By Cardinal Gilles of Bellegarde
Edited and Translated by Louis Leclerc
Académie de Vraidex, 1972
Avignon, Vigil of Christmas in the Year of Grace 1377
MY DEAREST GRANDDAUGHTER,
May the peace of Our Lady surround you and your convent this holy season!
I am glad to find that the latest shipment of produce arrived safely at your convent in Beauvillage. Mark me well, Alix; all that food is intended for you and the other Little Sisters, not for the poor gathered about your gates. You are so much like your blessed grandmother; I have no doubt you would give it all away freely if given a chance. Hence, I must order you as a prince of the Church – as well as your foolishly doting old grandpa – not to give any away, save the scraps from your table.
Pray do not argue that as the coins of the poor paid for the feast with their offerings, they deserve it. That all wealth comes from their bent backs eventually, it is true, but these morsels, save for the dried apricots you love, were grown here on my estates by my own well-fed peasants. Hopefully, that should be enough to remove any lingering taint of simony, so please don’t start on that again.
I know you long to embrace Christ as other lasses yearn for a lover, but I fear the strain of further discipline on your frail body. Remember, you must be healthy to serve God. You are far too eager for humiliations and trials for such a young girl, especially one who falls ill so easily.
Young girl, did I say? It is hard to tell from your letters, as closely-reasoned as a Paris lawyer. I would regret that I taught you to read and write if I did not find the quickness of your mind so entertaining. I must confess it has conquered me at last. Many times have I pleaded to you to not forsake the world for the sake of our family, yet you have bested me in verbal combat, arguing better than a seasoned theologian. Yes, I hereby cry, hold, enough.
I will stand in the way of your calling no more; only one last boon do I crave, a most serious one that I must give: do not take your final vows until I get there. For before you take that irrevocable step, I must tell you something, very important, and very secret. To take the solemn vows of religion is not a trivial thing, as I well know. So I must speak with you one last time while you are still in the world. It is not to change your mind; but to inform you of the full truth, so that you never have reason to regret your decision.
You have heard many times, my dear, faithful child, of the great miracle performed by the Virgin there in Bellegarde many years ago. Yet no matter how often I have told you the story, I have not told all that happened. The Gospel says we must be born again as little children; but nowhere does it say we have to remain as such. So now that you have grown into a woman wise beyond her few years, it is time to tell you the full tale.
For legends grow like weeds, and pious legends more quickly and floridly than most, so that dull truth sometimes seems a blasphemy set next to glittering romance. I would not have you ever despair of your faith; yet it is for the sake of my soul and yours that I needs make confession. Because of your devotion to your grandmother, it must be to you.
Besides, I trust you more than any priest I know, and value your prayers more too. And I will soon have great need of them. As you doubtless know, the pope did indeed return to Rome just as you have long urged me to recommend to His Holiness. But the Roman air, or perhaps the mobs or the seasonings on his food, do not agree with him, and Gregory has fallen ill. They say he may not live until spring. And so I must go; I plan on leaving in haste right after the Feast of the Epiphany.
True is the saying that a sick pope makes the cardinals well. Well enough, at least, to attempt a journey all the way to Rome in the dead of winter. If that’s not penance, I don’t know what is. Expect my letters which I will henceforth dictate to my worthy secretary Bertran for speed and legibility as even my writing has become thin and feeble.
Please continue your prayers for me, but understand that I have no desire to sit on Peter’s throne. I go only to try to prevent even worse sinners than me from resting there. So cease not praying night and day for Holy Mother Church, for she is beset about by circling wolves, many of whom wear cardinals’ crimson.
Blessings to you and your Sisters,
Chateau des Roches, Feast of St. Gilles, 1 September 1378
Forgive my poor writing, for my hand is stiff and I am in a great hurry. For the second time in my life, God has spoken to me in thunder and fire.
My previous letters revealed how terribly wrong things went in Rome, after Gregory went to his eternal reward. At least he managed to die in the Eternal City. The College of Cardinals quickly yielded to the threats of the mob and first tried to fob off an elderly Italian as the new pope so we could escape; when caught, we foolishly elected one from outside our numbers – Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari.
Alas, he was a simple, frugal man in that station, but becoming pope without being tested as a cardinal instantly turned his head. They say the Holy Father has gone mad with power, but I fear it is more that he will not be the creature of the factions that gave it to him, which is madness enough in these desperate times.
With all the other French cardinals, I too fled soon after the conclave. Sick to my heart, I knew the others plotted with the King of France to replace the new pope with a creature of their own despite the scrupulousness of the election. So I returned home to Chateau des Roches only to find myself besieged almost as soon as I arrived.
A mercenary captain, an Englishman by the name of Sir Guy Falconer, recently let go from service to Avignon when the papacy left was delighted to find his former employer alone and vulnerable. But despite all I had been through, I would not submit to any more demands. I took to my bed, for the sickness of my soul spread to my body.
The cordon began; soon cannon were brought up. Ah, to think that from Heronimo’s wonderful “dragon fire” of my youth such devilish weapons were made! For a week I suffered the incessant pounding of the guns. So it was that on the vigil of my patron saints’ feast day, while I lay in bed that evening, listening to the bombards blasting at the walls, I felt the whole tower shudder and crumble a little more with each horrible blow. It was all I could do to keep from crying aloud to Almighty God in despair.
Then it happened, a sure sign from Heaven. Guided by His Hand, a great stone ball flew in my window, striking against the far wall in a shower of sparks and thunder. The shot hit at an angle, and so bounced around the room, rolling from wall to wall above my bed with a tremendous grinding noise like the very mills of Hell. I cannot say how many times it rumbled over me. I prayed to Mary, thinking I should be seeing my beloved wife again shortly, when finally the stone ball dropped, crashing through the floorboards, and that of the level below. Left alive and unhurt by the great and wonderful mercy of the Lord, I knew what I had to do.
As God spared me once with the miracle of the Scolding Madonna, so He has spared me again, to return her Holy Washtub to the world of men for the healing of Holy Mother Church in these last days. Fear not, my child: this is not madness or blasphemy I speak. Granddaughter, I can and will explain all in due course, but time is short.
Suffice it to say thus renewed, I leapt out of bed, and soon had parlay with Falconer. He was, as I well knew, a not dishonorable man for one of his profession, and so I was able to come to a satisfactory arrangement. And so, I am off again, to Italy to face the dissident cardinals along with Falconer and faithful Bertran.
Pray that I am successful, dear girl, for I fear if I am not the most dreadful schism will sunder the seamless garment of Christ. Alas, I regret that I dare not explain myself further to you at this time. All I can do is to promise that should we meet again in this world, Alix, I will reveal all, dearest granddaughter.
May the Lord keep you safe in these most perilous times,
Fondi, Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle, 21 September 1378
Beloved granddaughter, I have evil news to tell you. Our cause is lost, and we are betrayed by a Judas in our midst.
Having arrived in Fondi, I made my way to the castle where the French cardinals were in their schismatic conclave. I was barely in time, it seemed, and so confident that only I could prevent schism, I boldly addressed the assembled cardinals at the first opportunity.
“Brothers,” I said, “I have wonderful news: the Pelluvium Sanctissimum has been revealed to me. If you will only desist in this disastrous policy of disobedience, it can be returned. I will undertake to return the Holy Basin from Heaven back to this benighted world, to the Lateran Palace itself, if you will but come back with me in faithful obedience to the true pope we all unanimously elected.”
Oh granddaughter, you would have wept to see their reaction, not like sober men of God but as drunken merchants. Some laughed, others mocked me, but few believed me. Many cardinals became as red as their robes with rage, and loudly demanded I produce proof. Proof! As if I would or could tempt the Lord. The most vile and crude accusations were hurled at me. I was reviled as a charlatan and blasphemer, even accused of being possessed by the Evil One!
But yet worse was to come. I retired to my chambers in confusion to think, and found there copies of all my letters. Thank God I was cautious in what I wrote! For Brother Bertan has been most disloyal; spying on me for the foul Cardinal Robert of Geneva, the bloody-handed man these schismatics have this very day set up as their false pope and Antichrist. In his pride, Robert has taken the name Urban, which, if his past is anything to go by, will soon foully stain.
My life has not only been endangered by my foolishness, but also yours, your father the Baron, and indeed, all that we cherish. I am returning to Bellegarde as quickly as I can with Sir Guy and his men. This messenger whom I trust must warn René; but do you stay at the convent there in Beauvillage until I arrive.
Alas, granddaughter, evil days are come upon us. The curse of the Scolding Virgin may not be complete, but your life of simple contemplation is over. I have another task for you that is more important, even than your holy vocation. For I spoke true; it was no boast that the Holy Tub can be found – I helped in the hiding.
There is no time to explain. I must be gone while the others feast. Pray for me, dear one, and forgive me. Perhaps I was too naive but I only meant to save the Church we love. Instead, my good intentions have only opened the way to Hell.
[Ed.: The following letter, which may be the most significant of all, has been republished here by the gracious permission of both the Fawkeslorne and Fatamorgana estates, despite their ongoing dispute. We sincerely thank them on behalf of the entire nipterological community.]
Avignon, Feast of All Saints, 1 November 1378
My dearest Alix,
I have arrived back in the old papal quarters several days ago, barely ahead of an early snow. Somehow through God’s grace, I made it back safely, I know not how, for all has been a blur of motion and sickness since I fled. I pray that I am still days or hopefully weeks ahead of the schismatics, who mean to take this citadel. The city is in great confusion, rumors and alarms on all sides. My safety at the moment lies in the chaos, for no faction is in full charge. That may change at any moment, and therefore I must depart as soon as the roads are passable.
I hope to see you at Beauvillage, despite the illness that dogs me. I send you this letter in advance with Sir Guy Falconer, who has proved far more able and true than his mercenary background would indicate. He is to scout the road, for whispers among the merchants say troops are covertly moving into Morven, possibly to seize Bellegarde. If that cursed antipope Robert of Geneva is behind it, the most direct route is already blocked. If Bellegarde has been invested, Falconer may be unable to get tidings to your father the Baron, then somehow you must, my dear. Sometimes a nun can enter fortresses that armed knights dare not approach.
I fear this may be but the first of many desperate things I will be asking of you, sweet flower, but I know as the child of your brave father and the image of your grandmother, that you will be up to all tasks.
Since I may be in God’s hands before we meet again, dearest Alix, I must finish my confession to you while I can. I know I have stunned the world by my claim that I know of the Holy Tub’s true resting place. But I fear most that I have hurt you or damaged your faith. Let it not be so! The miracles are all true, just not in the way commonly believed.
The story is long; it would take weeks to tell all, granddaughter, and many things must never be written down. Oh how I have longed to unburden myself of this charge! That however is not important now. What is vital for you to know is this: many years ago, a pious lie was told to save the Pelluvium Sanctissimum from the king’s men. But those who did so were sincere that by removing it from the world, they were indeed doing exactly what the Blessed Virgin wanted.
This is the story I heard from the aged lips of that strange philosopher of Bellegarde, Heronimo le Mage, shortly before he died. A wise Venetian friar, whom you may have heard of, Lorenzo by name, arranged the deception so as to try to save the lives of the besieged Templars. He used his alchemical arts to concoct a potion to confound the men. To distract them, I was told, he employed his apprentice, none other than Heronimo, the old wonder-worker himself, who was then but a beardless youth, dressed as the Virgin. Imagine that, if you can.
A more religious or superstitious person might have believed the story. However, the godless baron at the time, Guilliame, was not such a man. On him the bold gamble proved to be folly, his refusal to accept their amazing story increased their sufferings tenfold. Lorenzo ministered to them as best he could, which further prolonged them.
So I am not the only man who wrought evil in trying to use the Sacred Basin for good. But remove it from the world the friar did, and where he put it shall remain hidden. My granddaughter, I tell now a secret Heronimo confided in me. This alone is for you and your heirs to remember: only through the realm of the dead may the Maundy Grail be approached. More than that I dare not write.
To continue my tale: when I was young, more evil men came looking. These blackguards were of the Inquisition, searching on behalf of a pope who was little better than King Philip had been, and they tormented many good and true townsmen and their women in their ruthless search. I know, for I was forced to write down all their sessions. I still wake up to their echoing screams at night.
In the midst of this, one evening, the squire Simeon, the last Templar, escaped. He fled not to the woods but to the Cathedral, yet not to claim sanctuary either. Through the astrological art of the sage Lorenzo and Heronimo, he somehow knew that the Vision was to be that very night. How I know not. But I went, along with Bishop Pierre; your great-grandfather; my cousin Jacques, who became the Wanderer; and your grandmother, Madeleine, were already there.
It grieves me to relate the sad truth, but I cannot deny that while I was in earnest conversation with my father the bishop, we both missed seeing the Vision of Sacred Basin – my greatest regret of many, beyond doubt! But Madeleine, Jacques, and Simeon were so blessed, transported in the kind of rapture that the Beatific Vision of God’s Throne that Dante describes must engender. I know it must be true, because of the effect profound it had on all of them.
Yet another there was whose sinful eyes could not see it either, the chief Inquisitor Jehan D’Laval. He impiously slew Simeon there on the spot out of unholy jealous rage, staining the tomb of the Templars with his blood.
The rest of us he arrested to be burnt the next day. But we managed to outwit his damnable dwarven familiars, whose memory I still curse though they became Heronimo’s wards. In the struggle, D’Laval was accidentally slain. So it was then that Heronimo came up with a cunning plan to save us along with the Holy Tub.
We took certain creations of his alchemy that the Inquisition had confiscated. Heronimo had been working on “dragon-fire,” which all men now know as “gunpowder.” So with Madeleine garbed as the Holy Madonna, we climbed in the open rose window at the front of the unfinished cathedral. At the hour the auto da fe was to begin, we lit the works of fire and your dear grandmother, sweet Madeleine, made her famous speech. The rest of the story, of course, you know. But here is the miraculous part, child. Yes, I was one of the two “angels” that accompanied and supported her, holding tubes that shot out great flaming sparks like showers of falling stars. Your great-uncle Sir Jacques was the other one. But I swear that the words that Madeleine uttered then were not of her own shaping – she could not remember a single thing she said later on. She was as amazed to hear of them as anyone not present would be.
The expression upon Madeleine’s fair face while she spoke was not that of a timid maiden desperately lying to a crowd to save her life either. She spoke not out of anger but a great sadness. Nay, she stood as regally calm and confident as a proud queen in her court. She was supernaturally composed and totally fearless, yet filled with such wisdom and tender compassion for those below that I cannot recall it without my eyes becoming misty, even now. Not even the magnificent statue Heronimo erected later in the Cathedral comes near the nobility of that visage.
I swear upon the Sacred Basin itself that I fully believe that the Virgin somehow used your grandmother to deliver a true message. All the disasters predicted that day, so unimaginable at the time, we have seen and experienced. But it is not I alone who think so. The bishop held a secret inquest, for he too wanted to know if any taint of sorcery was involved.
None could be found; Heronimo’s marvelous works of fire were shown to be alchemical wonders, not diabolical, to the consternation of certain theologians. While learned doctors from Paris accused her of possession, others from Salerno declared the young girl to be simple, pious, and lacking in guile. It was decided that since revealing the truth would damage the belief of the simple, faith (and the pilgrim trade) would profit most by ignoring it.
Your grandmother was completely cleared: I have the documents still, including the decree signed by Pope Clement VI. Her later actions, that constant charity and goodness which never wavered even in the face of the Great Pestilence, continually confirmed her holiness until the day she too was gathered to God. If the deception was a sin, I take it on my shoulders; but I am unafraid, for I have seen the Sacred Basin and touched it with these now aged hands.
Yet perhaps I should be. My act of presumption was not just folly, but a very great transgression, I fear, and innocents may yet be punished for it. Who was I, thinking I could heal the Church by violating the command that it should remain hidden? Often have you gently chided me for my pride, dear child, it is surely a sign of how right you were that I could not even imagine that the snake could lay such a cunning trap.
Prepare yourself, my granddaughter, to leave the cloister behind and assume a greater destiny than that of a simple nun. I admit, Alix, a normal life is what I have wished for you all along but never at such an awful price.
But through my stupidity, you must abandon your world before it burns. May the precious grace that the Virgin lent your beloved grandmother be with you now and forever. And may He keep secret that which is concealed as it should be, according to Her will until time is fulfilled.