StephenT (stormwreath) wrote,

(Fic) The History of the Watchers' Council - Chapter Six

This is Chapter Six, the final part of my account of the Council's history taking us up to the present day (well, to 2003 anyway). For the introduction and contents, go here.

Tudor London, where the Council moved its headquarters for the final time.

Watchers' Council of Great Britain AD 1563 - 2003

The Council, not nearly as dead as the Catholic authorities believed, set up residence in its latest home in the autumn of 1563. It purchased a plot of land on the edge of St James's Park - in those days an area of swampy open ground owned by the Crown that lay between the City of London and the separate village of Westminster, close to the royal palace at Whitehall. The payment for the land - a very generous one by all accounts - went directly into the Queen's pocket, and in return the Council found any bureaucratic obstacles to its new base of operations swept aside.

This was the first time in its long history that the Council had deliberately set up such close links with a government, and not all its members were happy with the policy. They insisted that the relationship be kept an arm's length one, and that the Watchers should not be made a tool of government policy. Fortunately for them, the 30-year old Elizabeth was above all a pragmatist, without her father Henry VIII's paranoia or lust for control. She was happy to offer the Council shelter and not enquire too closely into their doings, if in return they supplied her with information and the occasional generous gift. The Queen was also knowledgeable about the supernatural, thanks to her court astrologer and adviser John Dee (who had chosen the date for her coronation himself, based on a fortunate conjunction of the stars). The Council found Dee a kindred spirit, and worked with him to uncover and counter many mystical threats to the kingdom, and also to identify and make contact with potential allies.

One such group, an organisation of witches based in the West Country, would form a lasting alliance with the Council. The term 'Wiccan' was not used by them until the 19th century, but they already called themselves the Coven. The relations between the two groups were not always smooth - the Council was itself unusual by the standards of Tudor times in permitting women to become full members, but social expectations and prejudices meant that they rarely if ever rose to senior positions in its ranks. The Coven was the diametric opposite: mostly comprised and led by women with male members a distinct minority. The culture clash between witches and Watchers would lead to many tense moments and lots of sheer exasperation on both sides, but usually they managed to put aside their differences when necessity required.
A key moment in their alliance came in 1588, when the Council's most experienced warlocks joined with the Coven to raise a mighty storm to sweep away King Felipe of Spain's invasion fleet. This was threatening to re-impose the rule of the Roman Catholic Church upon England - something the Watchers had personal reasons for opposing. Queen Elizabeth knew of this magic-working, but kept it secret from her government and the general public, and instead gave credit for the storm to God's will.

For the first forty years of its presence in England, the Council had kept its official name as the Consilium Custodum Venetiarum, mostly because nobody could agree on what the new title should be. Even how to translate the word custos or the Greek term φύλαξ into English was controversial, with many preferring terms like 'guard' or 'sentinel' - but to others, the proposed phrase 'Council of Guards of England' (or 'London') would carry much too strong an implication that they were an official government body, dedicated to the defence of a single kingdom rather than humanity as a whole. However, when a group of antiquarians and archivists began studying the most ancient Council records, they uncovered the story of the Council Civil War of Babylonian times, but misunderstood the true meaning of the cuneiform writings. According to them, the original term for the Council's members was simply "Those Who Watch" - and as a result, the Greek and Latin terms must be mistranslations of the primitive Akkadian term 'lu'urru'. This account was accepted, and therefore the English translation 'Watchers' came into general use by the 1590s and 1600s.

As for the geographical element of the name, this was actually chosen to flatter King James Stuart who succeeded his cousin-twice-removed Elizabeth to the throne in 1603. James had never heard of the Watchers' Council before his accession, and he was both troubled and fascinated to learn that his predecessor had been the patron of a secret society of scholar-sorcerers. (The Coven, unlike the Council, never announced its presence at all. James didn't like witches one bit, and discretion seemed advised.) In order to win his confidence and favour, the Council announced in 1604 that it would adopt the official name 'Watchers' Council of Great Britain'. This was one of James's hobby horses: he had been crowned as the king of Scotland at the age of one year old, and at age 37 he inherited the throne of England as well (plus the throne of Ireland and a claim on the throne of France). The island of Great Britain, which for over 600 years had been divided between the rival and hostile kingdoms of England and Scotland, was now united under the same monarch.

James thought it was logical to start calling himself the King of Great Britain. Unfortunately, the English Parliament was unwilling to agree to this - and another thing James was perturbed to discover was that in England, Parliament didn't always obey the King. (His son King Charles would discover this too, in a rather more fatal way.) As a result, the King had to reluctantly go on calling himself the King of England when in England and the King of Scots when in Scotland; it wasn't for another century before the two kingdoms were formally united into a single country. James comforted himself by inventing a new flag combining the red-and-white cross of England with the white-and-blue saltire of Scotland, even though he wasn't allowed to use it except on his own personal property. The Council, however, was not bound by the wishes of Parliament, and told James it would name itself after Great Britain in his honour. To its own members it told a different story: 'Great Britain' was a geographical name, not the name of a political entity, and this therefore preserved the message that the Council was the servant of no mundane government.

The Council steered a cautious path through the turbulent politics of the 17th century, trying to remain neutral as far as possible. Its network of connections in Europe took a battering during the many religious wars and persecutions that swept the Continent, but by the 1660s had survived the worst of it and could be rebuilt. In addition the Council strongly supported British expansion overseas, sponsoring many voyages of exploration and investing in the commercial companies that sprang up to benefit from the trade opportunities uncovered.
Partly this was motivated by the simple desire for profit, continuing and strengthening the policy begun while the Council was based in Venice. While justified as providing the funds necessary to support training Slayers and continuing the Council's research efforts, for many in the organisation it had become an end in itself. However, the discovery of the New World and the establishment of a reliable sea route around Africa to Asia thrilled many of the Watchers. Their most ancient records spoke of the Council operating in many far-off lands by means of magical communications and teleportation spells. While the more sceptical historians dismissed these as mere origin myths, others wondered if the voyages of exploration might find actual traces of Council operations there in the past, or - the el Dorado or Prester John of the searchers - an actual long-lost mystical organisation still preserving the traditions and even the name of the Council.

In fact, no undisputed and definite signs were found; but numerous records, histories, folktales or archaeological remains were uncovered which offered tantalising hints that they might be related to the Council. The Watchers' historians have argued about these ever since, with consensus on which traces are genuine survivals of the old Šes'ene Ğissu'ak and which are unrelated varying from one decade to the next. Other Watchers set about tracing references to the Slayer, which were easier to find; many cultures preserved stories of heroic warrior-women who would appear from nowhere, defeat some terrible evil and save their people, then vanish - sometimes promising to return again if they were ever needed. In this way, the Council amassed an impressive body of knowledge on the magical traditions and histories of many countries. Although their scholarship was impaired by their attempts to force the information to fit their preconceived ideas, and by their inevitably Eurocentric approach, in the context of the time their efforts to achieve a true understanding of these aspects of foreign cultures was remarkable, and was a precursor of the Enlightenment of the following century.

Related to this was the debate over how to deal with Potentials and Slayers who arose outside of Europe and the Middle East. The Council had always known that such women existed, if only because of the many gaps in its records when a Slayer died and the newly-Called one could not be located, until some time later when another Potential’s sudden activation showed that the intervening Slayer had died. Watchers who accompanied voyages to distant lands, or took up residence in the trading posts, colonies and factories which the European nations were starting to establish overseas, soon established that there were indeed Potentials in those countries - some unrecognised, others part of local magical traditions.

Some members of the Council advocated kidnapping (or purchasing) these girls and bringing them to England, where they could be trained. While this proposal was well enough in keeping with the morality of the time, other Watchers were uncomfortable with the idea of depriving foreign climes of the services of the Slayer Was not her mission to protect all of humanity, not merely that portion of it fortunate enough to live in Europe? The alternative would be to train the Potentials in place; but that in turn meant deciding who would do so.
Should Watchers be sent out from England to take the girls under their care? That would entail great sacrifices from the Watcher in question, not to mention requiring him to learn a barbarous foreign language and the bizarre customs of his destination. (Assuming he wasn't simply killed or imprisoned as a dangerous foreigner once he arrived there.) Or should they make contact with local scholar-magicians and offer them membership in the Council, entrusting them with the care and training of the Potentials themselves? That would require placing immense trust in the goodwill of strangers, assuming suitable candidates could even be found. And although the Council prided itself on being an international organisation open to people of all races and all religions - they even let women join, by Jove! - many of its members felt distinctly uncomfortable at the idea of letting in an influx of new members who were, well, Not Like Us.

In the end, the Council's policy varied between the different approaches over time, with first one and then another taking precedence depending on the views of the leadership. In general, during the 18th century the Council preferred to establish links with local groups and cooperate with them; in the more imperialistic 19th century the view that the people from Head Office in Britain knew best tended to become more prevalent. The greater ease of worldwide communication that sprang from the development of the clipper ship and then the steamship even made it practical for Potentials and Watchers-in-training to be brought to England for education before being sent back to their homelands.

A purpose-built Academy was built in the Cotswolds in 1846 to educate new Watchers, while close by was situated a radical and controversial boarding school for young ladies modelled on the boys' public schools of the era. This school, of course, was operated by the Council through a series of cover identities. It was named St Athanasia's after the ancient Slayer (who of course was in reality neither a saint nor even a Christian, living as she did in the 4th century BC - a rather cynical private joke by the Council). The Council also acquired property in the Scottish Highlands as a summer retreat; this old but renovated castle offered a safe location where more extreme training could be conducted out of the reach of prying eyes.

The curriculum of St Athanasia’s School for Young Ladies included Greek wrestling, archery, fencing, athletics and woodcraft as well as more conventional academic subjects like History, Biology, Greek, Latin and Ancient Sumerian. Polite society outside the Council deemed this far too adventurous and shocking for respectable women, which was doubtless why the schools’s trustees were forced to fill up their class numbers with so many girls of foreign extraction. The St Athanasia's hockey team was notorious as being the only one that the St Trinian's team felt outmatched by, and not just on the playing field. While only a small proportion of Potentials were trained at St Athanasia's, they included some of the most fearsome and well-known. The school still operated as an exclusive private boarding school right up until the tragic gas main explosion that destroyed it in the spring of 2003; Kennedy and Vi are two of its best-known alumnae.

During this period, the Council met and averted many threats to humanity; but others it was unable to counter. In the year 1684, thirty Watchers committed suicide after what they saw as their failure to prevent the Twilight prophecy from destroying the world; ironically, it was saved when the current Slayer was so horrified and repulsed by the strange glowy feelings filling her that she went insane, locked herself in an attic and never came out again. The Council were also unable to stop the predations of the Master and his minions in the Order of Aurelius, while another equally-powerful vampire named Lothos made it his personal mission to hunt down and kill as many Slayers as possible soon after they were Called. This threat reinforced the need for a Slayer to maintain a cover identity and not reveal herself to anyone outside the Council.

One victory the Council did score, although it’s not one they boast about openly. In 1773, their agents uncovered evidence that the Holy Order of St Michael – still extant, though by no means as active as in former times – had been corrupted by the forces it was meant to fight. For over a century their leadership had been studying dark magic and even demonology in order to understand and fight their opponents on their own terms. The inevitable consequence of gazing too long and deeply into the abyss eventually happened to them. When the Council surreptitiously revealed this to the Pope’s agents, an aghast Curia promptly suppressed the Order, confiscated its assets, and moved the disgraced former Michaelites to new parishes far away from their former haunts. Revenge, though long-delayed, had come at last.

By the end of the 20th century, the Watchers' Council of Great Britain was once again a world-spanning organisation. It had almost 2,000 Field Watchers assigned to Potentials at any one time, plus more in training or on detached duty - which basically meant they were left free to live their lives, but paid a small stipend by the Council in return for feeding it information and being prepared to be reactivated at need. The Council also engaged in magical research and scholarship - indeed, to many members this was seen as their principle purpose, with the Slayer being merely a distraction or a quaint relic of older days. Being assigned to a Potential as a Field Watcher was a step on the career ladder for ambitious high-flyers; but multiple such assignments were on the contrary a sure sign of career death. (Not all Watchers felt that way: Merrick, who had trained five Potentials before his final and fatal assignment to Buffy, felt a matching contempt for the Head Office stooges who had forgotten the Council's true role in preparing the Slayer for her duties.) 

The Council was enormously wealthy, although much of its fortune was concealed behind a dozen different cut-outs and secret identities, or was in forms which were not easily liquidised. For example, the empty fields near Whitehall which the Council purchased from Queen Elizabeth back in 1563 are now incredibly valuable prime real-estate in the heart of London. Ironically, Elizabeth's descendant's government has since the late 18th century rented back most of the land for its own offices. The personnel of the Council were drawn from all over the world, although oddly enough the senior ranks were still mostly comprised of older white men with British accents, just as they had been for the last three centuries.

And that was the situation in 2003 when Caleb and an army of Harbingers tracked down and murdered almost all the Watchers and their Potentials, and planted bombs in their headquarters and academies. The destruction was not quite total; in particular, a fair number of retired or inactive Watchers were never detected, and Caleb overlooked the mothballed training facility in Scotland - but the loss of vital information and the systems that held everything together were devastating. Only scattered remnants of the old Council were left, although some of them retained enough knowledge to call themselves its representatives or successors. Given that the relationship between them and the Slayers had fundamentally changed, however, the future course of the Council's history is now a mystery even to them...

Tags: buffy, fic, history, meta, watchers' council
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