As the wedding bells echo from Westminster Abbey and millions tune in to watch the royal nuptials, the media will replay over and again the story of how Prince William and Kate Middleton began their fairy-tale romance at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where they met as frisky art-history students in 2001. (William later changed his major to geography.) The 600-year-old college has been elevated in the popular imagination as a magical Old World setting for royal love. It has even received the full-blown Hollywood treatment in a lavish Lifetime movie, which depicts the dewy-eyed undergrads frolicking through its medieval cloisters and leafy, cobbled alleys.
To the hordes of journalists and tourists who have lately made the pilgrimage to the hallowed campus 55 miles north of Edinburgh, St. Andrews appears stately, dignified, and predictably dull, as manicured as the ancient Scottish golf courses that surround it. But hidden away in one of the more modern university buildings, near the police station, is a cache of erotic relics from Britain's longest-running and most perverse sex club, which boasted as a member none other than one of Prince William's royal ancestors.
Few visitors to the Museum of the University of St. Andrews know to inquire about the BBWCC, the "Beggar's Benison and Wig Club Collection," although it is notorious with curators and a small group of scholars. But if you make a formal application (and the serious academic purpose of your research is accepted), staff members will take you to a clinical room, don latex gloves, and slowly unpack several archival boxes of rare historical artifacts.
There are drinking glasses in the shape of giant phalluses. Lewd platters are engraved with surreal pornographic images, including erections shaped as lighthouses and roosters with human penis heads. One prize exhibit is a snuff box filled with female pubic hair that was plucked by one of William's most debauched and lecherous royal relatives, King George IV, the prince's fourth great-granduncle, who ruled from 1820 to 1830. And a timeworn case contains a ghoulish wooden mannequin's head whose peculiar erotic purpose can be traced back to another randy royal forebear, King Charles II. (The bloodline of the Merry Monarch, who ruled from 1660 to 1685,,runs to Prince William through his mother, Lady Diana, via several of Charles II's illegitimate sons.)
What is intriguing to the modern eye is that these ribald artifacts hail from a period in history that most of us assume to be very conservative, with men in powdered wigs and women in tight corsets politely courting over tea and buttered scones.
The bizarre relics belong to a group called the Beggar's Benison, the longest-lasting of the dozens of "enlightened" sex clubs that emerged across Britain in the Georgian era and are referred to generally as Hellfire Clubs. This gentleman's society was founded in 1732 in a damp Scottish fishing village called Anstruther, a few miles from St. Andrews on the East Neuk of Fife. Despite the detailed information we have on its lurid club rituals, they have so far never been featured in a British period drama. (Then again, it's hard to imagine Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson accepting the roles.) According to the surviving club minutes and firsthand accounts, the Benison's male members—who were drawn from all sections of educated Scottish society—would gather every month in an Anstruther tavern. Early in the evening, naked village girls, known as posture molls, posed on tables in acrobatic positions to reveal "the Secrets of Nature." Pornographic texts were read. They would then make toasts from the lewd drinking vessels, known as prick glasses, citing "Firm erection, fine insertion, excellent distillation, no contamination." The club president would then open up the wooden box, revealing a motley wig that, according to club tradition, had been woven from the pubic hairs of King Charles II's many mistresses. Members would take turns wearing it, evidently using the talisman to enhance their sexual potency.
Finally, the boozed-up and merry members would gather around a table. There they would masturbate onto the club's fine pewter plate, known as the Test Platter. (As the club minutes put it laconically on one occasion in 1737: "24 met. … All frigged.")
According to David Stevenson, professor emeritus of Scottish history at St. Andrews University and author of the seminal academic study The Beggar's Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and Their Rituals, the club was so popular with businessmen that chapters opened wherever Scotsmen traveled, from London to New York and even in the far-flung colonies of India and Australia. Its irreverent rites gleefully mocked all forms of censorship and sexual repression, including the newly popular medical fiction that masturbation posed a serious health risk, and it attracted non-Scottish members up to the highest echelons of British society. King George IV became a member of the London chapter in his dissolute youth, and he always kept a soft spot for it. When he visited Edinburgh on a royal tour in 1822, he presented the Benison's leadership with a snuff box containing pubic hair taken from one of his own mistresses. (Today the object still contains a tight wad of curls, now turned silver but with a faint ginger tinge.)
The king may have chosen the gift because, back in 1777, a rebellious Benison member had made off with the beloved pubic wig and started his own breakaway club in Edinburgh, the Wig Club. In this society, new members were obliged to add a hair from their own loved one's nether regions, helping to renew the headpiece's fraying size. In fact, George may have intended his contribution to serve as the embryo for a replacement wig.
The Benison proved to be remarkably resilient, lasting for more than a century. But in 1836—the year before Queen Victoria's accession to the throne, ushering in a far less fun-loving era—the club held its last meeting in Anstruther, and it petered out elsewhere. In the repressive Victorian atmosphere, the relics of most British sex clubs were destroyed by disgusted relatives. But many of the Benison and Wig Club items miraculously survived, passed hand-to-hand around Scotland for generations. In 1921, a history-loving Scottish army officer named Col. Robert Maxwell "Canch" Kavanagh tracked them down and even tried to revive the club rites for a while, without success. ("Male bonding rituals had rather changed," Stevenson told me dryly.) His cache was eventually donated to the Museum of the University of St. Andrews, although sadly, the most infamous item, the pubic wig, was lost.
Despite the proliferation of sex museums in Europe, the Beggar's Benison and Wig Club Collection has never been publicly displayed. ("St Andrews is such a family tourist spot," one museum assistant explained, when I inspected the fabled items. "There was some thought of exhibiting a few of the tamer items, but it was vetoed. I mean, how do you explain what they were used for in a G-rated way?")
Today, we can only speculate as to whether Prince William was aware of the sexy stash at his alma mater and the royal connections that swirl around it.
And the mysterious disappearance of the Wig Club's legendary mascot, last seen in a lawyer's office in Leith in the 1930s, should give royal conspiracy theorists pause. Millions believe that Jack the Ripper was the minion of Buckingham Palace and that a Secret Service assassin took care of Lady Di and Dodi. Surely the palace agents could spirit a royal wig out of a solicitor's filing cabinet …
If so, Kate Middleton may be in for quite a surprise on her wedding night.
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