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The Hellfire Clubs

The Hellfire Clubs

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 250
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  • Book Info
    The Hellfire Clubs
    Book Description:

    The Hell-Fire Clubs scandalized eighteenth-century English society. Rumors of their orgies, recruitment of prostitutes, extensive libraries of erotica, extreme rituals, and initiation ceremonies circulated widely at the time, only to become more sensational as generations passed. This thoroughly researched book sets aside the exaggerated gossip about the secret Hell-Fire Clubs and brings to light the first accurate portrait of their membership (including John Wilkes, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Prince of Wales), beliefs, activities, and the reasons for their proliferation, first in the British Isles and later in America, possibly under the auspices of Benjamin Franklin.

    Hell-Fire Clubs operated under a variety of titles, but all attracted similar members-mainly upper-class men with abundant leisure and the desire to shock society. The book explores the social and economic context in which the clubs emerged and flourished; their various phases, which first involved violence as an assertion of masculinity, then religious blasphemy, and later sexual indulgence; and the countermovement that eventually suppressed them. Uncovering the facts behind the Hell-Fire legends, this book also opens a window on the rich contradictions of the Enlightenment period.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17710-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. The Hell-Fire Clubs Time Line
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xix-xxx)

    The scene is the House of Lords, the date is May 1721. A peer, with a bible in his pocket and an expression of piety on his face, stands up to speak. He is a handsome fellow, young and upright; his voice is clear and rings out with sincerity, or so it seems to some of his listeners. He says he is glad of the chance to justify himself ‘by declaring that he is far from being a patron of blasphemy or an enemy of religion’, but he could not support a bill which he considered to be repugnant to...

  7. Chapter 1 Prelude to the Fires of Hell
    (pp. 1-18)

    The story of the hell-fire clubs starts in the second year of the seventeenth century, as the elderly Queen Elizabeth I neared the end of her life. As she lay dying she secured the Protestant succession by bestowing the Crown of England on James VI of Scotland. Although the country felt relief that a Protestant king would follow a Protestant Queen, the fear of a return of Catholicism remained, as the memory of the brief but bloody reign of Queen Mary was still fresh in people’s minds. The Gunpowder Plot showed that this fear was justified, and that there were...

  8. Chapter 2 Gentlemen’s Clubs, Journalistic Hacks, the Mohocks and Change
    (pp. 19-44)

    Sociability was one of the tenets of the Enlightenment, and representatives of sociability in the eighteenth century were gentlemen’s clubs. Samuel Johnson described the club as ‘an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions’.¹ On his visits to the Ivy Lane Club he had ‘a disposition to please and be pleased’, and could pass ‘those hours in a free and unstrained interchange of sentiments, which otherwise would have been spent at home’.² Roy Porter defines clubs as ‘republics of the Enlightenment’,³ which could describe Johnson’s free unrestrained sentiments.

    Gentlemen’s clubs could cater for all tastes. They provided an opportunity...

  9. Chapter 3 The Hell-Fire Clubs
    (pp. 45-74)

    On 29 April 1721 Lord Willoughby of Brooke presented the first reading of an ‘Act for the More Effectual Suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness’, in the House of Lords. The second reading of the bill took place on 2 May 1721, then the debate was postponed for three weeks.¹ The day before the bill was introduced into the House of Lords the following Royal Proclamation had appeared in theLondon Gazette:

    His Majesty have received Information, which gives great Reason to suspect that there have lately been and still are, in and about the Cities of London and Westminster, certain...

  10. Chapter 4 Interlude Abroad: the Grand Tour, Dilettanti and Divans
    (pp. 75-96)

    One element that many of the members of these infamous clubs had in common was that they had been on the Grand Tour of Europe. Usually a young man set off on the tour accompanied by a tutor, or ‘bear leader’ as these functionaries became known. The itinerary would have been decided in advance with the family, and religious allegiance may have had some bearing on this. Thus, the Duke of Wharton who came from a Calvinist background was sent to the Low Countries and Geneva, although, as we have seen, he escaped his ‘bear leader’ and made for the...

  11. Chapter 5 The Medmenham Friars
    (pp. 97-114)

    Although in the eighteenth century the Medmenham Friars, or the Knights of St Francis as they were also known, were never called the Hell-Fire Club, this is the title by which they are known today, and their activities have become the model of how a hell-fire club should proceed. Ironically, we would not know of their existence if some of the members had not fallen out with each other, and one of them, John Wilkes, had not decided to publicise their meetings, and bring the club into disrepute. His revelations opened the floodgates of speculation and fiction. However, there was...

  12. Chapter 6 Essay on Woman: the Friars Exposed
    (pp. 115-130)

    The Medmenham Friars came to public notice through the political differences of its members. John Wilkes (1725–97) was elected to Parliament in 1757. A poor speaker, his talent lay in his pen, and the aggressive way in which he carried his argument to his opponents. When a new journal called theBritonappeared, arguing against the continuation of the Seven Years War and promoting peace, Wilkes countered this with theNorth Briton, which was in favour of continuing the war. Although Wilkes wrote anonymously, it was common knowledge that it was he who penned the articles that satirized ministers...

  13. Chapter 7 Public Men and Private Vices
    (pp. 131-156)

    Most of the Friars of Medmenham held public offices as peers of the realm or Members of Parliament. This was usual for the members of hell-fire clubs, and the other secret clubs of the eighteenth century. The Earl of Rochester and the Duke of Wharton and their cronies were courtiers, military or naval officers. The members of the Irish Hell-Fire Club were members of the Irish Parliament and when scandal hit in the eighteenth century politicians were not forced to resign. They might have been held up to ridicule for a time, but provided that they were on the same...

  14. Chapter 8 Scotland and the Fires of Hell
    (pp. 157-186)

    ‘February 8th 1703 Mr Davison told that when Mr Andrew was at Aberdeen there was a club of profligate men, great mockers, who sent some of their men to hear Mr Andrew preach and to mock and ridicule him.’ This evidence comes from Robert Wodrow who was born in Glasgow in 1679. After studying theology at the University of Glasgow he became a minister of the Church of Scotland, and an avid antiquarian and commentator on the affairs of the day. He is an important source of information on the Church of Scotland’s attitudes to scepticism, superstition and those who...

  15. Chapter 9 Beefsteaks, Demoniacs, Dalkey and Colonial America
    (pp. 187-210)

    A number of visitors to London in the late eighteenth century wrote down their impressions of the city. One of these, Monsieur Grosley from France, was in London in 1772, and another was William Hutton who visited London from Birmingham in 1785. Both described street life, and their descriptions show that little had changed since the Mohocks roamed the streets.

    Grosley found London a sad and gloomy place. He noted that management of the police was in the hands of the justices. There were no troops on the streets at night; instead they were guarded ‘by old men with a...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 211-214)

    We started this book with a young peer who had been accused of being a member of the Hell-Fire Club; we end it with another young nobleman suspected of Devil worship. So had anything changed?

    As the eighteenth century drew to a close, so the old libertine way of life started to die with it. The Napoleonic wars distracted minds from dressing up, and from secret clubs and societies, and concentrated them on defending the country and preventing invasion. The bucolic roistering aristocracy began to transform into sober and responsible leaders of men, while the respectable God-fearing middle classes, professionals,...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 215-232)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-242)
  19. Index
    (pp. 243-250)