A Visit To The Hellfire Caves: Dead Men Tell Some Tales

A Visit To The Hellfire Caves: Dead Men Tell Some Tales

Hellfire 1As you turn left onto the old road to West Wycombe that Francis Dashwood upgraded, you can see his mausoleum on the hilltop in front of you.

This is your first confirmation.

“Yep. Definite wizard.”

The Mausoleum wasn’t our first stop yesterday. Technically, I should include the famous Walpole in Ealing, where we broke a second five day juice fast. (Part of a wider thing I have going on this month. More on that later.)

It’s an old English caff from another age, and a favourite of famous actors from the nearby Ealing Studios for decades, apparently.

This was a deliberate, if whimsical choice. Not only is it cheap, awesome and on the way to the Hellfire Caves, but it allows me to sync with this description of Sir Francis Dashwood’s little club from Horace Walpole:

[T]he members’ “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighborhood of the complexion of those hermits.” Dashwood’s garden at West Wycombe contained numerous statues and shrines to different gods; Daphne and Flora, Priapus and the previously mentioned Venus and Dionysus.

It is pleasing to view magical correspondences as a means of kickstarting synchronicity until it catches, like the flint on a planet-sized cigarette lighter. This is my current operating hypothesis for the utility and efficacy of what we might consider sympathetic magic and or the law of contagion. (And why, one way or another, they all seem to work, which would rule out hypotheses that rely on inherent properties in the categories themselves.)

So the mausoleum would be the third stop. The second stop was the caves themselves.

Hellfire 2

They’re a tourist destination, obviously, so I was relying on my borderline OCD to get us there just as it opened in order to have the whole tunnel complex to ourselves for as long as possible. I wanted the banqueting hall, at least, to myself for the consecration of two magical items involved in this wider project.

Once again, this worked a treat, and it was just us and the ghosts until we passed people at the entry turnstile on the way out. And talk about ghosts! My personal experience of weird sites tends more toward the sensation of echoes or replaying memories, rather than the presence of a discarnate human consciousness. But that’s what I got here, within about fifty feet of the caves entrance.

Hellfire 3

The one that came through the strongest, which I didn’t see mentioned anywhere, was that of a fellow Australian who -furthering the ‘nation of convicts’ stereotype- stole a preserved heart from an urn in the caves in 1829. (You seriously cannot take us anywhere!)

Whose heart, you ask? The heart of Paul Whitehead, the secretary of Dashwood’s order, the one who planned all their rituals. He even once organised a procession of tramps and beggars down the road that Dashwood had upgraded, allegedly as a mockery of a masonic procession. (There is another interpretation to do with the chapel above the caves, we’ll come to that.) Here’s what was written in Whitehead’s will, when he died in 1774:

I give to the Right Hon. Lord le Despencer my heart aforesaid together with £50 to be laid out in the purchase of a marble urn in which I desire may be deposited and placed, if His Lordship pleases, in some corner of the Mausoleum as a memorial of his warm attachment to the noble founder.

Because that’s completely normal for two married men who were involved in nothing more than a little country drinking club. Here’s what little we actually know about Dashwood’s ‘Order’:

Its full and correct title in its heyday seems to have been ‘The Order’ (or ‘Brotherhood’) ‘of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe.’ Sutter also notes other ascriptions: The Knights, or the Friars, of St. Francis of Wycombe. Others called them the Hell-Fire Friars. The order has no documented history. The story must be pieced together from a few hostile accounts from the 1760s, one of them clearly fictional, and from clues left in poems and correspondence. [p. 119.] Dashwood’s West Wycombe House was their meeting place originally. Meetings in the revamped Abbey appear to have started in 1752.”

John Wilkes, a member of the outer order, referred to it as the “English Eleusinian Mysteries”. We moved deeper into the caves.

Hellfire 4

From the same source:

By the later 1750s the senior members were losing interest and a younger crowd was joining. To this group belongs the reputed membership of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was Dashwood’s guest at West Wycombe…

The tradition of a satanic cult has no basis beyond perhaps the odd séance. The local people at the time noticed nothing sinister other than the periodic importation of women and wine.

The Franklin angle interests me. On the walls are displays of some of his writing, contemporaneous with his stay with Dashwood, where he earnestly expresses his wish for America to remain part of -indeed become the centre of- the British Empire. Like ritual cities or mass UFO sightings, activities such as these seem to facilitate Neighbourly interaction with terrestrial politics. (Which is emphatically not to say there is a worldwide occult conspiracy, but it does further suggest that the only two real political parties may well be ‘physical’ and ‘non-physical’.)

As for the functioning of Dashwood’s order, it appears Sir Francis took the part of Christ in a split group: ‘The Superior’ and ‘The Inferior’. His so-called twelve apostles had annual elections to choose leaders and all were given pseudonyms. They’d wear brown habits, but for chapter meetings such as those held in the caves, the Inferior wore white and the Superior wore crimson. After dinner in the banqueting hall, the Abbot would raise a glass of port to the Devil and the Superiors would retire further into the caves where the inferior were not permitted.

This is a frustratingly blurry image of the banqueting hall.

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The alcoves are arranged in a cardinal fashion (see map), indicating a ritual intention from the start. It’s supposed that these alcoves were used by two or more people involved in sex with any of the masked, white-wearing prostitutes that would accompany the chapter meetings.

I stood in the middle of the banqueting hall and did what I was supposed to do, facing this alcove:

Hellfire 6

The effects were instant. In fact, after this point, my partner began to hear footsteps in the gravel that didn’t belong to us, in the completely empty caves. It is believed that if there was a ritual magic element to Dashwood’s Order (and there patently was), then it was performed in the ‘Inner Temple’… our next destination. But I got a whole lot more familiar resonance from the banqueting hall, for whatever that’s worth.

My personal kinda-maybe-slightly-informed-or-something opinion was that the rituals we may consider baphometic happened in this room. (It’s extremely unlikely they used the term, but Bacchus and Venus? C’mon.)

To get to the Inner Temple, one passes through a triangular tunnel section that some suspect was designed as a stylised vulva. Then one crosses the so-called ‘River of Styx':

Hellfire 7

It got properly haunted just before this point. Even my partner could feel it (but he underestimates his clairsentience at the best of times). Then we finally reach the Inner Temple. At this point, you are precisely 100 metres below the Chapel of St Lawrence on top of the hill. Here it is, decked out in the finest, early-seventies-British-tourism style:

Hellfire 8

As a longtime member of English Heritage, I’ve watched with the highest approval as the executive director has spent the last six or so years expunging creepy mannequins from its properties with all the zeal of a Protestant reformer smashing down depictions of The Virgin. There is little you can do about attractions like this one that remain in private hands, however. My shitty phone photo accidentally makes it look kinda neat in an early Marilyn Manson way, but let me assure you it is truly fuckawful and embarrassing… like walking in on a house guest masturbating in your spare room.

I didn’t get much out of the Inner Temple, perhaps because I literally couldn’t get in it. I’m sure something would have gone on here because why go to the trouble of lining it up with the church otherwise? Nevertheless, it didn’t have the same tuning fork resonance as the banqueting hall. He may just have brought his mates and his hookers down here for sex, finding the symbolism particularly pleasing, but the detail he put into all his other ritual elements makes this explanation unsatisfying. Guess we’ll never know. Like I said, dead men tell some tales.

This being the terminus of the tunnel system, we turn around and walk all the way back, only encountering other humans as we emerge into the courtyard. Then we get into the car because we are lazy cows and drive to the Chapel of St Lawrence on the top of the hill.

Hellfire 9

Hey Gordon, I hear you ask. What’s that giant gold orb on top of the church?

You mean this giant gold orb?

Hellfire 10

I’m glad you asked. Ben Franklin himself asked the exact same question. It’s part of the extensive improvement work that Dashwood financed for the chapel directly above his Inner Temple.

Apparently, it’s based on a similar object that Dashwood saw atop the Customs House in Venice during his Grand Tour. Which would be a reasonable explanation were it not situated directly above an underground ritual sex magic complex. Or were it not for the fact that there is another one thirty miles away, paid for by Order member and Member of Parliament, John Norris. He would stand with his orb and Dashwood would stand with his and they’d signal each other via heliograph.

Again. Perfectly normal behaviour for parliamentary members. Speaking of, here’s a list of some of the Hellfire members from Dashwood’s day:

  • The First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich
  • The son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Potter
  • The physician to the Prince of Wales, Dr Thomas Thompson
  • The Governor of Bengal, Sir Henry Vansittart

The rest, with the exception of the guy with the preserved heart, were all MPs and Knights of the Realm.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the orb wasn’t inspired by things seen on Dashwood’s Grand Tour, I rather suspect that much of his life was inspired by that trip. In fact, it begs the question of when does “obsessive classicist” become “wizard”, because that’s clearly where the confusion in orthodox depictions of Dashwood encounter trouble.

I would suspect the blurred line runs somewhere near shipping over a North Italian painter, Joseph Borgnis, and his entire family, to restore the church and paint frescoes in all of Dashwood’s properties, including a replication from the Palmyra Sun Temple near Damascus. (Those North Italian artists, huh?)

The story of St Lawrence himself is missing from most accounts of Dashwood, but we know better than to ignore it. St Lawrence of Rome would certainly have appealed to an Italophile and mystic like Sir Francis.

After the death of Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Ambrose is the earliest source for the tale that Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. Lawrence worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the Church. One account records him declaring to the prefect, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.” This act of defiance led directly to his martyrdom. 

Lawrence was from the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the area that was to become Cathar and may be the location of our first Neighbourly congress. Part of the church treasure he liquidated was believed to include the Holy Grail itself, which has a personal resonance for me or for anyone interested in hermetic mythology.

St Lawrence paraded the poor before the emperor. Dashwood’s chief ritualist paraded the poor along a road that Dashwood personally paid for that leads directly to a chapel dedicated to St Lawrence, topped with a gold sphere. This is the view looking back toward the road:

Hellfire 11

This is the sphere lining up through Dashwood’s mausoleum, where Whitehead paid to have his heart interred. All I did was turn around on the spot and snap. (A step to the right and I would have lined up his remains with the orb and the road.)

Hellfire 12

In parliament, Dashwood was a vocal advocate for the spending of government money on projects of work to stimulate employment in the regions -an idea that has particular resonance for us today as the argument inexplicably continues almost three hundred years later. The road was his personal contribution to this scheme… consider it a successful proof of concept.

This makes it very difficult to paint him as an eccentric toff who considered the lower orders to be little more than objects of fleeting sexual interest for him and his wealthy friends. He built a ritual chamber underneath an expanded chapel dedicated to a man who was essentially an economic terrorist of the best kind, then he had himself buried next to this church in a ritualistic hexagon that lines up his gold orb with a road he paid for to stimulate the local economy.

(Sidebar: All of this begs the question of how much his reputational smearing was down to his allegedly immoral sexual proclivities and how much of it was down to telling the elites to put their fucking hands in their fucking pockets.)

Hellfire 13

It might be worth noting that the banqueting hall is just to the east of the mausoleum, however this is the only place on the hilltop you could place such a large structure without moving some of the existing graves. It might be nothing, it might be something. Here’s a description of the mausoleum:

In the centre is a cenotaph consisting of four columns supporting a roof and covering a marble urn on a pedestal. This urn was copied from two Porthyry urns which were in the house. Porthyry was greatly prized in Roman times. It could only be obtained from Egypt and was especially sort after by Popes in the 12th. Century for their burial as a way of claiming parity with Emperors. This monument was erected in memory of Sarah, Baroness le Despencer, who died in 1769. She was Sir Francis’s wife and the widow of Sir Richard Ellys of Nocton, a great antiquarian and book collector.

Wait, wait, wait. So Dashwood -a confirmed classicist who had his life changed by the Grand Tour- had a wife who herself inherited an extensive collection of mysterious books and objects? What books might that include in the mid eighteenth century? What was he reading before sending off for his own Italian artist to magic up his various properties?

Let’s return to Paul Whitehead and his bizarre post-mortem request to have his heart put in an urn in his friend’s mausoleum.

Hellfire 14

You see. He got his wish. He died on December 30, 1774, less than seven miles from my houseA full eight months lateron August 13, his heart was placed in an urn, paraded up a hill two counties over, to the mausoleum before receiving a triple gun salute and placed on a pedestal inside the hexagon. (I have not been able to determine whether he was buried with his heart and then exhumed for the ritual, but that does seem to be rather a lot of effort.)

August 10 is the feast day of St Lawrence. However -paging Dr Vallée- there is some flexibility in this as, since the fourth century, his feast day coincided with the Perseid Meteor Shower in mid-August, sometimes referred to as “the tears of St Lawrence”.

Want to know what day of the week August 13, 1775 was? It was a Sunday. Whether it was celebrated or not in the church the day of the ceremony, it was indeed the Mass of St Lawrence.

I am terribly moved by this story. Being there, it didn’t feel to me like they were lovers, but the closest of friends. (Although I’m pretty sure they had sex. Drunk, in the dark, in the middle of a hollow hill, surrounded by hookers, things can get a bit difficult to control. In such situations, as the saying goes, any hole’s a goal.)

There are certainly worse views to have from yours or your heart's final resting place.

There are certainly worse views to have from yours or your heart’s final resting place.

The friendship/death through-line carries particular resonance for me this weekend. It’s my mother the psychonaut’s birthday this weekend and as I walked into the tunnels -about twenty feet before encountering the Australian ghost- I pocket dialled her. Well, I say pocket dialled, but the phone was in my hand.

In addition to this, her best friend and my unofficial second mother, the woman I saw in Paris on her bucket list trip, had been admitted to hospital to die as there is nothing else allopathic cancer ‘treatment’ can do for her.

This weekend, my mother was due to see HH the fourteenth Dalai Lama again in Sydney, but couldn’t make it because it would mean being out of town while her friend is dying. So she told her friend that was to accompany her to give away her excellent seat up the front. At the event in Sydney, her friend encountered a woman outside who had lost her son in a car accident earlier in the year and was extremely upset that she was sitting so far away from the spiritual succour she so desperately needed.

MMTP’s ticket went to this woman so now she was sitting up the front. Her ticket was then given to a little Tibetan boy who was standing out the front of the venue with no ticket at all, who would now get to see HH.

The woman who is now sitting in the ‘access’ seats that lost her son is so moved by MMTP’s act of generosity (which is nice but when it’s your bestie dying it’s not like you consider leaving town for a show) that she includes a prayer for MMTP’s dying friend to be prayed over by HH himself!

All of this happens through the night here in the UK and I wake up this morning, the day after my Hellfire experience, to find my mother’s best friend has indeed passed after having the Dalai Lama pray for her… on my mother’s birthday.

I am obviously thinking about my mother and her best friend as we walk back from Dashwood’s ‘mausoleum of friendship’ that stands directly above the Australian ghost I encountered an hour before. We round the graveyard and a young couple with their kid asks me a question:

“Is this the way to the caves?”

No, you want to get back in your car and curve back down the hill. You can’t miss them.

“Then what’s over here?”

The mausoleum.

“The mausoleum to who?”

Holy shit, that’s an Australian accent. I am stopped by Australians on a nowheresville hill in Buckinghamshire. And with that question, I got to say his name, standing underneath the gold sphere of St Lawrence.

Sir Francis Dashwood.

Wizard. And friend.

Dedicated to Marilyn. Journey well.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Pedro Ribeiro

    Great post. I just realized how much of the sensationalist “Hellfire Club was eeeevil” description from books like the Prism colletion still came to my mind when I thought of Dashwood. And the X-Men villains, too. But after Grant Morrison, Emma Frost turned out to be rather cool… I will have to read more about the Monks. And the domino sequence of good-doing you described was also very moving.


  2. 2

    I made a point of dragging my mother to the Hellfire Caves on our recent trip to the UK. Some photos here: http://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/west-wycombe/. I felt the power of the Banqueting Hall too, btw, though it helps that I have always longed to see that statue of Bacchus in person, and it lived up to the feelings I already had about it. The best part for me was that it turned out that the opening scene of my favorite movie of all time, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth from 1986, was filmed on Dashwood’s estate, near the big house. http://girls-underground.com/2013/05/13/visiting-the-labyrinth-park/ I found this out while planning the trip, *after* I had already decided to go to this otherwise middle-of-nowhere little town to see the Caves. Love synchronicity.

  3. 4
    Cory Panshin

    Politics, sex, and religion are the three great disruptors of polite discourse, and the Hellfire Club managed to exist at the nexus of all three. Your entry has inspired me to do something I’ve had on my to-do list for a while, which is to check out the changing meanings of “libertine” in the OED. I find it being used originally to describe a freed slave but then as “the name given to certain antinomian sects of the early sixteenth century” (which certainly fits in with the “Do what thou wilt” part) — from which it came to mean more generally “acknowledging no law in religion or morals.” And here is a citation from 1704, “His Design was to abolish all Religion . . and establish Atheism and Libertinism, leaving every Body to their Liberty of believing what they pleased.”

    There is a deep thread of libertinism that weaves its way through 18th century radical thought and that (like the Hermetic tradition in general) passes as a secular phenomenon but is directly based on the more openly heretical leanings of a century or two earlier. What’s particularly strange to me is that we Americans can unselfconsciously regard ourselves as the “land of liberty,” and even assert pugnaciously that “everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” without ever giving a second thought to either the magical or the sexual strains on which those attitudes are founded.

    Ben Franklin, at least, would have known better.
    Cory Panshin´s last blog post ..Fire Hackers and Cosmic Dreamers

  4. 6
    Phinehas Roy

    I discovered your blog a couple months ago and it is quickly becoming one of my very favorite. Good work sir!

  5. 7

    Thank you for this profound post. I have to admit, I have never looked deeper into Hellfire club because I assumed it was a kinky pseudo satanic gathering for bored rich kids. Now I know better.
    Best of wishes to your family and friends; I can only say “death is only the beginning”. Hope you all are going to be alright.
    Johnny´s last blog post ..I don’t need your permission

  6. 9
    Cory Panshin

    There is some fascinating (and highly explicit) discussion of the sexual aspects Hogarth’s portrait of Dashwood and related matters here. To quote just one passage:

    The whole landscape of his park at West Wycombe originally contained sexual jokes, some of which could only be recognized when seen from above, high up in the golden globe or outside the Mausoleum [ILL] where the view to the grounds below revealed certain swellings in the ground and strategically placed clumps of shrubs and lakes indicating female forms. More plainly, there was and still is a “Temple of Venus” in the grounds [ILL] in the form of a “Rotondo” that housed a Venus de’ Medici (replaced, strangely, by a Venus de Milo in Quinlan Terry’s reconstruction of 1982). The temple is set upon a “Mound of Venus” (you see, there is nothing too subtle about the jokes!), an obvious double-entendre, and within the Mound is (or was, originally) a “Parlour of Venus” entered through an oval-shaped entrance of, once you think about it, very obvious design. This doorway was even referred to at the time as the “gateway of life”.

    This quote interests me in particular because it seems to resonate with much older matters — such as the idea that megalithic burial-mounds were deliberately vaginal in form and their entrances intended as “gateways of life.” There’s also the description of forms in the landscape that could only be viewed from above (Nazca lines anyone?) or the very ley-line like appearance of Dashwood’s road in Gordon’s photo (which is strangely reminiscent of the Roger Dean cover art for John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis). It raises serious questions for me about how much Dashwood know about the ancient pagan symbology he was playing with.
    Cory Panshin´s last blog post ..Fire Hackers and Cosmic Dreamers

  7. 10

    @Pedro Not sure about evil but he was definitely a politician. I have no doubt that some of the sex games got very ‘Eyes Wide Shut’.

    But the St Lawrence stuff complicates a binary analysis. As does the reasonable inference that he had his hands on hermetic material and possibly even the Picatrix.

  8. 12
    Darren B

    Apparently the politician I mentioned in my above comment was part of a TV mockumentary according to these guys-

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