The Knights Templar
The Selsdon estate in Surrey had been given to the Knights Templar about the time of the Third Crusade (1191-2). During the crusades a number of orders of fighting monks emerged. Like monks they took vows of chastity and poverty, but instead of merely praying and growing vegetables, the military orders also vowed to win land from the infidel Moslems. They were not renowned for their Christian charity in carrying out this work and very often the poorer sons of noble families from across Europe would enlist in the military orders to find adventure and win fame and fortune. One of the most influential of the military orders was the Order of Knights of the Temple of Solomon, more usually known as the Knights Templar. The order was founded in Jerusalem in 1192 .
The Knights Templar were courageous and helped win many victories, and because of this the Church, kings and noblemen all over Europe gave land to the Order. The knights gave up the coats of arms of their own families and all took the simple red cross on white as their badge. They eschewed luxury and lived a simple life with the most basic food and simple dress. All worldly pleasures were forbidden and they gave up hunting all animals save the lion. Eventually they became very rich and extremely powerful. Even today there are places with Temple in the name – such as Temple Sowerby in Cumbria. This shows that the Templars once held land there and set up one of their ‘temples’.
Philip IV of France accused them of heresy in 1307 and put many of them to death. He accused them of worshipping the Devil in the form of a cat; worshipping an idol; renouncing Christ, the Virgin and the Saints; stamping and spitting on a crucifix and of indulging in ritual homosexuality. As they were admitted to the order they were alleged to have given the Grand Master a kiss on his anus, his phallus and his navel. The idol they were supposed to worship was called Baphomet, which may have been a European mishearing of the name of the prophet Mahomet. This idol was supposed to be in the form of a human head with curly black hair. Some said it was the head of the first master of the order who had not died. It was covered with jewels and was said to be frightening to look at. Many of the Templars confessed to these charges, some after they’d been tortured and some probably because of fear of torture.
The Grand Master of the Order was burned to death in 1314, but before he died he repudiated the confessions of those knights who had been forced to confess. Whether they were really heretics or not we will probably never know, but charging them in this way conveniently allowed the Kings of France and England to seize all of their lands and money.
The Hellfire Club
The Caves are open to the public.
West Wycombe is a pretty Chiltern village with a single long street of ancient flint and timber buildings. It is dominated by the works of the Dashwoods – the local landowners. West Wycombe Park is a magnificent Palladian building, the seat of the Dashwoods, but managed by the National Trust and open to the public. The house has a number of ghosts who seem to congregate in the music room. An amiable smiling monk was seen there by Noel Coward as he played the piano. There is also supposed to be a very respectable lady who appears there from time to time.
Above West Wycombe is a steep, conical hill. The golden dome of St Lawrence’s church, again built by the Dashwoods, can be seen above the village. The hill itself is the site of an Iron Age hill fort. In Celtic times this was probably the tribal capital for the surrounding area and would have had a defensive and quite possibly a religious function. Many of the hill forts that have been excavated have pagan shrines within them. This might explain the sighting of the church in such an inconvenient place for the villagers – we know that the early Christian missionaries in England had a policy of taking over pagan sites to make the changeover of religions as painless as possible for local people. Next to the church is the huge, and somewhat pompous, flint mausoleum of the Dashwood family.
Below the mausoleum is the entrance to the famous West Wycombe caves. The entrance has been fashioned to look like the entrance to a gothic church. The beginnings of the caves lie far back in time and they may have been an ancient quarry. Then again they may have served as an entrance to the pagan otherworld as at many other sites across Britain and Ireland. The caves were enlarged by Sir Francis Dashwood in the 1750s. He did this to employ the local men who had been thrown out of work by a succession of harvest failures. The chalk from the caves was used for building part of the road to London . Rather than just dig out the side of the hill, Sir Francis had the caves cut in some quite intricate patterns; not quite a labyrinth, but odd enough for some people to accuse the caves of having a magical or alchemical significance in the way they were cut. The caves crossed a stream of water known as the River Styx, which might be a name given in fun, or might have some symbolic meaning. At that time many of the elite of society were rather anti the established church. Sir Francis was certainly a free thinker and he founded the Order of the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe or, as it is better known, The Hell-Fire Club.
The Hell Fire Club was initially based at nearby Medmenham Abbey, which Sir Francis bought and converted into, amongst other things, an erotic garden. There is no dispute that the Hell-Fire club indulged in mock religious ceremonies and used masks and costumes to allow them to indulge in varying degrees of debauchery with wine and women to whom they were not married. When Medmenham gained some notoriety, the Hell Fire club – whose members included peers of the realm, philosophers, members of parliament and at least one American revolutionary, Benjamin Franklin – moved its revels to a more secluded site at West Wycombe Caves. It was here that stories started to circulate that as well as drunkenness and fornication, they were also indulging in black magic ceremonies. Whether that is true or not is difficult to say; groups of free thinkers have formed magical associations (compare the Order of the Golden Dawn in late Victorian times), but any club like the Hell Fire club which had already earned the disapproval of respectable people and was secretive about its doings would almost inevitably gain such a reputation. Whatever the truth about the Hell Fire club, the hill there with its woodlands full of yew trees, certainly has an atmosphere – not an unpleasant one, just a feeling that you might be at a place where the mundane world meets a more magical one.