On top of West Wycombe Hill, next to the Church of St. Lawrence stands the magnificent Dashwood Mausoleum. Originally a hill fort, the mausoleum itself was built in the 1760s and is an unroofed hexagonal structure with tall walls lined with local flint and topped with arches linking the walls.
The mausoleum was built by John Bastard and designed by Nicholas Revett for Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet and 11th Baron le Despencer, to house the memorials of his friends and family. Sir Francis was responsible for rebuilding the Church of St. Lawrence on the same site, placing a great gilded gold ball (inspired by the Customs Building in Venice) on top of the church’s tower to house his drinking parties. A similar tower with a golden ball was also erected by John Norris (on his residence), a good friend of Sir Francis, who lived in nearby Hughenden Manor. It is rumoured that Dashwood and Norris used to signal each other via heliograph (using mirrors and sunlight to send messages in code) from their respective towers.
Sir Francis built the mausoleum with a bequest of £500 from his friend the 1st Baron Melcombe, who in his will instructed the money be used to construct “an arch, temple, column or additional room to such of his seats where it is likely to remain the longest”. The cost of the mausoleum was £495 5s 3d. The original designs were based on San Michele’s fortified gateways in Verona. However, this design was later scrapped in favour of a more open-plan building with rectangular niches and recesses designed to hold multiple memorial slabs, urns and busts. A design similar in style to the Constantine Arch in Rome was chosen instead. Dashwood must have taken Baron Melcombe’s words of “remain the longest” to heart as many durable materials were used in the making of the mausoleum, such as flint and Coade stone (which can be found in the vases on the top of the roof), a form of kiln-fired pottery known for its endurance to weathering.
Sir Francis Dashwood is perhaps most notable for his formation of the Hellfire Club (also known as the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe), a gentlemen’s club for ‘persons of quality’ most of which were involved in politics. Other members were reputed to be painter and satirist William Hogarth, Gothic novelist Horace Walpole and American President Benjamin Franklin. Rumours of Black Masses and demon worship were attached to the club (as they are to most clubs of this nature!) and the meetings often included drinking, banqueting, mock rituals and affairs of a more illicit nature such as orgies with sex workers (who were referred to as ‘Nuns’). The club motto was “Fais ce que tu Voudras”, translated “Do what thou Wilt”. These meetings were often held in the caves directly below the mausoleum known as the Hellfire Caves. These caves were excavated between 1748 and 1752, commissioned by Sir Francis Dashwood, by using local farm workers he hoped to relieve unemployment among them that was brought on by a bad succession of harvests. The end result is a long winding tunnel system extending ¼ of a mile with passages and chambers leading off them. The largest of these was known as the Banqueting Hall. To get to the inner temple one has to cross a man-made river named The River Styx, taken from the Greek Myth of a river of the same name which separated Earth and Hades (the underworld).
In the centre of the mausoleum stands a pedestal and urn, flanked by four columns supporting the roof, devoted to Sir Francis’ wife Sarah (the Baroness Le Despencer) who died in 1796. The design of the marble urn in the centre was taken from two Porphyry (igneous rock) urns situated in West Wycombe Park House.
Other memorials in the mausoleum include a wall plaque adorned with an urn and mourning cherubim commemorating Sir Francis’ mother Lady Mary Fane and his step-mother Mary King, two of the four wives of the first Sir Francis. The memorial was made by sculptor Francis Bird who is best known for work that can be found in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Also commemorated in the mausoleum is Sir Francis’ daughter Rachel Antonina Lee. When she died she left instructions for her bust to be placed together with the bust of Sir Francis’ sister, Lady Austin and Sir Francis’ uncle and guardian Lord Melcombe Regis. Many other busts were once present in the mausoleum but have since been lost, stolen or removed such as the bust of Joseph Borgins, an Italian painter who was responsible for the many frescos in West Wycombe House and nearby Church of St. Lawrence; the bust of actress Frances Barry (mistress of Sir Francis and mother of his daughter) as well as other memorials dedicated to Thomas Thompson, doctor to Frederick, Prince of Wales, Baronet Helen Moyra Eaton and Victoria Ann Elizabeth Gwynne De Rutzen, widow of the 11th Baronet.
One of the most curious monuments in the mausoleum is an urn containing the heart of poet Paul Whitehead, also a member of the Hellfire Club with Sir Francis. Whitehead died in 1774 and left the following request in his will “I give to the Right Honourable Lord le Despencer my heart aforesaid together with £50 to be laid out in the purchase of a marble urn in which I desire may be deposited and placed, if His Lordship, pleases, in some corner of the Mausoleum as a memorial of his warm attachment to the noble founder”. Whitehead’s wish was carried out in an elaborate ceremony that carried the heart contained in an urn upon which an epitaph read: ‘Paul Whitehead, ESQ of Twickenham, obit, Dec. 30, 1774. Unhallowed hands, this urn forebear! No gems or orient spoil lie here concealed – but, what’s more rare, a heart that knew no guile!’ The heart was frequently taken out of the urn and shown to visitors until it was stolen by persons unknown in 1829.
Sir Francis himself died in 1781 and is commemorated on a marble slab that reads “Beloved, respected and revered by all who knew him”. Sir Francis and his family’s bodies are interred in the vaults of the Church of St. Lawrence nearby.
During the 19th century, major repairs were made on the mausoleum with the help of Lady Elizabeth Dashwood (widow of the 5th Baronet), but by 1956 it had fallen into major disrepair. With the help of a £2,000 grant from the Council for the Propitiation of Historic Monuments and Buildings, the 11th Baronet Francis Dashwood was able to bring the mausoleum back to its former glory.
Before you visit:
The Hellfire Caves, the Church of St Lawrence and the mausoleum are open to the public. To enter the caves requires a ticket which can be purchased from the ticket office at the entrance and they have various events on all year round. The mausoleum is free to look around but be aware that no access inside is permitted and all entrances are gated. Be prepared for a hike to access it as it’s up a steep hill!
For more information visit: https://www.hellfirecaves.co.uk/