Apr 292012
 

I have just been up to Cathar country in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. I was visiting this region of so many mysteries to research material for the novel I am currently working on which I think will be called The Treasure House of the Templars. And while I was there I stumbled on my own modern mystery.

It was a beautiful afternoon and, for no particular reason except that we were passing close to it, I decided to walk the dog up to the remote castle of le Bézu which is the setting for much of The Secret of the Cathars that I published last year. It was a couple of years since I had last visited the place. Le Bézu is well off the main tourist routes and is fairly difficult to find.

When you get up there you do not have a lot to see – just a few half-ruined walls and some beautiful views. The only thing of note is that the threshold to one of the rooms has a Templar Cross with the equal-length arms carved into it. (See upper photo) Imagine my surprise when I went to look at this particular stone and found that somebody had gone to the trouble of completely removing the symbol.

This was not some casual act of vandalism. The threshold is granite which cannot be easily hacked about. I don’t know how long ago the cross was deeply carved into the stone. However I would guess it had been there for at least several decades – perhaps for centuries – perhaps since the thirteenth century when the Templars were still a force to be reckoned with.

Whoever had removed the symbol must have carried a bag of tools up to the site – at the very least a lump hammer and cold chisels. And it must have taken them several hours of hard work. You can see that all traces of the cross have been removed and the remaining hollow in the stone deepened. (See lower photo)

The question is – who would bother to do it? The site, for all its remoteness, is a national monument and it is a criminal offence to deface it without a government licence. Who would want to carry out several hours’ hard work and risk prosecution to remove a minor, fairly meaningless symbol from an ancient piece of stone? And why would they choose to do it? Is it because it not so meaningless after all?

On the Carte de Randonée 2347 OT the site of le Bézu castle is described as the “Chateau des Templiers” and it is referred to as such in a number of books about the area. Merely obliterating the symbol from a piece of masonry won’t remove the castle’s past links with the Knights Templar.

Perhaps the act may have something to do with the enigmatic organisation in Paris which I refer to in The Secret of the Cathars. Unfortunately I have neither the contacts or the funds to investigate further. For now the matter will have to remain a mystery as far as I am concerned unless somebody else can help.

 

Next week I will tell you more about the things I looked at in Cathar country.

 

 

Jan 012012
 

When Bérenger Saunière, parish priest of Rennes-le-Château discovered some ancient documents in a hollow pillar supporting the altar in the village church, one of the documents contained a mysterious reference to a famous artist – Nicolas Poussin.

Poussin lived mainly in France from 1594 to 1665 during the reign of Louis XIV, known as The Sun King. One of his most famous paintings which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris is called Les Bergers d’Arcadie (The Shepherds of Arcady). As you will see from the accompanying photograph it depicts four shepherds in classical dress surrounding a tomb.

Although Arcady is supposed to have been located in classical Greece, the actual setting for this painting is thought to have been close to Rennes-le-Château. In the centre background to the left of the trees behind the tomb is the chateau of Blanchefort, ancestral home of the Blanchefort family which counted prominent Cathars and Templars among its members. On the horizon just to the right of the trees is the village itself – Rennes-le-Château.

Until recently the actual tomb stood just to the north of D613 road leading from Couiza to the village of Arques and one could stand in front of this low stone structure and see the actual view which Poussin painted. Unfortunately the owner of the land has now destroyed the tomb because of the large number of people who invaded his domaine to photograph and even dig around the location. However it is still marked on the IGN map 2347OT as pierre dressée (shaped stone).

The other interesting thing about the painting is that two of the shepherds are indicating the enigmatic message Et in Arcadia Ego (Latin for “And in Arcady I…”) Nobody has been able to authoritatively decipher this incomplete message though there has been much correspondence about it.

However it is recorded that the painting was thought to have been sufficiently important at the time for the Sun King to have purchased it and kept it in his private apartments where nobody but a limited number of his personal staff and special visitors might have seen it.

Why was Poussin painting in the Rennes-le-Château area four hundred years ago? Did his painting have another purpose than to merely tell the story of four shepherds gathered round a tomb? Was he sending a secret message about something which had been found in the area? If so, what was it? So far nobody has unravelled that message.

 

I will continue to tell you about the mysteries of this area later in 2012 when my new novel The Templar Legacy is released. Next week I will start to tell you about Dubrovnik in the former Yugoslavia where Dancing with Spies is set.

 

Dec 192011
 

The priest of Rennes-le-Château. Bérenger Saunière, having made some startling discoveries during the restoration of the village church in 1891, was sent by the Bishop of Carcassonne to talk to the Catholic Chuirch authorities at Saint Sulpice in Paris. There he was fêted by some of the most famous French personalities of the day and started friendships which resulted in these people continuing to make visits to him in Rennes-le-Chateau for many years afterwards.

On his return to the village Saunière started spending money on a vast scale for an individual. He personally paid for a three kilometre-long road to be engineered up into the hills to link Rennes to the main road system of France. He also installed a running water and sewage system for the village which was still an unusual advantage in the nineteenth century. He had a large house built called the Villa Bethania where he could entertain his important international guests. An attractive tower called the Tour Magdala (the Magdalen Tower – see photograph) was constructed in a spectacular location with far-reaching views where he housed the library he had acquired.

But the most strange way in which he spent his money was in the restoration of the church which can be seen by present-day visitors to the area. Instead of simple reconstruction and redecoration, the church has been crammed full of the most bizarre statues and paintings which the simple exterior would not suggest. Above the entrance porch the tympanum is decorated with roses and crosses (Rosicrucian connections?). Just inside the door the holy water stoup is carried on the shoulders of a hideously grimacing devil which seems out of place in a holy building.

At the west end of the church the fine semi-circular fresco has various odd details. Around the walls are painted the Stations of the Cross, again with curious inconsistencies. And the magnificent altar carries a complex story. Just beside the Sacristy there is apparently a secret room approached through the back of some cupboards but to which the public are not allowed access.

The church is dedicated to St Mary Magdalen whom the Catholic Church regarded as a sinner but who was forgiven and converted by Jesus. In this connection it is claimed that the Cathars had proof that this Mary had become the actual wife of Christ and had borne him a daughter whose descendants, through the Merovingian royal line, were the forbears of the Cathars.

 

Next week I will tell you about some of the other mysteries linked to Rennes-le-Chateau.

 

Dec 112011
 

In 1891, a few years after his arrival in Rennes-le-Château. Bérenger Saunière, the village priest, began restoration of the little church which was in a dilapidated state. He was able to do this because of the gift he had received from Johann von Habsburg. In the course of this restoration he removed the altar which consisted of a large slab of dressed stone supported on two ancient pillars with Visigoth carvings on them. One of these stones was found to have a hollowed out space in it and in this void were sealed tubes containing parchments, one dating from AD 1244 – the year of the destruction of the Cathars at Montségur.

Much discussion has taken place about the deciphering of the writing on these documents with various authorities giving different views of the purpose and information which they give. There are coded references to an ancient Merovingian King Dagobert II who ruled from AD 656 to 679 (who was murdered and later canonised) and a treasure which belonged to him. There is also mention of Sion, thought by some to be referring to the Order of Our Lady of Sion, believed to be the original Order which founded the Templars.  In addition there were references to works by famous painters Poussin and Teniers which are supposed to hold the key to a secret. I will come back to this in later blogs.

Soon after this Saunière noted in his diary that he had discovered a tomb under an unmarked slab of stone in the church floor. No further information was written in his journal but it is believed that this ‘tomb’ was in fact found to be the entrance to a flight of steps leading to the crypt under the church which had previously been unknown. The crypt (if it was such a place) has never since been rediscovered but it was soon after the priest’s discoveries that he seemed to become inordinately wealthy. Later his house-keeper apparently told people in the village that they were ‘walking on gold’ without realising it. Why is this underground room still a secret?

The photo shows a view of the little church at Rennes-le-Château. Next week I will tell you what Bérenger Saunière did with some of the wealth which he had discovered.

 

Dec 042011
 

About four miles north-west of the castle of le Bézu lies the little village of Rennes-le-Château, occupying a prominent position at the corner of an agricultural and forested plateau. This village of only a couple of hundred occupants didn’t even have a road reaching it until late in the nineteenth century. However it has a fascinating history.

Rennes-le-Château claims to be all that is left of the ancient city of Rhedae which had a population of more than 50,000. The city was supposed to have been founded by the Romans and was later developed by the Visigoths as one of their major cities in about the year AD 410. Local legends claim that the treasures which they pillaged during the sack of Rome was brought here and, from time to time, Roman coins and other items of value are dug up in  the surrounding country.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Rhedae was destroyed by wars, the Albigensian Crusade and the plague and the small remaining township, now called Rennes-le-Château, lay almost forgotten for more than six hundred years. The Blanchefort family, whose ancestors included prominent Cathars and Templars, rebuilt the castle. To one side was a run-down church with a stumpy tower and a number of houses were clustered round it.

Then, in 1885, a remarkable 33 year-old man was appointed priest to the tiny community. Bérenger Saunière was a clever, well-educated man  who seems to have incurred the displeasure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and his appointment to the lowly living of Rennes-le-Château was almost equivalent to being exiled. He received a very small annual stipend, found himself with a church in an almost ruinous state and seemed to be looking at a future with very poor prospects.

Then a remarkable thing happened. A mysterious gentleman arrived at the village who claimed to be an envoy from monarchist sympathisers. (France by then was a republic and the Bourbon kings had been permanently deposed.) He gave Curé Saunière a huge sum of money equivalent to about five hundred years annual salary for the purpose of restoring the church. In return the priest was asked to give any documents he found to his benefactor.

The gentleman often returned to visit the cure and view the restoration and continued the visits until Saunière’s death. It is claimed that he was actually an archduke of Austro-Hungary (known as the Holy Roman Empire) and was named Johann von Habsburg.

The photo shows a general view of Rennes-le-Château. Next week I will tell you what Bérenger Saunière discovered when he began the restoration of the church.

Nov 282011
 

Final extract from the fictional Journal of Phillipe de Saint-Claire – translated from the ancient Occitan language into modern English. Phillipe finds sanctuary in Templecombe, Somerset, England.

 

The next day I set off in clear weather over the rest of the mountains and, after four days walking, I came to the great city of Barcelona which was then home to the court of Aragon. There I felt I was able to disclose my identity to the court chamberlain whom I met, but not of course my object. Instead I gave him the tale that I was escaping from the wrath of the French and that I wished to obtain a passage by sea to England. I found the chamberlain most helpful and after an interval of two weeks one of his staff introduced me to the captain of a ship making for Lisbon. There I was able to transfer to an English ship and I landed in the port of London on the first day of September in the same year of one thousand two hundred and forty-four.

I had been given the names of two people whom I might contact for assistance if I should reach England. I met the first, a lawyer named Henry Bradburn, in his dwelling in a special court in London which was called the Inner Temple. His manner was dry and less hospitable than I had hoped and I feared I would get little assistance from him. He confirmed, when I asked, that news had reached London of the destruction of the Cathar cause at Montségur and other locations thereafter. He seemed to think that I should give great thanks to God for my deliverance from the French ‘crusaders’. As far as he was aware, I was the only human being to escape the hue and cry which had followed the fall of Montségur.

He also had knowledge of the other person whom I had been told I might contact – a gentleman by the name of Gérard de Molay. Apparently that man now resided in a small town in the West of England which was called Coombe Temple. Mr Bradburn thought that my best course was to travel to that place and seek out the said Gérard who was the person most likely to be able to help me. Mr Bradburn said he would give me a sealed letter to hand to de Molay.

Therefore I travelled west and met Monsieur de Molay on a day in late September when the leaves of the great trees in the valley above Coombe Temple were starting to turn to gold. Gérard revealed that he was a supporter of the Cathars who had escaped from France when he saw that our cause had become hopeless. He had been able to transfer some of his substantial wealth through his connection with the Knights Templar and had used a part of this to obtain possession of a substantial portion of land in the area. Because of his support for the cause he was prepared to sell me, for a very modest sum which I could pay him over the next few years, a section of that land where I might build a house and grow sufficient food to sustain me until such time as I might be contacted by an emissary from the Cathar convocation. With the blessing of the good God I was able to make a success of this enterprise and am now accounted to be a wealthy man with a wife and three growing sons.

As my life moves towards its close I have never received any approach from anybody in the Languedoc and I fear that I never shall. All the information we have received from France is that the Cathar faith is utterly destroyed. So I believe that I should set down my experiences of what occurred in the month of March in the year of one thousand two hundred and forty-four in case the treasure of the Cathars should ever be sought by my successors or members of my faith. This I now do as correctly and as fully as I am able to remember some forty years after the actual events took place.

I commend this account to the true God whose teachings I have always followed.

The photo shows Templecombe.  I have now completed the extracts from Phillipe’s journal. I intend to publish the complete journal on my website in the near future where it will be available free of charge. Next week I shall start to tell you about the village of Rennes-le-Chateau a few miles north of le Bézu.

Nov 202011
 

Extract from the fictional Journal of Phillipe de Saint-Claire – translated from the ancient Occitan language into modern English. Phillipe and his friend attempt to escape to Spain

 

Before Raymonde and I left the castle at le Bézu we considered carefully which direction we should take. In the end we decided the only safe course was to cross the high mountains to the south and enter the lands of the King of Aragon, who we believed was still sympathetic to the Cathar faith.

After two days walking we reached the snowfields of the high Pyrenees. The next morning Raymonde complained of feeling unwell. He had pains in his chest and was finding breathing difficult – a problem which I believe can be experienced by many people in the mountains if they attempt to exercise their bodies too greatly. For myself, being younger, I was still feeling quite well and wished to push on towards our destination. I understood the border with Aragon was only four or five leagues distant and could easily be achieved in the day, notwithstanding the fact that much of the way would be up steep snow slopes. Faced with my enthusiasm, Raymonde assured me that he was well enough to accompany me. Thus my intemperate nature was the cause of the tragedy which befell us.

Within a short distance of setting out we encountered deep snow. We were heading for a high col between two peaks and therefore had probably chosen to follow a shallow valley where the snow was deepest. As we climbed it began to snow and the visibility became very bad. Although he was flagging badly, Raymonde foolishly supported me in my wish to proceed.

As we drew near to the top the way became much steeper. There was a lot of projecting rock which was slippery with ice and with deep crevasses of snow in between.  Suddenly Raymonde slipped and fell on to his back. Because of the steepness of the slope he started sliding ever faster, bumping over rocks and flying through the air in places and landing with a crash on the icy surface until he came up with an awful impact against a large rock.

I hastened as speedily as I could to his side but the sight when I got there was enough to make my heart quail. His body was bent backwards around the sharp rock at an impossible angle and I was certain that he had broken many bones. His face was smeared with blood which was welling from his mouth. That made me believe he had also damaged some of his internal organs, perhaps even his heart or lungs. He was breathing very slowly and was deeply unconscious.

Despite my experience of seeing many men killed during the siege of Montségur, I had never been called upon to attempt to repair such damage to a man’s body. In the last few days I had come to love Raymonde as if he had been one of my family. I looked to Guillaume who was standing nearby for assistance but he simply shrugged and said, “That one is dead.”

I knew we were going to have to carry Raymonde the rest of the way. I looked at the rough terrain and my heart failed me. I knew we would never make it.

Guillaume was bending over Raymonde. “He is certainly dead,” he said.

I inspected the body of my companion. He had turned a sort of pale grey except for the clot of blood which had frozen in his mouth. I knew then that Guillaume spoke correctly. So I wept for the last man in the whole of the Languedoc whom I could call a friend. I knew then that I was alone in the world.

 

The photo shows the Pyrenees in early spring. I will complete the journal next week.

Nov 132011
 

Extract from the fictional Journal of Phillipe de Saint-Claire – translated from the ancient Occitan language into modern English. Phillipe hides the bamboo tubes and walls up the small cave.

 

The next morning we were up at an early hour. With Raymonde leading the way to ensure that we were not surprised and discovered, I carried the precious treasure to the store-room. Fortunately we encountered no other person on the way. We closed the door behind us and secreted the tubes in the shallow cave we had found, laying them on a bed of small stones in case any moisture should enter the cave, so that it could drain away without damaging or penetrating the tubes, which in any case were wrapped and waxed and sealed as I have previously described.

We then rebuilt the wall from the larger stones we had removed. This took the two of us a long time, particularly to firmly hammer back into place the stones below the timber floor of the room above. This floor of course formed the ceiling of our store room. We also pressed in a number of small stones between the large ones, using the mallet and the mattock to force them tight. By the time we had carefully finished reconstructing the whole of the wall in this way I felt assured that it would withstand the passage of time and would only be removed by the purposeful action of men who might wish to demolish it. I was hopeful that in such a remote location it would not be discovered except by persons directed to it by the Convocation of perfecti.

Using the barrels we removed almost all the resulting rubble from the floor of the room and distributed it in one of the courtyards of the castle, returning with soil which we rubbed into the face of the wall and spread about the floor in an attempt to disguise our activities of the last two days. Thus, weary from all our unaccustomed labours, we repaired to my chamber, ate a hearty meal and collapsed into our truckle beds.

When we awoke next morning it was to receive the alarming news that a messenger had arrived bearing tidings of the tragic happenings at Montségur. The man told us that all the remaining Cathar occupants of the castle, being more than two hundred souls, had marched out together to surrender their persons to the French besiegers. They had then been invited to forswear their heresy as the Church of Rome would have it. Not one of them had weakened and all had continued to swear their belief in the Cathar faith. As a result they had all been herded into a large timber stockade filled with firewood well soaked in animal fat. This had been set alight and every last one of them had died on that dreadful pyre, suffering terrible torment, and even then none had recanted in order to survive. Then the French seneschal, Hugues des Arcis declared that the Cathar faith was at an end and that any remaining adherents to the faith were to be sought out and burned at the stake.

Thus I, a mere lad of sixteen years, but a perfectus of the Cathar faith, was faced with a dreadful dilemma. I expected that some of the besiegers of Montségur, being cleverer than most and becoming aware that four of us had escaped the funeral pyre of the Cathars, would set up a hue and cry to discover our whereabouts and recover the treasure. Therefore, reflecting upon my position, I decided that it was my duty to escape my pursuers.

 

The photo shows the overgrown hillside at le Bézu. I will continue the journal next week.

Nov 062011
 

Extract from the fictional Journal of Phillipe de Saint-Claire – translated from the ancient Occitan language into modern English. Phillipe finds the place to hide the bamboo tubes.

 

Raymonde told me he had spent several hours exploring the furthermost extents of the castle and had located a deep store room which he would show me and which he believed would satisfy my requirements. I responded that I would wish to view his proposed hiding place as soon as possible.

Thus we agreed to go to inspect this room straight away and, having carefully locked my chamber to temporarily secure the bamboo tubes and having armed ourselves with tallow candles to enable us to see our way in the depths of the castle, I accompanied him as he directed. He took me through the silent, unoccupied buildings to the far end of the castle from the gatehouse and down a narrow stairway, at the bottom of which was a door into a small room. Raymonde explained that, because the room was so isolated, it was hardly ever used for any purpose. Indeed I was able to see that it was unoccupied at that time by any goods save two opened, empty and unused barrels in one corner. I also noted that the room was dry, which I judged to be important.

I looked carefully around the room. The wall facing the door was extremely solid and Raymonde confirmed that as far as he knew it was the outside wall of the castle which was almost certainly at least ten cubits thick in this area, as was the wall just to the left of the door from the staircase. The wall beside the staircase had been hewn from the bed-rock and was built in large rough stones above the descent of the stairs. The fourth wall was also mainly cut from the living rock as was a part of the floor. The exception was the top corner (about one quarter of the whole wall) which had been constructed from close-jointed random stonework. Being aware of the importance of maintaining the utmost security for the hiding place, I decided that we should see if we could secrete the bamboo tubes in the space behind this wall using suitable tools for the task.

It was a lot of work but the removal of the stones revealed a shallow cave behind the wall which was only about a cubit and a half deep and perhaps four cubits in height and six cubits in width which would have been approximately suitable to shelter a grown man on his knees. The recess was dry and still had the remains of some desiccated vegetation in it. So I judged it to be a satisfactory and secure place for the secreting of the treasure and I communicated such to my colleague.

 

The photo shows all that remains of the castle walls. I will continue the journal next week.

Oct 302011
 

Very little remains of le Bézu castle which stands in a remote location on an overgrown, rocky ridge called the Serra Calmette. Most of the guide books to the region don’t mention it and I have only found it on one modern map which is the Carte de Randonée No 2347 for Quillan and Alet-les-Bains. This shows the footpaths in the area and marks the castle as the Chau des Templiers Rnes.

The site is approximately ten kilometres (about six miles) east of Quillan and two kilometres east of the hamlet of le Bézu. However the narrow and tortuous lanes will take about half an hour by car from the junction with the D118 main road about two kilometres north of Quillan. I would not recommend trying it without the map mentioned above or a local guide. The last part of the journey is along a well-maintained farm road to a point where the track widens enough to park a couple of cars and to provide a turning space.

The path up to the castle (see first photo) crosses a sloping grassy patch to a sign which announces you have arrived at le Bézu chateau, gives a sketchy plan of the original layout and some of its history. The place became a ruin in the fifteenth century and has gradually collapsed down the steep hillside until very little remains – just a few walls only six or eight feet high. Obviously much of the stone has been robbed to construct other buildings in the locality.

The castle was originally a long, narrow building constructed against the side of the almost vertical bedrocks of the ridge. This would have made it impregnable from the north where the cliffs are hundreds of feet high. Even to the south the hillside is very steep and rough as you discover when you take the precipitous path up to the castle remains. The slopes are densely wooded and near the top it is a mass of almost impassable undergrowth, bushes and brambles.

The narrow path leads to the original gateway to the castle at the eastern end where the ridge has dropped to a col. Here there is a threshold with the Templar cross carved into it (see second photo). Of course it is impossible to say when this rough carving was made or whether it has any relevance to the ancient Order of the Knights Templar. But it is a romantic experience to be standing nearly three thousand feet above sea level among the ruins with panoramic views all round over the former lands of the Cathars and with this ancient symbol at your feet.

There are well-documented links between the Cathars and the Templars with at least one prominent Cathar, Bertrand de Blanchefort, occupying the position of the fourth Grand Master of the Order. There are also many local legends about the Templar treasure being hidden in the area. For those who know little about the Templars I will tell you more in future weeks.

 

Next week I will continue about the castle at le Bézu.