How many generals are buried in your local graveyard? I have found three in mine, all from the same family!
But back to the generals. Jean and Louis were brothers, both born in Puylaurens in the 1860s. Louis survived two world wars and died peacefully in 1960 at the age of 94. His brother was less fortunate. Throughout the Great War, Brigadier-General Jean Rey commanded the 5th brigade of dragoons. On the day of the armistice he was still alive, but he died five weeks later on 17 December 1918 from an illness he had contracted during the war.
During Napoleon’s exile to Elba, General Rey was given a knighthood by Louis XVIII and appointed military commander for the department of Basses-Pyrénées (now called Pyrénées-Atlantique). He remained in post during Napoleon’s Hundred Days, but after Waterloo he was placed on the reserve list. Under Louis-Philippe, he was appointed military commander of several other departments until his retirement in 1832.
I live close to one of Europe’s most-travelled pilgrimage routes – the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. This proximity has often made me toy with the idea of making a pilgrimage of my own, but frankly, it’s a long, long way to the wild western coast of Spain. Last weekend I had the opportunity of making a much shorter pilgrimage – less than three hundred metres from my front door. How could I resist such an easy alternative?
The hill above my village has been graced by a life-sized effigy of Christ on a seven-metre-high cross since 1943. Usually I can see if from my kitchen window, but for over a year, the skyline has been empty. In a winter storm, the cross fell, and Jesus broke his arm. The original cross was the initiative of a local priest, Julien Salles. He believed it would watch over Saint-Sernin-les-Lavaur during the German Occupation. Since then, it has often been the other way around, and the villagers have had to watch over the cross.
After a photocall, the assembly headed back down to the village. A pause at the church would perhaps have been in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but instead the mayor led us all to the Salle des Fêtes for a different kind of spirit: whiskey or pastis, accompanied by a celebratory buffet.
Over a glass I reflected that my short pilgrimage was a good illustration of the French concept of laïcité – the strict separation of civil society and religious society. The mairie can pay for the upkeep of the village church, repair fallen crosses, and provide a good buffet, but it must not involve itself in religious practices such as entering a place of worship.
If you like visiting ruined châteaux, then a real treat awaits you in the valley of the Orbiel. Drive twenty minutes north from Carcassonne and you will reach the village of Lastours. Red and gold Occitan flags flutter from lampposts alongside the river, and high on a ridge above the village, four separate châteaux stand in a line: Cabaret, Tour Régine, Surdespine and Quertinheux.
During the Albigensian Crusade, this part of Occitanie was the home of two Cathar lords: Pierre-Roger de Cabaret and his brother Jourdain. After the fall of Carcassonne in 1209, the brothers provided a safe haven for Cathars and dispossessed knights. Together they carried out numerous attacks on the crusaders and their supply trains.
By 1211, Pierre-Roger de Cabaret realised that he was too isolated to resist indefinitely and he negotiated surrender terms with Simon de Montfort: he would give up his possessions at Cabaret/Lastours in exchange for a quiet life on an estate near Béziers. Both sides respected the agreement until the death of Simon de Montfort in 1218 prompted the Cabaret brothers to return home. Before long, they were once again sheltering communities of heretics within their walls, including the Cathar bishop for the Carcassès. During the second, royal, phase of the Albigensian Crusade, the Cabarets found themselves besieged once again. They resisted for two years, but in 1229 they surrendered and the king’s seneschal, Humbert de Beaujeu, destroyed their châteaux and villages.
Like many visitors to Lastours, I was disappointed to learn that the four ruins I was visiting had nothing to do with the Cabarets or the Cathars. They were all built during the 1230s to create a royal fortress that was garrisoned up until the time of the Revolution. So where did Pierre-Roger and Jourdain de Cabaret live? Probably in a fifth, older château lower down on the north-western slope of the mountain.
This morning, the excellent website 'Living Languedoc' published the first of a series of extracts from my book 'Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood'.
This evening, the book reached Number One on the Amazon.fr list of best selling English language books about French history. A rather specialist chart, perhaps, but it's still wonderful to be at the top of it!
Oh, and don’t forget to ask Pierre and Sophie about their ghost and some sticky moments with the Black Prince!
* Times as announced by Revel tourist office. Montgey is situated 50km to the east of Toulouse and 10km north-west of Revel.
Most Saturday mornings, I go to the market in Revel, a royal bastide founded in 1342. This is one of the busiest weekly events in the Lauragais, and it is the main reason the town has spent over a decade in the Michelin guide to ‘Les 100 Plus Beaux Détours de France’. But few visitors, be they tourists or locals, know that this popular market was stolen from the neighbouring town of Sorèze 440 years ago during the Wars of Religion. Before that, Revel held its market on a Thursday in accordance with its founding charter.
The calvary in Soual honours the memory of Charles d’Alric, lord of Farinières, who was assassinated nearby in 1575. His death, and the death of his son three weeks later, are typical examples of just how personal this conflict often was, particularly in my part of south-west France. Elsewhere in the kingdom there were major battles – Jarnac, Moncontour and Coutras for example – but the area to the west of Toulouse suffered an endless succession of skirmishes and sieges which were never decisive and always bloody. There was no frontline, no geographic logic to which town, village or château was Catholic and which was Protestant.
Charles d’Alric and his family were Catholics, and their home was the Château de Farinières on the road between the Protestant strongholds of Puylaurens and Castres. The Protestants of Puylaurens knew that every Saturday Charles d’Alric was in the habit of making the journey from Labruguière, where he was governor, to Soual, where he kept a mistress. On Sunday morning, 25 December 1575, they lay in ambush in a ruined mill on the outskirts of Soual and waited for him to emerge after his Christmas Eve of pleasure. Before long, Charles d’Alric rode out of town through a gate near the calvary-memorial accompanied by the governor of Soual and three soldiers who were armed only with swords. Under cover of thick fog, the assassins took the Catholic party by surprise and brought Alric to the ground with a pistol shot. He rose to his knees, and with sword in hand he defended himself courageously until one of the attackers ran him through with a Protestant blade. The governor of Soual and the escort were taken prisoner.