J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 19, 2023

Meeting the Medmenham Monks

This month’s research topics took me to this page at the History of Parliament site about the fabled “Monks of Medmenham Abbey.”

John Wilkes played a big part in this story, as in many other British events of the 1760s and 1770s. Regardless of what one might think of his politics, Wilkes appears to have spread chaos almost everywhere he went. And on 15 June 1762 he was writing to one of his allies, Charles Churchill, “next Monday we meet at Medmenham.”

That article explains that Medmenham Abbey was “the headquarters of the co-called ‘Order of St Francis of Medmenham’, also known (erroneously) as the Hellfire Club.” (Another club name was the “Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe.”)

The first Duke of Wharton had founded what he called the Hellfire Club back in 1718, and in the nineteenth century an author with a penchant for the lurid applied the same label to the Medmenham group and others. But those gentlemen never used the term “Hellfire Club” for themselves.

The blog reports:
Quite what went on at Medmenham has long been the subject of occasionally lurid speculation and as one historian has suggested, it is a topic that ‘attracts cranks and repels scholars’ [N.A.M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl, p.80]. At its most extreme some have suggested, almost certainly without foundation, that devil worship took place there, while at the other end it has been proposed that it was a somewhat eccentric antiquarian-cum-erotic meeting place of senior politicians, who assembled to indulge in boating parties, cavort with sex workers brought in from London for the purpose, share their interest in classical authors and plot. . . .

The founder of the fraternity was Sir Francis Dashwood [shown above], chancellor of the exchequer during the premiership of the earl of Bute, and later a member of the Lords as Baron le Despencer. Dashwood had leased Medmenham, close to his own seat at West Wycombe, in 1751, and proceeded to renovate the dilapidated abbey buildings, turning the site into a summer pleasure ground, where he could invite friends for parties on the Thames and picnicking among the ruins.

It was an important juncture. That year the heir to the throne, and focal point of the main opposition alliance, Frederick Prince of Wales, had died unexpectedly, leaving the opposition without an obvious rallying point.
The Medmenham gathering appears to have flourished in the 1750s. But then it foundered on its members’ own success after George II died. Frederick’s son, George III, came to the throne and installed a favorite, the Earl of Bute, as prime minister.

Bute made Dashwood his chancellor of the exchequer and found appointments for other men in the Medmenham circle, or just outside it. But he didn’t find a job for Wilkes.

This essay suggests that disappointment was enough for Wilkes to go into opposition in the worst way. However, Wilkes was already a champion of William Pitt, which would have made him a bad fit for Bute’s policies.

Wilkes and Churchill founded The North-Briton weekly in 1762 as a vehicle for attacking Bute. He also started to tell stories about the Medmenham club’s salacious activity. Other members objected, called Wilkes a liar or a cad.

One might think the fact that Wilkes was one of the group’s most licentious members would have undercut his own credibility. However, as the History of Parliament blog has said about Wilkes’s later career, lots of people already knew about his habits. Being a libertine was baked into his public image, so further revelations didn’t change his standing. If anything, Wilkes’s stories seemed more reputable because he was known for being disreputable.

Whatever the impetus for his break with the established political structure, Wilkes’s legal and political struggles over the next decade and a half created important forums for Britons to debate such issues as free speech, fair elections, government use of lethal force, and more. The Boston Whigs reached out to him for mutual support even though they would have detested his personal habits.

As for the Medmenham gatherings, Dashwood seems to have calmed down after becoming Baron le Despencer in 1763 and later postmaster general. In that decade he also became a close friend of Benjamin Franklin. Some authors link Franklin to the Medmenham monks, but by the time he was close to Despencer the club had really fallen apart.

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