Entering through the north gate, the watch tower thrusts defiantly upward, daring dark forces to attack. The first images I see are the primitive Templar castle and the solid, square bell tower of the adjacent church. Both perch on a rocky spur and loom imposingly over the village. Immediately I am catapulted back through time...into the Middle Ages.
I can almost hear the sound of a wooden cart clattering over the cobbles, mingling with the distant bleating of sheep outside the gates. Wandering the narrow alleyways, I marvel at the ancient stone houses crowded together in a maze-like tangle. I wonder about all those who - once upon a time - climbed the exterior, rock staircases to their living quarters upstairs. On the ground floor below, pens provided shelter to their precious livestock.
My imagination and I take a walk through daily life in France during those tumultuous times. I pass the community oven used for baking bread and the church cemetery (only partly inside the walls, as it was cut in two by the fortifications built subsequently). The five look-out towers - some round, some square – are incorporated into the ring of ramparts that enclose the village. Pierced by arrow slits and topped by a walkway, this was a place where knights surely kept watch for marauding bands of routiers, mercenary soldiers who terrorized the French countryside during the Hundred Years War between France and England.
Bienvenue, mes amis! Welcome to La Couvertoirade, my new, favourite French town. Like a medieval mirage in miniature, the fortifications seem to appear in the middle of a limestone plateau in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France - about 60 km north of Pézenas.
Charming, rustic, intimate and authentic, it is remarkably well preserved and has been listed as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (one of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France”). This designation signifies, not just beauty, but also a quality heritage and the honour is well deserved.
We arrived in the middle of an unrelenting downpour. The air had a distinct February chill and, being the lowest of the low-season, La Courvertoirade was deserted - except that is for my hubby, our son, his beautiful femme and moi!
The nasty weather and lack of other tourists added a mystical element to the already dramatic atmosphere, further feeding my medieval fantasies. If a man swathed in a white tunic emblazoned with a red cross (the legendary attire of the Knights Templar), had strode towards me kicking a stray cock rooster out of his path, I would not have been surprised. The place gives one that thrilling sense of being there...way back when!
Captivated, as soon as I returned to our home, Ye Olde Convent in Pézenas (see: earlier blog posts), I did some research. Merci beaucoup, Google!
As it turns out, La Couvertoirade has several stories to spin. The tale of the Templar Knights who built the château in the 1249 and the Knights Hospitallers, who took over after the Templar’s fall in the 15th Century and built the wall surrounding the village.
So bear with me, s'il vous plait...while I indulge my obsession with this enchanting village and the history of the knights who built it!
Firstly, who knew? The Knights of the Templar were actually Christian monks. Elite warriors, but monks nonetheless. It seems a bit of an oxymoron I know, but in 1120 the Catholic Church endorsed the concept of religious men “taking up the sword” to defend the innocent and (of course) the Church. Voilà, the Templars were officially legitimized.
Like any other monk, members took vows. The vow of obedience ensured the knights obeyed their commanding officers and the Templar Order, the one of poverty prevented individuals (but not the Order) from owning private property...and the vow of chastity - well, we all know what that means! As in the classic fairytale, the mighty knight still rescued the distressed damsel from the tower, but that was about it - a most unromantic notion!
During the crusades, the Templar Knights were devoted to protecting pilgrims travelling through Europe to the Holy Land. The Order developed quite the reputation as a fierce military force and, between the extensive "gifts" from new members divesting their worldly possessions, treasure from battles, and grants from the Pope, it amassed extensive holdings.
As their power and wealth grew, the Templar’s established a network of banks and served as secret financiers to many European monarchs (...that’s a little foreshadowing of their dramatic and rapid end). At the height of their influence, they had Chapters throughout Europe, boasted a fleet of ships and owned the island of Cyprus.
The organization was also politically powerful, primarily because it was legally accountable only to the Pope, paid no taxes and its members could move freely across borders. Considering what happened to them, I assume all this irritated the hell out of the King Philip of France (aha, more foreshadowing).
When the Muslim world retook the Holy Land from the Christians late in the 12th Century, it turned the tide of the Crusades and ultimately the fortune of the Templars. Without their foothold in the Holy Land, their military purpose and, as consequence, their support dissolved.
King Philip, who was purportedly deeply indebted to and had been refused further financing by the Templars, took advantage of their dwindling popularity to rid himself, not only of his staggering debt, but also of his uncooperative bankers.
Whether out of retribution or political malice – the true cause wasn't clear to me – on Friday, October 13th in 1307, the Knights of the Templar were rounded up and simultaneously arrested at the instigation of the King. Curiously, the superstition surrounding Friday the 13th being bad luck has been linked to this event in history.
Some of the Knights confessed to heresy, devil worship and...ahem, other “unnatural and blasphemous behavior”. Many of the charges were fabricated and the confessions coerced by torture, but from what I read, it seems the Templars were into some very weird stuff (think: bizarre initiation ceremonies and secret rites). Some of the charges were likely anchored in reality, perhaps distortions of the mysterious goings-on behind the ramparts of places like La Couvertoirade.
Finally, under pressure from King Philip, the Pope abolished the Knights Templar in 1312 and dozens were burned at the stake in Paris.
They were supposedly fully disbanded over 700 years ago, but there are many who believe the Order went underground and still remains in existence to this day. That’s what makes the Knights Templar the target of so much speculation...and fodder for authors like Dan Brown, who wrote the controversial, best-seller, “Da Vinci Code”.
What happened to the vast wealth of the Knights Templar? Supposedly, it was confiscated by the Crown, but maybe not! Some suggest the Templars managed to hide legendary treasure from King Philip, perhaps even the Holy Grail.
In the case of La Couvertoirade, the property was officially assigned to Knights Hospitallers, another medieval Catholic military order, the history of which is not nearly so compelling!
So I’ll leave it at that and try not to be so passionately curious about history in my next post. But, no promises! Mon Dieu, it is all so fascinating...