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[Courtesy CPS]

[Courtesy Centre for Pagan Studies]

It was announced on Monday that High Priest, Elder and Witch John Belham-Payne had died from kidney disease. John was Doreen Valiente’s last priest, the co-founder of the Centre for Pagan Studies, and the founder of The Doreen Valiente Foundation. He was a fixture in the UK Pagan community and dedicated to the mission of upholding the values of his teachings and sharing his magical inheritance and all he had learned with others.

John was born Jan. 5, 1952 in Dudley. He showed an early interest in music and the arts, which gave him the foundation that inspired his early career choices. After studying photography in college, John moved to Italy and worked both as a professional musician and bartender. John then returned to the UK and, after a brief stint working at a local zoo, he returned to music, “playing with a number of prominent [bands] as a drummer, and as a professional session player.” His career thrived. He worked both in the UK and in Hollywood, and befriended some of the industry’s biggest notables, such Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. According to some accounts, John was once asked to join that band, but declined.

by 1980, John had settled back in the UK, and began playing with the Brighton punk band called The Piranhas. However, in 1982, his music career ended abruptly after a serious car accident. Although the incident was career-altering, it opened the doorway for new journeys, one of which was the full exploration of his spirituality.

John had long since giving up going to any church. In the early 1970s, he began to study alternative religions, which led him to Witchcraft. His first formal studies were with traditional Welsh Witches Patricia and John Edwards, who initiated him into the Craft in 1973. After moving away and practicing solitary for years, John found Audrey and Ralph Harvey, who ran the Order and Coven of Artemis, a group founded in 1959. Through their teaching, John returned to group study and was eventually initiated into their coven.

Over time John began to recognize the need for a central and credible educational space for “those wishing to learn for themselves […] about the ancient religions of the world.” He himself had struggled to find good teachers and safe places to practice. With that in mind, he, along with his wife Julie, established the Centre for Pagan Studies (CPS) in 1995, setting up shop in the 18th-century barn that rested on their property in Sussex. Over the next five years, prominent speakers and teachers from across England visited CPS to share their practice and pass on quality information to new seekers. The centre also offered a private space for ritual and celebrations.

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At the Gerald Gardner Blue Plaque Ceremony 2014 [Courtesy Yvonne Aburrow]

It was during this time that John met Doreen Valiente. She was invited to a Samhain celebration at the centre and became an immediate fan of its work. After some time, John began to study with Doreen, who eventually initiated him to his 3rd degree and made him her High Priest. But then in 1999, Doreen became ill. Before she died, John learned that he was to inherit her entire Witchcraft and magical collection, including books, manuscripts, artifacts and even items of Gerald Gardner’s.

According to sources close to John, Doreen told him, “You can do anything you want with it, you can sell it, you can give it away, you can set fire to it, but one thing I know is that when the time comes you will do the right thing.” When the time came, John performed her funeral rites and said, “goodbye.” But, he could not forget her words and, therefore, he made a new life commitment. In doing so, his journey would change again.

In 2000, he and Julie moved to Spain and opened a design business called Pueblo Interiors. They began to sort through and restore Doreen’s enormous collection. In addition, the Centre for Pagan Studies, which had lost its physical space in the move, continued to press forward with its own educational mission. John’s life became dedicated not only to the sharing of accurate Craft information but also to the protecting and preserving of its past.

In 2011, John helped to establish the Doreen Valiente Foundation, “as a charitable trust.” Shortly after, it took legal possession of Doreen’s collection and, ever since, its trustees have been working on a number of projects to preserve and share Doreen’s legacy, as was John’s mission. To date, that work has included the publishing of stories, books, poetry, her biography and more.

John was passionate about this work. In recent months, his time was dedicated to the upcoming book release of Doreen Valiente: Witch and the two formal Witchcraft exhibitions that will open in Brighton in 2016. Unfortunately, John would not live to see all of these dreams fully realized. His illness caught up with him and ended his life before a single ribbon cutting on even the very first of the two exhibitions. John died at home peacefully, surrounded by family.

Here are some words shared by friends who were close to him. Ashley Mortimer, a Trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation said:

[John] and I connected when we first met, I think he writes somewhere that it was one of those meetings where we both knew something would come out of it – I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t share his insight at the time. But through our friendship he changed me; he helped me to find my way to being able to recognise the magic at work in those moments of chance. […] John, in his amiable, gentle, kindly and really really strong and firm way helped me to see how others could be helped too – those looking, seeking for a path who don’t need to be placed or pushed onto it, but shown how to find it for themselves. So I’ll keep all my promises to him, I’ll pick up whatever mantle he wanted to give me and I’ll promise to try to wear it lightly as he always did. I can’t do anything else.

Mike Stygal, President of the Pagan Federation, said:

John was a lovely, dedicated, determined, passionate, compassionate man. John was a good friend to Paganism and Wicca and John was also my friend. Death has been cruel in snatching him away before he could get to see the opening of the exhibition that was such a major part of what he’d been working towards since Doreen Valiente died in 1999. But his vision will be realised, and will be a tribute to his work in preserving the memory of Doreen Valiente.

 Yvonne Aburrow, author and blogger, said:

I am very sad to hear of John’s passing. He was a really nice man who worked incredibly hard to get the blue plaques on Doreen Valiente’s block of flats and Gerald Gardner’s house, and ensure that Doreen’s priceless collection of Wiccan artefacts are safe for posterity. I saw him at Witchfest and we had a hug. He was always kind and welcoming. He was so excited about the upcoming exhibitions about Doreen in Brighton that he worked so hard to get off the ground. He will be sorely missed. My heart goes out to his wife Julie (also a lovely kind human being), his family, and all who knew him. May he rest well in the Summerlands and be reborn among us.

From the Doreen Valiente Collection [Courtesy D. Romero]

From Doreen Valiente Collection [Photo Credit: D. Exposito Romero]

John’s reach traveled far beyond the borders of the UK Pagan community. Daniel Expósito Romero, Pagan Federation International, wrote:

I first met John, together with Julie, in 2011, when they both attended the pagan conference I organised in Madrid. From the very beginning the both struck me as genuine and committed people. They drove all the way from Benalmádena to Madrid, carrying some of the renowned artifacts from Doreen Valiente just to offer the attendees a unique chance to see them, and to hear some of John’s stories. […] Later on, I was honored to be able to translate ‘Where Witchcraft Lives’, Doreen’s first book, to Spanish. This project, together with my work in PFI (of which John was a great supporter) allowed me to get to know him a bit more.

John was very kind person, who not only helped other people, but also acknowledged their effort. He truly valued and appreciated them, and was always willing to show it. He always talked about Doreen with great enthusiasm, like some he profoundly admired and who inspired him. With his stories, he had the ability to bring her back to life. During his last years, and since Doreen’s passing, he committed himself to the titanic task of setting up the foundation and taking good care of her legacy. Some may feel that he didn’t get to finish this (and I’m sure that, wherever he is, he feels the same way); but this is the work of a lifetime! And, in fact, he has already accomplished many things with the foundation and the centre. I’m sure others will now take over and continue his work. I’m also sure that he will be back with his loved ones, to remember, and love them again. Blessed Be!

Link, the National Coordinator for the Pagan Federation International – U.S., said:

I met John in 2014 when he and his wife Julie came to Florida to give a presentation about Doreen’s life. They visited my home the night before, and it was an excellent opportunity to learn about important pieces of Craft history. John had a way of telling a story with such charisma that the entire audience was completely engaged…The world lost a great person today, but it is times like these that try our personal beliefs about what life, death and rebirth really are.  While it is natural to mourn John’s death, hopefully we will celebrate his life.

In the Pagan world and beyond, John was admired and loved, as a teacher, musician, friend, husband, father, Witch and priest. His spiritual work began as a typical personal journey, just as many do, but ended with the legacy of a lifetime. He walked a religious path that led him into a legend, whose challenge he took up with grace, integrity and passion. John will be missed by the many people he personally touched over the years. But he and his work will live on through the organizations that he supported and through the realization of his dreams. Just as Doreen passed a light to him to share with the world, he has passed that same light to others who will now carry his vision far into the future.

To the very end, he “did the right thing.” What is remembered, lives. 

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Note: All words of condolences can be sent to the Centre for Pagan Studies or Doreen Valiente Foundation, through their Facebook pages or email. The family has also set up an memorial fund and ask that, in lieu of flowers, people donate to this fund to support the continuation of John’s work. All money donated will be used to help finance the upcoming Brighton exhibitions and others in the future.