Reggie is a London-based lawyer who blogs here, here, here and, actually, elsewhere. It’s quite difficult to introduce him as he has such a wide (and erudite) set of interests. Anyhow, we’re delighted to welcome today a meaty post on one of the oldest preoccupations of the learned, provoked by Philip Heselton’s Witchfather, published in paperback last year.
As Ronald Hutton has noted, the tradition of pagan witchcraft known as Wicca is the only religion that England has ever given to the world – and Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) was its prophet. Various aspects of Gardner’s life and work, and of the religion that he founded, have been hashed through by a succession of previous writers. Until now, however, only one dedicated biography of Gardner has existed, this being his authorised biography, Gerald Gardner: Witch (1960). Philip Heselton’s new magnum opus, Witchfather (in two volumes), fills a gap in the market by providing a properly researched study of Gardner’s eventful life.
Gardner is not the easiest subject for a biographer, not least because his own attitude towards the truth seems to have been at times less than full and frank, but Heselton’s book is an interesting and welcome new contribution to the understanding of his subject’s life. Heselton is not a professional academic or writer, and he sometimes gives his imagination a rather free rein. However, he has completed a very impressive quantity of background research on Gardner’s life and career – more than any other previous researcher – and his book will be of great interest to both popular and scholarly audiences.
Gardner was born in 1884 into a well-to-do family of timber merchants in Blundellsands, near Liverpool. He suffered from asthma (the “occultists’ disease”), and as a result he was sent abroad to warmer climes at the age of 4. He was to spend most of his life in Ceylon and Malaya, working initially in private business and then in the British colonial service, until he retired in the mid-1930s. He had no formal education, but he developed interests in archaeology, anthropology and antiquarianism. Later in life, he succeeded in obtaining a PhD from an American degree mill.
Gardner was interested in religion and occultism for most of his life, ever since he read a book on spiritualism as a pre-teen. During his life in the East, he was exposed to Buddhism, Islam and traditional tribal beliefs. He didn’t follow any particular faith, though he spent two brief periods as a Freemason, professed the shahada at one point in his 20s, and consulted mediums while visiting England. He seems to have acquired beliefs in life after death and reincarnation, and the idea of reincarnation duly recurs both in his later fiction writing and in the doctrines of the witch religion that he purported to have discovered.
Gardner left Malaya in 1936, and then, as war approached, moved to Highcliffe near the New Forest in 1938. He later claimed that he was advised by a doctor to take up naturism to cope with the bracing English climate, though there is evidence that he had an interest in the lifestyle before that. Certainly, naturism was to become a major part of his life, and, like reincarnation, it subsequently recurred both in his novels and in his purportedly non-fictional writings on witchcraft.
After moving to the New Forest area, Gardner encountered an esoteric group called the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, which operated a theatre in Christchurch. He later claimed that he had come into contact with a coven of pagan witches through his friendship with individuals in the Fellowship, and that he was himself initiated as a witch shortly after the outbreak of the War. The canonised version of the story is set out in his authorised biography:
On one of his long cycle rambles, Gardner came across a curious building in Christchurch. Cut in the stone the legend said: THE FIRST ROSICRUCIAN THEATRE IN ENGLAND…. This was the discovery which led to his recruitment into the cult of the witches….
[Gardner gets involved with the Rosicrucian group.]
Now, at meetings, Gardner had noticed a group of people apart from the rest. They seemed rather browbeaten by the others, kept themselves to themselves. They were the most interesting element, however. Unlike many of the others, they had to earn their livings, were cheerful and optimistic and had a real interest in the occult. They had carefully read many books on the subject….
Gardner always felt at home with them, was invited to their houses, and had many talks with them. The day came when one said: “I have seen you before”. Gardner, interested, asked where. “In a former life”. Then all gathered around and agreed that this was so….
Then someone said, “You belonged to us in the past – why don’t you come back to us?”
….They explained that they had been co-masons [members of a unisex branch of Freemasonry], and had followed Mabs [Mabel Besant-Scott, a prominent Co-Mason] when she had moved to this place….
….Thus it was that, a few days after the war had started, he was taken to a big house in the neighbourhood. This belonged to “Old Dorothy” a lady of note in the district, “county” and very well-to-do….
It was in this house that he was initiated into witchcraft….
It was halfway through when the word Wica was first mentioned: “and I then knew that that which I had thought burnt out hundreds of years ago still survived”. [Note the spelling "Wica". Gardner preferred this orthography: the form "Wicca", while derived from Anglo-Saxon, seems to have first been used in modern times by his enemy Charles Cardell.] His first feeling about this was: “How wonderful; to think that these things still survive”…. He found that his friends, after following Mabs to her settlement, had discovered an old Coven, and remained here because of that. “I found that Old Dorothy and some like her, plus a number of New Forest people, had kept the light shining. It was, I think, the most wonderful night of my life. In true witch fashion we had a dance afterwards, and kept it up until dawn.
The witch group that Gardner claimed to have discovered has become known as the “New Forest coven”. What on earth was going on?
To understand the background to Gardner’s apparently bizarre discovery of a pagan witch-cult in 1930s rural England, it is necessary to bear in mind three factors: first, the interest in paganism that had arisen in educated British culture from the 19th century onwards; second, the simultaneous growth of interest in occult and esoteric subjects more generally; and third, the more recent and more specific development of interest in witchcraft. This last-mentioned development was largely attributable to the work of Dr Margaret Murray, an Egyptologist based at London University.
Dr Murray advanced the theory that the “witches” of mediaeval and early modern Europe were not merely unfortunate social misfits who were blamed by their neighbours for their cattle falling ill. They had in fact been followers of a prehistoric pagan religion which had survived long into the Christian era – at which point it had been condemned as Satanic and driven underground. This was not a new idea: it had first been discussed in Germany in the 1820s and 30s, and Murray was also influenced by the then-fashionable anthropological theories of Sir James Frazer (1854-1941). But it was Murray’s publications, in particular The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933), that assured the “witch cult hypothesis” a lasting place in the history of ideas and bestowed upon Murray herself a strange sort of immortality.
Like later adherents of the Wiccan religion founded by Gardner, Murray’s witches worshipped a horned god, met in covens of 13, and celebrated a yearly cycle of festivals consisting of “sabbats” and “esbats”. The principal discrepancy between Murray’s ideas and Wiccan theology is that Murray had little to say about the goddess whom Gardnerian witches worship alongside the horned god. In addition, in the late 1950s, the Wiccan community added four further festivals to Murray’s basic yearly cycle of four sabbats, making eight in all.
Murray’s work appears to have inspired some individuals to create revived pagan witch covens of their own. In his 1952 book Witchcraft, the writer Pennethorne Hughes claimed to have been a member of a witch group at Oxford University in 1928 which seems to have drawn its inspiration from Murray. There are reports of a similar group at Cambridge in the 1930s, which was reportedly known as the “Pentangle Society” (see the entry for Gavin Frost in James Lewis, Witchcraft Today, and Don Frew’s review of Aidan Kelly’s work). In more sinister vein, the Nazis seem to have bought into Murrayan ideas, and Heinrich Himmler’s extensive research into Germanic witchcraft might have led to an official recreation of the supposed old witch religion if Germany had won the War, just as Himmler attempted to recreate other aspects of “Aryan” paganism.
It is often suggested that the coven that Gardner claimed to have encountered had been founded in the 1920s or 30s on the basis of Murray’s theories. This seems plausible enough. Some, including Ronald Hutton, have taken a more sceptical stance, suggesting that the New Forest coven was a figment of Gardner’s imagination. It may be noted in this context that there is only one direct independent attestation of the coven’s existence – a story first published in 1970, in Francis X. King’s Ritual Magic in England, according to which the occultist Louis Wilkinson told King in 1953 that he had been personally acquainted with the coven and its members. This evidence is interesting, but it is by no means conclusive.
On balance, however, there is enough indirect evidence as to the coven’s existence to make the sceptical approach unappealing. To begin with, as Hutton himself readily accepted, at least one local person involved with the Crotona Fellowship can convincingly be identified as a early partner of Gardner’s in his witchy activities: a teacher of drama and elocution called Edith Woodford-Grimes, who was also a Co-Mason. Woodford-Grimes seems to have met Gardner in the late 1930s, and the two become close friends (and probably lovers). Gardner would later credit her specifically with introducing him to witchcraft, and he referred to her simply as “the witch”. Heselton goes further than previous researchers in proposing Edith’s daughter Rosanne, whom Gardner gave away at her wedding, as another member of the coven.
The greatest controversy relating to the New Forest coven surrounds the role of Dorothy Clutterbuck – the local worthy referred to by Gardner as “Old Dorothy” in whose house (or rather, in one of whose houses) he was allegedly initiated. Some researchers, including Hutton, have concluded that Clutterbuck was a simple churchgoing Anglican, a respectable pillar of the community whose name Gardner appropriated as a joke or in order to divert attention away from Edith Woodford-Grimes. Others, including Heselton, argue that there was more to her than met the eye, and that her surviving diaries indicate that her personal piety had little to do with Christianity and resembled instead a nature-based, pagan spirituality. Heselton thinks that she was bisexual: she lived with a woman nicknamed “John” until the latter’s death in 1933. She got married in 1935, but the fact that her husband’s ex-wife was still alive meant that the Church of England barred her from communion. When in 1940 she stood for re-election as president of the local Conservative Association, it was Gardner who seconded her nomination.
Who were the other coven members? Heselton marshals some interesting evidence in this connection:
- Evidence from Gardner and his protégée Doreen Valiente indicates that one of the coven members was known as “Mother Sabine”. Living in the area was an experienced occultist named Rosamund Sabine. Sabine and her husband named their house “Whinchat” (cf. “witch”, “Wica”).
- Dorothy Clutterbuck had a close friend called Katherine Oldmeadow, who was a children’s author. Heselton finds allusions to pagan and occult themes in her books. From around 1925-6, the depictions of witches in her stories become markedly more positive, and she claims that witches still exist.
- Several other member of the Crotona Fellowship – Ernie Mason, Susie Mason and Rosetta Fudge – had interests in Co-Masonry, theosophy and anthroposophy. They were related to each other, and the family was reputed to be involved in occult activities.
- Another member of the Crotona Fellowship, Catherine Chalk, had also been a Co-Mason and had donated land to the Fellowship.
We might pause at this point and take stock. A number of occultists were living in the New Forest area in the late 1930s, and in at least some cases they were members of the Crotona Fellowship. There is evidence to suggest that some of them were interested in paganism and witchcraft. There is nothing implausible about the notion that these individuals were engaged in trying to recreate the witch religion described in Margaret Murray’s books, which had been published in the recent past and had already inspired other attempts at imitation. There is no reason to doubt that Gardner befriended some of the people concerned, notably Edith Woodford-Grimes, through the Crotona Fellowship; and it is by no means difficult to believe that they would have inducted him into their witch group.
The coven appears to have attempted some kind of magical working in 1940 in an attempt to stop the Nazis from invading Britain. This story has attained something like folkloric status among writers on Wicca and occult subjects, but it may well have some basis in fact (certainly, other occultists attempted to use their powers to defeat the Germans). Heselton is perhaps a little too ready to believe the story, and to flirt with the idea that the operation was successful in persuading Hitler to cancel his invasion plans.
Other evidence confirms that, for the first time in his life, Gardner was developing an interest in witchcraft and Murrayan ideas in this period. In March 1939, he delivered a paper to the Folk-Lore Society on a box of items which were seemingly connected with witchcraft, and he referred in the paper to having had personal contact with Margaret Murray. In late 1939, he published a novel entitled A Goddess Arrives which includes a female witch character and uses the Murrayan term “witch cult”. Heselton notes, however, that witchcraft is a relatively minor element in the book. The hero, who is clearly based on Gardner, expresses disapproval of the witch’s pagan religion, which involves human and animal sacrifice, and he is depicted as a member of a quasi-Masonic esoteric order which practices a superior form of spirituality. This suggests that witchcraft was on Gardner’s radar screen but that he was not yet committed to it as a religious path. The novel was seemingly written between spring 1938 and summer 1939, and it is not clear exactly how it fits with his exposure to the New Forest coven.
It was only in the later 1940s that Gardner’s interests seem to have swung decisively from esoteric ritual magic to pagan witchcraft. At some point in 1945, he bought a replica witch’s cottage; by 1947, he had moved it to a piece of land at Bricket Wood, Hertfordshire, where a Wiccan coven would function in later years (and still does today). In 1949, he published a second novel, High Magic’s Aid, which he later claimed was a fictional account of the real-life witch cult that he had discovered. Like A Goddess Arrives, the book featured a female witch character, but it differed from the earlier novel in presenting witchcraft as being complementary to high magic rather than inferior to it. Its depiction of witchcraft was heavily indebted to Murray, though it also drew on the American foklorist Charles Leland’s 1899 book Aradia, which purported to present evidence of a traditional Italian witch religion (Leland was a kind of precursor of Murray, albeit his work was much less influential than the Englishwoman’s; it is still unclear how far his work constitutes reliable evidence of a genuine Italian pagan tradition).
Yet Gardner continued to pursue his interests in other forms of esotericism (and, indeed, in naturism) over the course of the decade. In May 1946, he joined the Society for Psychical Research. In August 1946, he seems to have been ordained as a priest of the Ancient British Church, a highly unorthodox Christian splinter group. At some point before the end of 1946, he became involved in a Druidic reconstructionist group known as the Ancient Druid Order. In 1947, he had several meetings with the legendary occultist Aleister Crowley, and developed plans to revive Crowley’s esoteric magical order, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). For a short time after Crowley’s death in December 1947, he seems to have been regarded by some (including himself) as Crowley’s successor in Europe, and he met with Crowley’s actual successor, Karl Germer, in America in early 1948. He rapidly lost interest in the OTO (though his correspondence with Germer continued until the mid-1950s), but he did publish High Magic’s Aid under his OTO name of “Scire”. Crowley himself read some of the manuscript draft of it.
Gardner’s shifting interests can be illustrated from a handwritten religious and ritual text entitled “Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical”, which was the immediate ancestor of the Wiccan sacred text, the Book of Shadows. As Aidan Kelly first demonstrated, and Heselton reiterates, “Ye Bok” was written up by Gardner in several stages, and these successive stages show a traceable progression from ritual magic material to witchy material. It is not clear precisely when Gardner wrote “Ye Bok”. The early sections are indebted to a ritual text (the Mathers edition of the Key of Solomon) which Gardner reportedly did not acquire until June 1947, but at least some of the witchcraft-related material appears to predate High Magic’s Aid, a draft of which seems to have been substantially complete by the same time, June 1947. This chronology is clearly problematic, but there are various ways of adjusting the dates. Heselton is inclined to see the witch material in “Ye Bok” as postdating High Magic’s Aid, and he suggests that Gardner was still working on the novel in 1948. At most, we can suggest tentatively that Gardner’s decisive switch of interest towards witchcraft can be located to circa 1947-9 – up to a decade after his original encounter with the New Forest coven.
In fact, following his initiation at the end of the 1930s, the coven as a body doesn’t seem to have played any very significant ongoing role in Gardner’s relationship with witchcraft. This doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist; merely that, as a corporate group, it didn’t have a lasting effect on Gardner’s religious development. Heselton singles out Edith Woodford-Grimes as being by far Gardner’s most important witch mentor and partner, and claims, probably correctly, that she largely eclipsed the rest of the coven in terms of her influence on him. This would explain why, in a letter to Gardner from 1947, Aleister Crowley referred to “your witch” in the singular.
Material from “Ye Bok” seems to have been copied into the first edition of Gardner’s Book of Shadows some time around 1949-50. This first edition is generally known as “Text A”. (The Gardnerian Book of Shadows has been published and analysed by numerous people over the years, including Doreen Valiente, Janet and Stewart Farrar, and Aidan Kelly – the “Text X” terminology comes from the Farrars.) The next version to be compiled was Text B, which was in use by 1953. Text C is the revised, quasi-canonical version which was compiled with Valiente’s input and was in existence by 1957. Gardner went on to edit a further edition, which was subsequently taken to America by Raymond Buckland and became the basis of the Books of Shadows used in Gardnerian covens in the US.
The first initiations into his new religion that Gardner performed were those of Gilbert and Barbara Vickers. Heselton places this ceremony in the period between autumn 1949 and autumn 1950, and suggests that Gardner used Text A for it. Doreen Valiente, who went on to become the best known of Gardner’s witch priestesses, was initiated in June 1953; she later reported that Gardner’s coven had 8-10 members around that time.
From 1951 onwards, Gardner’s focus shifted to the Isle of Man, where he was to run a museum of witchcraft, initially in collaboration with a distinctly dodgy character called Cecil Williamson. He claimed that a magic spell helped him to buy a house on the island.
It was also in the 1950s that Gardner published his two “non-fiction” books on witchcraft, Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959). These were seemingly written with the help of Doreen Valiente. He had apparently been working on Witchcraft Today since August 1952, and he persuaded Margaret Murray to write a foreword for it. Gardner made the following claims in the books:
- Witchcraft was the descendant of a Stone Age religion, though it was now dying out.
- Witches worshipped a goddess and a god, the latter of whom was associated with death and the afterlife.
- Witchcraft was an initatory religion; witches practised in covens of 13 under a High Priestess and a High Priest.
- Witches sought to “raise power” and practised magic.
- Witchcraft was a fertility cult and a “moon cult”.
Gardner also talked about some of the witches’ alleged rites, and reproduced several alleged witch documents, including extracts from the seminal Wiccan text known as “the Charge of the Goddess”.
The fact that Gardner’s new religion prominently featured nudity, as well as ritual scourging, has not gone unremarked. Aidan Kelly thought that he was into what would today be called S&M – and indeed some of the scourging rituals in Gardner’s Books of Shadows do seem a little odd, and have a fetishistic feel to them. Ronald Hutton disagreed with this, arguing that Gardner’s rather modest private collection of erotica revealed only conventional sexual preferences. Heselton avoids broaching the question altogether. The most we learn in the book about the interface between Gardner’s religious activities and his sexuality comes in some extended extracts from the testimony of one “Olive Greene”, a woman who infiltrated Gardner’s coven in the late 50s and subsequently helped publish a hostile exposé of him. Greene’s testimony depicts a rather sad old man who was infatuated with a pretty younger woman.
Gardner spent his last few years initiating as many new witches as he could: he was, in the words of his follower Fred Lamond, “an old man in a hurry”. He attended a royal garden party in 1960, and the following year he met Robert Graves, whose ideas about goddess worship exerted a great influence both on Wicca and on neopaganism more generally. He died in 1964 while on holiday in the Mediterranean.
The really odd thing about Gardner is that he was such an unlikely candidate for the founder of a religion. He didn’t have the character or temperament of a prophet. His personality and motivations differed greatly from those of, say, the historical Jesus as reconstructed from the gospels, or Muhammad as gleaned from the Qur’an. Heselton writes:
Indeed, he really didn’t, I think, have any of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feelings: at any rate, he never wrote about any. What he did write about, when it wasn’t the purely intellectual, which formed the bulk of his writings, was relationships, particularly with his fellow members of the witch cult. If anyone had a “mystical goddess experience”, it was not Gerald but someone like Katherine Oldmeadow.
No spirituality, please, we’re English…. It is perhaps not a wholly incongruous feature in a man who gave the world its first and only English religion.