Sanders, Alex (1926–1988) Self-proclaimed “king of the Witches” in his native England, Alex Sanders rose to fame in the 1960s, founding a major tradition bearing his name: the Alexandrian tradition. A gifted psychic with a flamboyant style, he was for years the most public witch in Britain, gaining headlines for his reputed sensational acts of Magic. Some called him the enfant terrible of British witchcraft, whose life was surrounded by more myth than fact.
Sanders was born in Manchester, the oldest of six children. His father was a music hall entertainer and suffered from alcoholism. By Sanders’ own account, he was seven when he discovered his grandmother, Mary Bibby, standing naked in the kitchen in the middle of a circle drawn on the floor. She revealed herself as a hereditary Witch and initiated him on the spot. She ordered him to enter the circle, take off his clothes and bend down with his head between his thighs. She took a knife and nicked his scrotum, saying, “You are one of us now.”
According to Sanders, Mary Bibby gave him her Book of Shadows, which he copied, and taught him the rites and magic of witches. He discovered his own natural psychic gifts for clairvoyance and healing by touch. He worked as an analytical chemist at a laboratory in Manchester, where he met and married a 19-year-old coworker, Doreen, when he was 21. They had two children, Paul and Janice, but the marriage rapidly disintegrated. Doreen took the children and left Sanders when he was 26.
Sanders then entered a long period of drifting from one low-level job to another, drinking and indulging in sexual flings with both men and women, according to his account of his life. He decided to follow the left-hand path and use magic to bring him wealth and power. For a time, he worshiped the Devil and studied Abra-melin magic. He apparently attracted people who supported him financially. He formed his first Coven, began getting media attention, attracted more followers and by 1965, claimed to have 1,623 initiates in 100 covens, who then “persuaded” him to be elected king of the Witches. Although he emphasized that the title of king pertained only to his own Alexandrian tradition, the media treated it otherwise, as though he were king of all Witches.
Sanders boasted about his alleged feats of magic. He claimed to create a flesh-and-blood “spiritual baby” in a rite of ritual masturbation, with the help of a male assistant. Sanders said the baby disappeared shortly after its creation, and “grew up” as a spirit that took over him in his trance channeling. Michael, as the spirit was called, supposedly was responsible for “forcing” Sanders to carry on at wild parties, insult others and otherwise act abominably. Eventually, Sanders claimed, Michael simmered down and became a valuable spirit familiar, offering advice in healing matters. Sanders also channeled a Familiar entity, Nick Demdike, who said he had been persecuted as a witch in the Lancaster trials of the 17th century. (See Lancaster Witches.)
Sanders reportedly got rid of warts by “wishing them on someone else, someone who’s already ugly, with boil marks I can fill up with the warts.” He claimed to cure a man of heroin addiction, and cure cystitis in a woman by laying his hands on her head and willing her affliction away. He also said he cured a young woman of stomach cancer by sitting with her in the hospital for three days and nights, holding her feet and pouring healing energy into her.
He effected other cures by pointing at the troubled spots on the body and concentrating. Pointing, he said, never failed. He claimed he gave magical abortions by pointing at the womb and commanding the pregnancy to end.
One of Sanders’ more famous alleged cures concerned his daughter, Janice, who was born in dry labor with her left foot twisted backwards. Doctors said nothing could be done until the child was in her teens. Sanders received an “impression” from Michael to take olive oil, warm it, and anoint Janice’s foot. Sanders did so, then simply twisted Janice’s foot straight. The foot remained corrected; Janice walked normally, except for a slight limp in cold, damp weather.
In the 1960s, Sanders met Maxine morris, a roman Catholic and 20 years his junior, whom he initiated into the Craft in 1964 and handfasted in 1965. Maxine became his high priestess. In 1968, They married in a civil ceremony and moved to a basement flat near Notting Hill Gate in London, where they ran their coven and taught training classes. They attracted many followers and initiated people into the Craft. Their daughter, Maya, was born the same year. (See Maxine Sanders.)
Sanders was catapulted into the national public spotlight by a sensational newspaper article in 1969. The publicity led to a romanticized biography, King of the Witches, by June Johns (1969), a film, “Legend of the Witches,” and numerous appearances on media talk shows, and public speaking engagements. Sanders enjoyed the publicity and was adept at exploiting it, to the dismay of other Witches who felt he dragged the Craft through the gutter press.
Curiously, Sanders always appeared robed or clad in a loincloth in photos of himself in Rituals, while other witches with him were naked. He explained this by saying that “witch law” required the elder of a coven to be apart from the others and easily identifiable.
Sanders’ accounts of his Initiation into the Craft by his grandmother, his magical escapades, and the extent of his “kingdom” are dubious. Years after his publicity peaked, it was revealed that he passed off the writings and teachings of others as his own. Stewart Farrar, a journalist who was initiated by Sanders, said Sanders used material from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, written by Gerald B. Gardner and Doreen Valiente, and either took credit for it himself or passed it off as inherited material. He also passed off material written by occultist Eliphas Levi and Franz Bardon as his own, sometimes after making slight changes in it, and other times not bothering to make any changes at all.
According to some Gardnerian Witches, Sanders created his Alexandrian tradition after he was refused initiation into various Gardnerian covens, having obtained a copy of the Gardnerian book of shadows. However, there is some evidence in Gardner’s correspondence papers that Sanders was a Gardnerian initiate. He was initiated by a high priestess whose Craft name was medea and who was described as “the Derbyshire priestess.”
In 1972, Alex and Maxine had a son, Victor. In 1973, they separated. Sanders moved to Sussex, where he was less active and away from the media limelight. Maxine remained in the London flat, where she continued to run a coven and teach the Craft. Sanders took his teaching to Continental Europe.
Sanders died on April 30, 1988 (Beltane), after a long battle with lung cancer. His funeral was a media event. Witches and Pagans from various traditions attended to pay their respects. A tape recording was played in which he declared that Victor should succeed him as “king of the Witches.” According to Maxine, Victor had no desire to do so, and had gone to live in the United States. A “Witchcraft Council of Elders” said no other successor would be elected. (Some Witches say the council was a fabrication of followers of Sanders.)
The Alexandrian tradition took hold in other countries. In the United States, it did not gain as wide a following as the Gardnerian tradition, and was hurt by negative publicity about Sanders. By the 1980s, none of the Alexandrian covens had any connection with Sanders himself. The tradition became much stronger in Canada, where it was more firmly established. In subsequent years, as the Craft evolved, fusions were made between the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions.
Despite Sanders’ media grandstanding, he is recognized for making a substantial contribution to the overall evolution of modern Witchcraft. Following Sanders’ death, Stewart Farrar observed: “Alex was a born showman; but the fact remains that he made a major contribution to the Craft, in his own often bizarre way, and many people (including ourselves [Stewart and wife Janet Owen Farrar]) might never have been introduced to it but for him.”
- Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. A Witches Bible Compleat. New York: Magickal Childe, 1984.
- Johns, June. King of the Witches: The World of Alex Sanders. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1969.
- Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.