A Brief History of British Traditional Wicca
There have always been that people who were believed to have magical powers, for good or for evil. In many traditional societies, these people had (and have!) an honored place in their communities, helping the sick and injured, providing wise counsel and performing rites to procure good crops and hunting.
Reputed magical powers have also engendered fear and suspicion, especially with the development of cities and nations. Traditional beliefs gave way to religions, and religions, especially the Judeo-Christian religions, claimed that magical powers (as opposed to miracles as answers to prayer) came from invoking evil spirits.
This came to a head in early modern Europe, where people suspected of having magical powers were called “witches”. They were accused and brought to trial by both the Church and secular authorities. Some were condemned because they were thought to have cause harm by magic, others for appearing to consort with spirits.
By the 19th century (and perhaps earlier), after witch-hunting had died away in most of Europe, certain thinkers began to wonder if the supposed witchcraft was the remnants of earlier pagan belief. These ideas were most famously brought forth by Margaret Murray, an Egyptologist, in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921.
British Traditional Wicca as we now know it came about as mainly through the efforts of a man who not only said that witchcraft was an old pagan religion, but claimed that witches still existed.
Gerald Gardner was a English customs officer and rubber planter in Southeast Asia who retired back to England in 1936. Gardner claimed to have initiated as a witch into an “old coven” in Southern England in 1939. He said that he was taught that witchcraft (called “Wica”) was really a religion, many centuries old, that had gone “underground” to escape persecution by Christianity.
The starting point for the written history of British Traditional Wicca was the publication of Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1954, although Gardner had previously included some of the beliefs and practices of the Wicca in his 1949 historical novel High Magic’s Aid. While the novel was presented as fiction. Witchcraft Today was meant to be taken as fact.
Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today under the belief that witchcraft was dying, largely from lack of interest, and he set out to prevent this extinction. After moving back to London, he formed a new coven, probably in 1951. His first known initiates were a couple who had written to him expressing an interest in witchcraft after reading High Magic’s Aid. Soon after, he helped found (with Cecil Williamson) a Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, where he made his home until his death in 1964. The museum and the publicity surrounding it caused further public interest in witchcraft, and brought Gardner into contact with more people who wanted to become witches.
Over the next few years, Gardner initiated a number of new Wiccan priests and priestesses and founded other covens. Sometime in these early years, someone somehow connected with Gardner began to develop a branch of Wicca that was later transplanted to California and became known as Central Valley Wicca.
In 1953, Gardner initiated Doreen Valiente, who worked with him for several years, collaborating on scripts for new rituals and writing several now-well known poems and chants. Besides Valiente, Gardner initiated two other women who would later write influential books on Wicca, Lois Bourne and Patricia Crowther.
In November of 1963, Gardner’s last High Priestess, Lady Olwen (Monique Wilson) together with her High Priest initiated an American writer and his wife, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland. It was the last initiation at which Gardner was present; weeks later, Gardner departed for his annual winter holiday, from which he never returned, dying in Tunisia the following February.
Returning to their home in Long Island, New York, the Bucklands established a coven that became ancestral to much of the British Traditional Wicca currently in the United States.
Also around this time, another voice began to be heard in the growing Wiccan community. Alex Sanders obtained a copy of Gardner’s Book of Shadows, containing much of his rituals and lore, (licitly or not, stories vary) and started his own coven. While Gardner had been criticized by some witches for publicity-seeking, Sanders was even more public than Gardner. Sanders later initiated Janet and Stewart Farrar, whose writings brought many others into the Craft.
At Gardner’s death in 1964, one might imagine that he was well satisfied. He produced perhaps a half dozen covens directly, and more were being organized by his student’s students. In the years that followed, Wicca grew probably beyond his wildest dreams. Membership increased from a few dozen members in the 1950s to hundreds, and later, thousands.
Wicca also, perhaps inevitably, began to develop separate branches. Rather than acknowledging his debt to Gardner, Alex Sanders claimed that he had been initiated into an older tradition of witchcraft by his grandmother as a youth. Some of his followers came to speak of those who had come from Gardner as “Gardnerians” after a slur originated by a British occultist late in Gardner’s life. Despite its original disparaging intent, the name stuck, and followers of Sanders in turn became known as “Alexandrians.”
The branches of Wicca which owe their existence to Gerald Gardner, Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Central Valley Wicca and some others, have come to be known as “traditions” and collectively as “British Traditional Wicca” (“BTW”, simply called “Traditional Wicca” in Britain).
The New Wiccan Church was founded in 1976 in recognition of the essential unity of belief and practice of all BTW, and welcomes as members all initiates of the BTW traditions.