Obituary: Walter Birks

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The Independent Culture
IF WALTER Birks had followed his pre-war calling he would have died a Cathar pope, leader of the heretical religious sect based at the ruined castle of Montsegur in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.

He was anointed as the chosen one in 1938 by the Cathar movement's then leader Antonin Gadal, but Birks's subsequent spiritual experiences while serving in the Middle East during the Second World War led him to rethink his vocation. He later became an authority on the so-called "treasure of Montsegur" and published a book on the history of Catharism.

After studying history at Merton College, Oxford, in the early 1930s, Birks fell in with a crowd who were involved in spiritualist activities. He went to lectures given by the occultist Dion Fortune and was inspired to devote his life to the supernatural. He later said: "She was a marvellous speaker and a whole new world opened up to me - or so I thought at the time. I was immensely impressed and joined an occult order."

During a seance he was given instructions from the White Eagle Lodge, a spiritualist circle, to go to the Pyrenees and recover traces of a brotherhood: "I was teaching at a school in Wales, but was instructed by the Order to resign because a great job was planned for me." There he met Gadal, successor to Adolphe Garrigou (1802-1897), the Cathar patriarch who had kept the flame of the sect alive during the 19th century. Birks wrote in his diary: "I was greeted by Antonin Gadal who told me that he had been awaiting my arrival in `the year of the Grail'."

Although it has its roots in much older religious movements, Catharism broke away from the Catholic Church during the 12th century. Initially Cathars were tolerated, but when a deputation went to Rome in 1179 to seek recognition, its members were forbidden to preach. Similar revolts against the established church burned out rapidly, but the movement in the South of France gave the pontiff cause for concern. Indeed, by the end of the 12th century Catharism had virtually displaced the Church of Rome as the recognised vehicle of Christian revelation throughout the Languedoc.

It claimed to be nothing less than the true Church of Christ, its orders handed down in unbroken succession from the Apostles. Furthermore, the Cathars reputedly held great treasures within their citadel base of Montsegur at Ussat-les-Bains, in the valley of the Ariege.

Catharism was a strange and heterodox creed which rejected substantial parts of both the Old and the New Testaments, while condemning the Pope, priests and sacraments alike. Given the established Church's firm application of law during the Middle Ages, an unholy end was inevitable. Pope Innocent IV felt obliged to act. A series of missions, denouncements, excommunications and inquisitions failed to make any impact. And so, on 16 March 1244, following a 10-month siege, more than 200 Cathars were taken from the castle of Montsegur and burned alive in the fields below. But they went to their deaths in the knowledge that their treasure had been smuggled safely out by just four of their number who had scaled sheer cliff faces in the dead of night.

During 1937 and 1938 Birks explored the castle and the surrounding caves which had become holy sites. He also spoke with those who knew of the Cathars. Gadal was himself an inspiring speaker and the power of his oratory coupled with his utter sincerity convinced Birks that Gadal possessed hidden spiritual truths. Furthermore, Gadal was only too willing to share these truths with the eager scholar.

Birks settled in happily, assisting Gadal in his work and acting as his amanuensis. Gadal in turn enabled Birks to become manager of both the local spas and the nearby Grand Hotel des Bains.

Known locally as "the Cathar pope", Gadal was by now more than 60 years old. During 1938 he came to the decision that Birks was to be his successor and, on 16 September that year, a formal ceremony took place in the nearby rock church of Ornolac in which the young Englishman was duly anointed.

Meanwhile, war in Europe was on the horizon. Returning home, Birks was commissioned into the British Security Mission in Syria. For three years he was Head of Mission in Lattakia, a particularly sensitive area close to the Turkish border. There, a friendship with a representative of the local Nosairi religion led him to rethink his spiritual views. He later wrote: "It was there, high in the Nosairi mountains, under the clear stars, that I finally shed the fantasies of occultism and realised the true nature of the Cathar treasure."

After the war Birks returned to Ussat-les-Bains where he and Gadal attempted to revive the fortunes of the spa, but post-war austerity did not encourage tourism and in 1948 the lease was surrendered. It was during a series of subsequent teaching posts in Cairo, Istanbul and Tripoli that Birks began to write down his many thoughts on Catharism.

In 1987 - almost 20 years after his retirement from teaching - he finally published his magnum opus on the subject. It was a joint publication with the writer Robert Gilbert, entitled The Treasure of Montsegur, and opened up for the first time the truth about the Cathars and their secret treasure, a treasure that was more spiritual than material.

As Birks pointed out in the book, the four who escaped death by fire in 1244 had such a difficult route out of the castle they certainly could not have hauled material possessions. "All the natural treasure like gold had long gone. And going down a steep hill on ropes meant that they could not have carried anything with them. If all the Cathars had been exterminated their claim would have died with them."

Birks retired to a quiet flat in a residential quarter of Bath. He lectured in history and religion at the city's Technical College and was latterly a tourist guide for the Mayor of Bath's Corps of Honorary Guides, where his erudition and knowledge of languages came in useful.

By the end of his life Birks viewed the Cathars with barely disguised contempt: "There has been masses of occult nonsense written about Cathars. I believed it all those years ago but now know it is a lot of hooey. Montsegur is rather like Glastonbury. It attracts all the weirdies and beardies looking for treasure. They all think they know the answer, but the occult is a lot of baloney."

Tim Bullamore

Walter Newbigging Birks, teacher and religious leader: born Middlesbrough 25 January 1912; MBE 1968; died Bath 25 January 1999.