(It’s worth looking very closely at the picture above!) There has been much speculation about the layout and the design of the Hellfire Caves. This has been complicated by the fact that the names of the chambers have been changed at least several times. For example, the alcove nearest to the entrance has been called, the tool store, the steward’s cave and the Intersect of Ra. Paul Whitehead’s Cave was once known as the Robing Room (circa 1958). The Miner’s cave was once called the Buttery and the area of caves and pillars near what is called Franklin’s Cave was once just called the Catacombs.
THE INNER MYSTERY
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.