‘It is not an exaggeration to say that this baby could soon become the most dangerous woman in the world!’
Pope Benedict XII – 3rd November 1341
It was a fortress; a symbol of wealth and power, strong enough to protect him from any of his enemies. It was also the administrative core of the Church of Rome, providing accommodation for the hundreds of managers and clerical staff, as well as storage for the voluminous paperwork they collected or created, then filed for future reference. Last, but not least, The Palais was also the Pope’s personal residence, enabling him to live in a splendour which exceeded that of any King.
The chamber in which the Pope now stood, exemplified what he had striven to achieve. A perfectly-laid travertine floor, wall to wall, uncluttered by furniture. On either side of the floor, delicate arches reached upwards to give support, but also to attract the eye to a colourful, decorated ceiling, apparently giving glimpses of heaven. The chamber was specifically designed to overawe, perhaps intimidate, anyone who approached his throne.
The geographical area between the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean and the Massif Centrale, has been known variously since Roman times as Septimania, Languedoc or Occitan. At the specific request of Amaud Littorale, the Papal Legate for this area, Pope Benedict XII decided to give an audience to a Dominican monk, Jaime Duras. Amaud had convinced the Pope that Jaime had information which the Pope should hear first-hand.
‘It is true, your Holiness.’
The Pope frowned, walked the full length of the chamber, then returned to Jaime, deliberately, slowly.
‘How did you find this out? Is she really the heir to the Trencavel estates?’
‘And some say St Gilles estates as well. It is no real secret, it is freely talked about.’
‘And her faith?’
‘Well, she has been baptised into the Holy Church.’
‘You sound doubtful.’
‘Her grandmother is of the de Padilla family.’
‘And her mother is from the Foix family.’
‘Holiness, with respect, you were born and educated in that area, you know what it means.’
‘I am asking you.’
Jaime gazed at the ground. ‘Almost certainly, she will be educated as a Cathar.’
‘And how old is she now?’
‘No more than three years.’
‘A baby! So what causes the interest?’
‘There are a number of major landlords talking up her cause. The Frankish rule has never been popular in Occitan.’
‘And from where did you learn that?’
The monk hesitated. ‘I am aware of your many achievements in eradicating the Cathar heresy and eliminating its adherents, but now, only twenty years later, the Cathar heresy has re-emerged. The heresy is now mixed up with a desire to establish a new state of Occitan.’
He hesitated again. ‘As a case in point, the Seigneur of Mirepoix, Jean de Levis, whom we both know well, is said to have fallen under the influence of his mother, Constance de Foix, and is supportive of the creation of an independent nation of Occitan. The de Levis were the family which benefited most from the Albigensian Crusade. The lands of Mirepoix were awarded to his family because of his service to the Crusade, yet now, the Cathar heresy is active again across the whole of the south, and the lords, including Jean de Levis, do nothing to interfere. I am not saying that Jean de Levis is a heretic, but some of his co-conspirators almost certainly are. There is a secret society called Les Etoiles de la Mer, The Stars of the Sea, which helps their priests come and go at will.’
‘And you can do nothing? The Inquisition can do nothing?’
‘We broke a Cathar cell,’ Jaime gulped and stammered uncontrollably. ‘They, the Cathars, have structured themselves differently. They have established small independent cells which have no contact with other cells. They have what they call Messengers who co-ordinate the cells but the Messengers only contact one person in each cell; no one in the cells knows the identity of the Messengers. That secrecy is then repeated for the movements of their priests, the Perfects, controlled by a Commander, who we believe is part of the Les Etoiles.’
‘And, once again, how do you know all this?’
‘From the cell we broke, but we identified neither Messengers nor Perfects. ‘
Pope Benedict closed his eyes and frowned. ‘The Messengers are totally independent of the Commander?’
‘Not totally, Messengers are summoned to meet the Commander, but the Messengers never see the Commander’s face.’
‘And how is this summons issued?’
‘That is something we do not know. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to get any further information. Several of those we interrogated died under torture. I have told you everything we discovered.’ Jaime sighed. ‘With regard to the summons, we assume they must use a system of post boxes, but those post boxes could be anywhere.’
Pope Benedict took a deep breath, he wanted to go no further. ‘Thank you, you may go.’
Jaime left, vowing that he would redouble his efforts.
Pope Benedict wasted no time. He summoned three members of the Curia, the church’s senior administrative apparatus. Whilst he waited for them to arrive he pursed his lips, ‘And why, Amaud, did you bring the monk to see me? You could have told me all that yourself.’
Amaud smiled. ‘ He got his information first-hand. I believed you would have wanted some corroborating evidence, a second opinion.’
‘Yes, I suppose that was a sensible precaution.’
The Pope greeted the new arrivals and then continued. ‘I never expected to be having this conversation. I was elected Pope on the basis that I had eliminated the Cathar heresy, but it would seem that my claim was a little optimistic. I want you now to reactivate all the agents we used when we eliminated what we thought was the last of the Cathar Perfects. We have continued to pay retainers and by now they may be – should be – part of the secret Cathar cells which I believe are being reformed. I am going to ask Amaud to lead this initiative, but you all must play your part. In particular, I want you to identify and infiltrate an organisation Les Etoiles de la Mer.’
Amaud nodded acceptance. In unison, the remaining trio muttered, ‘Yes, your Holiness.’ They stood to leave but the Pope was not yet finished.
‘Oh! And I want to know everything there is to know about a three-year-old female child, named Ximene Trencavel.
‘Yes, but not a baby for long. It appears she will be educated as a Cathar and is probably the rightful heir to the Trencavel lands; a potent mix!
The Pope hesitated. ‘It is not an exaggeration to say that this baby could soon become the most dangerous woman in the world!’