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Brasenose College

Brasenose College

Photo: Chris Rycroft, licensed CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Brasenose Hellfire Club: A Devilish Encounter

7 July 2024

According to Brasenose College legend, in the 1820s the college was home to its own chapter of the notorious Hellfire Club. And if the legend speaks true, certain young libertines got more than they bargained for when they tried to summon the Devil!

The Devil in Brasenose Lane

The legend states that late one winter evening in the early 18th century, a fellow of the college was walking down Brasenose Lane when his attention was drawn to a cloaked figure up to something strange near one of the college's ground floor windows that faces onto the lane.

The figure appeared to be pushing a second man through the window, a feat that surprised the fellow as he knew all the ground floor windows to be covered by both bars and a sturdy wire mesh. The blood-curdling screams of the second man convinced the astonished fellow that the man was not going willingly, but rather being forced through the bars and mesh of the window like mashed potato through a colander!


Brasenose Lane, with college windows on the left. Credit: Alan Blakeley, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In horror, the fellow fled in the direction of the porter's lodge, but as he was stepping through the gates he could already hear a commotion coming from across the quadrangle. On bursting into the ground floor room in question, the horrified fellow found an undergraduate lying on the floor, dead from a burst blood vessel!

Fatal medical episode, or satanic rite gone wrong?

The dead student was said to have been president of Brasenose's own version of the Hellfire Club, and on the night of his death the sinister club had been drunkenly performing a ritual to conjure up the Devil. Did they succeed, only for the club's president to get more than he bargained for?

According to some versions of the story, despite dying of a burst blood vessel, the student was found with cuts from the window meshing all over his face, corroborating what the fellow claims to have seen out in Brasenose Lane.

The Devil in Oxfordshire

The incident at Brasenose college is not the only time the Devil has been spotted up to no good in Oxfordshire. If local legends are true, the Devil is responsible for constructing three church spires near Banbury, tossing the Devil's Quoits stone circle into position and harrassing a number of other unfortunately Oxfordshire residents over the centuries.

Find out more in my article 7 Tales of the Devil in Oxfordshire

Is there any truth to the tale of the Brasenose Hellfire Club?

The most surprisingly piece of evidence to corroborate the legend comes from Brasenose College's own records. They record the death of a 21-year-old undergraduate named Edward Leigh Trafford, who died in his college rooms overlooking Brasenose Lane on 3rd March 1834. Could this be the unfortunate Hellfire Club president in question?

Trafford was clearly something of a debauched fellow. His own family records state that the cause of death was delirium tremens, or cardiovascular collapse following withdrawal from severe alcohol abuse. It seems unusual that a man who clearly had a problem with alcohol should pick the night of a Hellfire Club meeting to abstain, but conversely a man suffering from the DTs is certainly more likely than most to believe that he had seen the Devil!


The quad at Brasenose college. Credit: Engraving by James Basire, 1805.

Who was the fellow of the college who claimed to have witnessed the Devil forcing a student through the window? The main source for this story seems to be taken from the journal Odds and Ends from the year 1872. It is this version of the story that is quoted on the colleges own website, but the name of the fellow is not given.

Another version of the story published on the BBC website names the fellow as 'Revd T.T. Churton, Vice-President of the college'. However, I've found no record of such a person ever existing. It's possible that the writer may be confusing the fellow with Ralph Churton, an English churchman who was a fellow of Brasenose, but Churton died in 1821, a few years before the death of Edward Leigh Trafford.

Who were the original Hellfire Club?

The most famous 'hellfire club' existed between 1750 and 1774 and centred around a notorious aristocrat named Sir Francis Dashwood, who hosted debauched and decadent parties attended by the upper echelons of English society. At these gatherings, the self-titled 'Monks of Medmenham' would supposedly dress in religious garb and perform blasphemous parodies of religious rites that bordered on the Satanic, while drinking heavily and indulging every other vice that took their fancy.

Sir Francis Dashwood by William Hogarth

A satirical portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood by William Hogarth. Dashwood is depicted kneeling in a mockery of prayer, his crucifix discarded to one side as he oggles a naked figure!

This club was actually inspired by an earlier one, hosted by the Duke of Wharton around the year 1720. Less is known about this earlier club, other than its similar reputation for performing drunken parodies of religious rites. Both these clubs inspired a popular belief that, behind a smokescreen of wealth and respectability, the aristocracy were secretly indulging in all manner of debauched and satanic mischief (a belief still echoed today by the more deranged proponents of QAnon and similar conspiracy theories).

A devilishly good day out

Interested in finding out more about Sir Francis Dashwood's 'hellfire club'? I highly recommend a visit to West Wycombe, just over the county border in Buckinghamshire. Here you can visit the Dashwood family home at West Wycombe park (now maintained by the National Trust) and also the Hellfire Caves, a series of caverns that Sir Francis Dashwood had carved into a nearby hill. These caves are said to be one of the locations where Dashwood's hellfire club met and got up to mischief, well worth a visit!