Valiente was born in 1922 in Surrey. She became interested in magic as a teenager, running around the household on a broomstick and being sent to convent school as a consequence. She left at the age of 15 and refused to go back, going on to spend her wartime years as a translator in the intelligence centre of Bletchley Park.
“She was clearly able to keep a secret and used this ability in her subsequent writings on witchcraft,” says Philip Heselton, Valiente’s biographer.
After the war, she moved to Bournemouth, where she practiced ceremonial magic, and it was here that she learned of the existence of a spirituality known as Wicca, practicing in the nearby New Forest. She was initiated into the Gardnerian tradition in 1953 by Gerald Gardner, whom she read about in a magazine article and contacted. She subsequently became high priestess of his Bricket Wood coven.
“Gardner was important for Valiente in so far as he actively encouraged her to contribute to the development and writing of Wiccan rituals and ceremonies, and also promoted her as a public-facing representative of Wicca,“ says Dr Paul Reid-Bowen, senior lecturer in religions, philosophies, and ethics at Bath Spa University.
Valiente wrote a number of seminal texts for the Gardnerians, including the Charge of the Goddess, but split from Gardner’s group in 1957 and worked with a number of people on the emerging U.K. witchcraft scene, including Robert Cochrane and the clan of Tubal Cain.
Ashley Mortimer, a founding trustee of the foundation and a curator of the exhibition, said that Valiente “gave the modern Craft a robust religious litany and a logical framework. It was this that allowed it to be more easily passed on through initiation and is probably the reason it spread so firmly and rapidly and continues to expand across the world today. . . . Valiente put flesh on the bones of the written witch lore that Gardner had shown her.“
Valiente aided the Witchcraft Research Association throughout the 1960s and ’70s: this group was set up to investigate claims of a surviving ancient witch cult, and was the organization behind the publication of the magazine Pentagram. She was also involved in the group known as the Pagan Front, which later became the Pagan Federation, members of which remain very active in U.K. Paganism today.
Valiente lived and practiced in Brighton for many years until her death in 1999, bequeathing all of her collection of materials and documentation to her last high priest, John Belham-Payne, who established the Doreen Valiente Foundation. The latter’s website states that:
John came to realise that “the right thing” was to form a charitable trust and donate the entire collection to the trust so that it could never be split up, sold or used for personal profit and it could be properly preserved, protected, researched and made accessible to the millions of people whose lives have been influenced, whether they know it or not, by Doreen Valiente.
On 6th March 2011, the foundation was formed under the following remit:
• To protect artefacts which are important to the past, present and future of Pagan religions
• To make the artefacts available for education and research
The trustees resolved to set about the following tasks:
• seek charitable status from the Inland Revenue and subsequently the Charities Commission
• catalogue and prepare the artefacts for their new purpose, that of exhibition
• begin to give talks about Doreen Valiente and her legacy and to deliver mobile exhibitions of the artefacts
Inland Revenue representatives gave the foundation charitable status as far as tax was concerned in its first year, but registration with the Charities Commission can be a longer process. A gift aid scheme was launched to allow for donations by U.K. tax payers to be re-claimed by the foundation each year.
In 2013 and 2014 foundation members raised funds and succeeded in erecting heritage blue plaques to both Doreen Valiente (in Brighton) and Gerald Gardner (in Highcliffe). Several international conference events were also organised, and in 2015 the first public exhibition of items from the collection was presented at Preston Manor, Brighton, in collaboration with the Royal Pavilion & Museums. This featured, among other items, Valiente’s tarot cards, a couple of curse bottles, and an ivory wand given to her by Gardner.Belham-Payne died suddenly in 2016, shortly before the exhibition opened, but it nonetheless went ahead. A search is on for a permanent home for the collection, which is to form the nexus of a place of education and research into Paganism and Pagan-related history – a physical “Centre For Pagan Studies.”
The foundation leaders are active in giving talks and lectures to a wide variety of organisations: for instance, the Theosophical Society, the Women’s Institute, the Children of Artemis, Masonic lodges and Unitarian churches.
One of few Pagan associations to have been awarded charitable status in the U.K., the charity was officially registered on 25 May 2018 with that information now posted online. The registered charity number is 1178528 in England and Wales.
Speaking about her first experiences of what she believed to be the supernatural, Valiente remembered: “Just for a moment I had experienced what was beyond the physical. It was beautiful, wonderful. It wasn’t frightening. That, I think, shaped my life a lot.”
It is to be hoped that her legacy will open similar doorways to the next generation of Pagans.