Cross-posted at Reggie's Reviews
Gerald Gardner spent most of his life in the Far East, working in business and the colonial civil service. He retired in 1936, and in 1938 he ended up in Highcliffe, a village near Christchurch in Hampshire. He later reported that, while living there, he had encountered a coven of pagan witches via a local society that was interested in amateur dramatics and the esoteric tradition known as Rosicrucianism. These witches were followers of the old pagan religion of the British Isles, and Gardener was initiated into the coven in 1939 at the house of a local worthy called Dorothy Clutterbuck.
Some elements of this story must be true. Gardner really did live in Highcliffe, and the existence of the Rosicrucian group can be independently verified. There really was a local worthy called Dorothy Clutterbuck, and the Wiccan writer Philip Heselton has published interesting evidence linking a number of other inhabitants of the area with esoteric activities in general and witchcraft in particular.
There are problems with Gardner's version of events, however. It is inconceivable that he discovered a surviving coven of pagan witches. It is much more likely that the group had been formed in the fairly recent past by middle-class occultists under the influence of the ideas of Margaret Murray. Hutton casts doubt on the very existence of the coven, though this seems unwarranted in the light of Heselton's researches and the confirmed existence of the Rosicrucian group. The chronology is odd. Gardner dabbled in a number of esoteric interests in the 1940s, and he only seems to have started to take a serious interest in witchcraft from around 1947, despite having allegedly been initiated 8 years earlier. As for Clutterbuck, Hutton believes that the evidence shows that she was a devout and conventional Anglican. The first attested female witch in Gardner's circle was an entirely different individual, a teacher called Edith Woodford-Grimes, and Gardner may have been using Clutterbuck's name in order to protect her.
By the early 1950s, Gardner was publicising the witch religion that he had discovered and/or created. Until his death in 1964, he followed a policy of initiating as many newcomers as possible into the movement. His best known initiate was a young woman called Doreen Valiente, who went on to write a string of books on pagan witchcraft before her death in 1999. He seems to have preferred to compile his own witchy rituals rather than adopting them from any existing group.
There was some bother, of course. Gardner came out of the broom closet at a time when dark rumours were circulating in British society about black magic and devil worship, under the influence of Denis Wheatley novels and the like. Nonetheless, Gardner succeeded in obtaining some favourable press coverage, and hostility towards the movement peaked not in the straight-laced 50s but in the psychadelic 70s, by which time the old boy had been dead for some years. Attitudes towards pagan witches eased in the following years, with the result that members of the movement largely avoided being caught up in the panic over "satanic ritual abuse" in the 1990s.
The modern centre of the Craft (as it continues to be known) is the United States, where pagan witchcraft had been transplanted by the 1970s. On the other side of the Atlantic, it became intimately entwined with radical feminist politics, a development that reached its high point with the publication of Starhawk's The Spiral Dance in 1979. The heavily counter-cultural version of Wicca and Goddess spirituality that flourished in Reagan's America represented a new and important development in neopagan history, and one that forms a striking contrast with the romantic English Toryism of Gardner and his friends.
Hutton explicitly attacks one part of the narrative of victimhood that is especially prominent in some politically radical forms of Wicca and witchcraft. This is the myth of the 'Burning Times' - the period in mediaeval and early modern European history when pagan witches had allegedly been persecuted and burned in (literally) their millions by the Church and the State. Hutton notes that persecutions of witches in this period were neither long lasting nor wide ranging, and that they tended to be sparked off by popular prejudice rather than by the political or ecclesiastical élite. Only a tiny number of people accused of witchcraft actually ended up being tried and condemned for it, and those who did tended to be unfortunate social misfits rather than priests and priestesses of a surviving pagan religion. Few of them were involved even in bog-standard folk magic.
Hutton ends with an assessment of the present-day state of pagan witchcraft in Britain. It is not even clear whether the W-word is still entirely appropriate as a description of the tradition: Hutton notes that the image of the priest or priestess has increased in importance for practitioners of the Craft at the expense of that of the witch. Hutton notes that modern British practitioners tend to come from the lower middle and upper working classes, that they are mostly female, and that a solid core of committed initiates is surrounded by a larger penumbra of followers. He estimates that there are 17,000 to 20,000 "core" pagans (not just witches or Wiccans) and a total of 90,000 to 120,000 British pagans in total - figures which were echoed independently in the work of other researchers. He later revised his figures upwards to 250,000, which would roughly mirror the size of Britain's Jewish population. The 2001 census revealed the existence of 31,000 people who identified as pagans and a further 7,000 who identified as Wiccans, though these numbers appear not to include returns from Scotland or Northern Ireland. It is a fair bet that at least as many will show up this year.