The image of Doreen Valiente sitting in her flat surrounded by various witchcraft paraphernalia and perhaps the odd broomstick is so familiar that we almost feel we know her. This sense of familiarity is helped by her warm smile and the twinkle in her eye just discernible behind her spectaclesOften called the ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’, she was a pioneering witch, an author and poet responsible for much of the written framework of the Gardnerian religion. She was also a formidable woman at 6 foot tall, an early free thinker, ley hunter and advocate of Wicca as the religion for the Aquarian Age, which was in synchronicity with the emergence of feminism and the environmental movement. Many believe her words and energy are largely responsible for the growth of the modern pagan movement.
Doreen was born to a middle-class family in Colliers Wood, Surrey. She had what could be described as a conventional family upbringing which she later criticised, saying she wasn’t very close to her parents, perhaps due to a developing difference in values.
The family moved to Horley, Surrey, and here she would talk about having an early spiritual experience with the moon. She described having a strong feeling that there was something powerful underlying the reality she could see, something hidden. It opened her eyes and began a lifetime of spiritual exploration.
Doreen’s family eventually moved to the New Forest. She described practising magic as a teenager from the age of 13. An oft-recounted instance was when she performed a spell to stop her mother from being harassed by a co-worker. Doreen believed it had worked as the woman herself became harassed by a blackbird.
Her parents became concerned with this interest in otherworldly things and sent her to convent school. However, Doreen hated it and left aged 15, refusing to go back. She took a job at a factory and then went on to become a typist and clerk.
During WWII she worked as a translator at Bletchley Park. It is this section of her life which caused a stir in the British press when Philip Heselton’s biography of Doreen came out in 2016 (“Doreen Valiente Witch”). In the book, Heselton says he confirms what was long suspected: that she was working at Bletchley as an intelligence officer. He claims she had signed the Official Secrets Act and was working in the ISOS team, whose work included translating intercepted messages. This work also sent her to South Wales where she met Joanis Vlachopolous, a Greek seaman, with whom she started a relationship. They married in January 1941. Sadly, in June 1941 his ship was sunk by a U-boat and Joanis was declared missing, presumed deceased.
1942-43 Doreen had a number of short-term jobs in Wales which may have been cover for intelligence work, Heselton suggests. It’s possible she may have been collecting information from foreign merchant navy men to help with the battle in the Atlantic.
After October 1943 she was transferred to the London intelligence service’s offices in Mayfair where she did message decryption work.
In London she started a relationship with Casimiro Valiente. He was a Spaniard who had fled from the Spanish Civil War. They married in May 1944 and moved to Bournemouth where he worked as a chef. She said they suffered racism after the war, which makes her affiliation with the far-right later in life even more peculiar.
After the war, Doreen began practising ceremonial magic with a friend. She had obtained the magical tools and notebooks of a deceased doctor who had been in a splinter group of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It was at this time she chose ‘Ameth’ as her magical name. We know she was interested in the biography of Aleister Crowley and went on to read his books. She also had some experience of the Christian Spiritualist church. Now the cauldron of her influences, spiritual experiences and ideas began to bubble away, as well as the development of her occult practice.
She was aware of the idea of a surviving pre-Christian witch cult (now largely debunked) as proposed by the likes of Margaret Murray and Robert Graves, however she believed it was extinct. She then read an article called “Witchcraft in Britain” (Allen Andrews) published in the Illustrated magazine which discussed the opening of what is now the Museum of Witchcraft (relocated to Boscastle) on the Isle of Man. Her interest was piqued by the mention of the “resident witch”, Gerald Gardner. In 1952 she wrote to Cecil Williamson, the director of the museum, and he put in her in touch with Gardner.
A correspondence developed between the two. Eventually Gardner suggested they meet at the home of his fellow Wiccan friend Edith Woodford-Grimes (Dafo) who lived near Bournemouth.
Gardner gave Doreen a copy of his novel “High Magic’s Aid”, some have suggested to test her attitude to various Gardnerian Wiccan practices described in the book, such as ritual nudity and scourging.
She obviously wasn’t put off because in midsummer 1953 she was invited again and was initiated at this time. Later in the year she visited Gardner’s flat in London and met the other members of the Bricket Wood Coven.
Working within the coven, she soon became High Priestess and began working extensively with Gardner on the written framework for the Wiccan belief system. She challenged how much of it was not from ancient sources (as he claimed) but was actually from or heavily influenced by Crowley and other writers. She also realised he had drawn heavily on Freemasonry, theosophy and the works of the Golden Dawn. Gardner claimed the texts he had received from the New Forest Coven that he claimed lineage from had been patchy and he’d had to fill in bits as needed. With his permission, she rewrote much of the Book of Shadows, removing a lot of what had come from Crowley. It is widely acknowledged that she improved it with her evocative, beautiful but unfussy writing style. She also wrote the Witches Rune with Gardner and rewrote much of the Charge of the Goddess - a key expression of Wiccan spirituality.
Doreen took Gerald Gardner’s rather fragmented writings and pragmatically pulled it all together, cutting out the unnecessary and dealing with unacknowledged original source material. She refined the poetry and without the gift of her words, undoubtedly Wicca would not have become what it is today. She gave it a solid and inspiring foundation from which it could leap into the world.
In 1957 there was a clash of personalities between Valiente and Gardner as he was increasingly seeking publicity. She was worried about the negative impact of such media attention on the coven. She apparently also wasn’t keen on Gardner’s two latest young recruits: Jack Bracelin and his girlfriend Dayonis.
Valiente was not the only one who was concerned and, within the coven, two sides emerged: those who sought publicity and those who believed the coven should avoid all publicity. In 1957 Valiente and Grove (another member against publicity) drew up some rules for the coven aimed at stopping Gardner’s publicity drive. He responded that it wasn’t needed as rules already existed and at this point produced the Wiccan Laws. These limited the power of the High Priestess. Valiente was angry at this, realising that he had just made them up in response to her proposed rules.
In summer 1957 the coven split and Doreen left to form her own coven with Grove as High Priest. However, it eventually disintegrated after arguments broke out between the founders. At this point, Doreen still followed the tradition of Wicca but ignored Gardner’s Wiccan Laws as she viewed them as entirely without validity. She eventually did get back in touch with Gardner and remained on good terms with him until his death in 1964.
In the 1960s she began corresponding with two Gardnerian initiates in Sheffield, Patricia and Arnold Crowther. They met in 1965 when the couple visited Brighton, where Doreen had moved in 1956.
After her mother’s death in 1962 she began to be more open about her beliefs and wrote some articles for the press. She also appeared on TV and radio. She became involved in the new Witchcraft Research Association and was elected its second president. In a speech at their Halloween dinner in 1964 she presented the Wiccan Rede - its first public appearance. Although it may draw on earlier phrases -- such as Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” and a speech given by the character King Pausole in the novel “The Adventures of King Pausole” (1901), “Do not harm your neighbour; this being well understood, do that which pleases you” -- there is no doubt that Valiente’s phrasing has become a central tenet of modern Witchcraft and many other branches of paganism.
Always interested in history, Doreen began researching the history of witchcraft in earnest and published her first book “Where Witchcraft Lives” in 1962.
In 1962 she began a correspondence course run by Raymond Howard on the Wiccan tradition of the Coven of Atho. In 1963 she was initiated into this group.
In 1964 she was introduced to Robert Cochrane. She was sceptical of his claims to be from a hereditary line of witches, but she was impressed by his personality, his desire to avoid publicity, in contrast to Gerald, and his practice of working outdoors. Doreen went on to work with Robert Cochrane, but later broke with this group. She was disturbed by his open adultery and what she saw as his vocal and vicious criticisms of Gardnerian Wicca. In Midsummer 1966 Cochrane committed ritual suicide and she wrote “Eulogy for a Dead Witch” in his honour.
Doreen was now working in Boots (a well-known chain of pharmacies in the UK) in Brighton. In 1971 she appeared in a BBC documentary “The Power of the Witch” which also featured Alex Sanders.
She was also involved in founding the Pagan Front (now the Pagan Federation) in that year. The Pagan Front aimed to bring together people from different Pagan religions, to provide information on Paganism to the general public, and to counter misconceptions or negative press about Paganism. She developed the Three Principles which became the core understanding for members of what it meant to be on the pagan path: adherence to the Wiccan Rede, belief in reincarnation and a sense of kinship with nature.
In 1972 her husband died. Doreen said that he had never been interested in Wicca or spirituality and she later said their relationship had been unhappy. She moved into a flat which was described by visitors as being cramped and full of books. It was in this building that she met Ronald Cooke, another resident of the apartment block, and they began a romantic and magical partnership after she initiated him into Wicca. She also joined the local coven Silver Malkin.
In the early 1970s she also became briefly involved in far-right politics, joining the National Front for 18 months. She designed a banner for her local branch. Her biographer Philip Heselton suggests the movement may have appealed to her patriotic values and that maybe she hoped it would legitimise paganism through patriotism. She also joined the Northern League, which was a more extreme group. She eventually let her membership lapse, citing discomfort at the party’s views on women’s liberation, gay rights and sex education. She had always held fairly progressive views for her time so breaking with these groups seems more suited to her personality as we can understand it, looking back from a distance, and indeed Ronald Hutton has even suggested she joined these groups in order to report back to British intelligence, but admits there is no evidence for this and we can only second guess.
Inspired by John Michell’s book “The View Over Atlantis”, Doreen became a keen ley hunter and was involved with exploring Earth Mysteries, hoping that Wicca would align with the feminist and ecological movements of the day. She came to view Witchcraft as the perfect religion to complement the values found in feminism, environmentalism and the New Age movement.
In 1973 her second book “An ABC of Witchcraft” came out and in 1975 she wrote “Natural Magic” which described working with the elements found in nature such as plants and stones. In 1978 “Witchcraft for Tomorrow” was published, in which she stated that Wicca was the ideal belief system for the Age of Aquarius and aligned herself with Lovelock’s Gaia theory. It also explained how a person could initiate themselves and then go on to form their own coven, which was quite a radical idea for the time. She was an early advocate for the idea that anyone could practise solitary witchcraft without following the traditional path of initiation.
In 1978 she became friends with Janet and Stewart Farrar (Alexandrian Wiccans) and with them she agreed to publish the original Gardnerian Book of Shadows to combat the way bits of it were being released piecemeal into the world by others. This appeared in the Farrar’s “Eight Sabbats for Witches” and “The Witches’ Way”, published in 1984. These books are now published together as “The Witches Bible”. Hutton says that in producing these books they performed the invaluable task of identifying past revisions to the Book of Shadows itself, as well as identifying original source material. The fact that Wicca was now open to all was not popular with everyone though and for many the only true path to Gardnerian Wicca still remains through traditional initiation by an existing coven High Priestess and High Priest.
Doreen had been investigating ‘Old Dorothy’, the woman Gardner claimed initiated him into the Craft, but many believed was a fictional character. In an appendix to “The Witches’ Way”, Doreen stated that she was in fact a real person, Dorothy Clutterbuck.
In the mid-1980s she began writing “The Rebirth of Witchcraft”, a book that was in part autobiographical and in part a comprehensive history of witchcraft and the modern Wiccan movement.
In 1997 she discovered the Centre for Pagan Studies which had been founded by John and Julie Belham-Payne. She became the patron.
In her final speech in Fairfield Halls, Croydon, in 1997 she praised the work of Dion Fortune and urged the Wiccan community to accept homosexuals as this was a debate which had flared up at the time.
Her health deteriorated and she was diagnosed with diabetes and pancreatic cancer. John Belham-Payne and two of her friends became her primary carers. Doreen Valiente died on 1 September 1999. Following her wishes, her ashes were scattered in the Sussex woodland and her magical artefacts and writings were bequeathed to John Belham-Payne.
In 2013 Brighton and Hove awarded her a blue plaque to honour her achievements.
The Doreen Valiente Foundation was formed in March 2011 as a charitable trust with the aim of protecting her magical artefacts and preventing them from being split up or sold off. They also hold regular events, talks and exhibitions.
Doreen Valiente Foundation Trustee, Ashley Mortimer, described Doreen as "sensible, practical, decent, honest and, perhaps most importantly, pragmatic."
Hutton characterised Valiente as "a handsome woman of striking, dark-haired, aquiline looks, possessed of a strong, enquiring, candid, and independent personality, and a gift for poetry and ritual."