A visit to a National Trust property has become one of those things British families do on long summer days, during half-term, or when the relatives come to visit from Canada. Look at some paintings! Stroll around the garden! Buy fudge in the gift shop! Visit the orgy cave!

Wait... WTF?!

 

WTF History Lesson #808:

The Hell-Fire Club Orgy Cave

Now, technically the orgy cave isn't part of the National Trust property, and technically it might not have been much of an orgy cave, but the story behind it is an interesting one. I'm talking, of course, about the so-called Hell-Fire Caves in West Wycombe. This artificial system of caverns, fronted by an entrance built to look like a Gothic church, is a popular tourist attraction because of its association with the infamous “Hell-Fire Club,” a secret society said to have engaged in orgies and black magic there.

 

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The founder of this Hell-Fire Club, although not of the original one earlier in the 18th century, was Sir Francis Dashwood, whose family home lies nearby at West Wycombe Park. Dashwood was a wealthy, cultured nobleman who lavished money on the decoration of his home and loved to gather with his friends to do what wealthy; refined nobles usually do – get drunk and flirt with each others' mistresses. The club he founded in the 1740s wasn't called the Hell-Fire Club at the time; he gave it a number of names, including “The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe” (you can see why the later name caught on).

Later on, writers applied the name Hell-Fire Club and spread dark tales of orgies and sinister rites in which the members worshipped the devil (or at least pagan gods). But was this actually true? Were the Hell-Fire Caves the site of riotous ceremonies in which ecstatic paeans to pagan gods echoed and candlelight flickered over the writhing nude bodies of devotees?

Probably not, no. Then WTF were they doing down there?

It's true that Dashwood and his posh pals made fun of Christianity, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were genuinely devoted to Satan or paganism or, well, anything. The 18th century was a time of growing skepticism of traditional religion. This doubt manifested both in new interest in scientific investigation and – more relevant to our story – a certain looseness with regard to sexual morality. After all, Dashwood and his friends probably reasoned, they weren't hurting anyone, so why would God care that they were going off into a cave for a weekend to drink port, play dress up and entertain their female guests? But not everyone shared this libertine view – conservative authorities and ordinary citizens alike were outraged (and perhaps, given the public's appetite for stories about the Hell-Fire Club, that dangerous combination of outraged and titillated you get in most sex scandals).

 

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'Rigorously pagan' or just wanting to have some fucking fun?

When Horace Walpole famously wrote that the club's “practice was rigorously pagan” and that “Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they most publicly sacrificed,” he was just making a little joke for those who knew Classical mythology. Venus is the goddess of love, and Bacchus is the god of wine, so to worship Venus and Bacchus together suggests, well, getting drunk and fucking. And even that was scandalous enough in the 18th century that we don't actually have a lot of information about what went on at the club's meetings. As a result, people have fantasised all kinds of things. The little evidence we do have suggests an atmosphere of drunkenness, bawdy (but witty conversation) and anti-clerical satire. With many respectable male club members bringing their mistresses as guests – something that would not have been tolerated in polite society but is still a far cry from a pagan orgy.

 

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As always, later generations filled in the blank with their own lurid imaginations, but the real Hell-Fire Club was probably just a themed drinking club for rich people and their artsy friends. Shocking at the time, no doubt, and probably a lot of fun in moderation, but not exactly the stuff of sexual legend. And so the Hell-Fire Caves are probably more of a testament to how much people like to think about orgies and black magic rather than evidence of how much they like them. Still, it's fun to walk through the labyrinth and imagine. After all, if you had a spooky cave network with a creepy church entrance all your own, you'd dress up as the devil, glug up some port and shag an actress in it at least once, wouldn't you?

I mean, once, anyway. Just to try it.

This piece was contributed by one of our fuck.com buddies. Wanna get featured on the Fuck.com magazine? We'd love to hear from you!   write@fuck.com

 


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