The Hellfire Club was established as an exclusive British gentlemen's club by Englishman Sir Francis Dashwood, Scotsmen John Stuart (Third Earl of Bute) and Duncan Munro and others in the 1760s. Members Sir Patrick Clemens and Lady Diana Knight soon emigrated to North America, where they founded the Hellfire Club's New York chapter in an abandoned church located at what is now Fifth Avenue on Manhattan's East Side. Today, the Hellfire Club is an overt, worldwide organization. Famous for its lavish annual gala, it is open to the wealthiest and most influential entrepreneurs, politicians and socialites, whose membership is traditionally passed on to the heirs of their estates. Within the Club at large is a secret cabal, known only to a select few. These Inner Circles, of which there are typically one or two at a time, desire to achieve world domination through political and economic influence, subversive activities and the recruitment of mercenary forces and powerful superhumans. Its members often holding positions named after chess pieces, an Inner Circle is ruled by its Queens and Kings, the so-called Lords Cardinal. They, in turn, are ruled by the Lord Imperial, who is also in charge of the Club's overt activities.
Shrouded in secrecy, only fragments of the Inner Circles' history are known. During the Revolutionary War, an attempt by Philadelphia members to obtain strategic information from the influential Major-General Wallace Worthington failed, with fatal consequences for Worthington. In 1859, London's Inner Circle was forced into a brief alliance with the mutant conqueror Apocalypse. In 1915, the twisted geneticist Mister Sinister exploited the rivalries within the London chapter, finding a willing subject for his forbidden experiments in envious young Jacob Shaw. An act of sabotage by London branch member Sir Harry Manners, who sought to facilitate a German victory in the Great War, was foiled by British superhero Union Jack later that same year.
In the early 21st century, the growing divide between mutants and ordinary humans caught up with the Hellfire Club, as the New York branch's White King, Edward Buckman, funded scientist Steven Lang's Project: Armageddon. Its purpose was to eliminate the "mutant threat", starting with the X-Men, by unleashing the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots. Among Buckman's so-called Council of the Chosen, his Inner Circle, was self-made industrialist Sebastian Shaw, a mutant himself, from whom Buckman had hidden his true agenda. Once the Sentinels were launched, Shaw came under attack, and he realized that he had been betrayed. While Shaw survived the assault, his fiancée Lourdes Chantel did not. Furious, Shaw killed Buckman and his supporters and assumed control of the Inner Circle as its new Black King. Aided by the enigmatic Tessa, Shaw appointed lawyer Harry Leland his new Inner Circle's Black Bishop, while the telepathic Emma Frost, introduced to the Club through Leland, assumed the position of its White Queen. They were soon joined by the cyborg Donald Pierce, who became White Bishop, as well as the mutant illusionist Jason Wyngarde, alias Mastermind.
Viewing the X-Men's activities as a threat to its agenda of mutant world domination, the Inner Circle prepared for their elimination. With his hypnotic powers, Wyngarde began to secretly manipulate the X-Men's Phoenix, slowly but steadily subverting her. Meanwhile, Frost almost succeeded in capturing the X-Men, but ultimately succumbed to Phoenix in a brutal confrontation that traumatized her for years to come. Hoping to learn more about their new opponents, the X-Men infiltrated Manhattan's Hellfire Club, but were soon discovered. In the subsequent clash, Wyngarde's subversion of Phoenix bore fruit, as she turned against her teammates and joined the Club as its Black Queen. Although Phoenix eventually managed to shake off Wyngarde's influence, leading to the Inner Circle's defeat, the X-Men's victory was pyrrhic: While Phoenix took revenge on Wyngarde with her mental powers and left him in a catatonic state, his psychic tampering served as a catalyst for her transformation into the destructive Dark Phoenix. The conflict between the Hellfire Club and the X-Men kept smoldering in the months to follow, but there was also friction within the Inner Circle. An attempt by Pierce to overthrow Shaw's rule failed and resulted in Pierce's exclusion. While Shaw used his contacts to influential officials like his friend Senator Robert Kelly to lobby for new, government-sponsored Sentinel projects, Frost attempted to recruit Charles Xavier's younger students into her own group of charges, the Hellions. The Inner Circle was joined by the ancient sorceress Selene, its new Black Queen, along with Emmanuel DaCosta, a White Rook. When Leland was killed by Nimrod, an advanced Sentinel, the Inner Circle and the X-Men agreed to an alliance, in order to survive in a world increasingly hostile towards mutants. Magneto, headmaster of Xavier's school at the time, became the Inner Circle's new White King, a position he initially shared with X-Men leader Storm. Philosophical differences between Shaw and Magneto eventually resulted in Shaw's dismissal as Black King and Magneto's crowning as "Grey King". Magneto soon wearied of the ongoing struggles between humans and mutants, however, and withdrew from the Inner Circle.
Thus weakened, the Inner Circle was assaulted by the Upstarts, a group of young power mongers including Shaw's son, Shinobi Shaw. Originally assembled by Selene as the next generation of mutant leaders, the Upstarts' string of surprise attacks resulted in the apparent deaths of Shaw, Magneto, Pierce, Frost and the Hellions, while Selene herself became the prisoner of her erstwhile charges. Believing to have killed his father, Shinobi usurped the position of Black King, but his reign was short-lived. Shinobi's attempts to recruit prominent mutants such as Archangel and Storm failed, and, although he briefly managed to assemble his own Inner Circle, a long series of fruitless conflicts with other superhumans prevented him from establishing a lasting power base. When he learned that his father was alive after all, Shinobi deserted his position and went into hiding. The Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club's London chapter, meanwhile, had attempted to harness the power of an ancient demon incarcerated beneath England's capital. Its plans were thwarted by Brian Braddock, alias Captain Britain, who had infiltrated the Club as its Black Bishop, a position he had inherited from his late father, Sir James Braddock.
Sebastian Shaw quickly reclaimed his position as Black King, recruiting the powerful young Madelyne Pryor, the time-traveling Trevor Fitzroy and, briefly, even his old rival Donald Pierce, into a new Inner Circle. When Shaw failed both in developing a profitable cure for the lethal Legacy Virus and in acquiring Apocalypse's advanced technology, however, he agreed to support a mysterious employer with impressive capabilities, which soon led to his resignation from the Inner Circle. In subsequent months, Shaw briefly resurfaced operating an establishment named "The Hellfire Club", an exclusive nightclub for mutants with money to spend. During his absence, Shaw's former aide Tessa joined the X-Men, revealing that she had been a spy working for Xavier all along. Following Shaw's withdrawal, Selene seized her chance and returned as the Inner Circle's Black Queen. In league with the demon Blackheart, she succeeded in coercing Xavier's former student Roberto DaCosta into joining her as a Black Rook. Her Inner Circle's capacity to act, however, remained hamstrung by the unwelcome presence of its contentious White King, superhero exorcist Daimon Hellstrom. Eventually, Sebastian Shaw made his return to the Inner Circle as Lord Imperial, but immediately lost the position to DaCosta when an attack by Pierce resulted in his hospitalization. While Selene and British investment banker Courtney Ross, who has joined the Lords Cardinal as their latest White Queen, pursued their own vicious schemes, DaCosta's declared objective is to improve the situation of mutants around the globe. His aide Tessa, who through her actions has earned the distrust of both Shaw and her former X-Men teammates, appears to play another significant role among the Hellfire Club's new leaders. Once again, the Hellfire Club's Inner Circle is a nexus of hidden agendas, which makes it an unpredictable quantity to both its opponents and members alike.
The Hellfire Club recently resurfaced. This time they faced off against Cyclops' team of X-Men at the X-Mansion. The new roster consisted of Sebastion Shaw, Emma Frost, Perfection, Cassandra Nova, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. It was discovered however that the new Hellfire Club was nothing but a mental illusion created by Emma Frost. Shortly after the team of X-Men learned this, they were rocketed into space by S.W.O.R.D.. There has been no sign of the Hellfire Club since.