The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe or the Hellfire Club as it was later called was a natural progression from earlier clubs founded by Sir Francis Dashwood in the mid 18th. Century, such as the Dilettanti Society, which was started in 1733 to encourage interest in classical art and still flourishes, and the Divan Club in 1744 for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire. During his visits to Italy on his Grand Tours, Sir Francis had developed an acute antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church, and on his return had gone so far as to have himself painted by Nathaniel Dance as a Franciscan monk, by Carpentiers as Pope Pontius VII toasting the statue of Venus, by Hogarth as a Franciscan friar leering at a recumbent statue of Venus and with a halo around his head enclosing the face of Lord Sandwich, and by Knapton in 1742 as San Francisco di Wycombo, again toasting a statue of Venus which can still be seen at West Wycombe.
As the club flourished, Sir Francis cast around for a meeting place which would provide luxury and seclusion. What better, he concluded, than the ruins of the old Cistercian abbey at Medmenham, only six miles away from West Wycombe, where he lived, on the river Thames near Henley? At the time all that was left of the abbey and surrounding buildings were some columns and walls and a few broken statues, to which, in 1595, the owners, the Duffields, had added a large E-shaped house of red brick and stone taken from the ruins. Sir Francis immediately set about improving this dilapidated Elizabethan house and the ruins, possibly with the help of Nicholas Revett, the architect who was destined to play such an important role in recording the major architectural remains of Greece and Asia Minor. Sir Francis also later commissioned Revett to design for him the Music Temple at West Wycombe Park.
A cloister with five or six arches and a ruined tower were added. Behind the cloister was the chapter or common room, 'fitted up with the same good taste and the glare of light is judiciously excluded by the pleasing gloom of stained glass, chiefly coronets, roses and portcullises.' The ceilings were decorated with fresco paintings by Giuseppe Borgnis, who had been brought over from Italy in 1751 to work at West Wycombe and who lived in a small house with a large studio a few miles from Medmenham just outside Marlow.
In a small inlet off the river Thames close to the abbey, a boat was moored for river outings. It was probably similar to the one on the lake at West Wycombe, which had a small cabin of scarlet canvas with rectangular window openings. On fine days the sides were rolled up. The boat was propelled like a gondola by four men dressed in white with scarlet oars and was steered by a cox dressed in dark blue with gold braid and a tricorn hat. At the stern flew a large red ensign. John Wilkes referred to the river outings in a letter to the Abbot, or Prior as he was variously called, 'When may I see you again steering along the Thames and fishing for the good Johnnies with a small hook or setting nets for really large fish? One may hope for anything - I shall say no more.' Round Tar island was leased by Sir Francis from Sir Thomas Stapleton. It lay about four miles from the abbey and was one of four little eyots or islands just below Cookham bridge. It has now vanished from sight, having become submerged beneath the water. The front covers of the Club's Cellar Book show an island with two little wooden huts, one thatched, against a hilly background. There is still an island about one mile upstream which has small huts on it and seems to fit this description. It is likely that these two islands were frequented by the brothers for picnics and outings.
The original letters found at the back of the Medmenham Abbey Bible, together with several contemporary accounts, do however give a glimpse of what went on. Twice a year, in March, June, August, September or early October, a chapter meeting was held, invitations being sent out by the Prior or Paul Whitehead, the steward of the club. For these meetings, some sort of costume was worn. Portraits of the three Vansittart, Arthur, Henry and Robert, which are attributed to Hogarth and are now at Shottesbrooke Park, show them in dark blue berets with floppy red cones like a clown's and the words ' Love and Friendship' on the front. They are however wearing ordinary three-quarter length coats, which was perhaps the dress for informal occasions; Walpole was quite explicit about the 'white jacket and trousers' which he claimed to have seen. Incidentally, the words 'Libertati Amicatiae que S' (Sacred to liberty and friendship) also appear in a panel over the Arch of Apollo at West Wycombe and must have been as much the motto of the club as 'Fay ce que voudras' found at Medmenham Abbey. The chapter meetings were described in a book of 1779 entitled Nocturnal Revels: 'They however always meet in one general sett at meals, when, for the improvement of mirth, pleasantry, and gaiety, every member is allowed to introduce a Lady of a cheerful lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity. Male visitors are also permitted, under certain restrictions, their greatest recommendation being their merit wit and humour. There is no constraint with regard to the circulation of the glass, after some particular toasts have been given: The Ladies, in the intervals of their repasts, may make select parties among themselves, or entertain one another, or alone with reading, music, tambour-work, etc. The salt of these festivities is generally purely attic, but no indelicacy or indecency is allowed to be intruded without a severe penalty, and a jeu de mots must not border too much upon a loose double entendre to be received with applause.' The account goes on to describe the clothes worn and the admission ceremony. No vows of celibacy were required either by the ladies or the 'Monks', 'the former considering themselves as the lawful wives of the brethren during their stay within the monastic walls; every Monk being religiously scrupulous not to infringe upon the nuptial alliance of any other brother.'
As in other fashionable clubs, the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks and the Dilettanti Society, for example, meetings of the Hellfire Club were punctuated by frequent toasts as well as ribald poems and songs. In a letter to Sir Francis of 27 July, 1761 Wilkes says: 'I already see your sides shaking with laughter and see you filling your nostrils with snuff: I already hear you solving riddles in your accustomed way; everyone shows their approval with applause.' After dinner, the twelve members and the Abbot, who was elected annually and took office from the beginning of October, repaired upstairs to the chapel where a mock religious ceremony took place. There is a hint of some such service in a letter from Sir William Stanhope: ' ... my compliments to all your Brethren and assure them that they may have my prayers, particularly in that part of the Litany when I pray the Lord to strengthen them that do stand’.
The following list gives the members during the Club's heyday until 1762; it has been compiled from the two remaining Cellar Books and from letters and other sources. Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord le Despencer Paul Whitehead, Poet and Steward The Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty Lord Melcombe Regis, Politician Sir Thomas Stapleton of Greys, near Henley Sir William Stanhope, MP for Buckinghamshire Thomas Potter, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury Sir John Dashwood-King, MP and Landowner Dr Thomas Thompson, Physician to the Prince of Wales Francis Duffield, owner of Medmenham Abbey John Tucker, MP for Weymouth John orris, MP & don at Magdalen College, Oxford Arthur Vansittart, of Shottesbrooke Park, MP Sir Henry Vansittart, Governor of Bengal and MP for Reading Robert Vansittart, Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford Charles Churchill, Poet Robert Lloyd, Poet George Selwyn, MP John Wilkes, MP Sir John Aubrey, MP Dr Benjamin Bates of Aylesbury William Hogarth, Painter John Hall Stevenson Edward Lovibond Mr Clarke of Henley Dr John Morton, MP Richard Hopkins, MP Sir John Russell.
There is a famous account of a practical joke which Wilkes played on Lord Sandwich at the Hellfire Club. '[Wilkes] had contrived the night before to bring into his cell a great Baboon which he had provided for the occasion. When the brotherhood retired to their cells after dinner, to prepare for the ceremony, he availed himself of the office of keeper of the Chapel, which he then filled to convey this creature, dressed up in the fantastic garb, in which childish imagination cloths devils, into the chapel, where he shut him up in a large chest, that stood there to hold the ornaments and utensils of the table, when the society was away. To the spring of the lock of this chest he fastened a cord, which he drew under the carpet that was on the floor to his own seat, and there brought the end of it through a hole, made for the purpose, in such a manner that he could readily find it; and by giving it a pull, open the chest, and let the Baboon loose, whenever he pleased, without being perceived by the rest of the company. At the chosen moment, Wilkes pulled the cord and out popped the wretched animal which leapt on to the shoulders of Lord Sandwich, who, feeling the shock and seeing the animal grinning horribly at him concluded that the Devil had obeyed his summons in good earnest and had come to carry him bodily away. The harder he tried to shake off the poor creature the tighter it clung, whilst Sandwich cried out: 'Spare me gracious Devil: spare a wretch who never was sincerely your servant. I sinned only from the vanity of being in the fashion; thou knowest I never have been half so wicked as I pretended: never have been able to commit the thousandth part of the vices which I have boasted of … leave me therefore and go to those who are more truly devoted to your service. I am but half a sinner …''
Chapter meetings and 'private devotions' still continued during 1762, 1763 and 1764. John Tucker, MP for Weymouth, wrote to Sir Francis on 11 August 1764: 'My heart and inclinations will be with your Lordship and your friends at Medmenham at the next Chapter, but I am cruelly detained here by the sickness of my Brother - I pray you will present my filial Duty to our Holy Father and fraternal love and respect to the pious Brotherhood to whom I wish all possible Joy Spirits and Vigour.' The Club was in its dying days by the 1760s. On 22 March 1766, Tucker wrote: 'I was last Sunday at Medmenham and to my amazement found the Chapter Room stripped naked.' Evidently, Sir Francis had decided that the time had come to remove all traces of incriminating evidence of the Club's existence, including even the prints of the heads of kings and nuns and the pegs for the clothes with the brothers' names above.
According to tradition, the Club took to the meeting, after the 'break-up' at Medmenham Abbey, in the Caves at West Wycombe which Sir Francis had excavated in 1748-54. Lybbe Powys wrote in her diary following her visit to West Wycombe and the Caves in 1796: 'Near the middle of the excavation there is a small pool which is now crossed by stepping stones, but formerly it is said it would only be passed in a boat. The excavation terminates in a large lofty circular cavern with a vaulted roof in which is a hook for suspending a lamp or chandelier. Here according to local tradition, the Hellfire Club occasionally held its meetings.' But the days of the Order were nearly over, and when Paul Whitehead, the steward, died, an inventory was taken. This, dated 15 October 1774, listed the wine then in the cellar - 'Lisbon (sherry), rum, port, hock, claret and Dorchester beer, as well as 29 pewter plates, 27 knives and 29 forks, 24 wine glasses and some teacups and saucers'. In its heyday, the Hellfire Club had certainly indulged in mock religious ceremonies at the annual election of the Abbot for the ensuing year and also at the initiation of new members. But the main purpose of the Club was, as Wilkes aptly put it, that 'a set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury.'