The Mother of Modern Witchcraft Was Also a Pro-Choice Spy
Doreen Valiente is best known for popularizing the Wiccan craft, and her work is now being celebrated in a new exhibition in the UK. But she was also many other things, including a World War II spy.
Photo courtesy of Brighton Museums
Preston Park has every possible feature that a cliché-drunk tourist would expect of green spaces in one of Britain's most picturesque beach cities. If you ever walk through, make sure to start on the city side. First, you'll pass by a rose garden and a pond full of baby newts presided over by small children, timidly poking through the water with sticks. Then, a bowling green and cricket grounds. A walled garden. Now, a small graveyard. Finally, you'll reach Preston Manor, an allegedly haunted house where you must knock to enter. This is where the pagan possessions of Doreen Valiente, the mother of British witchcraft, have found a temporary home.
If Preston Manor is indeed plagued by puckish spirits (as the museum's literature heavily implies), Doreen Valiente's is not one of them. Her final home was a far cry from the cluttered Edwardian elegance of the Manor. For the final 20 years of her life, she lived in a high-rise building, her council flat filled to the ceiling with esoteric and occult books, her own writing and research—and a considerable amount of crocodile-skin handbags. It was here that she cemented her reputation as a reformer and enricher of Wicca traditions, making it more accessible to those on the outside. "Doreen put 'meat on the bones' in many ways," says Ashley Mortimer, a trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation.
Doreen Valiente was born Doreen Dominy in January 1922, in Colliers Wood, a south-western suburb of London. At the age of nine, Valiente had what she called her first mystical experience, staring at the night sky and watching, as she says it, the veneer of reality fade away in the blackness. "I saw the world of force behind the world of form," she later said.
Valiente was intelligent but miserable at her convent school. She left at fifteen (but not before viciously biting a disciplinarian school prefect). This tall, bespectacled girl had a series of secretarial jobs until World War II, when she became a translator at the codebreaking hub, Bletchley Park. For the duration of the war, Valiente went back and forth from Bletchley to Wales, ostensibly through a series of dead-end jobs.
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There is circumstantial evidence that suggests that Doreen Valiente was, in fact, a British spy during the war. Like all good witches, Valiente could keep a secret, and almost never spoke about it one way or the other.
By 1952, Valiente had amassed two husbands (the first died during the war when his ship was torpedoed) and a great deal of occult knowledge through researching at her local libraries. She started actively practising magic with a friend. This was the year she picked up an issue of Illustrated magazine and read an article called 'Witchcraft in Britain', featuring a witch named Gerald Gardner. Gardner claimed to be a member of a coven with pre-Christian roots. This was a revelation to Valiente, who quickly wrote to him.
Gardner initiated her into his coven, and their partnership would change the face of modern witchcraft. In 1951, the 1735 Witchcraft Act of Great Britain had been repealed, making the practise legal again, and witches started popping out of the woodwork in newspapers and magazine features. This lead to a massive explosion in public interest in Gerald Gardner and, later, Valiente herself.
Valiente's research skills would serve her well. She collaborated on books with Gardner, excising unsavory and black magic elements from his writings and Book of Shadows (a witch's personal handbook), knitting piecemeal shards of lore and mysticism into one cohesive whole. She also built a witchcraft liturgy; a series of chants and rituals that would become common. Her Charge of the Goddess is still said today.
"Without Doreen, I suspect that the Gardnerian cult—as it was becoming—would not have seen the explosive growth it did. Her organization of the written material (which Gerald agreed was fragmentary) and her own inspirational and poetic additions to it gave the craft a robustness, a sense of meaning and purpose it may not have had previously which, I believe, caught a current in society. But, the mere practicality of being able to pass material in coherent written form was a huge factor in its spread." confirms Mortimer.
It wasn't all smooth sailing and seamless spells: Gardner liked keeping Valiente on her toes. Before she became his High Priestess, he asked her to conduct a ritual at a ceremony. Philip Heselton, Valiente's biographer, notes in his book Doreen Valiente: Witch that, on the day, he informed her that the ritual had not yet been written and that's she'd have to make it up on the spot—which she did, to the tune of a Christmas carol. Gardner had other expectations. In Fifty Years of Wicca, author Frederic Lamond noted that he expected his High Priestesses to "cuddle up" to him after late meetings. Valiente, still married, "found this very embarrassing"—and doubtless other feelings beside that. She eventually left the coven, moving to Brighton and making links with others witches.
Between 1962 and 1989, amidst a sustained period of public interest, Valiente published five non-fiction books about the practise of witchcraft, all of which filled out existing Wicca beliefs and brought esoteric and spoken-only lore to a larger audience. Her reputation as a benevolent if eccentric source of occult knowledge grew outside of the Wicca community into the wider world. She communed with Marc Bolan. In her biography, a friend tells a story of an invitation to join Valiente on a private jet to meet the Queen Mother. Her roots had spread deeper than she ever would have expected.
There were blips. Valiente was pro-contraception, pro-choice, interested in feminism and sexual liberation and was anti-racism and anti-homophobia long before that was common, so it's a surprise to learn that she joined the ultra-right wing National Front in 1973. She was involved with the Northern League, a neo-Nazi group whose ideology was utterly at odds with her strongly-held beliefs. Valiente had spent a world war fighting against fascists. After 18 months, she let her membership lapse.
Theories abound. Doreen Valiente was a natural pragmatist, adept at negotiating dodgy dealings and with a head for meticulous research. She wasn't a fascist. One accepted theory is that she thought that these groups, still in relative infancy, might legitimize paganism through patriotism. Another theory floated by Ronald Hutton was that she was still working for the government, spying on fascists who were unlikely to suspect a middle-aged women—but Hutton accepts that no proof of this is forthcoming.
Until her death in 1999 of pancreatic cancer, Valiente was constantly writing and researching. A planned autobiography fell by the wayside after much preparation and a book of poetry, Charge of the Goddess, was published posthumously. She was a prolific letter writer. Her sizeable archive was left to a friend, John Belham-Payne, who was instrumental in forming a charitable trust to hold it.
Now, parts of the archive sit in a small darkened room to the right of the mains entrance hall in Preston Manor. Valiente's Book of Shadows lies open for visitors to see, as does Gerald Gardner's. Her swords, tarot cards and candlesticks are on display, as are beads and religious ephemera—the remnants of faith. What was private has now become public; in an echo of Valiente's own work, a light has been cast on the esoteric and hidden. Now, everyone can see.