In early March 1244 the remaining 200 or so Cathars finally decided to accept defeat at the hands of the French besiegers. They negotiated a fifteen day delay before they exited from the castle of Montségur and handed themselves over to their enemies. Nobody is quite sure why they wanted this long to prepare themselves for their final destruction. It is thought that perhaps they had a special festival – maybe similar to the Christian festival of Easter – which they wished to share before they died.
They finally left the castle on 16th March. Waiting for them at the foot of the mountain was a giant pyre constructed by the besiegers. All 200 of the remaining perfecti of the Cathar faith were given the opportunity to abjure their heretical beliefs and recant their faith but none did so. They willingly entered the giant bonfire which had been prepared for them on the small plateau below the castle, now a car park known as the Field of Burning (see photo). It was set alight and during the next few hours the last of the top members of the Cathars died a slow and agonising death. There were still active members of the faith hiding in various secret locations throughout the mountains of Southern Languedoc, but the Cathar faith had been effectively destroyed.
However there was one last fascinating story connected with the heresy. When the perfecti marched out of Montségur on that cold spring morning they left behind four of their number who still had possession of the Secret Treasure of the Cathars. Nobody knows precisely what it was but it cannot have been gold or jewels or anything heavy. Because on the night of 16th March 1244 these four men, having hidden in a cave during the day while their comrades were destroyed, then climbed down the precipitous north face of the mountain on ropes carrying the Treasure on their backs.
Nobody knows what happened to these four men or to the Treasure which they carried. There is no record of them ever being apprehended or of the Treasure being recovered. It is one of the great mysteries of this period that there has been no answer to.
This mystery was the starting point of my novel, The Secret of the Cathars. In the original version of the novel I wrote a journal written by one of the four escapers which created the start to the plot round which the novel is constructed. However the publisher who was thinking of publishing the novel wanted it to be reduced from the original 110,000 words to less than 80,000 and this was omitted as part of the cutting operation.
Next week I will give you an extract from the Journal of Phillipe de Saint-Claire – translated from the ancient Occitan language into modern English – which is my idea of what may have actually happened to the Secret Treasure of the Cathars.