did as much drinking and fornicating as art appreciation. His personal mission was "to taste the sweets of all things".
Dashwood drank and bedded his way around Europe, through to Turkey and Russia, exercising his sense of fun whenever he could. He charged through a Good Friday penitential service in the Sistine Chapel while flailing a horsewhip, appeared at the Russian court dressed as the King of Sweden, enemy of the Tsar, and may even have had an affair with the Tsarina.
Back in England, Dashwood spared no expense restoring West Wycombe with the finest embellishments available, and founded the Society of Dilettanti, a circle of serious connoisseurs. Still, he remained as devoted to carnal pursuits as he was to the arts. He was described as having "the staying power of a stallion and the impetuosity of a bull", but surprised his friends by marrying a pious widow, for whom he maintained a lifelong affection.
Dashwood was an affable and charming man, and his friends included influential men in artistic and political circles. With them, he won infamy by founding another society, The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, better known as the Hell-fire Club. The brotherhood was demonised, mainly by those who were jealous of all the fun. There were accusations of Satanism and vile orgies, but in reality, the goings-on amounted to little more than a group of people dressing up for dirty weekends.
Dashwood had no time for organised religion, but was not the Satanist he was made out to be. The order's rituals parodied Christianity, but without diabolic intent. If anything, its members were devotees of Bacchus and Venus.
The Friars met at Medmenham Abbey, a ruin that Dashwood had rebuilt and furnished with creature comforts, including one of the largest collections of pornography in the country. A motto from Rabelais' fictional Abbey of Theleme was inscribed over the main entrance and translated as "do what you will". Amenable women were shipped up the Thames by barge for the revels at Medmenham, which went on twice a month for nearly 20 years.
Debauchery did not prevent Dashwood from holding public office. He was made chancellor of the exchequer in 1762, a position in which he was hopeless, admitting himself that he could not do sums of more than five figures. He was forced to resign after a year but proved a much better postmaster-general when appointed in 1766.
Rivalry between Friars John Wilkes and Lord Sandwich (inventor of the snack food) led to exposure of the order's activities, and public scrutiny forced the operation to move from Medmenham. Dashwood had caves dug out beneath West Wycombe Hill, which were certainly atmospheric, but the dank and cramped surroundings made it awkward to get a decent orgy going. Interest eventually died out, and the order dissolved.
Dashwood remained a jovial and enthusiastic libertine for the rest of his life. He died in 1781, aged 73, leaving everything to the illegitimate daughter he fathered at 66.