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The New Forest coven was a supposed coven of pagan Witches that met in England's New Forest region during the first half of the 20th century. The group's principal historical legacy is its alleged involvement in the development of Gardnerian Witchcraft; Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into the coven in 1939, and in 1954 he published Witchcraft Today, a book claiming to describe its beliefs and practices which formed the first full-length treatment of the religion that became known as Wicca.[1]

Some researchers, such as Ronald Hutton, Aidan Kelly and Leo Ruickbie have suggested that the coven never existed, and that it was a fabrication of Gardner's,[2][3] while others, such as Philip Heselton, claim that there is strong evidence for its existence.[4]

By those who accept its existence, it is widely believed that the coven's members included Gardner's close friend Edith Woodford-Grimes and a prominent local lady named Dorothy Clutterbuck. Other possible members identified by the Wiccan writer Philip Heselton include Rosamund Sabine (a Golden Dawn occultist who may have been the High Priestess), the children's author Katherine Oldmeadow, Ernie Mason, Susie Mason, and Rosetta Fudge.[4][5]

Contents

The Crotona Fellowship

According to Gardner, his first contact with the witches was through an inner group within the Crotona Fellowship, a Rosicrucian society that operated a theatre in Christchurch. They were a reserved group, who remained somewhat separate from other members of the order and the theatre. Historian Philip Heselton has identified some of the members of this group as Edith Woodford-Grimes, Ernie Mason, and his sisters Susie Mason and Rosetta Fudge.[4] It is possible that by the late 1930s some members of the Crotona Fellowship, inspired by the work of Margaret Murray, were performing rituals based on Co-Masonry and incorporating elements of folklore, and that these were the rituals that Gardner encountered.[6]

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The Mason family

The Mason family, researched by Heselton, lived in Southampton for a period of over 150 years. One of Heselton's informants described Ernie in particular and the family in general, as 'witches', adding that Ernie, who he had known for several years, had had to give up because he found the rituals too strenuous.[4] Rosetta was a keen follower of Anthroposophy; Susie was a Co-Freemason and Theosophist, and Ernie, who claimed to have been fully aware from the moment of his birth, was an enthusiastic esotericist and taught mental exercises in the Crotona Fellowship. Their father George Miles Mason, an optician and astronomer, had built a meeting hall in Southampton which seems to have been used for the meetings of various esoteric groups, including Co-Freemasonry. Heselton points to a reference to nearby Toothill as a "witch centre" in a book by Justine Glass,[7] who does not name her informant. In the 1881 census nearly a quarter of the inhabitants of that hamlet (three families) had the surname Mason (an otherwise uncommon name in that part of England); based on this and other circumstantial evidence he proposes that the Mason family could have been the custodians of a hereditary witchcraft tradition.[4]

Edith Woodford-Grimes

The priestess who initiated Gardner into witchcraft was referred to as "Dafo" or "Daffo".[8] She taught music and elocution, and her daughter married a dentist;[9] these and other details identify her as Edith Rose Woodford-Grimes.[4] She lived in the same street as the Mason family between 1922 and 1937, when they were heavily involved in esoteric activities. By 1938 she was living in Christchurch near the Rosicrucian theatre, and was an active member. In August 1940, at her daughter's wedding, the bride was given away by Gerald Gardner, who was described as a "close friend". Edith remained a close friend of Gardner's for the rest of his life.[4]

'Old Dorothy'

The most well-known name of a proposed member of the coven is Dorothy Clutterbuck. According to Idries Shah's biography of Gardner,[10] some of the members of the Rosicrucian Theatre had introduced Gardner to "Old Dorothy", a lady of note in the district and very wealthy. Apparently she was the High Priestess of the coven, and Gardner was initiated at her house. The ritual sword he used had belonged to her. To Doreen Valiente and a few other initiates he revealed that her surname was Clutterbuck. Some, such as Jeffrey Russell,[11] claimed that she was a complete fabrication in Gardner's story, however Valiente managed to find her birth, death and marriage certificates, and prove that she did live locally.[12] It was then claimed by others such as Ronald Hutton,[2] Fred Lamond and Lois Bourne that no evidence existed for her involvement, and that her name was most likely chosen to divert attention from Edith Woodford-Grimes.

Dorothy St. Quintin Clutterbuck was her unmarried name, but she changed her name by deed poll to Dorothy St. Quintin-Fordham following her (invalid) marriage to Rupert Oswald Fordham.[13][4] She was a strong supporter of community events, and a member of a great number of local clubs including the Conservative Association; she was a committed Tory; she was on good terms with the local vicars. She left a large bequest to one of these vicars in her will, and the memorial cross she raised for Rupert, when he died, bore a strong statement of faith in salvation through Jesus.[2] She had an involvement in theatre, but no known connection to the Rosicrucian Theatre.[4]

Several volumes of Dorothy's diaries survive, filled with daily poems and illustrations, and intended to be read by visitors. Both Hutton and Heselton consider these to be key documentary evidence regarding her beliefs; however, their conclusions regarding the contents are quite different. Hutton states that none of the poems have any relevance to paganism or the occult,[2] while Heselton says: "It is clear on reading these that Dorothy was a pagan in all but name. There is hardly a mention of Jesus and it seems as if her deepest spiritual experiences come from nature and, particularly, her garden."[5] Heselton notes an absence of clear Christian sentiment, common references to fairies and the full moon, bits of herb lore and occasional vivid descriptions of classical gods. In particular he points to her tendency to attach feelings of magical enchantment to nature and the seasons, and the repeated theme of a fairy-like 'Queen' who seems to personify the seasons and the land.[4]

References and notes

  1. ^ Gardner, Gerald (1954). Witchcraft Today.  
  2. ^ a b c d Hutton, Ronald. Triumph of the Moon.  
  3. ^ Kelly, Aidan. Crafting the Art of Magic.  
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Heselton, Philip (2000). Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival. Chieveley, Berkshire: Capall Bann Publishing. ISBN 186163-110-3.  
  5. ^ a b Heselton, Philip (2003). Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation Into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft. Chieveley, Berkshire: Capall Bann Publishing. ISBN 186163-1642.  
  6. ^ Magliocco, Sabina (2004). Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1879-4.  
  7. ^ Glass, Justine (1965). Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense - and Us. Neville Spearman.  
  8. ^ Johns, June (1969). King of the Witches: The World of Alex Sanders. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.  
  9. ^ Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft.  
  10. ^ Bracelin, Jack. Gerald Gardner, Witch.   Although Jack Bracelin allowed his name to be put to it, the book was in fact written by Idries Shah.
  11. ^ Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1980.). A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. ISBN 0-500-27242-5.  
  12. ^ Valiente, Doreen (1984) The Search for Old Dorothy. In Farrar, Janet & Farrar, Stewart (1984) The Witches' Way: Principles, Rituals and Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft.
  13. ^ Rupert was separated from his previous wife, but not divorced, so his marriage to Dorothy was not legal.

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