We also suspect that the caves are not quite as they were when Sir Francis used them. It is often suggested that the only surviving record of the caves is from Mrs. Libbe-Powys. However, although her diaries record that she visited the Dashwood Mausoleum and the Church of St. Lawrence, there is no record (that we can find) that she actually entered the caves. Most of the early information about the caves is from Chambers’ Book of Days – a miscellany of popular antiquities written over several years and published by Robert Chambers in 1832 where the only feature of the caves that is positively identified is the River Styx.
According to local legend the caves were originally a prehistoric flint mine that followed a natural fissure. One record suggests that the miners merely followed the subterranean crack and the design of the caves is purely accidental. If this is the case then it is even more unbelievable than the alternative.
The significance of the design was first published by the late Daniel Mannix in his excitable book; “The Hellfire Club. He suggests that the Banqueting Hall is symbolic of a womb and that the “friars” had to pass from the womb through the Triangle (vagina), a process of rebirth, and then be baptised in the river Styx before being eligible to enjoy the pleasures of the Inner temple. (Maybe!)
The entry from a popular internet encyclopaedia states that this theory is strongly refuted by the current Dashwood family although the official website of the Caves states: “The maze may represent something mythical or even part of the human anatomy.” There are several fragmented references to female fertility carvings that once existed in the Catacombs but that have been worn away.
A close examination of the drawings from 1958 (By C. Timberlake) does suggest that there may be something to this theory. It’s also worth noting that they don’t quite match what is there today. (Interesting?) If the theory is correct – and we do believe that it is, then it is possible that it was deliberately excavated to represent the fertility of the mother goddess or Bona Dea (*John Wilkes).
To investigate this theory we took the schematic plans of the caves as shown on the information plaques and combined these with those drawn by Timberlake. We then took a typical medical drawing of the female reproductive system (circa 1790) and superimposed the one on the other. Incredibly, they line up as depicted in the image above. The catacombs are in the exact proximity of an Ovary, the Banqueting Hall is exactly in the location of the Womb and the Triangle is exactly in the location of the Mons Pubis. The Shaft aligns perfectly with the Triangle and is dimensionally accurate in terms of the Testicles. We could have made this more obvious and graphic but chose a more acceptable representation. (This is original research )
The grey portions of the image represent the second ovary and may or may not have been excavated. If they were then they are not accessible now.
Assuming that the design was deliberate then the natural question is ... why?
There are at least a couple of possible answers. The least exciting answer is simply that this sort of quasi-mystical construction was actually very popular at the time. Wealthy land owners with private estates would construct “Follies” for the amusement and occasional privacy of their guests. It wasn’t uncommon for these to be based on Greek or Roman history including the more erotic aspects of the classics. Some examples of other stately homes where this is evident include: Castle Howard, Rousham, Stowe, Stourhead, Twickenham, Hawkstone Park, and Chiswick. At least three of these had underground caves or grottos constructed and decorated with statues of ancient gods and representations of mythical creatures. This alone is proof that the behaviour of Sir Francis Dashwood was quite in keeping with times in which he lived.
However, it does seem that Sir Francis took the concept further and focused his follies on an underlying theme of eroticism. A pattern of sexual display and humour can be found in many of the works he commissioned such as the Temple of Venus complete with pubic mound (mons veneris) and below the temple you can still find a suggestive oval archway leading into a cave known as Venus’s Parlour. The grounds of Medmenham Abbey also featured blatantly sexual themes and included erotic statues of Priapus and Venus. Given this background it seems perfectly believable that Sir Francis would have extended this thinking to the design and layout of the Hellfire caves.
The reputation of Sir Francis Dashwood and his works have swung violent over the centuries. At first he was merely identified as a Rake and sexual libertine. Then ... thanks to works such as “Chrysal” and the efforts of John Wilkes he is seen as a Satanist given to performing black masses and seducing virgins. Later, his reputation and the whole history of the Knights of St. Francis is whitewashed by Betty Kemp (1967). Dark magical behaviour is revived by Daniel Mannix but thanks to the availability of more information the modern interpretation is that he and his monks were quasi-pagans who followed the sexuality and practices of the ancient Greek and Roman gods.
THE RIVER STYX
Just before the entrance to the Inner Temple there is a narrow stretch of very still water known as the River Styx. It is likely that the original miners stumbled across this natural water flow and enlarged the channel. It is also possible that its waters are drawn down from the “occasional” brook that sometimes flows to the east of the caves in heavy rains. It has been decorated with stalactites and Stalagmites although these are not natural to the excavations and were probably aquired from the Wookey Hole caves in Somerset.
The River Styx
A Strange mist appears to the left and moves towards the bridge
The River Styx
The ghostly mist moves under the bridge - not visible to naked eye
The River Styx
The spectral haze heads towards the Cursing Well and evaporates
The source of this claim may be a confused reference to a story still told today that Alexander Pope used the local militia to shoot stalactites from the roof of the Witches Cavern within the Wookey Hole caves and had them transported back to his stately house where they were installed in the grotto he had constructed some years earlier. Apparently this is a fabrication and the stalactites in question were actually stalagmites and were cut off by a local resident who presented (sold) them to collectors of whom Pope was one. What is interesting is that the collection that Pope acquired, and one excellent piece in particular, subsequently went missing. It is worth noting that Pope was for a time a friend and admirer of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, said to be a libertine herself, who was to later to meet with Sir Francis around the time of the stalactite acquisition in 1939. (An intriguing coincidence!) There are several claims that Lady Mary was one of the Medmenham nuns who had volunteered for such activities. (Source: The Arcadian friends / The Twickenham Museum)
The only specific reference to the name of this feature is from Chamber’s book of days (1832) although In 1796 Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys apparently stated “the pool of water had to be crossed on stepping stones, whereas previously there had been a boat”. It may be that the name was given by Chambers almost 60 years after it was last used by the Friars of Sir Francis. Still, Chambers was remarkably accurate in capturing detail and may have simply been recording a name told to him. Why the river should have been called this may have to do with the concept of the “seen” and the “unseen”. It may have to do with the belief that Hades lies beyond the river Styx or even that the waters of the river have magical properties of strength and invulnerability as recorded in the legend of Achilles who was dipped in the river by his mother.
Strangely, the direct translation of the name probably means River of Hate.
Certain references claim that the pool was once much larger but having visited it in person we find this hard to believe. “The corridor is narrow and the pool is actually a channel. Should the water have ever been higher then as a consequence most of the inner temple itself would have been flooded. This is assuming that what we see today is all of what was there in Dashwood’s time.”
At the end of the eastern curve of the channel is the Cursing Well. We know that it was once identified and recorded by visitors but is no longer mentioned in the official information provided by the management of the caves or the National Trust.
At Aquiziam we tend to pride ourselves our original research and our slightly sceptical approach to the subjects that we write about. However, the area surrounding the river was strangely different. When we reviewed our photographs (and we take many) we noticed that in a progression of three of them a strange mist appeared in the images. This mist was not visible to the naked eye. You can see it for yourself on this page. We admit that we have no idea what caused it.
THE INNER TEMPLE
Located deep within the caves and the very end of the tunnel is the Inner Temple. It is the only cave after the River Styx and it is said that only the highest officials and members of the club were permitted to enter. This chamber should not be confused with the Inner Sanctum which was located at Medmenham Abbey although the two rooms may have served a similar purpose.