William Bélibaste: The Great Pretender

William Bélibaste: The Great Pretender

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William Bélibaste, The Great Pretender, finds himself engaged in a life and death struggle against the French Inquisition, but emerges as a legendary folk hero.

Table of Contents

William Bélibaste

An Accidental Murder

In September 1305, on a grassy knoll among the foothills of the French Pyrenees, two shepherds engage in a heated argument over the ownership of an unmarked lamb. One strikes the other to the ground. His head lands hard on a rock, and he doesn’t move. William Bélibaste, the shepherd who struck the fatal blow, kneels over the motionless man, then jumps up, grabs his satchel, and runs.

Flight and Consolation

Bélibaste rushes downriver toward the fields of his friend, Pierre Maury, a fellow shepherd with connections to an underground movement established to resist the Inquisition in France. Pierre’s family belongs to the Cathar Church, regarded as heretical by the Pope and thus targeted by the Inquisition.

William hopes to hide from the authorities long enough for the incident to blow over. He prevails on Pierre to divulge the secret meeting place of the underground resistance movement. Reluctantly, William’s friend leads him to the hideaway of Pierre Authié, the leader of the faction. In keeping with his self-serving disposition, William solidifies his place among the Cathari by feigning a call to the priesthood.

Pierre Authié teaches William the way of the Parfait (Cathar priesthood) and ordains him to the office in a ceremony called consolation. The office requires celibacy, but since Bélibaste already has a wife and children, the leadership allows an exception.

The capricious Bélibaste doesn’t absorb much of Pierre’s instructions, a factor that the new Parfait soon regrets when his deceptive plan takes an unexpected turn.

Escape Through the Mountains

A new Inquisitor arrives in Pamiers, France, and ruthlessly steps up the effort to arrest Cathars, especially the Parfait.

The Vatican also enlists French soldiers to comb the territory and root out the Cathars with the mandate to use any means to rid the land of the “heretical plague.” The Inquisitors place a bounty on the Parfait with orders to bring them in dead or alive.

Large numbers of Cathars flee through the Pyrenees into the Catalonian region of northeastern Spain, where they form settlements.

The thinning ranks of the Parfait leave the exiles without spiritual leadership. The soldiers of the Inquisition capture Pierre Authié, and he’s burned at the stake. The leaders of the resistance compel William Bélibaste to accompany a contingent of Cathars through the Pyrenees to serve as the spiritual leader for the exiles. Bélibaste, seeing this as an opportunity to escape looming danger, doesn’t question the assignment.

William bids farewell to his wife and children, then sets out with a band of Cathars through the mountains to what he assumes will be a safer territory. But beyond the Pyrenees, an unforeseen twist awaits him.

The Great Pretender

William Bélibaste and the refugees traverse the mountains into Spain in March 1309, where they fan out into different corners of Catalonia. William settles in Morella, where he hides from the papal authorities by fronting as a carder, combing and cleaning raw wool.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Parfait fall victim to the relentless carnage inflicted by the Inquisition, leaving Bélibaste as the lone spiritual leader on both sides of the Pyrenees. And he’s ill-equipped for the job.

The people of the Cathar diaspora call upon William to fulfill his priestly office by performing rites and rituals of the church. Now he wishes he’d paid closer attention during Pierre Authié’s mentorship. But he didn’t, and so he fakes it. Over time, the great pretender becomes more adept in his role by imitating the work of other Parfait he’d witnessed, including his guide, Pierre Authié. Soon he confuses pretense with authenticity. He even compares himself to the Apostle Peter.

Shades of the trickster frequently emerge, however, such as having an affair with another man’s wife and padding his coffer with funds conned from the believers. The pretense continues until a sudden tragedy drives William Bélibaste into a deadly confrontation with a ruthless Inquisitor.

A Sobering Tragedy

Jacques Fournier, the dangerously ambitious Bishop of Pamiers and future pope, offers material and ecclesiastical rewards for the capture of William Bélibaste, the last of the consoled Cathars. Bounty hunters enter Catalonia, hoping to exploit the Bishop’s offer. Bélibaste eludes his pursuers by moving from town to town. Then the Bishop raises the stakes.

In early 1320 Fournier arrests Bélibaste’s Wife and brings her to Pamiers. He sends word to the Cathar community in Catalonia that their Parfait must surrender and return to France or suffer the execution of his family. Tragically William doesn’t receive the message. Fournier carries out his threat and orders the burning of William’s wife and son.

When William Bélibaste receives word of the execution, everything changes.

Transformation

William disappears into the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. No record survives documenting what transpired during this time, but as evidenced by The Last Cathar’s bearing upon his return, a radical transformation occurred.

Moving from city to city, Bélibaste revives and rallies the exiles against their oppressors. In places like Lleida, Morella, Tortosa, Tarragona, an uprising occurs striking fear into the Catholic legates and their henchmen. The resistance fighters raid monasteries, abbeys, churches, and cathedrals.

News of the uprising reaches France and infuses new hope and courage among the persecuted Cathars. Emboldened by the offensive, a raiding party moves against the Bishop’s citadel in Pamiers. Fournier’s small army of guards repels the insurgents, but the enraged Bishop vows revenge at all costs. He hatches a treacherous plot to trap his audacious adversary.

The Last Cathar

One Simon Sicre, a member of Bélibaste’s inner circle, stealthily slips away to Pamiers and returns with his pockets bulging with bribery money. The plot calls for Sicre to lure William to Tirvia, Spain, under the pretense of meeting with Simon’s rich aunt, who ostensibly wants to donate money to the cause. Tirvia lies under the jurisdiction of the French county of Foix, a section of Fournier’s bishopric. Fournier hopes to arrest Bélibaste when he enters the city.

But, owing to the artful work of Cathar spies in Pamiers, an account of the betrayal reaches William Bélibaste and his trusted followers. Bélibaste’s comrades want to catch Sicre and bring him to justice upon his return. To their dismay, however, William orders them to stand down. Privately, The Last Cathar devises a plan of his own to strike a fatal blow against Fournier and the Inquisition.

Martyrdom

In France, news of Bélibaste’s exploits reach far and wide among the Cathars and do not go unnoticed by the offices of the Inquisition. William knows this. He also knows the people long victimized by the papacy need only a compelling catalyst to effect an uprising and boot the Vatican’s puppets out of France. And he knows how to give it to them.

William allows Simon Sicre to earn his thirty pieces of silver. On March 29, 1321, in Tirvia, Spain, the authorities arrest Bélibaste and escort him to Pamiers.

When Bélibaste submits to his arrest without protest, Bishop Fournier suspects duplicity. He moves the site of William’s trial to the remote village of Villerouge-Termenès (Translated Red Village at the End of the Way). There they convict him of heresy and murder and sentence The Last Cather to execution by burning. Still, to the Bishop’s chagrin, William agrees to his fate and goes peacefully to the pyre. One week before Good Friday, April 10, 1321, The Great Pretender turned beloved folk hero dies.

Bishop Fournier finally grasps William Bélibaste’s intent. But it’s too late.

Across the Mountains

News of The Last Cathar’s martyrdom spread rapidly, creating an uproar in France that sends the Inquisitors packing.

With the diffusion of the French Inquisition, the Catalonian exiles cross the high mountains and return home.[1]

A Work in Progress

William Bélibaste’s Beginning and End

William, like all of us, exemplifies a work in progress. Yes, he begins auspiciously as The Great Pretender, but in life, it’s not the start that matters most, it’s how we finish. Wise King Solomon says it like this: Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof (Ecclesiastes 7:8)

The People of God

The life of a Christian consists of a work in progress. Paul writes that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). That means the work continues until Jesus comes, or we go to be with Him. Meanwhile, it behooves us to know that we’re not yet what we will be, or as the Apostle John writes it, Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Samson, a Fallen Hero

The life of Samson, that enigmatic mighty man of Israel, exemplifies a work in progress perhaps more than any character in the Bible.

Samson’s early life almost guarantees that he’ll develop into one of the greatest of all the judges in Israel. The Book of Judges paints a picture of a child blessed from the beginning. The child grew, and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to move him (Judges 13:24-25).

When Samson matures, he exhibits prodigious strength derived from his uncut hair—a requirement of the Nazarite order. But his fatal flaw shows itself early on. Despite all his heroic conquests against Israel’s enemies, his weakness for beautiful women frustrates his potential. A woman named Delilah arranges his final undoing.

Delilah, in league with Samson’s enemies, discovers the secret of his strength and cuts his hair while he sleeps. That makes him easy prey for the Philistines who capture, blind, and enslave him. But that’s not the end of the story.

The Philistines chain Samson between two pillars while they hold a feast to honor Dagon their God and to make sport of their prisoner. All looks lost, but finally, Samson gets it right.

Samson prays to God and asks for his strength to return, then takes hold of the pillars and cries out, Let me die with the Philistines. He pushes the columns with all his might, and the building falls upon the lords and the whole gathering. The writer of Judges records So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life (Judges 16:30).

Samson’s final deed earns him a place in the Bible’s hall of faith, Hebrews 11:32. Samson’s power, so often misused during his prime, at last, serves him well.

Power to Become

John 1:12 teaches that we’re always becoming. As many as received him (Christ), to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.

God enters our life as the Heavenly Father, and we become his children. But not fully developed children. That’s a lifetime proposition. Paul writes in Romans 8:29 that God predestinates His people “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” That’s the goal of this thing called life. When this perfection comes, we shall do away with the partial development (1 Corinthians 13:10).

A wise old preacher paraphrased John Newton and prayed, O, Lord, I know I’m not what I ought to be, and I know I’m not what I will be; but I thank sweet Jesus I’m not what I used to be.

Finding Our Authentic Self

We live a substantial part of our allotted time without a full realization of the purpose for which our life began. We spend much of our life as actors on a stage, as Shakespeare describes it in As You Like It.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

Cervantes makes a similar observation in Don Quixote.

One plays the scoundrel, another the liar, this one the merchant, that one the soldier, another the wise fool, yet another the foolish lover, but when the play is over and they have taken off their costumes, all the actors are equal… The same thing happens in the drama and business of this world… at the end, which is when life is over, death removes all the clothing that differentiated them, and all are equal in the grave.

Maybe you’re conflicted about your role and have even wondered if your life’s a pretense like the early days of William Bélibaste. Such musings serve a purpose, the furtherance of your work in progress. The esteemed theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) entertained doubts about his true identity, even while in a Nazi death camp where his life ended. But he comes to a profound conclusion that can also relieve your doubts and mine.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine! 

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

[1] Snippets of William Bélibaste’s life taken from my screenplay The Last Cathar