Chapter 18 - Heritage of the Wicca
This is chapter 18 from the book: Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiriation. An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft by Philip Heselton.
Heritage Of The Wica
In a detective story, the last chapter usually contains the denouement, where all the loose ends are tidied up and the true culprit is revealed. This book is not like that at all! The loose ends have multiplied luxuriously and I am still not in a position to give even a bare outline of the true story.
What I hope I have succeeded in doing, however, is pushing the boundaries of our knowledge back to the early 1920s, if no further. If the "old coven" referred to in Gerald Gardner Witch had a longer lineage then it is for the moment lost in the mists of antiquity.
How did it all start? Did any of the participants that we have identified come from a surviving hereditary witch tradition? Rosamund Carnsew from Cornwall - a land rich in tradition? Or George Sabine from Ireland - ditto? Or the Clutterbucks from Hertfordshire? Or perhaps the Oldmeadows from Cheshire, a county we have already identified as probably having several traditional witch groups?
What I have failed to do so far is to find any convincing evidence of a surviving witchcraft tradition in the New Forest itself. None of the participants whom I have identified were born or brought up anywhere near the Forest. They grew up elsewhere and only moved to the area in adulthood.
The only individuals involved where there is any evidence at all of an earlier tradition are the Mason family from Southampton, whom I wrote about in Wiccan Roots, but they were the ones who discovered the "old coven" already in existence, so it was clearly not them.
Whilst I admit that there may well have been a surviving tradition that further research could uncover, there is also another possibility. This is that Rosamund Sabine, in 1921 or 1922 already an experienced occultist, probably a Golden Dawn initiate and possibly a CO-Mason as well, read Margaret Murray's the Witch Cult in Western Europe, which had just been published. I can imagine that she could well have had what she felt were memories of a previous lifetime as a witch, and thus read the book with great enthusiasm. She was then not just convinced that she had been a witch in a previous lifetime but believed that this was sufficient to make her a witch in the present lifetime.
There is certainly now a strong belief amongst some witches that not only is there such a thing as "witch blood," a direct physical inheritance through a hereditary tradition, but also what Michael Howard calls "the spiritual lineage of witch blood" where one knows inwardly that one is a witch and may well be able to remember previous lifetimes as a witch, or be firmly convinced that they had occurred.
Reincarnation was clearly an important subject to the witches that Gardner knew. In one sense, this is not surprising, since anyone who is prepared to look at the evidence is highly likely to be convinced of it's reality. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, acceptance of its existence was much less common, except amongst occult and esoteric groups. We know that the witches whom Gardner first met at the Crotona Fellowship held reincarnation to be important because it was the topic of conversation which convinced them not only that Gardner had witch ancestors but that he had been a witch himself in a previous lifetime and should be initiated. As they said : "You belonged to us in the past - why don't you come back to us?"
Many of the incidents recounted by Gardner in Witchcraft Today are just eh sort of things that might be remembered (or thought to have been remembered) from a previous lifetime as a witch, rather than being handed down through several generations. So let me ut forward just one possibility, one which seems to be consistent with most of the facts, but nevertheless just an idea, though I think a fruitful one.
At some stage, Rosamund came to the realization that she had been a witch in a previous lifetime. She may well have "got through" certain details which she was convinced were how the witches used to do things. It seems from what we know of their personalities and interests that Rosamund was the instigator of whatever was going on and that George went along with it, including the belief in having been a witch in a former lifetime. They realized, or believed, that they had previously been lovers and had been drawn together again in the present life. And when they met Edith, and the Masons family, they also remembered, or thought they remembered, being together as a coven of witches in the past.
We do not know where Rosamund and George were living before they moved to Highcliffe in 1924, or why they moved. But they did call the house "Whinchat" when they moved in, so, if I am correct about the derivation of the name, Rosamund already considered herself a witch by that date, belonging to what she called "the Wica." If it were a modern invention, then it would at least have acquired a name - the Wica - between 1921, when The Witch Cult in Western Europe was published, and 1924, when the Sabines named their house 'Whinchat'', Rosamund may then have gradually developed the rituals and magical techniques, perhaps from a surviving tradition or from her own imagination and her considerable occult knowledge, including information which she felt that she had 'brought through' from a previous lifetime.
Some time in the following year of two, Rosamund probably met Katherine Oldmeadow on Chewton Common through their mutual interest in herbs.
What I suspect is that Katherine Oldmeadow and her friend and near neighbour, Dorothy Clutterbuck, had already been performing pagan rituals by the stream in the grounds of Mill House. It seems to me highly likely that Katherine would have performed barefoot some variant of the rituals which she mentions in her books. her love for Chewton Glen and its fairies and her friendship with Dorothy would, I imagine, have almost certainly brought Dorothy into performing rituals with her. Indeed, judging by her poetry, this partnership may have started with Dorothy's mother, Ellen, and even her companion, Elizabeth Slater. As Ronald Hutton has mentioned these "performances" were not that unusual, though I have no evidence to suggest that they took place.
Gerald and Dafo
The other important question is how Gardner fits in to the picture. I don't know the answer, but I'm pretty sure that it lies in naturism.
I know that we wouldn't have heard of Gardner unless he had met the witches, but nevertheless it seems a remarkable coincidence that, when moving out of London, he chose a house right in the heart of an area where a group of people, some of whom called themselves witches, were living. It really is too much of a coincidence that Gardner moved to Highcliffe in 1938 to live within half a mile of Dorothy Fordham, Katherine Oldmeadow and the Sabines. He must have known someone before he moved and that person directed him to Highcliffe. It was someone whose influence was strong enough for Gardner to move out of London to be near. And I have speculated that this individual was a naturist who was a member of the New Forest Club.
Why did Gardner move to Highcliffe? Bracelin says: "The only place in England where he had friends was the region of the New Forest ...," This is little enough to go on, but the friends were obviously sufficiently close to him for the friendship to affect where he wanted to move to.
How did he meet and cultivate these friends? Presumably through some organization that he belonged to in London, the most obvious of which was the Fouracres Club.
This presumption is strengthened by the use of the phrase "the region of the New Forest", almost as if the friends weren't actually living in the New Forest, just somewhere near. This is, indeed, just the sort of phrase which might be used in connection with the New Forest Club, which was in the vicinity of but not actually within the New Forest.
I have only a hunch to go on, but I think that the driving force leading Gardner to move to the New Forest area was that he had fallen in love with one of the members of the Fouracres Club, who also had strong links with the New Forest. If so, there is in my view only one person it could be: Edith Woodford-Grimes.
It is all very much speculation, but I think it possible that Gardner met Edith at Fouracres in 1936 or 1937. Her marriage had not been a success and it was about this time that she left her husband. Might she not have ventured up to the naturist clubs in the London area, and been attracted particularly by the philosophy of Fouracres?
Gardner was naked at this initiation. I suspect that he liked this because it fitted in with naturism and may then have introduced it for all rituals. Edith seemed to go along with this and it is possible that she was already a naturist herself.
When Gardner suggested moving down to be near her, Edith may have suggested Highcliffe to live because she already knew of the coven in that vicinity and was contemplating moving there herself, which she did in 1940.
And what of Gardner's other contacts through naturism, particularly the Dionysians? If I am right about Edith, then had Dion Byngham influenced her, either through contacts at Fouracres or at the New Forest Club? If so, then was it Edith who introduced ritual nudity into the Wica?
For the moment, such questions are unanswerable.
Ian Stevenson, the Highcliffe local historian, is quoted by Ronald Hutton as confirming that the social worlds of Dorothy and Gardner never overlapped. Hutton writes:
"She was a well-known and well-loved figure at the centre of the community's life, while his friends visited from outside and he was regarded in Highcliffe as an exotic, mysterious and rather sinister figure."
Yet it is interesting that Gardner, when talking to Doreen Valiente many years later referred to Dorothy by her surname of Clutterbuck. Now, she started to be known locally as Mrs. Fordham in 1935, whereas Gardner didn't move to HIghcliffe until 1938. He must have known someone who had been in Highcliffe since at least 1935 in order to know that her previous name was Clutterbuck. Now, Edith didn't move to Highcliffe until 1940, so it must have been some other Highcliffe resident: I suspect that it was Rosamund Sabine.
I think that Gardner and Edith went through the same sort of process as Rosamund and George. They talked about rebirth: they both accepted it and remembered incidents from their previous lifetimes. Then, somehow, they realised that they were remembering the same incidents when they had been lovers in a previous lifetime. This would explain the comment in Gerald Gardner Witch:
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. What made it all remarkable to Gardner was that one of the number proceeded to describe a scene "exactly like one which I had written in A Goddess Arrives, which was due to be published any day then, and which in fact came out the following week". Then someone said, "You belonged to us in the past - why don't you come back to us?"
Since Gardner admitted that A Goddess Arrives was inspired by his memories of a former lifetime in Cyprus, the fact that one of the witches (very likely Edith) described a similar scene would undoubtedly suggest strongly that they had been together in that lifetime. This is, of course, all speculation, but it would explain the particular emphasis on being reborn amongst one's friends.
There is certainly a suggestions That Edith had other memories of being a witch in a previous lifetime. In Chapter 12 we looked at the poem "The Witch Remembers Her Last Incarnation," which is reproduced in Gardner's Witchcraft Today. Gardner wrote that this was contained in "a witch's book that I possess" and I pointed out that an earlier version of the poem, entitled "Hymn to Fire," occurs in "Text A," very likely copied from a witch's book.
Why did Gardner change the title for publication? It suddenly occurred to me that the use of the term "The Witch" was very interesting. Surely "A Witch" would e expected, unless one was referring to a particular witch. I remembered that Gardner had used the term "the witch" previously in correspondence with Cecil Williamson where he was referring to Edith. Could the use of the same phrase be a strong indication that Edith was the author of the poem? If so, then she may have considered it to have been a memory of her own former lifetime as a witch, and her death at the stake.
Herbs, Psychology and Roses
Can we, at this length of time, get any idea of what the particular interests of emphasis of the coven were?
We have already noted that herbs were a strong theme, particularly herbal remedies, for both Rosamund and Katherine, and the nature of the items in the Southern Coven loan collection (see Chapter 11) backs this up.
The scent of the rose seems to permeate everywhere. I wrote in Wiccan Roots that the evidence in her diaries indicated that Dorothy seemed to be obsessed with roses and I speculated that this suggested some connection with the Rosicrucians. The information which I have accumulated about Mother Sabine gives additional support to such speculation. She seems to have chosen the name "Rosamund" (meaning "Rose of the World") for herself and later written an article with the same name. Indeed, the Co-Masons, members of which included Edith and the Mason family, seemed to have an equal fascination, as is evidenced by Aimee Bothwell-Gosse's book, The Rose Immortal. And I have already noted that unusual phrase, "by thy rosey love", in the Lammas ritual as recorded in "Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical".
Why the rose should be so important to the witches perhaps lies in its significance both in the esoteric field and in the realm of nature, the combination of which is particularly important to those in the Craft.
According to Gardner, the witches seemed to be experts at applied psychology, or as he put it, "witches are good leg-pullers". We have already noted the Sabines' playing with the words "Whinchat" and "Vacuna" and the tale about the first and last house. I think it quite clear that Gardner was highly practiced at this sort of thing himself, his attitude being summed up by what he says about Joan of Arc:
It is evident from her trial that Joan did not like telling a direct lie, but that she was an adept at evasion; she could dodge about like a lawyer."
There seems to have been an interest in yoga, which was sufficiently great for Gardner to think for a while that the secret that his new friends might have was yoga rather than the still-unsuspected witchcraft. Bracelin writes:
He felt sure that they had some secret, there must be something which allowed them to take the slights at the theatre without really caring. He still thought that they might be mooting Yoga, or something of that nature."
This suggests that they had at least mentioned yoga to Gardner as one of their interests, and we have seen in Chapter 17 that Gardner included quite a lot about yoga in the draft version of Witchcraft Today which was subsequently removed.
Indeed, the interest in yoga might explain how Edith acquired the witch-name of 'Dafo', which I suspect started out as a little joke on Gardner's part. One of the meanings of 'Dafo' is a large statue of Buddha, one of the largest in the world, carved out of a rocky cliff in China. Could it be that Edith was interested in yoga and that when she adopted the lotus posture she appeared to Gardner to resemble the classic statues of Buddha, particularly if she was sky-clad and as she seems to have been somewhat over-weight.
The Crotona Fellowship
Bracelin says of the witches that Gardner met at the Crotona Fellowship meetings (and I think I demonstrated in Wiccan Roots that these were Edith Woodford-Grimes and the Mason family, from Southampton) that they had "discovered an old Coven, and remained here because of that".
Now, how could Edith and the Masons have met Rosamund and the others? The most obvious place is at the Crotona Fellowship meetings. The Masons and Edith lived in Southampton and had to travel 25 miles to the meetings. They probably wouldn't have had the time or opportunity to get to know anyone well enough for them to reveal that they belonged to an "old coven" unless they were also present at the Crotona Fellowship meetings.
Rosamund's name does not appear in any of the reports of theatrical performances, sales of work, etc. by the Fellowship (and neither, incidentally, do those of Katherine Oldmeadow or Dorothy Fordham), but nevertheless it is quite possible that she was associated with it because of her demonstrated interest in the rose lamen of the Golden Dawn. She was the same age as Catherine Chalk, who was a prominent member of the Crotona Fellowship and a Co-Mason, who donated land for the Fellowship's Ashrama and who came to live at Somerford in 1925 or 1926. It is quite likely that the two may have come into contact with each other through their joint interests quite a while before the Crotona Fellowship moved to Somerford. Indeed, I have always thought it possible that Catherine Chalk may have been a member of the coven.
Whether there was anyone other than Rosamund and George involved through the 1920's and early 1930's, I do not know. There are so many uncertainties, but if I am right in my suggestion in Chapter 3 that Rosamund was a Co-Mason and was friendly with Catherine Chalk and that she could therefore have been a member of the Crotona Fellowship, particularly following the movement of the centre of activities to Somerford in 1935, then we have a way in which Edith and the Mason family could have met the "old coven". It is plausible and, indeed, even likely, but I have so far no proof.
I think it highly likely that Gardner really did believe it was an ancient cult and tried to find evidence to reinforce this belief. I also suspect that Edith, whilst convinced of the line of continuity via the Mason family, realised early on that Rosamund's connection was only via the firmly-believed-in previous lifetime. So, Edith may well have been rather ambivalent in what she told Gardner and got rather embarrassed when he started to publicise the Draft, withdrawing into the background.
I put the foregoing outline forward merely as a possibility. I must stress that I am by no means sure about it, nor addicted to it. I am quite prepared to change my mind at a moment's notice if contrary evidence comes forward. I welcome any research or information on these matters.
I hope I have succeeded in filling in some of the chronology of Gardner's lifetime and given considerably more detail than has previously appeared in print about his links with naturism, the establishment of the coven which met in the witch's cottage, his meetings with Aleister Crowley and his partnership with Cecil Williamson in establishing the museum on the Isle of Man. This material will act as a contribution towards my full biography of Gardner which is in course of preparation.
Yet I am still a long way from carrying out the task of examining critically the various influences on Gardner and on the development of the Craft during the immediate postwar period. There are several fruitful lines for further research, apart from finding out more about Rosamund Sabine and the 'old coven', including the origins of the various elements which make up the modern Craft, not just the contents of the Book of Shadows but symbolism, beliefs, techniques and practices, looking into when and where they first appeared.
It is my belief that some knowledge of our spiritual roots is beneficial and in no way detracts from the essential mystery of direct experience of the divinity inherent in the universe. I hope that this book has been a contribution towards the history of a craft/religion to which a growing number of people belong.