The Crusade against the Cathar and the End at Montségur
The site of Montségur, in the Ariège not far from Foix, is visitable every day from May 15 until September 15. After that the site is open on weekends. A fee of 5.50 euros per adult and 2 euros per child is demanded at the entrance. There is a local guide whose visits are in French, and there is a small museum in the tiny, cute village of Montségur that is just below the site. Montségur is about one hour from Toulouse in a lovely mountainous region.
Important Dates and Events
1209: Beginning of the Crusade against the Cathars: Siege of Béziers, Carcassonne
1209-13: Battles for Languedoc: Destruction of Lavaur, First assault of Toulouse
1218: Death of Simon de Montfort, death of Pierre of Aragon, 2nd, 3rd assaults of Toulouse
1229: Signing of the Treaty of Meaux by Raymond VII
1233: Beginning of the Inquisition
1243: Final stand of the Cathars at Montségur
1244: End of Catharism in Occitania
Arnaud Armaury: emissary for Pope Innocent III
Viscount Trencavel: Defender of his region and his people
Simon de Montfort: Head of the French army – avid of riches
Dame Guiraude: Noblewoman, Lady of Lavaur: martyr of Catharism
Counts Raymond VI, VII: Father and son – Indecisive rulers, last Counts of Toulouse
Raimond de Pereille: Nobleman who rebuilt Montségur for the Cathars
This is the story of a terrible period of war in the southwest of France a long time ago, in the early 1200’s, and how it changed history forever. Both a religious war and a fight for control over the region that is called Occitania, the war lasted for over 30 years off and on and culminated in the tragic story of Montségur.
A Brief Background
Starting in the late 1100’s, a reform Christian movement, or religion, took hold in much of what is now the southwest of France. Occitania was not at that time a part of the kingdom of France but was under the control of the Counts of Toulouse. The country that is now France was composed of many small independent regions, with Dukes or Counts as their leaders, and even though they were supposed to pledge allegiance to the French king as part of the feudal system, they were essentially independent.
The new religious movement, which we now call Catharism, became extremely important in the southwest by the beginning of the 1200’s. It was a fundamentalist movement claiming to be closer to the original spirit of early Christianity, preaching hard work, sharing of goods, a simple life, with no real hierarchy and for its clergy, a celibate, vegan and itinerant existence. And its Christian philosophy was a form of duelism, there was a good God and a bad God as well (See Annie’s podcast on the theology of Catharism for a detailed explanation). Thousands and thousands of people including many of the nobility and the well-educated left the Catholic church and influenced the peasants and villagers to join them. There were entire villages and towns that had become havens of Catharism.
This led to a major crisis in the Catholic Church which was losing its political and religious influence as well as a major source of income. Several popes had sent emissaries to the region to get an idea of what was going on and to figure out how to bring people back to the Church. But the reports indicated that there was great resistance to going back to the Catholic Church and basically the popes saw the entire southwest region as being lost to the Church. So, with the help of his most loyal servant, the king of France, a pope, Innocent III decided that if it was impossible to convince people to come back to the Church as “good Catholics” by preaching then the only solution was simply to eradicate the movement, by eliminating these “heretics”, these followers of Catharism.
And so, in the year 1209, an army of soldiers loyal to the French king and some of his nobles, as well as a large contingent of mercenaries, organized themselves into a huge force of about 30,000 men, and came south, going down the Rhone Valley heading to the region that was a hotbed of Cathars.
Now the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VI, and two of his cousins, the Viscount Roger Trencavel, and Pierre, Count of Foix, were aware of the danger of this coming army. So was the King of Aragon, Pierre, who was the Count of Toulouse’s brother-in-law. Each of them had a region to protect and they each had their own knights and soldiers. The first to realize the danger awaiting them was the Viscount Trencavel, whose territories included Carcassonne, Albi, Lavaur, and the Razès area. He tried to warn the others and implored them to create a unified army to fight against the “Pope’s” army. If they had put all of their forces together, they probably could have defeated the French king’s troupes, but each of these leaders had a reason to not make one big army: protecting their own territories, mistrusting the motivations of the others, not feeling personally endangered.
By the time the huge French army arrived at the scene of the first major battle, at the town of Béziers, there was only Viscount Trencavel and his troops to face them. Trencavel, who tried to negotiate with the French army, left Béziers before the battle began, to prepare his own troops at Carcassonne. The Siege of Béziers has gone down in history for its brutality, and for announcing what was going to happen afterwards.
The walled city, judged impregnable, would have been so, had it not been for a small group of imprudent who thought it would be okay to leave the fortified city by a back portal to get water or arms. But their action was scene by the enemy and very quickly the invading army forced its way into the city where over 6 or 7000 people were hiding. The very famous story – exactly true or not, is that a soldier of the French army asked Arnaud Armaury, the pope’s representative, and theoretical head of the army, ‘” who do we kill, they all look the same?”, to which Armaury responded,” Kill them all, God will know”! And indeed, the entire population of Béziers was massacred, men, women, children. The terror had begun. And the word spread that the army was there to kill everyone.
From there, the army marched on to Carcassonne, pillaging and killing in every village along the way. The two big prizes for them were Carcassonne, home to the powerful, and brave Viscount, and Toulouse, capital and home to the Counts of Toulouse.
The siege of Carcassonne lasted several weeks in July of 1209. Thousands were given protection inside the walls of this fortified city. After a certain time, because of the heat, all the wells dried out and Trencavel saw that his people were going to start dying of thirst and of starvation too. And so, in order to save them, he called for a meeting with the new head of the French army, Simon de Montfort. Seeing no way out, he offered to give himself up, in exchange for the freeing of all of his subjects. Trencavel was taken prisoner in the dungeon in his castle in Carcassonne, and the population was let out, banished from their homes and exiled far away. Simon de Montfort, a seasoned warrior, a minor nobleman, avid for fame and great power, took over the castle as his headquarters. Word spread of the terror of these troops who had no mercy, and town after town fell to them.
Lavaur, which had become completely Cathar, was surrounded and attacked. The Lady of Lavaur, Dame Guiraude, a widow who had become a priestess of Catharism, her son, her daughter, and all of her subjects, were surrounded, and the entire population was killed. As an example, she was stoned to death in a pit and her son was hung. Lavaur was completely devastated like Beziers.
From there the army of Simon de Montfort moved on to Toulouse. Their first major battle was in 1211 and de Montfort managed to take control of a good part of the city. Even though it was fortified, and had an important population, the Count Raymond VI’s vacillations between defending the Cathar and not, meant that no other army wanted to associate with his, and his troops were no match for the huge French army. Montfort rejoiced in this first victory and saw his future as the “new” Count of Toulouse. He returned to Carcassonne which was his headquarters and left a part of the army to keep control of Toulouse.
His son, Armaury, was not a good military leader, and the repressive nature of his troops meant that very soon there was an organized revolt preparing in Toulouse. Simon de Montfort was preparing to attack further south, in the Pyrenees, going through Mirepoix, heading for the fortified city of Foix. Pierre of Aragon saw that his small kingdom on the other side of the Pyrenees was in danger, and so finally accepted to join forces with the Count of Toulouse. A major battle was fought in Muret, a town a bit south of Toulouse, and even though de Montfort’s troops were pushed back, Pierre of Aragon was killed.
There was another big revolt in Toulouse in 1218 and this time, Simon de Montfort came back with all the troops he had to put down, what he hoped would be the last uprising because the people of Toulouse, whether Cathar or not, were causing a great deal of trouble. In the Spring then of 1218 he and his troops surrounded the ramparts of Toulouse, coming up from the south. But as luck would have it, de Montfort himself was killed by a stone catapulted over the ramparts. The legend is that a woman was the one who shot off the stone that killed him, and she is celebrated in Toulouse to this day!
His son took their army back to Carcassonne and Toulouse was saved. But the fighting continued off and on over the next 9 years. In spite of the death of de Montfort, the lack of unity of the various rulers in the area meant that there was never any decisive victory, thousands were being killed in every village and town in Occitania. The Cathars were fleeing into the hills and mountains, trying to get as far away from the French armies as possible.
Finally, exhausted and without further resources, Raymond VII, the last Count of Toulouse, admitted defeat, even though de Montfort was no longer there, and de Montfort’s son, Armaury had taken his body back to their fief in Normandy. Raymond VII was forced to accept a treaty with the French king, Louis IX, signing over to France all his very vast territory at his death, if he did not have any legitimate male children. And his daughter, Jeanne, aged 12 in 1229, was married off to the French king’s brother. This treaty, the Treaty of Meaux, signaled the end of independence for Occitania which became part of the kingdom of France.
But, after 20 years of war, the Cathar were still there! The killing and terror did not keep them from their faith, and with all this bloodshed, there were still not that many people going back to the Catholic Church. Less visible, but as determined as ever to keep their new religion, the new pope decided that if all out war didn’t work, individual persecution and threats would do the trick. And so, in the year 1233, in Toulouse, the concept of Inquisition was born.
Question: Are you a heretic? Do you accept returning to the “only true” church? These were the questions that were asked. If the person said yes, and seemed sincere, their life was saved (most of the time) but there was a public humiliation and often their goods were confiscated. And if the person didn’t say “yes”, but stayed loyal to Catharism, that person was tortured, and killed. Between 1233 and 1234 so many people were “put to the question” as it was called, that the city sent a petition to the king and the pope to get the Inquisitors out of Toulouse.
But this didn’t keep the Inquisition from continuing its activity.
The Cathars were by now mostly hiding in the mountains and in far away villages. How many were left? No one really knows. Perhaps things would have eventually calmed down and they would have been forgotten, but in 1242 three Cathar faydits (chevaliers loyal to the Cathar but still warriors) went to the town of Avigonnet, not too far from Toulouse, and murdered the two cruel Inquisitors that were there. Because of that the new pope called for the complete extermination of the Cathars!
Most of the religious Cathar had gone into hiding in the foothills of the Pyrenees. A nobleman, named Raimond Pereille, whose whole family were Cathar, and whose lands were in the area around a mountain near Foix called Montségur, had used his personal fortune during the terrible crusade, to renovate an ancient, fortified castle on the top of the mountain near his village. Hundreds of Cathar were living in or around this castle, perched on top of a very steep mountain.
Hiding but prepared to defend themselves, they had about 50 knights and a few hundred people living there when the French army came and surrounded the mountain in 1243. At first the Cathar held them off. They had wells, and a tunnel for sneaking out and getting supplies. But once the French army started to destroy the walls and blocked the tunnel they were trapped.
At the beginning of 1244 a truce was called. The French army offered the people on the mountain 15 days to decide whether to renounce their faith and be saved (and avoid the Inquisition). They were told that if they didn’t surrender, they would be burned inside their fortress.
About 19 citizens of Montségur, who were not priests or priestesses of Catharism, gave themselves up to the French army. The remaining population refused to do so.
On March 16, 1244, 225 men, women and children, who would not abjure their religion, were burned alive inside the destroyed walls of the castle of Montségur. These included the wife, and three daughters of Raimond de Pereille, whose son had already been killed. Whoever was Cathar and still living and hiding somewhere else in the area, fled. Most of them went to Lombardy where Catharism was tolerated.
The massacre of Montségur signaled the end of Catharism and rebellion in Occitania. After the death of Raymond VII in 1249, his son in law, Alphonse de Poitiers became ruler of the region and Catharism disappeared forever.
Famous Quotes from this Crusade
“Kill them all, God will know” attributed to Arnaud Amaury
“Let them free, I give myself up” – Viscount Trencavel (died in November of 1209 in his dungeon)
“I’ll have all this territory to rule” – Simon de Montfort
“We will find a way to bring them back to the Church” – Dominique de Guzman, first Dominican
“We prefer to die than to give up our faith” – The Cathar martyrs of Montségur