SC: This month, we’re tackling a real doozy: Lord Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet of West Wycombe and 1st Baron Le Despencer.

CE: First of all, way too many names. I top out at four; three is ideal: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Rachael Leigh Cook, Sarah Jessica Parker. All winners.

Second of all, Dashwood’s a handful. Look at him.

Adrien Carpentiers. Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood in club dress. c.1750. Oil. Collection of West Wycombe Park.

Adrien Carpentiers. Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood in club dress. c.1750. Oil. Collection of West Wycombe Park.

SC: Here are some great things about him!

CE: Good call, we should get that stuff out of the way first.

SC: Anyway…he was a founding member of the Society of Dilettanti and one of its major sponsors, sitting on all of its important committees and always first in line to contribute funds to the cause. He was an enthusiastic supporter of art and archeology as well as an informed and careful collector of antiquities and manuscripts. He was also a competent politician and a good public speaker. Horace Walpole, our great contemporary source on the English ruling classes and often an excoriating critic, called him in 1754 “a man who loved to know, and who cultivated a roughness of speech [and] affected to know no more than what he had learned from a very unadorned learning.”[1] So, a guy with a wide appreciation for culture and discerning taste who wasn’t a know-it-all.

However, I want to get right out in front of it and say this: he was not a nice person. I will make the usual disclaimers, like that it’s hard to parse the morality of a different time and place, and that it is tricky work to interpret historical documents looking for a personal story, but it is even more difficult to be a Dashwood apologist. Writers who tackle Dashwood use phrases like “notorious rake” and “lascivious lord” and have an overall tendency to sanitize. His descriptors often put him in the same category as the rakes of the Restoration period, who were standardized in the theater of the time as witty, sexy, rich, fun characters. But Dashwood came along a bit later, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its attendant reforms, during a time when the aristocracy was becoming more susceptible to public criticism through the newly uncensored English press. So while drinking and wenching were central to aristocratic identity, and engaging in escapades with one’s fellow lords helped to form alliances and maintain class cohesion, during Dashwood’s lifetime the climate of public tolerance for aristocratic misbehavior was shifting.

CE: Not that Dashwood minded being the topic of scandalous gossip and intrigue. Dashwood often seemed largely unbothered by the P.R. shitstorm that regularly surrounded him.[2]

His friend Bubb Dodington once likened him to “a publick reservoir…laying [his] Cock in every private Family that has any place fit to receive it.”[3] That’s Dashwood’s friend talking. His FRIEND. Good Lord.

Speaking of friends, after a very public falling out in 1762, John Wilkes, Dashwood’s former buddy, got pretty serious about exposing and discrediting Dashwood and the Medmenham Monks.[4] Wilkes basically set out to write a Dashwood-centric burn book, except the “book” was the free press.

In 1763 Wilkes began writing about the raucous behavior of his former friends. That same year he sponsored the publication of Secrets of the Convent, which was filled with stories about and allusions to the Medmenham Monks.[5] Thus stories about Dashwood—both accurate and apocryphal—proliferated among Londoners.

SC: Dashwood had a reputation for libertinism that dwarfed those of his fellow Dilettanti. Unlike Charles Sackville, whose father kept a rein on his finances, Dashwood was financially independent from an early age. The 1st Baronet of West Wycombe, Dashwood’s father, was a merchant who was awarded the baronetcy of West Wycombe in 1707. He died in 1724, making Sir Francis Dashwood the 2nd Baronet of West Wycombe and the lord of a newly inherited estate. He used that estate to fund some truly outrageous escapades.

We can think of no better format for his tabloid-fodder life than the listicle, so here it goes: Francis Dashwood’s Top 5 Craziest Episodes.

 

  1. Public whipping

SC: Lest you start feeling bad for him already, let me point out right away that Dashwood was the one doing the whipping here. As a young dilettante traveling the world, Dashwood made his way through a number of foreign courts, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. In Russia, for instance, he impersonated Charles II in hopes of seducing the Tsarina Ivana. But the best/worst story comes from Rome, where he was on his second Grand Tour at the time of an extended papal conclave. Dashwood found Catholicism ridiculous and and he condemned the church for its rampant corruption. He had already made a reputation for himself by virtue of an “entire repertory of dirty songs about the papacy” and a spot-on impression of Cardinal Ottoboni.[6] On Good Friday in 1740, services were held in the Sistine Chapel. Every attendee had been given, at the entrance, a small scourge as a symbol of Jesus’s suffering at Calvary. But during the service, the lights went out, and Dashwood started whipping the crowd with a real scourge he had brought into the chapel. Dashwood ran out the exit and escaped while people cried “Il Diavolo, Il Diavolo!” It’s…kind of funny. But also cruel, not at all religiously tolerant, and not a very sophisticated joke at that. Expect better of your dilettantes, my friends.

 

  1. Hellfire Club!

CE: The thing about Dashwood is that he was REALLY into clubs. And, joining other people’s clubs was fine, but the thing he loved best was creating his own clubs. Enter the Hellfire Club.

SC: There were several “Hellfire Clubs” in the 18th century, societies formed for men of quality to pursue illicit or impious activities together. The first one was formed by the Duke of Wharton in 1718 and outlawed by an act of Parliament just three years later. Dashwood’s Order of St. Francis of Medmenham, however, is the club most associated with the term “Hellfire Club.”

There are very few records of the Hellfire Club; unlike the Dilettanti, they did not keep official membership books or undertake works of which there would be a public record, and they met irregularly. The general historical consensus is that the club started meeting in the early 1750s, after Medmenham Abbey had been leased and renovated by Dashwood. Usually, their big meeting took place over a week in the summer months, during which members would go out to Medmenham for a period of banqueting, drinking, music, and of course “wenching” (with hired prostitutes). The documents we do have include elaborate menus and the records of a very well-stocked cellar, though, so at least we know that situation was on point.

Medmenham Abbey, seen in a moment of rare calm

Medmenham Abbey, seen in a moment of rare calm

CE: “H-E-L-L-FIRE!

We’re hella fun, I ain’t no liar!

Blasphemy, wenching, and drinking too

These are all the classy things we love to do!”

Ok, I made that up. But that was basically the vibe.

The H.C. was designed as a “mock religious order.”[7] Basically, twice a month, Dashwood and his bros dressed in clothing that resembled religious attire, and commenced with the broing out.[8] As art historian Tim Knox explains, “Elaborate mock-religious ceremonials, drinking, and free love appear to have played some part in their meetings.[9] The Hellfire Club paid homage to pagan deities—Bacchus and Venus were favorite objects of affection.[10]

Dashwood spent a significant amount of time and money altering his property at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire to reflect his interests (interests which the Hellfire Club shared). He filled his gardens with statues of and shrines to Greek and Roman gods. And, in the late 1740s, Dashwood began building another, less visible, testament to his Hellfire spirit…

 

  1. Build caves underground, like little prairie dogs!

CE: We can say one thing for sure about Dashwood; he didn’t do things halfway. If you gave Dashwood a theme, he was going to take it and run with it. Like, if you invited him to a zombie themed party, he would probably bring some real brains to eat, and forgo showering for a couple of weeks before the party—all for the sake of verisimilitude.

Dashwood wanted an epic hangout for his band of bros. I’m going to go ahead and assume that he looked at his options and thought, “you know what the problem is with all of these buildings? They’re too above ground. Above ground is for peasants.” So, he decided to excavate a series of caves under West Wycombe.

When Dashwood moved into West Wycombe, there was already a chalk mine on the property. The further excavation of this mine—commissioned by Dashwood—allowed for the construction of new roads, and provided jobs for local men during a period of rampant unemployment.[11] But, as we’ve already mentioned, Dashwood didn’t just excavate the chalk mine for materials; he built an elaborate series of tunnels and caverns.

SC: Dashwood got a lot of praise at the time for this excavation project. Crops in that part of England had been poor for two years straight due to bad weather, and people were starving. So he’s a job-creator and a good Whig. But it bears mentioning that this was not a service for the public good like a bridge or a WPA mural–there wasn’t any public access to the caves. But still, pretty good.

The Hellfire Club was finished by 1766, but locals soon started giving tours to visitors while recounting the dastardly deeds of the Monks of Medmenham. You could even hold in your hand the heart of Paul Whitehead, Dashwood’s friend and Steward of the Order, since it was kept in an urn on the property (until it was stolen in 1829). Ghost stories and tales of debauchery were common, but sometime in the first years of the 20th century those stories suddenly started featuring devil worship and beastiality. So, when you think about the tourist money going to the Hellfire Caves, just keep in mind that they have a reason to make it seem as lurid as possible.

Spooky lede image from the www.hellfirecaves.co.uk

Spooky lede image from the www.hellfirecaves.co.uk

CE: The Hellfire Caves are still operational as a tourist attraction. Their current website feigns bewilderment as to Dashwood’s motivations for excavating in the specific way he did:

“[Dashwood] could easily however have just enlarged the existing quarry for this work to achieve the same ends, which would have been the obvious thing to do. We are not entirely sure of the reasoning behind his decision to dig a long winding tunnel a quarter of a mile into the hill with all sorts of chambers and divided passages leading off it and a huge room half way down.”[12]

Really? For real? Guys! He wanted a hang out. A. Literal. Man. Cave.

The entrance to the caves is designed to look like a “ruined church.”[13] Once you get inside, you’ll find that the Hellfire Caves consist of five caves and a banqueting hall, all of which you pass through in order to get to the final cavern—the Inner Temple. Oh, also you have to pass over the River Styx in order to enter the Inner Temple. Not a joke.

In Dashwood’s heyday the Hellfire Caves occasionally served as a secluded spot in which the Hellfire Club could meet and carry out their mock rituals/bro-ing. Now, the caves are open to the public, and even available to rent for private parties.[14]

The caves are rumored to be haunted by poet and Monk of Medmenham Paul Whitehead. The H.C.’s website goes so far as to claim that they are “considered one of the most haunted sites in Britain.”[15] They have ghost tours! And paranormal investigations! And a tea room! Actually their website is worth a look—http://www.hellfirecaves.co.uk.

One final fun fact: one of the caves under West Wycombe is named Franklin’s Cave after the one, the only, Benjamin Franklin. As Postmaster General of Great Britain from 1766 until 1781, Dashwood was Franklin’s superior (Franklin was the Deputy Postmaster General for North America). The two became friends and eventually co-authored Abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer (1773). So the Hellfire Caves are at least a little American, you guys. At least a little.

 

  1. Gardens

SC: While we don’t know for sure what happened at the Medmenham meetings, we can draw some pretty fair conclusions of what kind of behavior was encouraged there by looking at the building and grounds at West Wycombe, Dashwood’s more “public” house. His building projects there display the kind of clever sexual puns you expect from someone who worshipped Venus in a friar’s habit. Dashwood hired an architect named Nicholas Revett to oversee his estate-building projects (Revett had been the first architect hired by the Dilettanti to document ancient ruins in Italy and Greece).

CE: Both Dashwood and Revett had extensive knowledge of classical architecture from their travels. And, they put that valuable knowledge to excellent use: creating a giant sex joke garden.

Temple of Venus with entrance to Parlor of Venus. (file under "garden jokes")

Temple of Venus with entrance to Parlor of Venus. (file under “garden jokes”)

SC: Dashwood and Revett drew on examples of ancient ruins to build porticos, temples, and even a grotto. The Temple of Venus, which held a copy of the Venus de’ Medici, was erected on top of a hill (a true mons veneris, or “mound of Venus”). That hill was hollowed out to form an interior room named the Parlor of Venus. The entrance to the cave was suggestively shaped. In 1763, John Wilkes wrote that when you come to that part of the ground, “you find at first what is called an error in limine; for the entrance to it is the same entrance by which we all come into the world, and the door is what some idle wits have called the door of life.”[16] The flint structure around the opening was topped by a statue of the Roman god Mercury. The ingestion of mercury was the leading 18th century treatment for syphilis, so this statue’s placement creates innuendo around bawdy behavior in general and especially sex with prostitutes, who were often blamed for syphilis outbreaks.

CE: Now ingesting mercury is just a great way to lose all coordination and hallucinate bugs on your skin. Oh how the times have changed.

 

  1. Portrait

SC: While Enlightenment-era humor usually lacked a certain amount of finesse, Dashwood was capable of pulling off some pretty subtle humor (when he wasn’t whipping people in the Sistine Chapel). Soon after his return from his second Grand Tour, the Dilettanti commissioned a set of “fancy dress” portraits from one of their members, George Knapton, to be hung in their newly leased private dining room. Knapton’s portrait of Dashwood shows him dressed in a Franciscan habit with an inscription on his halo that reads: “SAN: FRANCESCO DI WYCOMBO.” Interestingly, this portrait dates from 1742, years before the Monks of Medmenham Abbey were formed. Dashwood thought about this thing for a long, long time. And it is, in general, a pretty genius parody.

CE: Hiding jokes inside of painted portraits of oneself is the most rich white guy thing I’ve ever heard.

George Knapton. Sir Francis Dashwood, later Baron Le Despencer. 1742. Oil on canvas. 91.4 x 71.1 cm. London, Society of Dilettanti

George Knapton. Sir Francis Dashwood, later Baron Le Despencer. 1742. Oil on canvas. 91.4 x 71.1 cm. London, Society of Dilettanti

SC: By the 1750s, Dashwood had taken Rabelaisian religious parody to new heights, creating an alternative morality of the permissible and the libertine. Above the entrance to Medmenham Abbey, he had Rabeleis’s famous axiom, “fay ce que voudras” (“Do what thou wilt”) inscribed. The quote is taken from the first volume of Rabelais’s books Gargantua and Pantagruel, which describes the Gargantua-founded Abbey of Thélème. In this abbey there are no rules, because the inhabitants are well-born, well-bred, and well-educated, so they are naturally inclined to virtue instead of vice. Juxtaposing this against the austere Franciscan order was an incisive dig at the Church and an upending of St. Augustine’s rule: “Love God and do what thou wilt.”

There are a few other well-bred quips in this painting. The first is in the goblet’s inscription: “MATRI SANCTORUM” (“to the Mother of the Saints”). The goblet is positioned in front of the Venus de’ Medici, to whom Dashwood addresses his devotions. Calling the Venus the “mother of saints” sets the classical pagan tradition above the Christian one (in which Mary is the mother of saints) and emphasizes the flesh instead of the spirit. The painted Venus de’ Medici is also open to a couple of readings around the statue’s missing hand. First, the absence of her hand makes her “mound of Venus” all the more visible, suiting Dashwood’s predilections and making absolutely clear what he values about the divine feminine. It’s also a shout-out to Dashwood’s refined taste and his stance on an antiquarian debate of the time, since the Venus de’ Medici had recently been fitted with a restored hand that Dashwood considered inferior to the original work.

CE: So that’s the scoop on Lord Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet of West Wycombe and 1st Baron Le Despencer! Actually, it’s only half the scoop, because he spent many years causing a ruckus. But these are the highlights!

We taught Dashwood to use Tumblr, so he’ll be taking over http://dilettantebattles.tumblr.com/ presently. He is very excited.

 

[1] Walpole, Horace. Memoirs of the Reign of George II, 2.143, quoted in Patrick Woodland, ‘Dashwood, Francis, eleventh Baron Le Despencer (1708–1781)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/7179, accessed 16 July 2015]

[2] Kelly, Jason M. The Society of Dilettanti. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

[3] Quoted in Knox, Tim. “Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, as a Collector of Ancient and Modern Sculpture.” Studies in the History of Art 70, no. Symposium Papers XLVII: Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe (2008): 396-419.

[4] Knox, Tim. “Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, as a Collector of Ancient and Modern Sculpture.” Studies in the History of Art 70, no. Symposium Papers XLVII: Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe (2008): 396-419.

[5] Kelly, Jason M. The Society of Dilettanti. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

[6] Simon, Robin. “High politics and Hellfire: William Hogarth.” Gresham College website, http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/high-politics-and-hellfire-william-hogarth (accessed 27 September 2015)

[7] Knox, Tim. “Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, as a Collector of Ancient and Modern Sculpture.” Studies in the History of Art 70, no. Symposium Papers XLVII: Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe (2008): 396-419.

[8] Knox, Tim. “Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, as a Collector of Ancient and Modern Sculpture.” Studies in the History of Art 70, no. Symposium Papers XLVII: Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe (2008): 396-419.

[9] Knox, Tim. “Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, as a Collector of Ancient and Modern Sculpture.” Studies in the History of Art 70, no. Symposium Papers XLVII: Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe (2008): 396-419.

[10] Kelly, Jason M. The Society of Dilettanti. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

[11] Symes, Michael. “Flintwork, Freedom and Fantasy: The Landscape at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire.” Garden History 33, no. 1 (2005): 1-30. Accessed September 27, 2015. doi:10.2307/25434154.

[12] “History of the Caves.” The Hellfire Caves. 2013. Accessed September 27, 2015. http://www.hellfirecaves.co.uk/history/history-caves/.

[13] Symes, Michael. “Flintwork, Freedom and Fantasy: The Landscape at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire.” Garden History 33, no. 1 (2005): 1-30. Accessed September 27, 2015. doi:10.2307/25434154.

[14] History of the Caves.” The Hellfire Caves. 2013. Accessed September 27, 2015. http://www.hellfirecaves.co.uk/history/history-caves/.

[15] “Paranormal Investigations.” The Hellfire Caves. 2013. Accessed September 27, 2015. http://www.hellfirecaves.co.uk/whats-on/paranormal-investigations.

[16] Quoted in Kelly, Jason M. “A Nymphaeum and a Temple to Venus in an Eighteenth-Century English Garden.” https://hellfiresecrets.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/a-nymphaeum-and-a-temple-to-venus-in-an-eighteenth-century-english-garden/ (accessed 30 September 2015)