Medmenham Abbey: When the Monks Left Debauchery and the Hellfire Club Moved In
Medmenham is a village and civil parish located in Wycombe, a district in Buckinghamshire, England. The parish is best-known for its abbey, which was founded during the Middle Ages. As a monastic institution, Medmenham Abbey was of little importance. Its fame (or infamy) was achieved during the 18 th century, long after the monks ceased living there. In that century, Medmenham Abbey was transformed into the base of the Hellfire Club.
Medmenham Village – A Long History of Settlements
The human occupation of Medmenham can be traced back to the prehistoric age. Near the village are two Iron Age hill forts – Medmenham Camp and Danesfield Camp (known also as Danes’ Ditch). Around the middle of the 7 th century AD, the first church at Medmenham was established, possibly by Birinus, the first Bishop of Dorchester. In 1160, under the patronage of Hugh II, Baron de Bolebec of Bucks, a new church was built to replace the 7 th century one. Certain features, such as the tower and the chancel, were added during later towards the end of the 14 th century. The church, known as St Peter and St Paul’s Church, still stands today.
St Peter's parish church. (Sealman / Public Domain)
The Cistercian Order Occupied the Newly Founded Medmenham Abbey
Around the same time the baron also founded Medmenham Abbey. The abbey was occupied by the Cistercian Order and was recognized by Royal Charter in 1200. Over the next centuries, the monks of the abbey led a quiet existence. During this period, Medmenham Abbey did not accomplish anything of historical importance, nor was it the center of any historically significant event. The monastery was disbanded during the 16 th century as a result of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The ownership of Medmenham Abbey changed hands several times in the following centuries.
Medmenham Abbey was Almost a Footnote Until the Hellfire Club
Medmenham Abbey would have been relegated to a footnote in history had it not been for Sir Francis Dashwood, the founder of the Hellfire Club (known originally as the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe). Dashwood was a member of the English upper class, and like other young men of his status at the time, went on the European Grand Tour. Dashwood’s travels abroad inspired him to form the Society of Dilettanti and the Divan Club. The former was for participants of the Grand Tour who developed an appreciation for Classical art, while the latter was opened to those who had visited the Ottoman Empire.
Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer parodying Renaissance images of Francis of Assisi. The Bible has been replaced by a copy of the erotic novel. (William Hogarth /Public Domain)
The Hellfire Club, on the other hand, did not have a serious side to it and the goal of its founding was for its members to indulge in debauchery. The club was founded during the 1740s and Dashwood was looking around for a place where the club’s meetings could be carried out. Medmenham Abbey was an ideal place, as it was remote enough for the club to carry out its secret activities without the fear of being discovered. Since the 16 th century, Medmenham Abbey was owned by the Duffield family. Dashwood was able to lease the property from his friend, Francis Duffield.
Restoration for the Purpose of Debauchery
When the Duffields came into possession of Medmenham Abbey, all that was left were ruins. They proceeded to build an E-shaped house of red brick and stones collected from the ruins. By the time Dashwood leased he abbey, the house had become dilapidated and he set out to have it renovated. Once the works were completed, the members of the Hellfire Club were able to conduct their activities in the former abbey.
The Medmenham Abby shown in disrepair. (British Library / Public Domain)
The meetings of the Hellfire Club gained a reputation for drunkenness and debauchery. Nevertheless, being a secret society, the club’s activities have never been established with certainty and are based primarily on hearsay and imagination. Some accounts, for instance, state that members of the Hellfire Club partook in mock religious ceremonies. Members of the Hellfire Club styled themselves the Monks or Friars of Medmenham and each year an Abbot was chosen from among the brethren. According to one legend, prostitutes were dressed as nuns and were given the task of pleasuring the ‘monks’.
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Medmenham Abby was infamous as location of the Hellfire Club from "[The book of the Thames.]" (British Library / Public Domain)
Dashwood Relocates the Depravity to the Caves
By the 1760s, Dashwood decided that Medmenham Abbey was no longer suitable for the meetings of the Hellfire Club. The club was moved to the caves of West Wycombe, while all evidence pointing to its presence in the abbey was removed. Medmenham Abbey became a privately-owned property and was put up for sale for £10 million in 2015.
Danesfield House, Medmenham. (Stephen Richards / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Top image: Medmenham Abbey. Source: (Mark Percy / CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Wu Mingren
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