Often described as one of the most beautiful ruins in France (and that’s saying something as far as ruins go) the Abbey of Alet-les-Bains nestles in a sheltered spot in the High Valley of the Aude in the centre of the little town of Alet-les-Bains.
It is generally thought to date from c813, founded by Béra, the Viscount of Razès for the Benedictine order.
During its early years the Abbey flourished. In the 11th century it was endowed with a fragment of the True Cross of the Lord. The monks received a visit from Pope Urban himself in 1096 and the abbey’s possessions increased substantially. During the 12th century it became an influential and popular site for pilgrims.
Just when everything was running smoothly, in 1197 the abbot, Pons Amiel died. As the abbey was founded by the Viscount de Razès it fell to him, according to custom, to appoint the new abbot. Unfortunately the Viscount was only nine years old. His guardian Bertrand de Saissac took on the responsibility on the young Viscount’s behalf.
However the monks elected their own candidate without reference to Bertrand and elected Bernard de Saint-Férréol. Bertrand was less than happy with the monks’ choice and threw Bernard out of the abbey.
And this is where the plot thickens because there are two slightly different versions as to what happened next and both are a bit grisly.
One version reveals that Bertrand appointed his own candidate, Boson who then had the body of poor old Pons Amiel exhumed, dressed him in all his abbatiale regalia, sat him in the abbot’s chair and tried the corpse under church law and condemned him. But for what? To what?
Apparently these trials, strange as they seem, were not uncommon. There is one documented case of a Pope suffering a post-mortem trial and condemned to suffer posthumous mutilation. Since he had been dead for quite a while one wonders how this was carried out!
The second version of this tale follows along similar lines. However in this version Bertrand dis-inters Pons Amiel, places him on the abbot’s throne and gathers together those monks who supported his choice of Boson. Under the eyes of the corpse these few monks elected Boson. After he was elected Boson sent a sweetener…er…important donation to the archbishop of Narbonne who confirmed his election.
But this story doesn’t quite end here.
In 1222 Conrad, the Pope’s legate condemned Bozon (again – for what?) and ordered that all the monks be chased from the abbey. The abbey was secularised and became a dependence of the church of Narbonne.
There was a happy ending for those monks who had not supported Boson. They appealed direct to the Pope who set up an enquiry and a year later in 1223 the abbey was restored to the monks.