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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Apr 222012
 

To the north of Chinon is a broad swathe of forest, some of it dense and almost primeval. The D751 cuts a diagonal path through the centre of it – a straight undulating road with broad grass verges each side – one of the old roads engineered by Napoleon to enable him to march his armies rapidly round the country.

Chinon Forest wove its way into my imagination the first time I saw it. In places the vegetation is so thick that it is impossible to force a way through it. Many of the trees seem to have stood there for centuries, crammed in close together and grown tall so that they fight their way towards the sun.

The best trees haven’t been felled to build the wooden ships that dominated the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the way that English forests were destroyed. The trees in Chinon Forest have grown old and died, fallen against each other or collapsed on to the ground, become covered in creeper such as great clumps of mistletoe and have gently rotted back into the soil to provide the base for new lesser growth.

In my imagination the forest became the location where the duel with deadly cross-bows would take place between my hero and the villain in The Eighth Child. I suggest that, if you are in the area, you visit the place and see if its atmosphere seeps into your imagination as it did into mine.

 

This is the last blog that I shall do for now about the Chinon area. Next week I am going to pay another visit to Cathar country in the French Pyrenees to update my researches about the region in preparation for the current novel that I am writing and which I think I will call The Treasure House of the Templars. Future blogs will probably return to that mysterious region.

 

 

Apr 162012
 

When viewed from across the River Vienne at nine o’clock in the evening during the Medieval Marché the Old Town of Chinon appears to be heaving with activity. The noise of several bands drifts over the still waters. Floodlights light up the yellow cliffs and castle walls, forming a backdrop to the festivities. And through it all comes the cacophony of sounds made by a lot of people enjoying themselves.

There are no charges on the barriers across the streets into the Old Town this evening. People of all ages and in all forms of dress come and go as they wish. In each of the main squares a different band is playing – here a folk group, up the road a jazz band, in the main square a small orchestra rendering popular classics. And there are discos underground in the caves.

Around the squares people sit at tables in the warm night under the acacia trees. They get up to dance when they wish. In the main square it will be formal waltzes and tangos. In jazz square they are jiving. In the caves it’s all modern gyrations. Everyone can choose where they want to be. Old, black-shawled peasant women watch the dancers and youngsters are trying their skill at the quickstep. The whole town and its visitors have come together to celebrate.

In the warm night air there seems to be no desire to bring the festivities to an end. The music and the dancing and of, course (being France), the eating continue into the small hours. When you get back to your hotel you can fall asleep to the gentle wash of sound from alongside the river.

 

Next week I will tell you about the forest of Chinon where the duel in The Eighth Child takes place.

 

Apr 092012
 

When the parade has melted away (so to speak) it is pleasant to stroll the streets. This has the added benefit of aiding digestion and clearing the head. There is a variety of wares to inspect, many of them produced locally in private homes and workshops. There is also a number of performing players – jugglers, singers, comedians (if you can understand them), acrobats and fire-eaters.

In the narrow streets the midsummer temperatures climb and the atmosphere becomes unbreathable. You can sit in a shady square and listen to a medieval play if your understanding of the language is good enough to follow it. But the best relief is to follow one of the signs pointing to Les Caves. The whole of the great limestone hill beneath the castle is honeycombed with caverns and passageways cut out of the rock when the stone was quarried to build the town centuries ago.

If you follow the signs up one of the narrow lanes leading to the foot of the cliff you will come to an entrance, perhaps twelve feet wide and twenty feet high. Normally it will be shut off from the public by a pair of bolted gates but today the place is open and the lights fixed to the roof are turned on. At first it is a relief to enter into the blessed cool, but soon the sudden drop in temperature will induce shivering, so you will need to carry a light sweater.

The tunnel curves gently upwards for perhaps thirty metres until it enters a large cavern. Along one side is a bar with many barrels of wine behind it. Around the cave are a number of tables, most occupied by a shouting laughing throng. On each table is a dozen or more open bottles. Chinon’s speciality is a light red wine with a fragrant bouquet redolent of raspberries

Wine drunk by a hot body under these cool conditions in the middle of the day appears to be extremely refreshing. But beware! Leaving the cave an hour later, after sampling perhaps half a dozen of the wines on offer, and emerging into the heat of the late afternoon hits you like a sledge hammer. An irregular stagger back to the hotel is necessary to sleep it off and prepare for the evening’s entertainment.

 

Next week I will tell you about what happens during the evening.

 

Apr 012012
 

I first visited Chinon at the beginning of August when the Medieval Marché was taking place. For this event, barricades are erected across the streets leading into the old town and vehicles of any sort are banned after 10 a.m. Entry is normally a couple of euros for pedestrians but it is free for anyone dressed in medieval costume. Long banners are hung in the narrow streets and stalls are erected along the sides selling a wide variety of products – wines, cheeses. fruits, pâtés and other foods prominent among them. Local craftsmen (stone and wood-carvers, blacksmiths, weavers, potters and artists) set up mobile workshops and produce goods to order while the customer watches.

In the squares, stages have been erected where plays are performed, poetry read, classical and jazz music are played, choral and folk singing take place, and semi-sporting events of doubtful origin occur. Groups of people seem to have been invited from all over France to perform – from Brittany, the Pyrenees, Alsace and Provence. Notices are posted in the squares to tell you the timetable. However, being rural France, they are not always reliable.

At noon the Marché proper begins with a parade through the streets. But this is not a carnival of floats as we know them in England. This is France. So the parade consists entirely of groups of people (from three to as many as ten or twelve) wearing fancy dress and carrying great platters of prepared food – cooked poultry and game, pâtés and terrines, cheeses, truffles vegetables – all beautifully presented and decorated. They have been judged for appearance, selection of constituents and, of course, taste. The winners now proudly display their rosettes and awards. With every platter of food some of each group carry bottles of wine, selected by them to perfectly complement the food.

As they pass in procession they hand out samples and top up the glasses of anyone who can catch their eye. If you attend, make sure you are carrying your own glass. Looking round the crowd, we were struck by the many original ways people have discovered of carrying a half-full glass of wine and a plate of food yet at the same time manage to greet friends, shake hands, talk, gesticulate and pinch the plump bottom of a passing medieval wench.

The other thing to remember is to position yourself near the start of the parade because the food and wine levels decline very quickly as the participants progress through the town.

 

Next week I will tell you about what happens after the parade has ended.

 

Mar 042012
 

The Loire Valley is known as the garden of France. It is a green, smiling land of verdant pastures and orchards growing on the rich alluvial soils of the flood plains. On the limestone plateau large areas of vines struggle to obtain the moisture they need to produce their precious fruit. There are also great stretches of woodland, some of it suitable for hunting. In other places the forest is so dense that it is difficult to penetrate. It is in area like this that the duel takes place in The Eighth Child.

In the vineyards the vines have sometimes been found to have tap-roots more than 50 metres (165 feet) long as they fight through the fissured rock in search of water. The visitor to the caves will see roots trailing out of the ceilings even though they are 20/30 metres below the surface of the plateau. It is this battle for moisture which gives the wine its treasured flavour.

Several centuries ago the French royalty and nobility recognised the advantages of owning properties in this favoured area. The result was they acquired estates and built splendid country houses in the region. The high period for this development was the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. As a result there are about twenty grand chateaux within a hundred kilometre (60 mile) radius of the city of Tours in addition to several dozen minor castles and fortified manor houses.

Many of these lovely buildings have been located on cliff edges above the rivers or in the middle of lakes. The most beautiful is claimed to be Chenonceau which bridges the River Cher on seven arches (see photo). Nearly as fine is Azay-le-Rideau which stands on an island in the River Indre, partly surrounded by a lake formed out of one of the side channels. Ussé chateau, as well as being the fabled setting of the tale of the Sleeping Beauty, has been used as the back-drop for many films and television series (the latest as Camelot in Merlin).

One of the oldest castles is perched above the town of Chinon. The remains which can still be seen were mainly built by Henry Plantagenet who became king of England in 1154. At that time a substantial part of modern France was in English hands. Much was lost by King John (nicknamed ‘lackland’). The Angevin lands, including Chinon, were taken from him in 1214. In 1420 the castle at Chinon was the setting for Joan of Arc’s meeting with the Dauphin Charles VII when the young shepherdess persuaded him to appoint her to lead an army which finally drove the English out of nearly all of France in 1453.

To walk round these ancient buildings is to rub shoulders with history.

 

Next week I will be telling you more about the layout of the medieval town of Chinon.

Feb 192012
 

My novel The Eighth Child is mainly set in the Loire Valley in France, in and around a mythical town called Chalons which is remarkably like the ancient town of Chinon that is actually on the River Vienne a few miles east of its confluence with the Loire. I will tell you more about Chinon in later blogs.

The reason for setting The Eighth Child in the Loire Valley is that parts of this area formed the frontier (if it can truly be called that) between semi-independent Vichy France to the south and Nazi German-occupied Northern and Western France during the years from 1940 to 1942. This is an important strand of the plot.

You will probably know that during the early summer of 1940 the German Panzer divisions swept aside the massive French army which everybody except Hitler had believed to be invincible, entrenched as they were along the Maginot line of fortifications just behind the border. The German army followed that up by driving the British Expeditionary Force back to Dunkirk. The story is well-known of how they escaped with a part of the French army in a near miraculous fashion aboard hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure craft and yachts to the safety of Southern England – a total of a third of a million men spirited from under the German noses.

With most of the remaining one and a half million French soldiers captured by the Germans, the majority of the government of France felt they had no alternative but to make peace with the invaders. The terms were humiliating. Less than half of France remained unoccupied (see map – the Vichy state is coloured blue) and even that was only permitted by the Nazis on condition that the Vichy government did as they were told. Nevertheless a number of nations around the world, including the USA and the USSR, recognised the new smaller state and continued to retain diplomatic relations with Vichy.

However within both halves of France there were many men and women who could not accept their government’s collaboration with the Nazi invaders and gradually they began to combine together to form groups which in time came to be known as the Résistance. These heroic people carried out various acts of sabotage and defiance which included sheltering Allied airmen who had been shot down over Northern France and the Benelux countries and helping them to escape.

Such actions earned them, their families and their fellow civilians savage reprisals from their Nazi overlords and many of these are still commemorated in various small French towns, including Chinon. It is one such event that is described in The Eighth Child.

 

Next week I will be telling you more about the Loire Valley.