History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

16 January 2008

Hellfire Clubs

I’ve been fascinated by the notion of the Hellfire Club ever since reading Victoria Holt’s “Secret for a Nightingale” in fourth grade. So, when I wanted something that exemplified the dark side of life for my latest novel, it seemed a logical choice to create a Hellfire Club. What I hadn’t realized, though, until I started researching the topic, was just how rich a history the Hellfire Clubs really have. If I were writing a slogan for them, it would probably go something along the lines of “Not just about decadence anymore!” In fact, far from being the freewheeling exemplar of general all around libertinism that I had believed them, the Hellfire Clubs were rooted in the politics and cultural shifts of a very particular historical moment.

Between the 1710’s and the 1730’s, Hellfire type clubs sprung up like weeds. The first of these was founded by Philip, Duke of Wharton (devoted readers of historical fiction will recognize him from his cameo in Karleen Koen’s “Through a Glass Darkly”). They were roughly forty in number, all “persons of quality”, meeting at Somerset House or various taverns in London, to call each other by silly names and partake of such delicacies as Hell-Fire Punch, Holy Ghost Pie, and Breast of Venus (small chickens with cherries for nipples). Although they were put out of business by a 1721 Order in Council designed to suppress “immorality and profaneness”, similar clubs sprung up all across the British Isles: at Oxford, in Dublin, in Edinburgh, and back in London. Like Wharton’s society, the Dublin club was founded by a nobleman (the Earl Rosse) and whispers abounded of blasphemies and orgies.

Where did they all come from? One explanation is political. In 1714, old Queen Anne died, George I stalked over from Hanover, and the Whigs came into power with a vengeance. By the 1730’s, Whig hegemony was assured, masterminded by the man considered England’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. It can be no accident that several of the members of the Hellfire Clubs, including both Wharton and Sir Francis Dashwood, dabbled in Jacobitism, the obvious opposite to the Hanoverian-Whig regime. The anti-clerical nature of the Hellfire Club, mocking the liturgy and toasting the devil, may be read, in part, as a critique of the established church of the day for lining up with the Whig establishment.

But why did the Hellfire Clubs take the form they did? Geoffrey Ashe, in his thought-provoking history of the Hellfire Clubs, roots their inception in several cultural convergences of the era: the rise of the rake, the prominence of coffeehouse culture, and the practice of the Grand Tour. Coffeehouses, which became the rage in the reign of Anne, were one of the main battlegrounds on which the Whig-Tory (or sometimes Whig-Whig) political struggles of the day were fought. In this period, “club” and “coffeehouse” were nearly synonymous. The Tories met at the Cocoa-Tree, the Whigs at St. James, turning their respective meeting places into political bywords. The original Hellfire Clubs, meeting as they did at coffeehouses and taverns, resemble nothing so much as these other coffeehouse societies—only with a diabolical twist.

When you look at the iconography and practices of the Hellfire Clubs, they’re an odd mix of ad hoc diabolism (toasts to the devil, mock liturgies, a baboon dressed as a priest, a naked woman in lieu of an altar) and classical mythology (attempts to replicate Eleusian mysteries). Here we arrive at the Grand Tour, where young noblemen abroad picked up scandalous ideas and carried them home with them to England, like so many souvenirs in their luggage. Diabolism was in vogue on the Continent, where dissolute noblemen such as the Duc de Richelieu dabbled in black magic. But their continental wanderings exposed young English aristocrats to more than that. The English Hellfire Clubs’ revels also bespoke a fascination with classical culture, with the rites of ancient Greece and Rome as well as French satanism. In 1732, Sir Francis Dashwood, who was later to form the most famous of the Hellfire Clubs, the Monks of Medmenham, founded a group called the Society of the Dilettanti. A prerequisite for membership was that members had to have been to Italy. The president of the society, in a clear nod to ancient Rome, wore a red toga and presided from a curule chair, while the Secretary’s “was always dressed as Machiavelli.” Later in life, when he turned his house at Wycombe into Hellfire Club Central, these classical themes continued, with the “Friars of St. Francis” practicing “English Eleusinian mysteries,” a remarkable mix of the ancient and the gothic all in one scrumptiously sinful package. In the Hellfire Clubs, the classicism so paradigmatic of the eighteenth century met and melded with anti-clericalism and diabolism, producing a fascinating hybrid.

Were there orgies and diabolical bacchanals? Absolutely! (And I’ve shamelessly borrowed from them for the book I’m currently working on). But, when we get past the more titillating aspects, the real fascination of the Hellfire Clubs lies in the way they draw upon so many paradigmatic aspects of early Georgian culture. In the meantime (since this has gotten very, very long), I’ll save the gory details of Hellfire Club ceremonial for another post….



Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fascinating post Lauren! I've always wondered about the Hellfire Clubs and the reasons for them, apart from the whole "let's get together, drink and shag alot of women," aspect of them. They almost sound like our modern fraternities without the whole worshipping the devil aspects. Although I wouldn't have put it past some of the frats at Syracuse!

9:49 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Your research looks beyond the obvious -- which is always rewarding. Thanks for sharing. It does tame the hellfire clubs and reminds us not to rely on Heyer as a definitive source. I had no idea of the political origins of the hellfire clubs -- are you going to touch on that aspect in your book?

Have made note of the book you mentioned -- thanks!

10:03 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks for such a provocative post, Lauren! I've always been intrigued by the Hellfire Clubs, and, of course, as you know, since you so generously provided a jacket quote for the book, in BY A LADY I included a scene set in a club (located in the subterranean depths beneath a bordello run by a notorious Bath madam). I'm looking forward to a follow-up post to this one!!

10:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lauren! (I too first heard of the Hellfire Club in "Secret for a Nightingale, I think, unless I read about it in Georgette Heyer first). I have to look for the Geoffrey Ashe book. I have a group called the Elsinore League in "Beneath a Silent Moon" that's loosely inspired by the Hellfire Clubs (in my imagination as well as in the minds of the characters who set it up and were copying the Hellfire Clubs)--their "pageants" are based on Shakespeare rather than religion or mythology. It's founded by two Oxford undergraduates with their friends from university and the grand tour (which I'm very pleased to see fits in with Ashe's context for the Hellfire Clubs). Of course it also has a whole hidden agenda which is meant to unravel over the series...

10:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


typing too fast--I meant to add that Lauren also with wonderful generosity--provide a quote for the May trade release of "Beneath a Silent Moon"!

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amanda and Tracy, I loved both your Hellfire Club takes! The description of the chambers of the Elsinore League was absolutely brilliant....

Amanda, on the subterranean depths front, I'm also situating my Hellfire Club below ground, in caves based on those at Wycombe. The funny thing is, though, despite all of the tours and ghosthunters that go through them (there was just another of those programs on tv the other day about psychics going through the "Hellfire caves"), the caves weren't developed into fairly late in that particular Hellfire Club's career, and probably weren't used much. As a couple of authors pointed out, it would have been very cold, very damp, and very uncomfortable-- not great for running around naked! But I couldn't resist the idea of the caves....

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Mary! I found the whole research exercise a salutary reminder of just how closely political and social life were interwoven in the eighteenth century, with politics being very much about personal relations, dynastic ties, and aesthetics. It's also just fascinating how closely libertinage and political activity have been linked in the past, even though now we see them as antithetical-- Charles James Fox and his friendship with the Prince of Wales comes to mind, as do (in an earlier period) Rochester and Buckingham. Philip, Duke of Wharton, not only founded one of the earliest recognizable Hellfire Clubs, he also founded a very earnest and famous opposition magazine (opposition to Walpole, that is), "The True Briton."

Sorry, thinking aloud!

Despite all this, I do wonder, as Elizabeth pointed out, how many were in it for political purposes, and how many just thought, "Wine and women! Jolly good! Pass the Hell-fire Punch, old bean!" But I suppose that's the most interesting part of Georgian politics, the way personal social relations forge political allegiances, even when many of the individuals may not, themselves, be more interested in the booze than the principles.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooops, sorry about all the typos! Talk about typing too fast....

11:55 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It's interesting what you said about politics and dynasties in the 18th century, particularly when you consider that the Prince of Wales was a Whig partly because George III was so anti-whig, and the same with Frederick, the Prince of Wales and George II.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating post, Lauren. I've been interested in fantasies concerning Secret Societies since I read Thomas Pyncheon's The Crying of Lot 49 back in the 60s. The Enlightenment seemed to bring with it a need for a dark side -- why was that? The Masons, the Illuminati -- all the darks and lights in The Magic Flute... liberal democracy seems to want to believe in conspiracy -- you can still read dark imaginings about Skull and Bones at Yale today.

And when I've written erotica I've done so against the background of the Marquis de Sade's overarching fantasy of the Society of the Friends of Crime.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Interesting point, Pam. I wonder if part of it is that as society opened up, the elite needed to find ways to set themselves apart. A lot of politics and business got discussed in these organizations (in and around the debauchery) to entrée to the organization became entrée to the corridors of power.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam, have you read Donna Tartt's "The Secret History"? It plays with a lot of the same ideas. I hadn't thought of it until you mentioned Skull & Bones (ah, bright college years!), but it revolves around a secret society of students who attempt to recreate Dionysian rites. It does make you wonder why these things come up again and again-- and in the same forms: either attempts to form pacts with the devil or appeals to pagan gods.

1:30 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Fascinating post, Lauren. The political aspect is particularly interesting. The machinations of the seemingly idle rich of this period and so many others never cease to amaze me. With all of our sophistication we still are drawn to the primitive, the unexplained and the mystic. My uncle passed away this summer and I attended my first Masonic funeral. It was very elegant, moving and fascinating. This took place in one of the least sophisticated places on the planet - Evergreen, Alabama (birthplace of Hank Williams,Sr.)Yet, these old men conducted this ancient rite in precise Latin with all the pomp of a Roman Catholic Mass. Even in their debauchery the men in these Hellfire Clubs seem to have been drawn to the comforting pattern of ritual. It would seem that ritual could make even the raunchiest event more "civilized" for lack of a better word.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

fascinating, Lauren. The history is always more complex than I expect.

I still think it is amusing that these grown, supposedly civilized men played these "games" even if they had a more serious political purpose at the same time.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

WOW! Great post. I'm also totally fascinated by Hellfire clubs and the history there of. Someday I'll use the wonderful caves in Hastings for something . . .

8:40 PM  

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