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 272012
 

The area around Exeter has always been a favoured part of the country. Although the city had suffered some of the effects of the war, it had got off lightly compared to the rest of the country. There had been one or two daylight bombing raids but Devon, being in the West of England, had been furthest from the Luftwaffe  airfields in Northern France. Any attacks had mainly been concentrated on the naval port of Plymouth in the south west of the county.

Devon is a county of attractive countryside with areas of bleak moorland in the centre but with a beautiful coastline indented by a number of deep inlets. One of these is the estuary of the River Exe which is a broad strip of water approximately six miles long by a mile wide and leads to Exeter, the county town and seat of the bishopric and, in those days, the only university in the south west. The Exe has one fairly substantial tributary, the Clyst, which meanders through a shallow flat valley before the rivers meet at the head of the estuary (see photo). A few miles to the east of this confluence is an area of semi-moorland called Woodbury Common – an area about six miles square of rough heathland with some forest. The Common is surrounded by rich farmland and was blessed by several beautiful old semi-grand houses. This area is the main setting for Riversmeet.

In the years after the Second World War this part of the country was one of those less affected by the upheavals of the war and one of the slowest to wake up to the new Britain which was emerging. As a result of the low level of private car ownership and the fact that most heavy freight was still carried by the railways, the roads were fairly empty and one could walk or cycle with few problems from traffic. The exception was the few weekends during the summer holiday period when the Exeter By-pass became a massive traffic jam as tourists from the North and Midlands tried to reach the resorts along the Devon coast.

However in those days many people expected to travel by train. Exeter was particularly well served in this respect, being at the crossing point between two main lines from London (the Southern Railway line to Ilfracombe and Plymouth and the Great Western line through Plymouth to Cornwall). It also had direct links to the Midlands and the North through Bristol and Birmingham. I remember seeing holiday specials going down the branch line from Exeter to the beaches at Exmouth that were absolutely bursting with tourists and sunseekers.

I count myself very fortunate to have grown up in such a pleasant area at a time before all the crowding and restrictions which now exist throughout the South of England. We did not have a lot of material goods. There was no television, no transistor radios or other electrical luxuries in our house. But we had a freedom to move about the countryside, to walk the cliffs or explore the moors, to sail in the estuary and swim off the miles of sandy beaches – many of them deserted if you lived locally and knew the right places to go. I feel sorry for the modern youngsters who will never know that freedom.

 

Next week I will tell you some more about the towns and villages of the region in the early 1950’s.

 

Aug 212012
 

What was life like in Southern England in 1953? The Second World War had ended eight years earlier but Britain had taken a long time to recover. The financial effort of fighting a huge war in Europe, Africa and the Far East (alone for nearly three years) had bankrupted the nation. It was massively in debt to the USA for the war materials it had purchased to keep its forces fighting. UK had to borrow more from the same source to pay for food and to rebuild its industries after the war. The debt was finally discharged in 2003.

The South West had suffered less than the main industrial areas. However a lot of the urban areas throughout the country had been laid waste by carpet bombing by the Luftwaffe. More than two million homes had been destroyed. Dozens of city centres had to be largely rebuilt. Hundreds of factories had been wiped off the face of the map. Even small cities like Exeter still had more than twenty “bomb sites” well into the fifties where a gap between buildings which were still standing was fenced off and filled with heaps of rubble covered in willowherb. It took more than twenty years for all these destroyed shops and flats to be rebuilt.

The essentials of life such as food and clothing were still in short supply. Some important items had continued to be rationed into the early fifties. I remember, as a child, that sweets were in short supply but there seemed to be no restriction on iced lollies. New toys were also starting to become available.

Factories took a long time to change from producing war materials to manufacturing household goods and products for export. Car production, which had stopped during the war, was slow to recover. Less than ten percent of the population owned a car in those days and most privately owned vehicles had been constructed pre-war. I can remember when our next door neighbour, who was some sort of a salesman, was provided with a new Standard Vanguard by his company (see photo). All the local kids regarded this bulbous, gleaming vehicle with awe.

There were very few of the household conveniences which we regard as essential to modern life. Only one home in five had a conventional telephone. Televisions were rare and those that existed had little black and white screens and had to be watched in the dark. Most kitchens didn’t have a refrigerators or an electric oven. Vacuum cleaners were mainly American imports and were rare. Portable radios did not exist.

Of course personal computers, mobile phones and microwave ovens were unknown.

Nevertheless there were many advantages to living in the country at that time. There was a degree of personal freedom which is unknown in the modern, heavily-regulated British society. The shortage of vehicles and greater reliance on public transport (particularly the railways which were cheap but inefficient in those days) meant that the roads were uncrowded and one could walk and cycle in safety. Also the national spirit throughout the country was much better than it is today. There was a camaraderie that resulted from fighting and winning a war together, and the new welfare state had promised good health, education and care for all.

 

Next week I will tell you some more about what it was like to live in South Devon in the early 1950’s.

 

Aug 122012
 

I am pausing from blogging about the fascinating little village of Rennes-le-Chateau in order to tell you about the new novel which I will be publishing later this month. It is called Riversmeet – Starting Out and I attach a picture of the cover. This is a different book for me in several ways.

Firstly it is not an adventure/thriller or a whodunit as most of my others have been. This is a semi-historical saga set in South Devon in England in the early post Second World War years. It was a period when a new type of Britain was emerging from the chaos of the first half of the twentieth century.

Secondly it is a novel primarily about the development of the characters, rather than concentrating on action. The central character (he is not really a hero) is a clever young man finding his way in the world under considerable difficulties. He is experiencing an awakening both sexually and financially. The other characters around him are also developing in their different ways – both in relation to him and to each other – and they are all reacting to the new socialist, property-owning democracy in which they now find themselves.

The other difference is that this novel is nearly twice as long as my previous novels (about 145,000 words). I discovered, when I was writing it, that the story seemed  to be taking over from me and extending all by itself as it developed, So, although this first book is complete in itself, I have come to realise that Riversmeet is only the first volume of what will become at least a trilogy. In fact I have already moved on to the planning of the second volume and approximately twenty thousand words have flowed out of me. So much for writer’s block!

The further aspect of the novel is that it is written about a period and is set in locations where I have myself lived and gained experiences. That is not to say that the work is in any way autobiographical. None of the characters could be recognized as people who I might have known in my youth. However many of the experiences and events which I recount are linked to those which I (at least in part) remember from my time when I was living in South Devon.

I hope that my readers will enjoy Riversmeet and (if they do) will let me have their comments so that I can continue and hopefully improve the second volume in the knowledge that it will find a welcoming readership when it comes out in about a year’s time.

 

Next week I will tell you some more about what life was like sixty years ago in Southern England..

 

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.