[The Wild Hunt welcomes journalist Claire Dixon to our weekly news team. She is our U.K. correspondent and will be covering news and events specifically in that region, as well around the world. To learn more about Dixon’s background and her experience, check out her bio page.]
BRIGHTON, England — The doors opened on an exhibition of artifacts from the Doreen Valiente collection this month, but it was the new biography of the U.K.’s most famous Witch that caused the biggest stir. Why? The book revealed that Valiente had worked at the legendary MI6 spy base Bletchley Park during the Second World War.As reported in The Wild Hunt in January, Philip Heselton’s book, Doreen Valiente Witch, was published by the Doreen Valiente Foundation (DVF) to coincide with the landmark exhibition in Brighton, West Sussex. It is the book’s third chapter, titled Glimpses Through the Shadows (Or What Doreen Did During the War), which has been attracting the most interest.
MI6 used Bletchley in Buckinghamshire as its code-cracking centre and would intercept all manner of German ciphers. The most famous was the Enigma code, because it had more than 100 million variations. Heselton states that Valiente had signed the Official Secrets Act and was part of Bletchley’s ISOS division, whose job it was to translate intercepted messages.
DVF trustee Ashley Mortimer said that Heselton, in his research for the book, had finally confirmed a long-standing suspicion that she was involved with this code-cracking. The discovery was an exciting development for DVF and the Pagan community, in general.
Mortimer said, “John and Julie (Belham-Payne, founders of the foundation) had always believed Doreen was involved in secret work during the war, they’d both speculated that Doreen may even have been at Bletchley Park. So to have this confirmed by Philip was truly thrilling.” He added, “This aspect of Doreen’s life, now revealed, throws a new perspective on other aspects – certainly her ability to be secretive and to take her promises seriously, as she plainly did with the Official Secrets Act.”
Unfortunately, this new chapter of Valiente’s story, which Heselton has now opened, may never be fully told. The work carried out at Bletchley Park was first disclosed in the 1970s. But because Valiente signed the Official Secrets Act, she was prohibited from speaking about the nature of her business with the government. For intelligence work, this limitation would usually apply to the remainder of the signatory’s lifetime and , furthermore, any information covered by the Act can sometimes be officially classified for up to 100 years.
So what do we actually know? According to Heselton, the ISOS division, which was based in Hut 18 at Bletchley, was part of the effort to counter the Abwehr, or German military intelligence. Abwehr had spread itself through Europe by sending out spies posing as refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. These spies would then report back on enemy military sites, training regimes and so on. ISOS worked to intercept those messages, crack ciphers, and track down the spies.
Once detected, German spies were given a stark choice. They could become double agents or face execution. Many chose the former, which led to the creation of the highly successful double-cross system. False information was fed back to German, and one very notable success was to convince the Nazis that the Allies would be landing at Calais rather than Normandy on D-Day. These double-agents went unnoticed by the Germans, and it is estimated that the work of Valiente and her colleagues at Bletchley saved millions of lives, cutting the length of the war by up to four years.
Heselton also claims that Valiente spent a lot of the Second World War travelling between Bletchley and South Wales. She was reportedly gathering information from foreign merchant navy men regarding the Battle of the Atlantic, at the core of which was the Allied blockade of Germany. It was during this time that Valiente met her first husband Joanis Vlachopolous, who drowned only six months after they were married in 1941. However, Valiente’s role in South Wales is less clear than her role at Bletchley.
Heselton’s research has undoubtedly added an important new dimension to Valiente’s story, and the Pagan community is abuzz with questions. However, as noted earlier, given her signing of the Official Secrets Act, we may never know the true extent or nature of her work during the war – or at least not for some time. Mortimer said, “The research continues, and we are all convinced that there will be further information and other revelations to discover. Doreen Valiente remains an enigma and it seems the more we find out about her the more we realise how little we know.”
Bletchley Park was contacted for a comment but did not reply.Meanwhile, another interesting disclosure in Heselton’s biography is Valiente’s acquaintance with the British royal family – particularly the Queen Mother (who passed away in 2002). Heselton told the Brighton Argus: “I have had it from a number of people that she indeed knew the Queen Mother. As with a lot of her life, much of this is a mystery and will remain so but we have certain clues to their relationship.”
According to Heselton, the Queen Mother flew Valiente to Balmoral, which is the royal family’s official summer residence in the Scottish Highlands, by private jet in the 1980s to warn her that the government of the time was thinking about outlawing Witchcraft again. Witchcraft had been banned in Britain in the 16th century under the reign of Henry VIII and was punishable by death. Notable purges include the North Berwick witch trials in East Lothian, Scotland (1590) and the Pendle witches trial in Lancashire, northern England (1612).
However, in 1735 a new Witchcraft Act was passed to reflect the Enlightenment values of the times. Being a practitioner was no longer punishable but belief in witchcraft was. The maximum penalty was one year’s imprisonment or a fine, and the Act remained statute law until 1951.
When Gerald Gardner introduced Wicca to popular culture in 1954, Witchcraft began to enjoy a resurgence. Therefore, the possibility of a fresh ban must have been alarming. Heselton was unclear on the exact timing of Valiente’s flight to Balmoral, but he said, “My impression is that her meeting with the Queen Mother was some time in the 1980s.”
Another related rumour cited by Heselton is that the hand-held mirror used by Valiente in her rituals, which can be seen in the current DVF exhibition, once belonged to the Queen Mother. Valiente reportedly picked it up at a jumble sale at a village neighbouring Balmoral after the Queen Mother had a clear-out. She is said to have got chatting to the Queen Mother at the sale, who confirmed that the mirror was hers. However, there is at present no way of verifying this story.
As with this rumour and the Bletchley tale, it would appear that there are many more stories to be told about Valiente. We will keep reporting as they continue to surface.