Raking over the coals of Hell: the deviant philosophy of ‘do what you will’

How the dissolute ‘Hellfire Clubs’ of the 18th century fanned the flames of notoriety down to our own times

William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’, Tavern Scene, 1732–33

Having followed the career of the cultural historian Geoffrey Ashe over many years, I was delighted to see that a new edition was being published of his definitive study of the infamous 18th century ‘Hell-Fire’ clubs — the secret societies of libidinous rakes and dandies of the day — and their influence and legacy.

The Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs: From Rabelais and John Dee to Anton LaVey and Timothy Leary (Bear & Company, US $18.99 / UK £15.50, October 2019) is, in fact, the fourth edition of this work, first published in 1974 as Do What You Will: A History of Anti-Morality.

It traces the clubs’ origins to two key 16th century figures: François Rabelais, the French Renaissance writer, physician, monk and scholar, from whom the Hell-Fire motto ‘Do what you will’ is derived directly, and the magician John Dee, the occult philosopher, astronomer-royal to Elizabeth I, astrologer and mathematician.

The motto appears in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–64, published in English 1693–94) as the only rule of his imagined utopian abbey of Thélème (from the Greek thelema meaning ‘will’), and in a slightly different form as a spirit message received by Dee through the medium Edward Kelley which said: ‘Do that which pleases you. Do even as you list.’

Two centuries later, groups of moneyed upper-class Englishmen, their women friends and their hangers-on, put these blandishments into effect with exclusive clubs that channelled rakish abandon into ritualised debauchery, blasphemy and dabblings in the magical ‘forbidden arts’.

Many aristocrats and statesmen of the time — Lord Byron, Lord Sandwich and John Wilkes among them — as well as other ‘dark’ luminaries such as the clergyman and author Laurence Sterne — of Tristram Shandy (1759–67) fame — were members of these clubs. Benjamin Franklin might have joined one, too; the allegation can be neither denied nor confirmed.

Ashe, assembling the clues, gives us a picture of a particular kind of Englishman one would expect to find flourishing from about 1730: ‘He is socially a gentleman and a womaniser … Comfortably off, fairly cultured, fairly well read, he has absorbed a trendy optimism and believes that Nature is on his side and he can do pretty much as he pleases.

‘He dislikes the smug, philistine, corrupt Whig Establishment, and in that spirit may favour ill-defined schemes of opposition … he is willing and even eager to shock. He flirts with blasphemy and magic. Yet he may still be glad to see the conventions upheld so that he can have pleasure in flouting them.’

One possible explanation of such behaviour, says Ashe, ‘lies in the rigid consensus of a society where it remained difficult to rebel, difficult to assert freedom or dissent, except by eccentricity’.

Meanwhile, the lower classes were able gain vicarious pleasure and titillation from the brand new literary form, the novel (although this word for long fiction didn’t gain traction until the end of the century), which had arisen from the pens of Daniel Defoe (for example, Moll Flanders, 1722), Samuel Richardson (Pamela and Clarissa, 1740 and 1748) and, of course, John Cleland’s erotic tale, Fanny Hill (1748).

A resurgence of cultism and belief in the powers of mystic ritual and the black arts might be seen as something of a paradox during what was, after all, the ‘Age of Reason’, with its philosophies of Enlightenment and its sceptical outlooks, the time of Spinoza, Locke and Voltaire. But, in a sense, a certain social and political ennui which was abroad during the 18th century facilitated a climate for licentiousness.

As Ashe points out, England was governed by dominant Whigs and disgruntled Tories, but was stable, depending on wealth, patronage and corruption. The only political dissent came from those who believed an ideal monarch would stand above political parties, appointing preferred ministers and breaking the oligarchy. Some political intrigue developed from this, which Ashe explains assiduously, and, for a while, dissenters with Hell-Fire club connections actually influenced government, but they lacked leadership.

However, exploring the political and occult ideas that gave impetus to these clubs, Ashe suggests how the cross-fertilisation of liberty and libertinage they fostered came to influence both the French and US revolutions.

Tracking the ethos

He follows the influence of the incorrigible clubs down the centuries, tracking their ethos of ‘Do what you will’ to the early Gothic literature of Horace Walpole and others, the poet Algernon Swinburne, the ‘bard of revolt and freedom’, the Marquis de Sade and the ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, to the ‘permissive’ 1960s and Anton LaVey, with his Church of Satan, the ‘LSD messiah’ Timothy Leary, the murderous Charles Manson Family, and even to Hell’s Angels motorcycle gangs.

This widening of scope, tracing the Hell-Fire inheritance far beyond the 18th century, provides a thoughtful antidote to narrow and sensationalist approaches, and must be one reason why the book has remained in print for 45 years.

Another must be Ashe’s level-headed and carefully researched treatment of the Hell-Fire phenomenon and its attendant stories of sexual shenanigans and devil worship that scandalised the middle decades of the 1700s, and which ever since have captured the prurient and hedonistic imagination. Laudably, he avoids superfluous speculation.

Remarkably enough, Ashe has made very little adjustment to his original 1974 text, except for the addition of a couple of explanatory notes and some changes to the last few pages which have been ‘necessarily somewhat remodeled’.

In a preface to the 2019 edition, he says: ‘With one or two dated expressions … it has seemed to me that such things should usually be left as they are, with the understanding that the book is a product of its time, and that these awkwardnesses (as they have now, unforeseeably, become) have no bearing on it as a historical study.’

He discusses the very first Hell-Fire Club, so named, founded in 1720 probably by Philip, Duke of Wharton, which met in various London houses for the familiar purposes of drinking, gambling and blaspheming, and doubtless womanising. Wharton was more than a common rake; he was ‘the apostle of blasphemy and uninhibited living’, ran an anti-Government newspaper, flouted Protestant respectability, spent crazily and led a wild sex life.

Royal proclamation

Similar clubs to his — named differently but retrospectively gaining the generic soubriquet, ‘Hell-Fire Clubs’ — sprang up immediately in England, Scotland and Ireland, to the offending extent that in the following year, 1721, a royal proclamation attempted to ban them, without success.

The Society of the Dilettanti, a fraternity formed in 1732, had as a founding member the central Hell-Fire figure of Sir Francis Dashwood who later launched his Order (or Brotherhood) of Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Monks of Medmenham (pronounced ‘Mednam’). It is this sect that became synonymous with the label of ‘Hell-Fire Club’, although it never took that name itself.

This exclusive fraternity met regularly for mock-religious ceremonies, lavish banquets and orgies during the 1750s in the disused Medmenham Abbey, Buckinghamshire, a Cistercian ruin which Dashwood restored, placing the inscription ‘Do what you will’ over the doorway.

To a man of Dashwood’s imagination and drive to indulge his passions, the voluptuousness of Greek and Roman, Indian and Turkish art was a liberating experience against a background of claustrophobic English puritanism; thus Ashe examines the life, travels and influences of Dashwood.

Probably, men have always joined together in some kind of secret society or cabal, whether in search of truth or sensation, revelation or distraction, love or organised homicide, God or the Devil, or perhaps simply for gaining privilege in the exclusion of others.

Californian cults

The ghost of Aleister Crowley was present in 1960s/1970s Californian cults, Ashe maintains, but the ghosts of Wharton and Dashwood were there too, though unrecognised: ‘Like Hanoverian England, America seemed complacent under a solid Establishment … So dissent could only be anarchic, one might also say rakish, with more than a dash of outrage and shock.’

Sects and cults have long flourished in ritualistic settings where elitist bonding is exalted by mystery. Indeed, many religions began as secret societies convening in caves, underground chambers or monasteries.

In England, moreover, there was never a dearth of exclusive clubs or cults. Since the Elizabethan period, upper class profligates often congregated to enjoy food, drink, conversation and more frivolous and dubious activities, including Satanism, and general debauchery with sexual excess. .

Of such calibre were the Monks of Medmenham, Dashwood presiding originally over twelve ‘apostles’, the mystical thirteen. Sometimes, other members and guests might increase attendance to two or three dozen, but only those of the inner sanctum were accepted into the deepest mysteries and rituals.

Most of thirteen’s secrets died with them for they destroyed any private papers relating to the 35 years during which their Order existed; it has no documented history. So time has left us largely with hints and speculation as to what really went on, although there are various clues to be found, in the literature and correspondence of the time, and in descriptions which have come down to us of the layout and design of Dashwood’s estate, which included priapic and erotic statuary, and of the ‘Hell-Fire Caves’.

In 1752, Dashwood completed works to extend a natural cave system at West Wycombe, workmen taking six years to create a half-mile tunnel which can still be seen today. Its winding passage takes one past various small chambers and over a stream, the ‘River Styx’ as it was called, to the ‘Inner Temple’.

Tantric symbolism

It could be that the Order’s risqué public image was just a front ensuring secrecy for more serious practices and rites in the inner circle: perhaps liberation in a cult of Dionysus, or sex magic in the Tantric tradition — Tantric symbolism in the caves has been identified.

Indeed, the Order, Ashe says, presents ‘one of the most intriguing of eighteenth-century puzzles. Its origins, even its existence, have been subjects of dispute and the wildest guesswork’.

Probably best known for his analysis of the Arthurian legends, Geoffrey Ashe, now aged a venerable 96, became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1963, and in 2012 was awarded the MBE for services to heritage. In 2015, he was made an Honorary Freeman of Glastonbury, where he lives, in recognition of his ’eminent services’ to the town as an author and historian.

Several of Ashe’s titles remain on my bookshelf, including King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury, originally published in 1957 and with a 50th anniversary edition in 2007, The Ancient Wisdom (1977), and Mythology of the British Isles (1990).

I remember once, when I interviewed him for a newspaper article, he chided me for mentioning the fact that his home, on the lower slopes of Glastonbury Tor, was the house that belonged to the psychologist and magician Dion Fortune (1890–1946). It seemed I was guilty of a certain temerity. ‘It’s not Dion Fortune’s house,’ he remonstrated. ‘It’s my house!’

Writer, poet, tutor and mentor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature), editor, journalist and musician.

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