I apologise for not continuing my blogs for the last month. We have been away for three weeks – part of it exploring the Loire and Dordogne valleys in France. Then, when we got back, I found there was a pile of work waiting. However I have at last made an hour free to do another blog.
One family whose name has been linked frequently with the Rennes-le-Chateau area over the centuries has been the Blancheforts. Only a few kilometres to the east of Rennes is the remains of the chateau of Blanchefort perched on a rocky peak.
The castle is often referred to as the ancestral home of the Blanchefort family although, from what little one can see of the remains of the building, it would appear to have been little more than a lookout for the adjacent city of Rhedae. No roads lead to the place and even the one approach path is narrow, precipitous and overgrown. Certainly no wheeled vehicle could ever have got up there. Indeed there are good reasons for believing that the castle beside the church in Rennes itself was for centuries the home of the family. In the middle ages the building was referred to as the Chateau de Blanchefort. The photo shows it in its present unoccupied condition.
Bertrand de Blanchefort, who was the fourth Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar (the Templars) from 1153 to 1170 and who greatly re-organised that illustrious body and gave it its legendary efficiency and financial power, came from the area. It is also said that Bertrand and his successors were prominent Cathars (or at least sympathetic to the cause). It is believed they fought alongside the Cathars when they were annihilated in the Albigensian Crusade. As a result their lands in the area, including the destroyed castle at Rennes-le-Chateau, were confiscated by Simon de Montfort in 1209 and given to his lieutenant, Pierre do Voisins who rebuilt the place.
However that wasn’t the end of the Blancheforts. Branches of the family continued to survive and gradually to thrive in the area. The last person to bear the name was the Marquise d’Hautpoul de Blanchefort who died in the chateau at Rennes in January 1781 and whose tomb was in the churchyard topped by a huge stone on which were inscribed the words “Et in Arcadia ego” among others. These are the same words which appeared on the front of the tomb in the famous painting by Nicolas Poussin, known as the Shepherds of Arcady (see my earlier blog of 1st January 2012).
When the Marquise de Blanchefort knew she was close to death and living in isolation in the chateau at Rennes she called her local priest, the Abbé Antoine Bigou, to her side to receive her confession. Then she confided to him an explosive secret which she had carried throughout her life and charged him to hide it well. Bigou was terrified by what she had given him. As France descended into the chaos of the French Revolution he hid it away and fled to Spain where he died a few years later.
Next week I will discuss what may have happened to this secret and what the consequences might have been.