There is a story told that, once upon a time, the witches of Britain gathered to select a “King of the Witches”. Even though British witchcraft was at that time (the early 1960s) loosely if at all organized, still it is said that they somehow got together and ‘crowned’ a man called Alex Sanders as their ruler.
It’s an interesting legend, but as with many legends the truth behind the story is somewhat different. Only with the passing of time have some of the facts been sorted out. One thing that is true is that Alex Sanders founded a witchcraft tradition, the Alexandrian, that flourishes to this day.
HUMBLE AND STRANGE BEGINNINGS
Alex Sanders was born in Manchester, England, in 1929. He was the eldest of six children and his father was a musician whose career was ruined by alcoholism. The family was quite poor and Alex’s mother worked as a cleaning lady to make ends meet. Many times, Alex would be left in the care of his grandmother, a Welsh lady known as Mary Biddy.
One day, after school, Alex went to visit his grandmother to see if she would give him his tea. He let himself into her house, and found her in the kitchen, standing nude in a circle of candles and strange implements. Before the stunned boy could speak, she instructed him to remove his clothes and join her in the circle. Then she told him to bend over and, speaking a few words of invocation, gently nicked his scrotum with the ceremonial knife in her hand. “I’m a witch,” she told him, “and now you’re one, too.”
Though he was understandably frightened, the ceremony finished and Alex managed to get his clothes back on. As he and his grandmother sipped their tea, she explained what had just happened. She told him about her practice and of the wondrous things she’d teach him. A bit skeptical at first, Alex soon took to his grandmother’s teachings. Over the next few months, he returned to his grandmother’s, ostensibly for Welsh lessons. Those lessons he was given, but Mary Biddy also instructed him in the ways of witchcraft. They soon discovered that he was a natural witch, and before long Alex was able to work the rites as well as his grandmother.
Over the next few years, Alex learned all he could from his grandmother. He studied with her until her death, with just a pause during the World War II years when he, like many British children, was farmed out to the country. All through those post-war years, well into his twenties, he searched for another witch like himself, without success. Alex married and fathered two children, but found home and family life didn’t set well with him. He wanted more and began to use witchcraft for selfish ends, calling on the powers to bring him fame and riches. Sensing the evil that was gathering around him, his wife fled with their two children and later divorced him.
Alex’s call was seemingly answered when he was ‘adopted’ by a wealthy elderly couple that had lost their only son to disease. They lavished money and gifts upon him, and for the next few years he lived a life of sheer hedonism. It wasn’t until his sister Joan died of cancer, and Alex was later arrested for attempted theft of a priceless book of magic, that his conscience awakened. He decided to renounce his old life and return to the path he had abandoned. Alex set himself upon a difficult course of redemption and was moderately successful.
THE PATH TO REAL WITCHCRAFT
Somewhat chastened, Alex returned to his grandmother’s teachings and the studies he had left behind. With the repeal of the Witchcraft Laws in 1951, individuals professing to be witches began to appear in British media. One in particular, Gerald Gardner(founder of the Gardnerian Tradition), became quite well known to the public and Alex wrote him in 1962 asking for information and contacts. Gardner directed him to Patricia Crowther, by that time Gardner’s high priestess and a somewhat unwilling conservator of his public image.
Alex wrote to Mrs Crowther, explaining his interest in witchcraft and requesting a meeting. She replied and invited Alex to her house for a meeting with Gerald Gardner. This was the first of three such meetings, and both Mrs Crowther and Gardner developed a growing dislike of Alex, especially when he announced his idea to stage a public ritual and so put witchcraft (and himself) on the front pages of the local newspapers. They suspected Alex of being nothing more than a charlatan and decided to have no further contact with him.
Undeterred, Alex found other ways to obtain the knowledge he sought. He managed to procure a copy of Gardner’s Book of Shadows
and intended to develop his own practice of true witchcraft. Alex’s lofty ideals didn’t last long, though. In 1971 he attempted to produce a stage show featuring witchcraft, but all his attempts were a disaster. Nonetheless, he went on hosting public rituals, giving interviews, and keeping himself in the public eye
whenever possible. A biography, King of the Witches
(June Johns), was published and the sobriquet
stuck even though no self-respecting British witch would acknowledge such a title.
TEACHER AND ELDER
A few years earlier Alex had remarried, to Maxine Morris, who’d been working with him as his high priestess. He finally gained a measure of stability and together they developed what would be known as the Alexandrian Tradition of witchcraft. Among their first initiates was journalist and later well-respected Wiccan author Stewart Farrar. Together with his wife, initiate Janet Owen, Farrar did much to promote the Alexandrian Tradition before their break with Alex in the late 1970s.
Through his writings and teachings, which revealed the extent of thought and solid practice in his tradition, Alex finally succeeded in rehabilitating
himself and his reputation. Many witches today can trace their lineage
to one of his covens
, a number of which are still in operation. Information has surfaced lately that seems to indicate Alex’s story about his grandmother was a complete fabrication, but this has done little to damage his standing as a respected teacher.
Alex Sanders died, appropriately enough, on the morning of one of Wicca’s high holidays, Beltane (April 1) in 1988. The cause was lung cancer. Alex’s funeral turned into his last media event, complete with reporters and television cameras, yet it managed to retain some dignity. Maxine Sanders continues to write and teach, today in the framework of Liberal Catholicism.
Crowther, Patricia. One Witch's World. London: Robert Hale, 1998.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. Custer, Washington: Phoenix Press, 1983.
Johns, June. King of the Witches. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1969.
Sanders, Alex. The Alex Sanders Lectures. New York: Magickal Childe Publishing, Inc., 1984.