The Hellfire Club

30 Nov

The term ‘Hellfire Club’ is of wide application and can be used to loosely describe a number of secret societies that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries as gathering places for high-ranking members of society to engage in acts that they did not necessarily want the rest of the world to know about. Describing these institutions is a somewhat difficult task because, by their very nature, they were shady, secretive and hid both their activities and their membership jealously. The best known Hellfire clubs included the Duke of Wharton’s Club, the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe,  and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The first known Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1719, by Philip, Duke of Wharton and a handful of other high society friends. At the time it was common for gentlemen to form clubs, which tended to be meeting places for those with common interests, usually political, literary, philanthropic or academic. What distinguished the Duke of Wharton’s Club from others of its kind was the fact that its members were thought to be involved in black magic and devil worship. In truth, there was very little evidence of anything satanic going on at the club’s London headquarters and the rumours stemmed mainly from the fact that its founder was well known for satirizing religion – then a dangerous and unpopular thing to do. The Duke quickly acquired many powerful enemies, including Prime Minister Robert Walpole, and this is what led eventually to his downfall. A bill aimed at the ‘impiety and immorality’ of his Hellfire Club was put to Parliament in 1721 and Wharton was removed from political office, ending his days in disgrace and ignominy.

The most infamous Hellfire club was established by Sir Francis Dashwood and met irregularly from around 1749 to around 1760, with the promising motto ‘Do what thou wilt’. The club acquired its odd name of the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe because it moved its headquarters to Medmenham Abbey, although its activities were anything but holy. Dashwood’s club meetings often included rituals designed to make mock of religious ceremonies, items of a pornographic nature, much drinking, wenching and banqueting to excess. It is not known how seriously Dashwood, a man of immense wealth, took the club and its activities. He was a well known prankster and rake long before he founded his Hellfire Club and his intent in doing so may therefore simply have been to shock, outrage and offend on an even grander scale. Whatever his intent, Dashwood certainly succeeded in attracting attention. Although the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe was initially limited to twelve members, its supposed membership eventually grew to be immense and included such august personages as the Earl of Sandwich, the painter William Hogarth and the American founding father Benjamin Franklin.

Dashwood, like his predecessor Wharton, attracted enemies and his club eventually fell into disfavour and financial ruin, although it did lay the foundations for the most long-lived Hellfire Club, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn, as it is more commonly known, was an order dedicated to the study of magic and the arcane, and was most active at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. There were few areas of the occult which the members of the Golden Dawn did not stray into and their activities encompassed qabalah, astrology, tarot, divination, alchemy and geomancy. Later contemporary magical traditions, such as Wicca , were inspired by the Golden Dawn, who took themselves and their activities far more seriously than any previous Hellfire Club had done. They were also much more popular and influential – in its heyday, many celebrities belonged to the Golden Dawn, such as actress Florence Farr, Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, writer and poet W B Yeats, ghost story writer Arthur Machen, author Evelyn Underhill, and magician, writer and satanist Aleister Crowley. Also, unlike the other Hellfire Clubs, the Golden Dawn alone has stood the test of time. While no temples in the original chartered lineage of the Golden Dawn survived past the 1970s, several organizations have since revived its teachings and rituals, and its mysterious foundational documents – the encoded Cipher Manuscripts – are rumoured to still be in use to this day all over the world.

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5 Responses to “The Hellfire Club”

  1. redplace November 30, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    Very informative and interesting! Thank you for sharing :-]

  2. poemsandponderings November 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    As usual your post is very well written and researched. You are a font of information, keep sharing please.

  3. gayhighwaymen December 3, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    They are also the namesakes of the Chicago Hellfire Club – http://hellfire13.org/ – NSFW – Chicago area mens’ S/m club.

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