Rabelais, Dashwood, and Proto-Thelema by Steven J. Ash

It is today widely accepted that Crowley’s Thelema was not written on a blank slate. The ideology has many antecedents in the Western Esoteric Tradition, some genuinely extending back to the Knights Templar (though not as many as some might have us believe!) and several parallels with eastern philosophy. It would perhaps be fair to say Crowley cherry picked traditions that were of use to him and gave them a more radical spin. Whether this was done entirely consciously or unconsciously is now hard to tell with any certainty, but if we take his stories of psychism seriously, as well as his apparent surprise at the content of some of the ‘transmissions’, a subconscious authorship seems most likely. Crowley was also in close touch with many people who may have been the contemporary custodians of these traditions, both at Trinity College Cambridge and within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But the tradition he selected as the primary skeleton of his new ideology was of course that of Rabelais, as preserved in England by the philosophy of the Order of Knights of West Wycombe, better known as the ‘Hell Fire Club’. It is this tradition that is the subject of this essay.

François Rabelais was born in 1495, in the commune of Chinon, where his father owned several vineyards, and is variously said to have been an innkeeper, a herbalist or a lawyer, perhaps being all three at various phases of his life. Chinon of course was once key Templar territory, and the place of their imprisonment two hundred years earlier1, but alas no connection to the Knights has yet been found. Joining a monastery at a young age, Francois took holy orders in his mid 30s, after what he later regarded as a wasted youth, passing through various abbeys and convents. It was in one of these, probably the Convent of LaBaumette, that he appears to have first met the wealthy de Bellay brothers, who became his friends and important patrons in his later career. Not long after this ordination he became disillusioned with the Church, largely due to the censorial attitudes of the local ecclesiastical authorities, who were seizing the classical and humanist texts2 he had become fond of studying. Though he had also become fascinated by the ancient fairs of the neighbourhood, writing, “I went to see the he jugglers, tumblers, mountebanks, and quacksalvers, and considered their cunning, their shifts, their somersaults and smooth tongue, especially of those of Chauny in Picardy, who are naturally great praters, and brave givers of fibs, in matter of the green apes.” (Gargantua, Rabelais) In short he was developing ‘pagan’ tastes. At first he appealed to the Pope and was successfully transferred from the strict Franciscan Order to the relatively liberal Benedictines. At first studying Greek and Latin texts at the the Abbaye de Maillezais, he developed an interest in classical medicine and in 1530 abandoned the monastery for the universities of Poitiers and Montpellier, where he gained his baccalaureate. By 1532 he was practising medicine in Lyons.

It was then his writing career began, at first mild satires, that criticized established authority and championed individual liberty. His first major work, Pantagruel, soon followed, written under the anagrammatical pen-name of Alcofribas Nasier. This celebrated a lifestyle of wine, women and song, with particular reference to the virtues of the wines of Chinon. It also satirized the Catholic Church, and many of its beliefs, through the bawdy and crude humour of its protagonists, the folklore giant Pantagruel, and his father Gargantua, as well as the cunning trickster Panurge and a drunken ex-monk and fighter Brother Jean (perhaps modelled on a popular cynical perspective on the Knights Templar3, who revered John the Baptist). His other works, Gargantua (1534), Le Tiers Livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel (1546), Le Quart Livre de Pantagruel (1552) continue the exact same humourous theme and met increasing condemnation from the Church and secular authorities. In what may have been his final book, Cinquisme Live (1564), Panurge and friends complete their quest and find the Temple of the Holy Bottle, over which hangs the Dionysian motto, En Oino Aletheia, “In wine lies truth.” Rabelais would not have lasted long had not his friends the de Bellay brothers looked after him. By then Jean du Bellay was Bishop of Paris, later becoming a Cardinal, and his brother Guillaume du Bellay was a senior diplomat to the Royal Court and local governor. Both men were also ardent Humanists.

The de Bellay brothers were more restrained in their critiques than Rabelais, but both were critical of the established order in Europe, and liberals in the Renaissance Humanist tradition. Highly sympathetic to Rabelais’ rebellious outlook they ensured he found good employment and was protected from his enemies. Their greatest help came in their recommendation of Francois to their own patron, Margaret of Navarre, and her brother King Francis I, both supporters of moderate Humanist culture, in opposition to Catholic orthodoxy.

As a result Francis allowed the third book, Le Tiers Livre, to be published unopposed, that Rabelais enthusiastically dedicated to Margaret of Navarre. His second book having wisely praised Francis for the great humanistic reforms carried out under the influence of his sister Margaret. Both de Bellays were steeped in the traditions of the Renaissance, including its occult manifestations, but managed to stay on relatively good terms with the French Church and the Pope of their time. As such they were indispensable allies to Rabelais. In 1535 he went to Rome as physician to Bishop Jean du Bellay, where he gained a Doctorate in Medicine, and in 1539 he served as the chief medical advisor of Guillaume du Bellay in Turin.

The nephew of the de Bellay brothers, Joachim du Bellay was at the same time developing his career as a poet and enjoying the same support. Joachim was one of the founders of the Pleiade4, a French society of poets, arguably recreating an older 1fourteenth century Toulouse group, also called the Pleiade, which consisted of 7 male and 7 female poets influenced by the Troubadours. This group itself, founded in 1323, was influenced by the Alexandrian Pleiade of the third century BC, consisting of seven Greek esoteric poets, symbolically linked to the seven stars of the Pleiades constellation. The Pleiade of de Bellay was concerned with reviving the Greek tradition within French literature, along with certain esoteric themes. In general it championed the ethos of ‘carpe diem’, and its Bacchanalian lifestyle, as well as a Romanticism akin to that of the Courtly Love cult of the Middle Ages, with perhaps even more license. Many of its poets considered their work to be divinely inspired by a dark female muse (reminiscent perhaps of the ‘dark lady’ inspiring the ‘poet-lover’ of the Shakespearian sonnets). While written in a very different style to that of Rabelais, and clearly for a different audience, its proponents are essentially extolling the same lifestyle.

The main proponent of Renaissance Humanism in France at this time was Margaret of Navarre. Known to those she sponsored as ‘the Maecenas’, after an ancient Roman patron of the arts. After her brother became King of France she created a great Renaissance salon often referred to as the New Parnassus. It was under her wing that a number of French Renaissance figures achieved security, and exiles, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, gained sanctuary. She is also credited with the influence on Francis I that led to his great tolerance and liberal reformism in the early period of his reign. A writer herself she was an acclaimed poetess and wrote the Heptameron, a collection of bawdy tales of love, lust and infidelity, clearly inspired by Boccaccio’s medieval erotic masterpiece the Decameron. Margaret’s tastes and virtues had been cultivated early by her mother Louise of Savoy, an earlier champion of the Italian Renaissance, who ensured her daughter achieved an enlightened education in Italy. As in France the irreverent Boccaccio was seen as an almost messianic figure in Savoy, ensuring a decadent culture there. The House of Savoy itself had a past steeped in occult tradition, not least of which was its connections to the Templars, via the second Duke’s wife, Anne de Lusignan, a princess and an heiress of Cyprus and Jerusalem, descended from Templar patron Guy de Lusignan; as well as from the Candia dynasty of Geneva, a Burgundian Templar family5 that had married into the Savoys soon after the dissolution of the Order in the early fourteenth century. In 1475 Gauvain de Candie, count of Berruyre, novelist and poet of the House of Candia, composed the famous “Chason d’Amoure” recited poems to the ducal couple of Marguerite of Austria and Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. An identifiable esoteric tradition thus underlay Rabelais’ work.

Rabelais himself has no obvious connection to the occult other than his creation of the philosophy of Thelema. It is in his first book that we are introduced to the Abbey of Thélème, built by the giant Gargantua for Brother Jean, after he refuses any role of authority over others. This wall-less Abbey (“for where there is a wall in front and behind there is bound to be a lot of murmuring, jealousy and plotting on the inside”) is an imaginary place that satirizes all monastic institutions. This is achieved via the decadent lives of its unholy monks, or Thélèmites, who have taken a ‘vow of riches’, freely enjoying there the services of pretty nuns as maids, as well as other great luxuries, such as private swimming pools. Their eutopian lifestyle, free of all authority, and the tyranny of the clock, is described as follows:

All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,

Do What Thou Wilt (Fay ce que vouldra);

because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us”.
(Pantagruel, Rabelais)

It has been argued that beyond a comical attack on the monasteries, this ideal lifestyle was seen as something to be one day achieved, not just for a privileged group but for the whole of society.

Certainly in Rabelais and His World, the Russian philosopher Mikhail M. Bakhtin introduced the term carnivalesque, under the influence of Rabelais, to describe all those forms of activity that use laughter, parody, and “grotesque realism” as a weapon against totalitarian order. A philosophy since adopted by post-situationists and much of the international anarchist movement in their current program of activism.

Rabelais himself remained an active satirist until the decline in France of his patrons, at which point he ‘retired’ into the relative safety of the curacy of Mendon, near Paris, in which role he died on April 9th 1553.

His influence would long outlast him however, finding particularly fertile ground in England, within groups such as the ‘Hell Fire Club’. How his influence crossed the channel is uncertain. However one important bridge may have been in Tudor times with the return to England of one Anne Boleyn.

Anne was a maid of honour to Margaret of Navarre and came to see her as a great mentor. Born in England, the progeny of Sir Thomas Boleyn, later Earl of Wiltshire and Ormunde, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, Anne was related to a vast host of ancient aristocratic families. Many of whom, like the Howards, were the descendents of former Templars, or families closely related to the Order, such as the Beauchamps, Montagus, Butlers, Mowbrays and St Legers, many of whom died in the War of the Roses. Her mother was part of an early humanist women’s circle around Catherine of Aragon (which also included Maud Parr and Jane Guildford, later Jane Dudley) and sent Anne to the Continent where she served Margaret of Nevers in France for many years. Anne returned to England in 1520, where she became known as a champion of the new Renaissance Humanism. Developing connections with English Humanists, a core group of whom had been founded by John Colet, Dean of St Pauls, twenty five years earlier, she initially entered into a relationship with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. The Earl’s great nephew was later the infamous ‘Wizard Earl of Northumberland’ who would become a major figure in English Hermeticism and the ‘School of Night’ (with its apparent muse, a Nuit-like Lady of Night). A curious connection given that Colet had a couple of decades earlier entertained the infamous Renaissance magician Henry Cornelius Agrippa in his home for several months, who later claimed to have founded the first Hermetic secret society in England (he later became a physician and a reluctant astrologer for the French Queen Mother, in the Court of Frances I, and wrote a book on marriage for Margaret of Navarre, three years after Boleyn had left for England). Interestingly Agrippa was also one of the few in his time to equate the historical Knights Templar with ‘witchcraft’, while also hinting they were innocent of most of the charges. Anne’s affair with Earl Henry was however cut short, allegedly by agents of Henry VIII, who desired the charismatic, dusky beauty for himself. This event proved fortuitous, for after her arranged marriage to the King, Anne not only used her position to further Renaissance culture in England, but is also thought to have been a major influence on the Reformation and the creation of the Church of England. But despite such an influence Anne herself came to be regarded as a licentious character and accused of many adulteries. Worse still she became the target of allegations of witchcraft and black magic, perhaps partly inspired by tales of her polydactylism (she allegedly had six fingers on her left hand, this is widely rejected) at that time considered to be a sign of the Devil. These charges would eventually lead to her execution in 1536. Surmised reasons for which range from a Catholic plot to the schemes of Jane Seymour, Henry’s next wife.

The influence of Rabelais is more obviously found amongst the followers of Sir Francis Dashwood, who placed his philosophy at the heart of his infamous decadent, rake’s club, the Order of Knights of West Wycombe (1746-1760). Just how deep and sincere this adoption was still remains an unanswered question. Francis Dashwood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the 15th Baron le Despencer (due to his father’s marriage to the wealthy heiress Mary Fane) was notorious rake and most historians regard his ‘Hell Fire Club’, as it became known, as simply an excuse for aristocratic debauchery. However while that may be true in part, there is considerable evidence that it also had a deeper aspect. Originally based on earlier ‘Hell Fire Clubs’ founded by the Masonic Jacobites, such as the Duke of Wharton, with whom Dashwood had close contact6, the Brotherhood of St. Francis, as it was initially called, developed more controversial aspects. Its self styled ‘brother monks’ referred to Dashwood as ‘the Abbot’, and regular hiring prostitutes as ‘nuns’, adopted Rabelaisian affectations, most notably in their the motto Do What Thou Wilt. Moreover, according to to their critic Horace Walpole, the member’s “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the secret complexion of those hermits.” While a defecting former member of Dashwood’s society, the radical MP John Wilkes, declared that not only was the Club a secret society, with definite political ambitions, but that it also revered the pagan goddess Bona Dea, whom the Romans associated with Venus. Certainly Dashwood had decorated his new manor house with fashionable classical figures, after his return from Venice, following his last Grand Tour, and these included a notably prominent Venus, or Aphrodite, in his vast landscaped garden. He had also turned part of the West Wing of his new home into a ‘Temple of Bacchus’. So it seems these allegations may have at least been partly true. In fact Thomas Langley’s book The History of Antiquities of the Hundred of Desborough, written in 1797, describes the following:

The delightful gardens of West Wycombe were opened to the public and a novel exhibition took place in one of the rural walks. A fine portico at the west end of the house has been lately erected (in imitation of that of the Temple of Bacchus) for the dedication of which a Bacchanalian procession was formed of Bacchanals, Priests, Pans, Fauns, Satyrs, Silenus, etc., all in proper habits and skins wreathed with vine leaves, ivy, oak, etc. On the arrival of the procession in the portico the High Priest addressed the Statue in an Invocation which was succeeded by several hymns, and other pieces of music vocal and instrumental suitable to the occasion, and having finished the sacrifice proceeded through the grove to a Tent pitched among several others at the head of the lake where the Paeans and libations were repeated – then ferrying to a vessel adorned with colours and streamers, again performed various ceremonies with discharges of cannon and bursts of acclamations from the populace. The ceremony was finished by a congratulatory address or ode to the Deity of the place. Several of the company wore masques on this occasion.”

Most interesting of all are the claims that Dashwood was merely a front man and the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ for the society, while its real master and ‘High Priest’ was John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, whose wife Lady Montagu (nee Dorothy Fane, daughter of Viscount Fane) was said to preside over its orgies. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, John Montagu became the First Lord of the Admiralty in1748, and later rose to become Secretary of State. He would later become First Lord of the Admiralty again in Lord North’s government in the 1770s. Earlier in his career he had been an associate and fellow Mason of the Master of the Grand Lodge of England, the Duke of Wharton, and was rumoured to have been associated both with Wharton’s earlier Hell Fire Club, as well as a secret member of Dashwood’s Society, being related to him via the Fane family. There is little evidence to support this however, apart from a revealing portrait of Dashwood by the painter Hogarth, a known member of the Hellfire Club, which comically depicts an angelic fourth Earl of Sandwich in Dashwood’s ‘halo’, whispering something into his ear, while a nude woman on a platter looks remarkably like Countess Montagu!

Such connections are even more interesting when we realise the Montagu family connection and the chain of family relations linked Dashwood to those same families related to Anne Boleyn, with their ancient Templar pedigree.

Crowley was not only well versed in this history, and the traditions associated with it, at Trinity College (founded by Henry VIII as part of his reforms) he rubbed shoulders with the descendents of several of these very same families. The inclusion of the Abbey of Thelema and its philosophy in his evolving ideology was thus no accident. Taken in its occult form, through the filter of the mysteries revitalised by Dashwood, Rabelais’ Thelema can be seen as part of a very old tradition (the observant may have noticed a curious, though rough, 200 year cycle in this narrative: the founding of the Templars around 1120, the Pleiade of 1323 – 10 years after the suppression of the Templars – Anne Boleyn’s arrival in England in 1520 –following Agrippa in 1510 and preceeding the emergence of Rabalais in her former home in 1530 – and the founding of the original Hell Fire Club around 1720), reformed and modernised by Crowley to form the core of his emerging current, which born in 1904 reached its height in the 1920s. Clearly there is much more beneath the surface of Thelema to be yet uncovered.

Main Sources

The Complete Works of Doctor Francois Rabelais, translated by Sir Thomas Urquart and Peter Motteux. An electronic text version is available from Project Gutenberg.

Life of Francois Rabelais, by Jean Plattard.

Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin, Helene Iswolsky (Translator).

Marguerite of Navarre, by Samual Putnam.

Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Retha Warnicke.

Three Books Of Occult Philosophy H. C. Agrippa.

Cornelius Agrippa, the Humanist Theologian and His Declamation, by Marc van der Poel Sex, Rakes and Libertines.

The Hell-Fire Clubs, by Geofrey Ashe.

Liber AL, by Aiwass (and Aleister Crowley).

The Black Knights, A Secret History of the Knights Templar, by Stephen J Ash.

See also a wide range of articles on the Internet.


Stephen J. Ash, is a Nu Thelemite, writer and philosopher living in London. He is the author of the Black Knights, A Secret History of the Knights Templar and the English Covenant, a founder member of the Dionysian Underground, a UK Magister Templi for the Eldritch Esoteric Order of Dagon, and operates a lodge of Britain’s smallest Thelemic Order, the Ordo Illumines Templi. He is currently working on a sequel to the Black Knights and Liber Eolas, an advanced guide to magick.


1 The Castle of Chinon was initially the property of the English monarchy in the independent French kingdom of Anjou. Fortified by Henry II, a close supporter of the Knights Templar, it was inherited by Richard the Lionheart, who worked almost hand in glove with the Templars, and the Knights are said to have often met with Richard in its great hall. In the early 13th century after Anjou was annexed by the French King Phillip Augustus, relations between the French monarchy and the Templars were still good. However by the end of the century relations had soured, culminating with Phillip the Fair’s arrest of members of the Order and their imprisonment in the dungeon of the castle, where unsual and possibly esoteric grafitti was carved. The Papal investigators sent to interview the knights did so here, producing the recently released Vatican document now known as the Chinon parchment. While finding the Order as a whole innocent, contrary to recent reports the investigators did in fact find evidence of unusual practices within it. In addition to admissions of mundane homosexuality amongst some in the Brotherhood, all the accused admitted to having been asked by their receptors during their initiation to denounce the Cross and spit at the crucifix, and were absolved on account of their alleged reluctance, Templar lawyers, along with other high ranking witnesses, strongly implied they were aware of some local irregularities within the Order, and at least one knight testified as having seen an iconic head used as an idol in Montepellier. Culprits suggested by the Order itself included brothers close to the Cathars, as well as those dealing with Islamic groups, such as the Ismaili Order of the Hashashin. All those Templars who confessed and were absolved were released from Chinon, only those who later retracted their confessions were executed, as was the norm of the time.

2 The term Humanist had a slightly different connotation in this period to the word as used today. It essentially meant giving greater value to the human element and having a more positive and tolerant attitude towards humanity, as opposed to a God centred view which saw a flawed humanity as damned and in a state of inherent sinfulness requiring God’s grace. It particular indicated a view in which humans could take control of their own destiny through developing and utilising their own natural mental abilities, rather than subservience to gods. Later of course it would evolve into a rationalistic and materialistic absolutism, which put mankind at the centre of a meaningless, physical universe, with reason as their only reliable tool. Thus inspiring a Romantic backlash that led to today’s radical, anti-humanist stances.

3 A popular phrase in Germany at the time was ‘as drunk as Templar!’ An altar of St John the Baptist was often found in Templar churches, alongside the main altar to the Virgin Mary.

4 The naming of this group as the Pleiade, remains controversial, some scholars insist they never refered to themselves as such, prefering the name the Brigade. However the clear correspondence between the groups seems undeniable.

5 Many are surprised by the notion of ‘Templar families’, however it should be remembered that not all Templar knights were monks, some were members of secular confraternities, who wore black instead of the white mantels of the monks, being still ‘in sin’ (see the Rule of the Templars, Dr. Peter Partner’s the Murdered Magicians, or my book the Black Knights for more details). These knights were not celibate and many had children, even some of those who eventually took holy orders did so late in life, sometimes on their deathbed, after producing offspring. The descendents of these knights varied in their attitutude to their forebears, many of whom showed an unusual interest in occultism down the generations.

6 It has been argued that both Dashwood and Lord Sandwich were closely connected to the British secret service and were engaged in clandestine intrigues against the exiled Jacobites. Others have suggested they were double or even triple agents!