The Hellfire Club originated in England in the 1760s as a social organization for the elite of British society. The Club not only provided its members with pleasures, often of sorts that violated moral standards of the time, but also served as a means for the members to consolidate their influence over British economic and political matters.
A number of the Club's most important members, led by the wealthy trading company owner and former Member of Parliament Sir Patrick Clemens, and his mistress, the renowned actress Diana Knight, emigrated to the colony of New York in the 1770s, where they founded the new American Hellfire Club. Clemens and Knight served as its first leaders under their Club titles of Black King and Black Queen. The Club's headquarters was an abandoned church that stood on the site on the present day Hellfire Club mansion, located at what is now Fifth Avenue on Manhattan's East Side, only a few blocks away from the Avengers Mansion.
Today's Hellfire Club counts among its members the wealthy, the powerful, and the celebrated from virtually all over the world. Membership is by invitation only, but such invitations are rarely turned down, for membership in the Hellfire Club is universally regarded as the ultimate status symbol.
As far as the general public and, indeed, most of the Club's members are concerned, the Hellfire Club is a thoroughly respectable upper class social organization principally devoted to giving spectacular parties. It is also generally known that these parties serve as a means for members of the social, economic, and political elite to meet unofficially to discuss matters of mutual interest, and to strike political or business alliances.
The Club's highest ranking members belong to its Inner Circle and dress in late Eighteenth Century costumes for Circle meetings and other formal occasions involving the Club. Inner Circle members hold positions named after chess pieces: the leaders are King and Queens, followed by Bishops, Knights, Rooks, and Pawns. It is possible for there to be two Kings (a Black King and a White King) or two Queens (Black and White) in office simultaneously. However, such situations almost invariably lead to power struggles, and so there is usually only one King and one Queen at a time. If a member of one faction of the Inner Circle displaces a member of another faction as King or Queen, he or she usually names his rank after the opposite color to his predecessor's. Hence, when Sebastian Shaw deposed the most recent former leader, a White King, he became a Black King.
Unknown to most of the Club members, the Inner Circle members are engaged in a conspiracy to dominate the world through the accumulation of economic power and political influence. The Inner Circle commands great financial resources, highly advanced technology, and a large body of mercenaries (many of whom wear red and blue uniforms with masks), all of which are used in their subversive activities.
The previous leader of the Inner Circle, then known as the Council of the Chosen, was a White King who threw the Council's financial and technological support behind Dr. Stephen Lang's attempts to capture superhuman mutants with Sentinel robots. Lang's endeavor ended in disaster, and Black Bishop Sebastian Shaw and White Queen Emma Frost seized the opportunity to turn the White King out of office. Shaw became the new Black King, leader of the Council, which he renamed the Inner Circle, and master of the entire Hellfire Club. As leader, Shaw worked closely with his ally Frost, the White Queen.
Shaw and Frost are both not only heads of major corporations but also superhuman mutants. They gave other superhuman mutants positions of power within the Inner Circle. Moreover, Frost was also headmistress of the Massachusetts Academy, a private school in New England for which she recruited adolescent superhuman mutants as well as the sons and daughters of the elite so that she might bring them under the Inner Circle's influence. It is at the Academy that Frost trained a team of adolescent superhuman mutants known as the Hellions.
Shaw's corporation, Shaw Industries, had a secret contract to build Sentinels for the United States government's covert Project Wideawake, whose goal was to hunt down, capture, and study superhuman mutants. Shaw hoped to use his position with the project for the Inner Circle's own ends. (None of the Inner Circle members are known to be mutants either by the United States government or by the general public).
Some years ago, the mutant Jason Wyngarde, otherwise known as Mastermind, sought admission into the Inner Circle. To prove his value, Wyngarde mesmerized the first member of the X-Men to be known as Phoenix into willingly becoming the Club's Black Queen. Although Wyngarde believed that Phoenix was Jean Grey, also known as Marvel Girl, it now appears that Phoenix was actually an immensely powerful energy being who had taken on a human guise and persona patterned after Grey's. Wyngarde's tampering with Phoenix's mind backfired by triggering her transformation into the malevolent Dark Phoenix, who rendered him catatonic. The Inner Circle therefore withdrew its invitation to him to become a member.
Later, Shaw survived an attempted challenge to his leadership of the Circle by its renegade White Bishop, Donald Pierce. Pierce kidnapped a young woman known only as Tessa, whose photographic memory enabled her to function as a living storehouse of information about matters of importance to the Circle for Shaw. Professor Charles Xavier and the New Mutants defeated Pierce. Tessa returned to the Inner Circle, which expelled Pierce from the Club.
Still more recently Friedrich von Roehm, a member of the Inner Circle, sponsored the superhuman mutant and sorceress known as Selene for membership in the Circle. Selene has since become the Circle's Black Queen.
In recent years the Hellfire Club's Inner Circle has clashed several times with the mutant X-Men, and the enmity between the two groups persists to this day.
The Hellfire Club's Inner Circle suffered many setbacks as the group of young mutants known as the Upstarts began to hunt down and assassinate members of the Inner Circle. Donald Pierce and his cyborg Reavers were killed by Sentinels under the command of Trevor Fitzroy. Fitzroy had also killed most of the Hellions, and placed the White Queen into a coma. Shaw was believed to have been killed by his son Shinobi who had designs on the position of Black King. Selene was captured and tortured by Fitzroy, but was later freed.
After X-Force and the New Warriors defeated the Upstarts, the Inner Circle began to reform. Selene, now free, found Fitzroy dying after his encounter with X-Force and turned him into a psychic vampire under her control. Selene also found the resurrected Madelyne Pryor, and cajoled her into joining the Inner Circle. Shaw survived the assassination attempt and rebuilt his power base in Japan.
The original London Hellfire Club continues its operations today, although now it takes second place to the New York chapter of the organization. In recent times the London Hellfire Club had its own Inner Circle consisting of a Black King and Queen and a Red King and Queen; the first three were mutants and the fourth was actually the sorceress Margali Szardos. Unknown to the royalty of the London Inner Circle, their servant Scribe had been replaced by the shapeshifting mutant Mountjoy.
The London Inner Circle conspired with Black Air, the British intelligence agency charged with investigating the paranormal, to take control of a demon. The Inner Circle and Black Air intended to use the demon's mystical energies to take mental control of the people of the United Kingdom. However, their plan misfired, and the demon began spreading insanity through the population of London. The London Inner Circle's Black Queen killed its Black King when he went mad. Finally, the British team of superhuman champions Excalibur succeeded in defeating Mountjoy and Margali and entrapping the demon. British legal authorities apparently brought the London Inner Circle to justice.
In the alternate future eight decades hence from which the X-Man Bishop comes, the Hellfire Club still exists and operates in New York City. Its Inner Circle still secretly consists of superhuman mutants in search of power, and it is headed by Sebastian Shaw's heir, Alexander Shaw.