The Cathars

Burned at the stake for their souls’ liberty. To stand with the Cathars, to die and be free – Iron Maiden “Montségur”[i]

On the morning of March 16th, 1244, at the foot of a hill in what is now the Ariège department of southern France, over 200 people[ii], men and women, stoically mounted a giant wooden pyre upon which, subsequent to their executioners’ recitation of obligatory prayers, they were immolated in the name of their faith. This consummate display of bravery notwithstanding, the fall of the Cathar stronghold of Montségur to the troops of the French King Louis IX represented the beginning of the end for the Cathar religion, the most stubbornly persistent heresy of pre-Reformation Christendom, the eradication of which followed a series of brutal military campaigns known as the Albigensian Crusade.

The Cathar faith was based on a dualistic worldview, in which there were two elemental and opposing forces of good and evil. The material world was held in Cathar theology to be the creation of the god of evil, not of the Good God, whose realm was that of the spirit. Although the Cathars were Christians who believed in Jesus, they rejected the notion that he could have been a flesh-and-blood human being, or that he could have been crucified and resurrected: the Good God of the spiritual world would never enter, or send any part of himself, into the material world of the god of evil, least of all to be tortured and murdered for human salvation. The Cathars also rejected the traditional Christian sacraments, such as marriage and baptism, as meaningless: they performed only a single sacrament, the consolamentum, from the Latin for “comforting”, which represented the liberation of the spirit from the prison of the material body. Lay Cathar believers, or credentes, received the consolamentum when near death, but the elite of the faith, the perfecti and perfectae (women), received the sacrament earlier, after a period of initiation. Perfecti were expected to live lives of extreme austerity – in particular, they were forbidden from eating meat, on the grounds that it was the product of sexual reproduction: the method via which the evil god trapped immortal souls in his material creation. Perhaps the Cathar belief most offensive to orthodox Catholicism was that the Catholic Church and its followers had mistakenly fallen into worshiping this evil god of material creation. The Cathars believed that humanity would reach its apotheosis when every eternal soul was reunited with the spiritual realm of the Good God. This was a universalist view which held that all would reach heaven – strongly at odds with orthodox medieval Catholicism’s insistence that only the Elect would enter paradise, and that the damned would be banished to an eternity of torment.

The origins of Catharism can be traced to the Bogomil church, founded in south-eastern Europe during the early 10th century. During the latter half of the twelfth century, the Papacy became increasingly concerned with the prevalence of Cathar/Bogomil heresy in many parts of western Europe, but it was in the Languedoc region of what is now France that it had become particularly entrenched. A number of local factors contributed to the resilience of Catharism in Languedoc: weak ties of fealty and vassalage and a less rigidly authoritarian social structure than was the norm elsewhere, the presence of numerous believers of a relatively high social station, a feeble and impoverished Catholic bureaucracy, and conflict between the representatives of Rome and the local nobility. It was this latter problem in particular that would produce the spark that would ignite the main phase of Catholic Christendom’s war against the Cathars: the Albigensian Crusades.

The accession of Innocent III to the Papacy in 1198 brought strengthened determination to stamp out heresy – and Catharism in particular – from Western Christendom. Over the following decade, a series of legatine missions were sent to Langeudoc, with the express aim of rolling back the Cathar heresy, but met with little success. The Pope’s legates were not reticent on the matter of where the blame for their failure lay: the willingness of the region’s secular rulers, particularly Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, to tolerate Catharism in the land. The situation came to a head when, in January 1208, Papal Legate Pierre de Castlenau was assassinated on the banks of the Rhône. Although there was no proof, his fellow legate, Abbot Arnaud Aimery, harboured little doubt as to who was ultimately responsible for his colleague’s murder: the Cathar-sympathising Count Raymond. Aimery wasted no time in bringing Innocent round to this point of view, and on March 12th 1208, the furious Pope preached a crusade, with full indulgences (i.e. remission for all confessed sins), to stamp out the Albigensian heresy. Raymond VI of Toulouse had already been excommunicated.

Arnaud Aimery was put in charge of recruitment for the Crusade, most of which occurred in northern France. It must be noted that whilst the extirpation of the Cathar heresy was the official reason for the Crusade, the opportunity for territorial conquest was undoubtedly a strong motivational factor for many of those involved. This does not mean that they were not true believers, or were not genuine in their desire to cleanse Christendom of spiritual deviancy, but in an era when the region which in modern times is known as France was divided into a patchwork of polities ruled by nobles of various houses, the opportunity to seize rival lands, with the blessing of the church, was no minor inducement for noblemen to take the cross. The Albigensian Crusade, therefore, must be understood as much in terms of the desire of northern French lords to extend their suzerainty over the southern regions of modern France, as it is as an exercise in Catholic jihad.

Whilst Aimery was still gathering his forces, Raymond VI, seeing the strength of the opposition he would soon have to face, successfully sued for reconciliation with the Pope, and was readmitted into the Catholic fold, taking the cross himself on June 22nd. Departing Lyon in early July, the Crusaders turned their attention to the lands ruled by the Trencavel Viscount Raymond Roger, in which Cathar heresy was rife. On July 20th, the crusader army reached the town of Béziers, handing the town’s population, through its Catholic bishop, an ultimatum to hand over the heretics amongst them or to share their fate. The town refused, and was sacked the following day. According to contemporary sources, 20,000, Catholic and Cathar alike, were massacred, although this is likely a gross exaggeration – the population of Béziers at the time was probably not more than 9000, of which less than 10% were likely Cathars[iii]. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that a massacre was perpetrated: in the logic of pre-modern warfare, it made sense to meet the first sign of resistance with heavy retribution, in order to encourage the quick submission of other settlements, and avoid costly and protracted sieges.

Over the next three years, the crusaders took town after town, often burning Cathar perfecti en masse, most notoriously at Lavaur, near Toulouse, in May 1211, where over 300 died at the stake[iv]. Raymond VI’s reconciliation with the crusaders had quickly become strained, and in early 1211 he broke with them altogether. The crusaders, under Simon de Montfort, the 5th Earl of Leicester, who had become the crusade’s undisputed secular leader in 1209, conquered large swaths of territory from vassals of Pedro II of Aragon, who were also allies of Raymond. Montfort met Pedro in battle at Muret in September 1213, an encounter which the Aragonese king did not survive. Although the Pope was not willing to recognise Montfort’s rule over all the lands the crusaders had seized, Innocent did, in January 1215, recognise Montfort’s claim to the county of Toulouse itself. Montfort’s luck was soon to run out permanently, however: in June 1218, whilst trying to retake Toulouse from Raymond VI’s son, the future Raymond VII, Montfort was killed by a rock fired from one of the city’s mangonels.

Simon de Montfort’s leadership of the Crusade was passed to his son, Amaury, who proved a lacklustre general compared to his father. Despite the involvement of Louis VIII of France, who took the cross in 1219, by the time Raymond VII succeeded his father as Count of Toulouse, upon the latter’s death in 1222, the younger Raymond had won back most of the lands his father had lost to Simon. Louis was not willing to allow that state of affairs to persist, however, and after successfully blocking Papal recognition of Raymond VII’s titles, took the cross again in early 1226. Although Louis VIII died of dysentery later that year, the crusade continued under his son, Louis IX, and in 1229 Raymond VII was forced to accept Capetian French suzerainty in an agreement that would see the county of Toulouse permanently joined to the French crown upon the death of his daughter Jeanne and the Capetian prince, Alphonse of Poitiers, to whom she was to be married as part of the peace treaty.

The 1229 Treaty of Paris between Raymond VII and Louis IX brought the Albigensian Crusade to an end after over 20 years, but Catharism remained a major problem for the Catholic Church in southern France. A Dominican-led Inquisition was set up to return wayward members of the population to the true faith, by persuasion if possible, but by harsher means where necessary. Only a small minority of those convicted of heresy by the Inquisition were burned at the stake: the ultimate punishment reserved for the most recalcitrant of offenders. Resistance both to the Catholic authorities and the French crown, however, continued. In 1242, widespread rebellion broke out after the assassination of two of the Catholic Church’s inquisitors and their assistants at Avignonet. Raymond VII again negotiated peace with the French crown the following year, but the French insisted on sending their own troops to eliminate the Cathar stronghold at Montségur. The siege began in May 1243 and the fortress, bolstered by regular supplies sneaked in by sympathetic locals, held out for ten months, until 1st March 1244. On this date the Cathar leader, Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix, left the stronghold and negotiated a two-week truce, after which the Cathars would surrender. The terms were generous: the lives of those who abjured their heresy would be spared, yet most of the perfecti chose to burn rather than abandon their faith. Twenty-six even took the consolamentum on March 13th, the date of the Spring Equinox, and three days before the date of surrender.

Raymond VII died in 1249, and in 1271 the county of Toulouse was united with the Kingdom of France, as per the terms of the 1229 treaty. The remnants of Catharism died a slow death at the hands of the Inquisition, and it was not until 1323 the last death sentence was passed on a Cathar heretic, Guillaume Belibaste, who was burnt at the stake in the village of Villerouse Termenes, having been lured back from exile in Aragon by the Inquisitor Bishop Jacques Fournier with fabricated stories of a Cathar revival in the Languedoc[v]. Fournier’s success in mopping up the final remnants of the Cathar heresy was undoubtedly a factor in his ascension through the ranks of the Church: he was made Cardinal in 1327, and a little over a decade after the burning of Belibaste, Fournier was elected to the Papacy as Benedict XII.


[i] Iron Maiden – Montségur Lyrics





[iii] God’s War, Tyerman, C., (2006), p. 591


[iv] Ibid, p. 580


[v] The Last Cathar


What really happened at Heol Fanog?

From November 1989 to June 1995, Bill and Liz Rich claimed to have been terrorised by ghosts and a demonic entity in Heol Fanog[1], a farmhouse near Brecon, in Powys, mid-Wales. Were the Riches really victims of an assault by supernatural forces, or did they fall prey to a cruel hoax perpetrated by Bill’s emotionally disturbed teenage son?

Professional artist Bill Rich, his pregnant fiancée Liz Sanders and his 14-year-old son from his previous marriage, Laurence[2], moved into Heol Fanog in May 1989. The house, originally a barn, was converted in the 1950s using materials salvaged from a derelict manor house that had stood on the site for centuries, next to Cilwhybert Motte, a medieval defensive earthwork which probably dates to the 12th century. After the collapse of Bill’s first marriage, he had suffered from depression, and had met Liz, a herbalist, while searching for an alternative treatment for his condition. Liz had trained as a herbalist after having won a long battle with anorexia, her success in which she had attributed to herbal medicine. Although Bill’s art career had been quite successful, the sporadic nature of his income made it difficult to obtain a mortgage. The rental of Heol Fanog for the very low rate of £50 a week had seemed like a godsend, especially given the 40-foot barn that would serve as a perfect studio for Bill’s artistic endeavours.

Liz’s pregnancy had not been without problems. The baby had been diagnosed with gastroschisis, a serious condition in which the child is born with its intestines and other organs outside its body. Liz refused to have an abortion, however, and baby Ben was born via Caesarean section a month prematurely, on 20th October 1989, soon after Bill and Liz had married. Liz felt guilty about the baby’s condition, attributing it to the abuse her body had suffered during her years of anorexia. Baby Ben required 8 hours of surgery to put his internal organs back inside his body, but ultimately recovered.

It was during this stressful period in November 1989 that the problems with Heol Fanog first surfaced. One evening Bill was urinating in the downstairs bathroom when he heard loud footsteps above his head, “like someone in hobnail boots pounding along the landing”[3]. Bill assumed that it must be Laurence acting out, as there had been some friction as a result of Bill’s having broken up with his mother and replaced her with another woman. Having finished using the bathroom, Bill went upstairs and checked in Laurence’s room, finding him apparently fast asleep. He discussed the incident with Liz, although she hadn’t heard anything. The following morning, the family received the first of a series of ridiculously high electricity bills which they would come to attribute to the supernatural presence in their house. The electricity company, Swalec, wanted £750 for the previous quarter, indicating a power consumption up to 20 times what would be expected for a property like Heol Fanog. That day Lawrence was in an unaccountably foul mood, something which Bill attributed to his having overheard he and Liz having sex the previous night. That afternoon Liz was in the couple’s bedroom feeding the baby, when two doors further down the hall slammed ferociously. Like Bill the previous night, Liz initially attributed this to Laurence. Then the door of her own room seemed to make the noise of slamming shut without actually moving. The atmosphere in the house had also changed, with the Riches experiencing a sense of “malevolent brooding and the constant prickly feeling that eyes were always on them”[4].

From this point on, everything seemed to fall apart. The Riches experienced multiple types of paranormal activity: unexplainable sulphurous stenches which would quickly manifest and then disappear, as would the smell of incense; footsteps (some loud, like those heard by Bill the first evening of the disturbances; others quiet, like a person walking in slippers); extremes of hot and cold in various parts of the house. To make matters worse, Bill’s art business started to fail: orders were cancelled for no obvious reason, with no new customers to replace them. Laurence’s foul mood didn’t go away: he stayed in his room watching horror movies and painted his walls bright red. He was no longer capable of civilised conversation with Bill or Liz, who would become convinced that his behaviour was the result of the influence of the demonic presence within the house.

Within less than 24 hours, Bill and Liz Rich had become completely convinced that their house was haunted. Why were they so quick to dismiss the possibility that Laurence may have been responsible for the two episodes which had convinced the couple that they were under attack by otherworldly forces? In the case of the loud footsteps above the bathroom, Bill had to finish urinating, zip his trousers and presumably wash his hands before investigating the source of the noise. It seems entirely possible that Laurence could have got himself back into bed and pretended to be asleep during that time. Liz had initially attributed the door-slamming to Bill’s teenage son but had abandoned the idea because she thought she had heard her own door slam without actually moving. Isn’t it possible that this slam had also been of another nearby door? It doesn’t seem parsimonious to blame the supernatural for doors slamming when there is a moody, ill-tempered teenager in the house. What of the other manifestations? The foul sulphurous smells could have been created using stink bombs, and incense sticks are not a difficult item to obtain. If Laurence had made loud footsteps once, he could certainly have done it again. The temperature changes may have been caused by the draughtiness of a property whose basic structure was a centuries-old barn, and it isn’t outside realms of possibility that Laurence may also have been manipulating the central heating or radiator settings.

There is in fact reason to believe that the Riches would have wanted to avoid accepting that Laurence was responsible for the activity. Bill understood that the breakup of his family had affected Laurence and was seriously concerned about the possibility of alienating his son further. Bill had made it clear to Laurence that he was more important to him than Liz, and that he would always come first[5]. Presumably Liz was also aware of this situation and may well have been afraid of conflict with Laurence in case it led to conflict between her and Bill. Was Lawrence aware of this vulnerability in both his father and stepmother, and willing to exploit it? It is notable that the family had experienced something paranormal (at least to their minds) a few years previously whilst inside the Great Pyramid of Egypt, during a holiday to that country. Liz had seen strange lights like lasers, although neither Bill nor Laurence had been able to see them. All three became suddenly afraid and left the pyramid in a hurry. It is clear, however, that the main focus of the experience was Liz, who by her own testimony had “always been terrified of ghosts and things like that, really terrified of them”[6]. Liz’s psychological state can hardly have been strengthened by the fact that she was caring for a young baby who was recovering from major surgery.

Laurence’s behaviour grew more extreme: he punched holes in his bedroom wall, spat at Bill, and told Bill’s mother to fuck off. Bill contacted his landlord, Phil Holbourn, and the previous tenant of Heol Fanog, Bridget Buscombe, who had inhabited the property between 1982 and 1989. Buscombe had never felt unhappy or threatened in Heol Fanog, although she did testify to one slightly strange incident when a spinning wheel seem to spin inexplicably. Holbourn, whose mother had lived in Heol Fanog for many years, had no knowledge of any unusual activity occurring in the house. The Riches did later hear some local rumours to the effect that Mrs. Holbourn had needed to get the place exorcised, but this is more likely than not a product of the local rumour mill, working overtime after the Riches problems in the house had become known.

Bill had also come to believe that the failure of his business was linked to the paranormal activity in Heol Fanog. This, too, likely has a more mundane explanation. In 1989, Britain was at the start of a major economic downturn which led to a full-blown recession in 1991. The United States also experienced a downturn in this period, although it started slightly later and was less severe than that in the UK. Luxury non-essentials like paintings tend to be the first to go when people start tightening their belts in anticipation of harder times, so it’s not terribly surprising that Bill’s painting business was affected more than average. It seems more plausible that Bill was simply unlucky and had a particularly jittery customer base than that the ghosts of Heol Fanog were somehow convincing customers in other parts of the UK and even in the US to cancel their orders.

One aspect of the events at Heol Fanog that has never been adequately explained is the ridiculously high electricity bills. Swalec sent technicians out to examine the meter. In a 1995 article in The Independent, Bill described how the meter had continued to spin even after all appliances had been switched off[7]. The unhelpful technician couldn’t explain the problems but refused to take it any further. In the end the company relented when Bill’s solicitor demanded that they explain how the Riches were using several times more electricity than all the appliances in their property were capable of consuming. Interestingly, the UK’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau cites a meter turning with all appliances off as a sign that the meter is indeed faulty[8]. It seems difficult to believe that the company would be unable to diagnose faults in its own equipment, but incompetent customer service from utility companies and other large corporations is hardly unknown, especially if they know that consumers in their area have no choice but to buy from them. That the Riches electricity problems went unexplained isn’t necessarily an indication that they were caused by other-worldly forces.

The Riches, faced with ongoing paranormal activity and increasingly aggressive (if not actually violent) behaviour from Laurence, contacted a Roman Catholic priest, who spent some time going around the house, blessing each room. The sense of a malignant presence disappeared and the paranormal activity stopped for a few days, and then returned with a vengeance after Liz saw the apparition of an old woman peering out the nursery window when she returned to the house after talking the baby for a walk in his pram. The old woman was not, the Riches sensed, the source of the evil presence in the house – she simply felt sad. In March 1990, Liz again saw the old woman in the nursery, peering into Ben’s cot. Then one morning Bill woke up with sore, cracked and bleeding hands which were too painful to allow him to paint. The condition disappeared after a while but recurred several times. It was apparently never diagnosed or explained by doctors, although Bill’s symptoms seem similar to those of hand dermatitis[9].

At her wits’ end and now pregnant with her second child, Liz contacted the Christian Spiritualist Church of Cardiff. Representatives of the church came out and cleansed Bill and Liz’s auras. They said that Laurence was causing poltergeist activity due to his emotional state and that Bill was under a curse linked to his having offended a powerful alchemist in a previous life in the 16th century. Liz was incredulous. She certainly believed that her family was under attack by supernatural forces, but the source of the problems was the house itself, not her husband.

Around this time the Riches – or rather just Laurence Rich – received a strange visitation on a Saturday afternoon. Soon after Bill, Liz and the baby had left Heol Fanog to have lunch with Liz’s mother in Cowbridge, roughly 45 miles from Brecon, in South Wales, three French people – two attractive and “tartily dressed”[10] young women and an older man – arrived in a large Renault car. They claimed to be exorcists living in the Pyrenees in southern France and had been told to get to Heol Fanog in a dream. The visitors were disappointed that Bill and Liz were not present, but claimed that they couldn’t stay long, as they had to get a ferry back to France that day. They took a tour of the house and then left. Ignoring any paranormal aspect, what are the odds that this story is anything other than pure fabrication? Very slim. From southern France to Brecon was a return journey of easily 1700 miles by road, plus two ferry crossings across the English Channel. Nobody makes such a journey only to walk around a house and leave without seeing the very people they wanted to talk to in the first place. Yet Bill and Liz Rich seemingly accepted this preposterous tale at face value, which gives a measure of just how far the couple had moved beyond the realms of rational thought by this point.

The Christian Spiritualists made a number of visits to the house, culminating in their erecting a psychic wall around the property, having performed a ritual cleansing of the house. Laurence also moved out of Heol Fanog and took residence in a boarding house a few miles away. Bill received a commission from a local couple, the Gandys, to produce a painting of their favourite horse, Echo. Bill had difficulty painting one of the horse’s legs, which he could not completely surmount, leaving the limb with a twisted appearance. Soon after giving the portrait to the Gandys, Bill received news that Echo had tragically died. The leg which Bill had painted inadequately had been injured. The horse became sick, and despite the attentions of two veterinarians, died, allegedly in the same spot that Bill had sat while painting Echo, using the scenery of the Brecon Beacons as a backdrop. Mrs. Gandy also told Bill that they were experiencing similar paranormal phenomena to those that had plagued Heol Fanog but had ceased since the erection of the psychic wall by the Christian Spiritualists. Basil Gandy’s testimony[11] corroborates some aspects of this story: the horse did get sick as a result of an injury to the same leg that Bill had painted inexpertly, and subsequently died, but interestingly he makes no mention of the location of the horse’s death nor of the paranormal activity supposedly reported to Bill by his wife (no testimony from Mrs. Gandy is recorded). He also accepts that the whole episode could be chalked up to coincidence.

After a period of calm, the strange activity returned to Heol Fanog in August 1990, however it is notable that the footsteps, temperatures changes and odd odours didn’t return, especially given that Laurence was no longer living there. The Riches reported the familiar sense of menace, however, and apparitions, including a number of the old woman, again became commonplace, although these apparitions were short-lived and rarely observed clearly, being “[S]ometimes…glimpses out of the corner of the eye or shapes seen at a distance among the thick foliage around the house.”[12] An exception to this was one day in the Spring of 1993 when Bill claimed to see the apparition of a beautiful woman gliding across the kitchen for a period of five seconds. The manifestation of the woman occurred after a long period of relative calm between Summer 1991 and Spring 1993, during which the Riches had experienced less paranormal activity than previously, but even during this period Bill testified to a “very evil influence that I could always feel but never see”[13]. Was this a manifestation of a “Spirit of Seduction”, as the Riches were told by their Baptist minister, or had Bill’s constant feeling of paranoia escalated to the point of producing a full-blown hallucination? A subsequent incident, in March of 1994, in which Bill experienced thoughts of suicide while looking at a meat knife lying on the kitchen table certainly suggests that Bill was experiencing some form of psychiatric illness at the time, although this too was attributed to the supernatural. The family continued to experience paranormal activity in Heol Fanog until mid-1995, during which time they were assisted by a number of ministers and paranormal researchers of various stripes, who gave varied explanations for the disturbances depending on their own personal belief systems. The activity finally ended when ghost hunter and medium Eddie Burks, famous for having supposedly rid the premises of high-class London bank Coutts of the spirit of an executed Elizabethan nobleman[14], identified the cause of the Riches’ hauntings as an entity raised by a pre-Christian Celtic tribe in order to terrorise their enemies, which he supposedly banished, ending the paranormal activity for good. The Riches nonetheless moved out of Heol Fanog the following year.

In conclusion, there is a strong circumstantial case that much of the paranormal activity experienced by the Rich family during the early months of their ordeal could be explained as the attempt of an angry and psychologically disturbed teenager to destroy his father’s new marriage. Laurence can be shown at least once to have made claims that are almost certainly false, cannot be excluded as a possible cause of the two paranormal events which initially convinced his father and step-mother that their house was haunted, and could conceivably have hoaxed many of the subsequent paranormal manifestations. His mother and step father, both of whom had histories of psychiatric illness and who were going through and extremely stressful period due to their new-born baby’s serious illness, may have had a strong subconscious, and perhaps conscious desire to avoid blaming Laurence for the activity that he was most likely causing. Although Laurence’s departure did not end the Heol Fanog haunting, the subsequent activity was mainly characterised by a sense of menace and apparitions, without the footsteps, smells and temperature anomalies which characterised the early months of the haunting, and which could conceivably have been caused by the angry teenager in an attempt to terrorise his stepmother and father. Given the state of psychological trauma that Riches were in by the middle of 1990, combined with their constant exposure to preachers and investigators with strong supernatural beliefs, a lack of any sceptical voices, and the likelihood that Bill was suffering some form of psychiatric disturbance for at least part of the time in question, it is perhaps not terribly surprising that Bill and Liz Rich continued to believe themselves the victims of supernatural forces even after Laurence had moved out of the picture.


[1] Testimony (Kindle Edition), Mark Chadbourn, 2014 [1996], Emerald Eye

[2] In a 1995 newspaper article, Bill’s older son is referred to as Damien.


[3] Testimony (Kindle Edition), Mark Chadbourn, 2014 [1996], Emerald Eye, loc. 372


[4] Ibid. loc. 523


[5] Ibid. loc. 204


[6] Ibid. loc. 412








[10] Testimony (Kindle Edition), Mark Chadbourn, 2014 [1996], Emerald Eye, loc.1391


[11] Ibid. loc. 1613


[12] Ibid. loc. 1711


[13] Ibid. loc. 2251