Aug 062013
 

Posted on 6th August 2013

Now that my website has been updated, I thought I would talk about the area of France described by roadside signs as Cathar Country.

This is an area in the south of the country in the shadow of the high Pyrenees – an area of deep wooded valleys and rushing rivers carrying the melt-waters from the mountains. Rocky peaks peep out of the thick forests, often crowned with the remains of ancient castles. It is a truly beautiful and sometimes forbidding region, part of the old Languedoc, and this was the chosen last refuge of the Cathar heretics.

The area first became known to modern international travellers through the films of Henry Lincoln and the book which he co-wrote with Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Their work drew many other writers to the area (most famously Kate Mosse in Labyrinth and Dan Brown in The da Vinci Code). My own novel The Secret of the Cathars is almost wholly set in this fascinating area.

This region, south of the reconstructed ancient walled city of Carcassonne, has long been one of the historic centres of civilisations in Europe. The Romans developed the area after they had occupied Gaul. Then, in the fifth century, Rhedae (close to the modern small town of Rennes-le-Chateau) became one of the capital cities of the Visigoths and, it is rumoured, the location of their fabulously wealthy treasury. By the twelfth century AD the area was the centre of the Languedoc (meaning language of the South – one of the origins of Catalan and a lot of modern French) and was one of the most civilised societies in medieval Europe – the home of the troubadours, the centre of knightly conduct, the home of individual liberty.

At the same time the Roman Catholic Church had become a byword for impious behaviour. Many of the clergy were idle or absent, drawing excessive funds for doing very little. The lower classes ignored them. The nobility held them in contempt. Out of this disaffection grew the Cathar heresy. It’s roots and development are described in Massacre at Montsegur by Zoe Oldenbourg.

I will tell you more about Catharism and the Albigensian Crusade and what happened to the Cathars as a result over the next few weeks.

Aug 072012
 

This week I said I would discuss what happened to the secret which the Marquise de Blanchefort confided to the Abbé Antoine Bigou before her death in January 1781 – a secret which terrified the priest. But, before I do that, a number of events need to be reconsidered.

The first is that there seems no doubt that Bérenger Saunière found something important and valuable in his church at Rennes-le-Chateau on 21st September 1891. His subsequent behaviour (travelling to a variety of destinations, including Paris and Budapest, and his meetings with a number of important and famous people) suggests that what he found wasn’t simply treasure – although there may have been a quantity of material objects and wealth which he turned up at the same time.

There is also evidence that Saunière had contacts with a bank in Budapest after he had made his “discoveries”. A large number of unused envelopes pre-addressed to the Banque Fritz Dorge in central Budapest were found among his papers after the death of his faithful house-keeper, Marie Denarnaud. It is also believed that the priest made regular visits to Budapest, taking some care to keep his absence from Rennes-le-Chateau secret, until the outbreak of the First World War made this impossible.

Budapest, capital of Hungary is the home of the Habsbourg Royal family who were monarchs of Austria-Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire until it was liquidated by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 at the end of the First World War. It is an easy step to arrive at the conclusion that the main source of Saunière’s wealth was the Habsbourgs who were the protectors of the Holy See in Rome.

A further interesting fact is that Charles I, who was the last Emperor of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire from 1916 until 1918 was beatified by the Pope in 2004. (Beatification is the third stage of canonisation – leading to the eventual status of saint-hood.) The reasons given for making him a saint seem rather inadequate (he banned Austria-Hungary from using poison gas in the war. However Charles was the heir to the imperial throne at the time of the “discoveries” made by Bérenger Saunière in Rennes-le-Chateau.

The resulting questions are these – had Saunière been set up and encouraged by the Habsbourgs to find the family archives of the Blancheforts which contained the “explosive secret” which the Roman Catholic Church wished to remain secret? Had he succeeded in finding these papers and handing them over to the representative of the royal family and, as a consequence, been rewarded with substantial wealth, paid to him through the Budapest bank account? And had the efforts of Charles and his relatives and representatives to return the papers to the security of the Vatican secret library been rewarded in due course with his canonisation?

Now only the Roman Catholic Church can answer that and the Vatican is famously secretive about such matters. This theory suggests however that if the French authorities would permit exploration to find a way into crypt below Rennes church (if it exists) nothing would be found there except a few old empty tombs. There is no longer any realistic chance of finding treasure or information leading to the discovery of treasure in Rennes-le-Chateau.

 

The photo shows the outside of the little church at Rennes-le-Chateau.

Jul 272012
 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Jun 292012
 

Last week I told you about the Visigoth king Amalaric who may be buried in the crypt below the church at Rennes-le-Chateau. This week I will tell you about the last of the Merovingians who is also linked with Rennes.

The Merovingians were the Frankish kings who became the rulers of most of what we now know as France. Their name comes from their first known generation – a monarch called Merovée. There are legends that the dynasty are descended from Mary Magdalene who is supposed to have landed in France when she was fleeing from the Holy Land bearing the child of Christ.

Merovée’s grandson, Clovis, who ruled from AD 466 to 511, firmly established the Merovingians as the leading power in France when he drove the Visigoths back into the Pyrenees and made an alliance with the Burgundians.

A century and a half later his descendant, Dagobert II, married a Visigoth princess from Rhedae (ancient Rennes-le-Chateau) where the wedding took place in AD 675. A year later Dagobert was proclaimed king of what was then called Austrasia (one of the three Frankish kingdoms which covered the whole of France except Burgundy and also included modern Belgium, Holland and a part of Germany). However his reign didn’t last long. Just before Christmas 679 he was assassinated while out hunting in the Ardennes.

His three-year-old son Sigisbert IV succeeded him but never ruled. The official history books say he was killed with his father. However there is a persistent belief that he was rescued by one of his father’s knights and carried to Rennes-le-Chateau. I told you about the Knight’s stone which is alleged to depict the event in an earlier blog.

It is recorded locally that Sigisbert lived until AD758 (82 years – a ripe old age for those days) before he died and was buried in the crypt of Rennes church. He never regained the throne but his descendents became the Dukes of Aquitaine and (through Eleanor, who married Henry II of England) their bloodline passed into the Plantagenet royal dynasty.

Interestingly, when Saunière started his exploration/renovation of the church at Rennes, the first thing he did was dismantle the altar. When he did so he discovered the right hand support, which was a carved Visigoth pillar, was hollowed out in the top. It is now fixed upside down to the end of the Villa Bethania and supports the statue of Saint Mary of Lourdes (see the photo). The hollow contained two parchments. It is claimed that the writing on these included various codes, one of which stated “To Dagobert II, king. and to Sion belongs this treasure and he is there dead”.

 

Next week I will discuss the part the Blanchefort family played in this mystery and possible links to a third royal dynasty.

 

 

 

 

Jun 182012
 

The present church at Rennes-le-Chateau which is dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene was built on a site which had been occupied by an earlier chapel. That had been constructed by the Visigoths when they constructed the adjacent chateau, the remains of which still remain on the edge of the village overlooking the sheer drop to the valley of the River Sals below. (see photo)

There are indications of a funerary band still to be seen around the church which indicate that a royal personage is buried there. No royal tombs are visible in the church so it is reasonable to assume they are in the crypt below the church. But which royalty are we talking about? There are several possibilities.

In the fifth and sixth centuries AD the Visigoths made Rennes (which was then called Rhedae) one of their capitals. The Visigoth empire was large. It covered the whole of Spain and nearly half of present-day France, from the Atlantic coast to the Rhone and north as far as the River Loire. Their administrative capitals were at Toledo and Toulouse. However early in the fifth century they were attacked and slowly driven out of France by the Franks who were invading from the north. The Visigoths retreated to their stronghold at Rhedae.

At that time Rennes (which is now just a little village) had a population of 30,000 and was bigger than Paris. The city spread over a large area south of the present village and was well fortified, making it easy to defend. The Visigoth king, Alaric II, was defeated and killed by the Frankish leader Clovis in 508 AD near Carcassonne. His son and heir, Amalaric and his wife Clothilde, made Rhedae their capital and built the castle and chapel. Amalaric was killed at Narbonne in 531 AD and it is probable that he was brought back to his home town for burial.

I have mentioned in a previous blog about the fabulous treasure of Jerusalem which was believed to include the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah, the beautiful seven-branched candlestick of pure gold which stood on the altar in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple. The Franks were hoping to find this when they over-ran Narbonne but they were unsuccessful. It is likely that it had been moved to the Visigoths’ defensive capital of Rhedae and it is possible that it was secreted with Amalaric in his mausoleum beneath Rennes church.

 

Next week I will tell you about another king who may be buried in the crypt beneath Rennes church.

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Jun 102012
 

In 2002 a team of American surveyors, using sophisticated depth-sounding equipment, carried out a survey of Rennes Church and confidently asserted that there was a large void under the nave – probably a vaulted crypt. The question is – how was it accessed?

Excavations had already been authorised in the church in 1967 after a letter had come to light, written in the early eighteenth century, by the uncle of the Abbé Bigou (see the previous blog) which referred to a crypt and said that the entrance had been blocked up.

The professor who carried out the excavations reported that he had discovered the beginning of three passages leading downwards below the church. One was in the north wall of the church, being a staircase beneath the steps within the wall which lead up to the pulpit. The second was in a “little structure off the sacristy”. The third wasn’t described and, oddly, the excavators blocked up the entrances they had found and apparently went no further with their exploration. One wonders what influenced their change of heart.

Of the three possible entrances which have been put forward, the most interesting would appear to be in the “secret room” (referred to as an isoloir) which Saunière built off the sacristy in 1894. It is believed that the only entrance to this room is through the back of the cupboards which are built against its eastern wall. Unfortunately public access is not permitted to the isoloir or even to the sacristy and I cannot find a report from anyone who has been in either room.

However it is recorded that the priest had been seen to leave the church and go into the sacristy (which has no outside door) at the end of the service and appear outside a few minutes later without going back through the church which was still occupied by a number of the congregation. He obviously had a secret exit route.

The photo shows a model of the church viewed from the south which is not quite accurate. The sacristy is the lean-to structure with the window in the roof. The “secret room” is the small quadrant-shaped building to its right which is actually linked to it. This room could easily house a curved staircase leading down into the crypt.

 

Next week I will discuss what Saunière may have discovered in the crypt.

 

 

May 272012
 

It was 21st September 1891. Beneath the Knight’s Stone which the two local labourers had just lifted there was a tomb. The local story is that the priest climbed down among the bones, ferreted around and emerged a few minutes later carrying a pot filled with jewels and gold coins. Although the story has no doubt gained much in the retelling over the years, it is probably based at least partly on the truth.

At the time of the French Revolution the village priest was called Antoine Bigou. He made the mistake of voicing royalist sympathies and was therefore labelled a “recalcitrant priest”. In August 1792 the Assembly of the Republic in Paris passed a law proscribing such churchmen. Presumably the Abbé Bigou heard shortly after that his life was now in danger because within a month he had gathered his belongings together and hidden the church valuables and some other objects trusted to his care by the Marchioness of Hautpoul de Blanchefort when she died in 1881(I will discuss this in a later blog). Then he locked up the church and the presbytery and fled to Spain where he died three years later.

So, where better to hide valuables that were too heavy to carry than in a tomb in front of the altar covered by a large stone? Even though the Roman Catholic Church was no longer the power in the republic that it had been when France was a monarchy, the local people were still sufficiently traditional not to look with favour on the desecration of the church and opening up a tomb situated right in front of the altar.

As soon as he climbed out of the tomb Saunière sent the workmen off for an early lunch. When they returned after having eaten they found the church was locked and they were prevented from entering. The priest stayed inside and continued his excavations on his own. After that only his faithful housekeeper, Marie Dénarnaud, was ever let in on the secrets he had found and she took the information to her grave. There is a single brief entry in his diary for that day which says “Discovery of a tomb”.

It has been speculated that the Abbé, prompted by the clue left in the glass phial that was hidden in the column supporting the pulpit, discovered that the tomb had been constructed to hide an entrance to the crypt. All that is known for sure is that when the church was reopened for Mass the following Sunday the evidence of his excavations was hidden behind screens and boarding so that nothing could be seen by the parishioners.

This state of affairs continued for some weeks. Saunière let it be known that he was carrying out repairs to the church on his own to save money. However soon after this he started spending extravagant sums on the restoration of the church and elsewhere around the village. It was clear that he was spending far more than he had obtained from a pot of gold. Not surprisingly tongues started wagging about the possible source of his new-found wealth.

 

The photo shows the altar in front of which the tomb was located.

 

Next week I will discuss other possible entrances to the crypt.

 

 

May 202012
 

There is no doubt that Bérenger Saunière, the priest at Rennes-le-Chateau from 1885 to 1917, found something in his church which led him to become fabulously wealthy. One report suggests that, during restoration of the church in 1887, the altar was replaced. One of the old supports was a a stone pillar with Visigoth carvings on it which now stands in the small garden beside the Villa Bethania carrying a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes (see top photo).

Apparently they found a recess carved into the top of the pillar. This is quite a common occurrence. The carved out void is intended to contain holy relics linked with the dedication of the church. However this hollow was found to contain two documents which have been published and argued over ever since. People have read various codes and other meanings into these documents. I will deal with this subject in a later blog.

The question is, what other larger hiding places were there in the church? The most likely would be an underground crypt below the nave. Such catacombs are common in churches and frequently contain the tombs of important local and national figures, rather than burying them out in the churchyard where they would be more at risk from treasure hunters. However a crypt is usually a large void and can conceal a lot more than a few tombs. And the most secure crypt is one where the entrance is hidden or where it has been built over to prevent access. Did Saunière discover such an entrance?

Prior to this another secret hiding-place had been found. When the old wooden pulpit had been taken down in order to be replaced by the magnificent, painted masonry one which is now there, the timber supporting column was discovered to have a cavity in it which contained a small, rolled-up parchment inside a glass phial. This was handed to Saunière who took it away to study the contents.

The following morning the Abbé led the two local workmen who were helping him to a stone slab in front of the altar and instructed them to lift it. The stone was large (about 4 feet by 2 feet by 6 inches thick) and mortared into place, so it took a lot of effort and time to get it out. When they finally lifted it upright they had a surprise. On the underside of the slab was a carved design of two Romanesque arches. Beneath the left hand arch a knight is depicted watering his horse and under the other arch is a mounted knight (some say carrying a child in his arms). The Knight Stone is now on display in the Rennes-le-Chateau museum (see lower photo).

 

I will tell you next week about what was found beneath the lifted stone.

 

 

May 152012
 

Although the devil supporting the holy water stoup is the most bizarre of the statues in this little church there are many other colourful works. Around the walls inside the church are no fewer than eight individual and group statues, most of then on plinths more than five feet high.

The altar front has a full-colour bas-relief of the Mary Magdalene kneeling in tears in a rocky landscape. By her knees is a human skull. Behind the altar are statues of the Virgin and Joseph, both holding the Christ child. Above them is deep blue half-domed vault covered in stars and punctuated by the only window in the main church – a small, circular stained-glass depiction of the Magdalene anointing the feet of Jesus. Thus very little natural light enters the building. To the left of the altar is the magnificent pulpit (far grander than most cathedrals) which is reached by a stairway hidden in the outside wall. (See top photo.)

At the west end of the nave is the confessional surmounted by the magnificent semi-circular bas-relief of Christ on the mount summoning his flock – “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavily laden”. (See middle photo.) Altogether, although it is small, the interior of this plain little village church is one of the most colourfully-decorated in the Roman Catholic world.

One of the most interesting and most prominent statues in the church is that of Saint Antony of Padua which stands on a tall plinth carried by four angels. Saint Antony is the exalted being to whom the faithful pray for the recovery of lost objects. When the Bishop of Carcassonne attended the inauguration of this statue he is supposed to have said to Saunière words to the effect of, “I like your sense of gratitude”, presumably meaning that he was thanking the Saint for something he had found – perhaps in this very church.

Behind this statue is the door to the sacristy which is locked and to which the public are not allowed access. Various reports say the left hand wall of this room has a range of cupboards fixed to it. It is alleged that in the back of one of these cupboards is a door that leads in to a secret room which Saunière had built on to the side of the Sacristy against the outside wall of the church. I have been unable to find a report from anyone who has entered this quadrant-shaped room or who is able to describe what is in the room. Could it be a staircase leading down into the crypt which is believed to lie beneath the church but to which nobody has been able to find an entrance since Saunière’s time? I will go into this in more detail in a future blog.

The other decorative object around the otherwise very plain exterior to the church is the porch. The lower photo shows the details. The fascia to the tympanum is decorated with carved roses and a cross. The bas-relief panel dedicating the church to Saint Mary Magdalene carries the Latin inscription “…domus terribilis est…” which has often been wrongly translated as “this place is terrible”.

 

In the next few weeks I will tell you about more strange things connected with the church at Rennes-le-Chateau.

 

 

May 062012
 

The highlight of our recent trip to Cathar Country was our look around the village of Rennes- le-Chateau. Surely most people interested in history, and especially French history, must have heard of this fascinating little place. It was our fourth visit, but this time we managed to see a number of things we had missed on previous visits.

It was a beautiful morning and we got there early, in fact before most of the buildings had opened. The only place we could get into this early was the little church of Saint Mary Magdalene where the door already stood open. We were the only people in the place so we could take all the photos we wanted without interruption. It was great to be ahead of the crowds.

You are probably aware of the bizarre decorations which are everywhere you look in this strange church. However the strangest of them all is the devil which carries the holy water stoup on its shoulders (see photo). I am told this is the only devil portrayed inside a catholic church anywhere in the world.

This winged devil is believed to portray Asmodeus, who was said in fables to be the guardian of the treasure of the Temple of Solomon. This has led writers to ask whether Berenger Saunière, the village priest who became fabulously wealthy in the 1890’s, placed this particular devil here as a clue to what he found somewhere around the church. This is because the treasure of Solomon was looted by Titus, the Roman emperor, when he sacked Jerusalem in AD 70 and carried back to Rome. In AD 410 Rome, in its turn, was overrun by the Visigoths under King Alaric I and its wealth was  carried off by them. The village of Rennes-le-Chateau (now with less than 200 inhabitants) then became the capital city of the Visigoths, had a population of over 30,000 and was the seat of its royalty – the obvious place to store the treasure they had acquired.

You will also notice the four angels above the stoup. At their feet is a Latin inscription which roughly translates as “By this sign you will conquer him” and below that again is a red plaque with the initials BS in it, framed by two salamanders. The original devil’s head (which was apparently more evil-looking, if possible, than the present one) was broken off by a vandal in 1997 and replaced by the one in the photo.

Some readers may accuse me of seeing mystery where there is none. However I think you will agree that there are several interesting questions which remain to be answered satisfactorily about this strange statue complex.

 

In the next few weeks I will tell you about other strange things connected with the church at Rennes-le-Chateau.