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Prof. Ronald Hutton on Cecil Williamson and rewriting Wicca

Rupert White


Its been noted elsewhere (most recently in ‘Magic and Witchery in the Modern West’) that as a young man you were accepting of Murray and Gardner’s account of witchcraft as a surviving pagan religion, and that this, then, was the orthodox view anyway. Were there no dissenting voices at the time, or were they just not heard?

Most people in Britain, and maybe in the English speaking world, who cared about history, went into the last quarter of the twentieth century under the impression that paganism had survived as an active religion in Britain all through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period.

Some thought it was the faith of the common people, while the elite were Christian, and others believed that some people in all classes of society had a dual-faith system, attending church while venerating the old deities, but the basic premise was the same.

This was not because of the work of Margaret Murray (pictured right), but of that of many writers since the 1890s who had made or assumed that premise. Murray certainly did more than any others to identify the early modern witch trials as persecutions of the Old Religion, but that idea was itself old by her time, having been put forward in Britain thirty years, in France sixty years, and in Germany a hundred years, before.

Between 1945 and 1960 her ideas were accepted by a series of leading academics writing survey works of history - Sir George Clark, Christopher Hill and Sir Stephen Runciman - and by young scholars producing their first books who were going to be the greatest historians of their generation in their respective countries, Carlo Ginzburg in Italy and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in France. They were embodied in most popular books on witchcraft, in which the 1960s and 1970s abounded, in documentary films, and in historical novels, of which John Buchan and Rosemary Sutcliff were the most celebrated authors to believe in them. I read all of these and accepted them.

There was virtually no research going on into the original trial records and literature concerning medieval and early modern witchcraft, and so no really well-informed experts around to challenge the pagan religion hypothesis. Rossell Hope Robbins was one such expert, who did mount a challenge in the early 1960s, but he was an American with little traction in Britain and no great academic status, and was not much heard.

When did things change?

Things really began to change in the 1970s, when systematic and continuous academic research into the witch trials began. The Murray model had been abandoned by academic historians by the 1980s, and was starting to lose traction among general readers by the 1990s. Being an academic by then, I lost faith in it around 1980. With the disappearance of it, the context for belief in the Wiccan foundation story also disappeared.

Your book ‘Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles’ which touches on this issue, appeared in 1991. 1991 was also the year you first visited Williamson’s museum in Cornwall. Can you expand on this?

Between 1984 and 1993 I held a non-stipendiary (i.e. unpaid) Honorary Readership in History at Cornwall College in Camborne. Under the terms of this I came down once a term for a few days to give a public lecture and some classes for the students, and generally dish up the latest news about bits of British history. In return I got bed and board, had contact with a different sort of pupil from those at Bristol where my main job was, and became part of the West Cornish community, of Powder, Kerrier and Penwith hundreds. That is a long way from Boscastle and so there was no connection between my presence there and the museum, save that in 1991 - June 24th to be precise - I decided to break a journey home from the west to see the museum at last.


And what was your reaction?

My initial reactions to it have been published in the collection of memories regarding it edited by Kerriann Godwin in 2011, and were mixed. On the one hand it was obvious to me that some of the exhibits were not what they were labelled as being, and nothing to do with witchcraft, as I knew them from other contexts. There was also a rather salacious tone to some of the exhibits, which we would now regard as sexist, and the collection mixed together Wicca, benevolent folk magic and curses under the general heading of witchcraft, as if they were the same thing, which managed to be sexy, tacky and sinister at the same time.

On the other hand, many of the exhibits were either definitely, or seemingly, authentic, and made up a unique and very valuable collection which inspired me to learn more. They represented the only public display to introduce people to Wicca, and the best accessible gathering of objects related to British popular magic. It also managed to convey something of the excitement and allure of witchcraft.


More and more writers started questioning Gardner’s account of Wicca as a pagan survival in the 1990’s. And interestingly Cecil Williamson was rather anti-Wicca for similar reasons (referring to it as Gardner’s ‘Cloak of Delusions’). What did you make of Williamson and Gardner’s antipathy to one another?

The antipathy between Williamson and Gardner is understandable enough: they were business partners with different and competing ambitions and objectives. Both wanted to make money out of the museum and to use it as a shop window to attract a working group of ritualists. They were however interested in different traditions, Gardner being the father - at least in the sense of the first publicist and promoter - of Wicca, a witch religion, whereas Williamson was an occultist, much less inclined to religion and to identify himself with witchcraft.

Each one ended up feeling deceived and exploited by the other, but their subsequent attitudes to each other, and status in the world of Paganism and magic, were very different. Gardner became a major author and celebrity, the leader of an increasingly successful and important tradition, and hardly seems to have remembered Williamson. Williamson remained a marginal figure to the Pagan and occultist scenes, with no major influence upon them and considered – when he was considered at all – mainly as the owner of the museum. He therefore retained quite a pronounced jealousy as well as resentment of Gardner, and latterly did what he could to discredit him.

Did you ever manage to speak to Williamson directly regarding any of this?

I had a reasonably good sense of what he wanted people to think about Gardner, and about his own past, from his published interviews and articles. I never met him, though, and did not seek an interview with him, because I am diffident by nature, and will not approach people unless either they reach out to me, or we have friends in common, or we run into each other. None of those were true of Williamson, and moreover I believed that if I did contact him uninvited and obtain an interview with him, he would be most unlikely to open up to me, as a stranger and an academic.

I feared, also, that he might ask me my candid opinion of his museum.

Were you able to use any resources from the museum for your research during this period, or attend any museum-related events?

I never attended any museum-related events under Cecil Williamson’s ownership nor used any resources there then, because I was never invited to: I am not sure that he actually sponsored events or invited in scholars.
In the late 1990’s, however, I attended and spoke at events for Pagans and witches in Boscastle itself because of my friendship with Levannah Morgan, and remember one particularly good ritual on a December night at the seashore, with the blow-hole clearly audible and water running gently over the shelf of rock beneath my feet. I had to interact with Cassandra Latham as the Bucca, and faced the age-old priestly problem of having to be prepared to encounter either a goddess or a demoness.

As soon as the museum passed into the hands of Graham King, a friend of mine, I became regularly involved in its events and worked in its archive, and subsequently became its official patron.


‘Triumph of the Moon’ came out in 1999 and it remains the most influential and important of all the books that have challenged Gardner’s account. I think your purpose was to provide a new narrative for Wicca, and provide it with different, more solid, foundations. Do you want to comment on this?

My purpose in writing ‘The Triumph of the Moon’ was indeed to provide a new historical narrative for Wicca, on different and more solid foundations which no hostile critics could demolish. It was emphatically not intended to debunk the traditional foundation story, because belief in that had already collapsed among the Wiccans whom I knew, who tended to be the most prominent national figures of the movement in Britain. My work was designed to fill a vacuum, in which Wiccans were wondering if they had a history at all, and whether it might be that there was nothing to their religion except a modern fake-up, provided by a founder figure (Gardner) whom Aidan Kelly had encouraged readers to regard as rather sleazy.

What I thought I had managed to prove was that Wicca was a radical distillation of a number of cultural currents which had been developing in mainstream British society for the previous one hundred and fifty years. These did draw on ancient images and ideas, but for modern needs. As such, Wiccans could claim as ancestors some of the greatest poets, novelists and non-fiction writers in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Wicca was accordingly not a marginal, unimportant and cranky phenomenon, but a movement which effectively responded to some of the most important features of the modern world.


In terms of the book’s wider impact, do you think you were successful in these aims?

How people responded to the book depended very much on their own context. Those who had long been in the tradition, knew its founding leaders, led families of covens, were already well-informed on Wiccan history and on history in general, and had begun to doubt the foundation story, found it to be just what they wanted. Those who had only come into Wicca relatively recently, had been told the foundation story as they were initiated and believed it entirely, and were anxious to prove themselves worthy members of their new religion, and were not acquainted with the mainstream British Pagan scene, could find it easy to mistake me for a hostile outsider out to destroy their tradition.

Likewise, the book tended, without actually intending to, to promote a view of Wiccan history which prioritised creativity and eclecticism, diminished the role of existing authority and dogma, and so that of elders who had set themselves up as their guardians and propagators, and discouraged an adversarial view of other religions, especially Christianity, and any tendency to see Wiccans inherently as a persecuted elect few at odds with society. Those who were happy with those results, or actively seeking them, would like the book. Those who were not, would not like it.

In practice, the former, favourable, reaction in each case tended to comprise mainstream British Wiccans, including their traditional leaders, and Pagans in other countries who were likewise leaders of well-established traditions, and authors of celebrated books about them. Negative reactions were concentrated overwhelmingly in parts of America, with some offshoots in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and among people who were trying to establish names for themselves in Wicca or trying to establish rival branches of Paganism for which they were claiming an unbroken ancient ancestry.

It also had a large readership among the general public, and seems from my postbag to have attracted a lot of people to Wicca. Among academics, it was liked by historians and experts in comparative religion, and had more adverse reactions from sociologists, who were less interested in the history and wanted me to carry out a proper study of Wiccans in the present using their own professional methods and viewpoints.

In the new edition, published in 2019, I responded to the various criticisms made of the book (which actually affected very little of it) and cut out most of the survey of contemporary British Wicca, to put in more history. I have of course written many other books than Triumph, including a number on Paganism, but when my work is discussed people always seem to refer only to those from the 1990s, and above all Triumph itself. Those I have published since 2000 (eight in all, six of which were on Paganism or witchcraft) tend to get ignored, even though I think them generally better than those before. In particular I wrote two books which did for Druidry what Triumph did for Wicca, which sold well, especially the second, but have occasioned very little comment from Pagans.

Occasionally people refer to the ‘Huttonisation’ of witchcraft studies, and when they do they seem to be referring to Triumph of the Moon, and to the process of analysis and ‘academisation’ that it inspired. Do you want to comment on this process?

I haven’t come across the term ‘Huttonisation’ myself, but one purpose of Triumph was to encourage further research into the history of Paganism, and as far as I was concerned the viewpoint or ideology of the person conducting it did not matter as long as she or he used actual historical evidence in a way which historians generally regard as good practice.

Sometimes directly as a result of my example, and sometimes apparently because of a general maturing of Paganism, this has been undertaken since Triumph by a lot of people, to a standard which I find impressive. Probably forgetting somebody, I would mention in particular Philip Heselton, Melissa Seims, Julia Phillips and Ethan Doyle White in Britain, Shai Feraro in Israel, and Chas Clifton, Sabina Magliocco, Margot Adler, Amy Hale, Michael Lloyd and John Sulak in America.

We have all managed to make our contributions, moreover, with occasional different interpretations of evidence but remarkable harmony and mutual support between the whole group of us. I would not term all the work ‘academisation’, as most of the people I have just named are or were not academics, or even aspiring academics. They are or were (I say were as Margot has, to my huge personal grief, died) just good scholars.

Your most recent book ‘The Witch: A History of Fear’ takes a very broad view and emphasises how the figure of the witch is remarkably uniform across cultures and across history. One of the most interesting chapters is on Witches and Celticity, in which you argue that the low rate of persecution of witches in Celtic (Gaelic) regions was because of continued belief in fairies. Can you comment on this, and particularly on how this may relate to Cornwall?

I did find a correlation between low levels of witch hunting in the early modern period, and places with a Celtic culture, and further suggested that this might be partly due to the fact that Celtic cultures were more inclined to blame on fairies the kind of misfortune that people in Germanic and Romance cultures blamed on witches.

Cornwall certainly fits this pattern at first sight, having both few witch trials (and those mostly conducted by an intruded Puritan administration after the Civil War) and a high level of fairy belief. Somerset and Devon, by contrast, had very many trials, and indeed became the final great area of witch-hunting in England. Mark Stoyle, who is the current leading expert on early modern Cornwall, was eager to apply to it my suggestion about witch-hunting not being a feature of Celtic cultures. On the other hand, Dorset and Hampshire also had very few trials, and I am not yet sure that Devon and Somerset had a less well developed tradition of fairy belief than Cornwall. So the West Country really needs further study in this regard: though not by me, as it would be a wonderful subject for a good PhD student.

Finally to return to the museum as we know it now, do you have any particular favourite exhibits?

My favourite exhibit at the museum as we know it now is probably Gerald Gardner’s hat, partly because this natty trilby – just the kind of thing that a gent of Gerald’s kind and time would have worn – at first seems so incongruous in a museum of witchcraft and magic (see photo by Sara Hannant). It is also mostly, however, because it is a tangible link with Gerald himself, who was such a wonderful character to whom Paganism in general, and Wicca in particular, owes so much.

I am greedy, however, and my favourite assemblage of exhibits from the museum is that contained in Sara Hannant and Simon Costin’s excellent book of photographs of them, ‘Of Shadows’.


Originally published in The Enquiring Eye #4 Autumn 2020