Cathar Castles & Catharism in Languedoc Roussillon

Cathar is a term that was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church during the middle of the twelfth century to describe members of a community of apostles travelling throughout Europe. Cathars were first condemned as heretics by the church in the German Rhineland, but this didn't prevent them appearing throughout other parts of Europe often with a different label. It was in, what is now known as, the French Midi and the middle or northern parts of Italy that 'Catharism' was most readily accepted, much to the chagrin of the Roman Catholic Church.

Albigensians was another popular name used to describe the Cathars and so the crusade against them, initiated by Pope Innocent III at the beginning of the thirteenth century, is known as either the 'Cathar' or 'Albigensian' Crusade.

It was during this crusade that the 'Cathar Castles' were systematically attacked in an attempt to eradicate 'Catharism' from the region of the Languedoc and surrounding areas in Southern France. The most famous leader of the crusade was Simon De Monfort, this despite the fact that he only lived through around 9 years of what was to become a forty six year campaign, meeting his demise at the battle of Toulouse in 1218.

Many of the fortresses involved in the Albigensian Crusade still exist today and are high on the list of 'places of interest' for anyone with an interest in history wishing to visit Cathar Country in France. The most famous of which is probably Carcassonnes' 'La Cite'. A working and thriving walled city that is now an important part of the capital of the Aude department of Languedoc Roussillon and a World Heritage Site.

A Map of the Pays Cathar

To discover the locations and some of the important dates associated with the Pays Cathar refer to the map included via the link below.

See: Map of Cathar Country in the South of France
Carcassonnes 'La Cite'

Carcassonnes 'La Cite'

Sitting above the River Aude looking down on what is known as the 'Ville Basse' in Carcassonne, you will find 'La Cite'. The biggest of the remaining Cathar Fortresses and a sight to behold.

It was the home and property of the powerful Trencavel family at the beginning of the Cathar Crusade and is where Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel was taken prisoner by the crusaders in August 1209. As large as it was 'La Cite' only managed to hold out against the crusaders for a measly 6 days. After Raymond's capture the 'Cite' and its estates were passed to Simon De Montfort, the then new chief of the crusade.

Later, and after Simon's death, his son Amaury De Montfort ceded the castle to the King of France in 1224, consequently abandoning his family rights in that part of France and starting a trend of the royals taking possession of big chunks of property and land in the area.

In modern times La Cite has adopted the role of major tourist attraction and each year it plays host to a festival that lasts nearly 6 weeks through July from June to August with the main spectacle being the Bastille Day celebrations on the 14th of July when, reportedly, you will be treated to France's best firework display.

It is incredibly spectacular and even if you have seen it before it is always worth another visit. But be prepared for huge crowds (around 700,000) and a long delay leaving the city after the fireworks have finished. That is assuming you are not tempted to go and listen to the music in 'Place Carnot' in the 'Ville Basse' or explore the city bars, cafes and restaurants while the crowds dissipate.

On more tranquil days you can gain free access to most of 'La Cite' (Although there is a 5 euro parking fee in the main carpark), wander through it's medieval streets, visit the huge ramparts and perhaps partake in a leisurely lunch or dinner as you people watch some of the 3 million plus visitors that go to Carcassonne each year.

See: Carcassonne Festival

Saissac Chateau

Saissac was another fortress captured from Bertrand De Saissac during the crusade against the Albigensians by Bouchard de Marly. Later it became the property of a another former companion of Simon De Montfort, Lambert de Thury, it then passed into the heritage of the Levy family of Mirepoix.

Today it has undergone a certain amount of restoration, much needed after a long period of abuse and neglect, but it can still be accessed for a visit. The entrance fee is relatively modest and you can watch a film presenting information on the old currency, in particular on the "tresor" found in Saissac during building works around 1973.

What really adds to the visit are the views across the Carcassonne Plains towards the Pyrenees, in fact there are several viewpoints in Saissac generally which are worth investigating if the castle is closed through from November to March.

Lastours Chateaux

Lastours Chateaux

You get value for money at Lastours, four chateaux for the price of one. They all stand at the top of a rocky ridge overlooking the valleys of the Orbiel and the Gresillou. It too played a significant role in the Cathar Crusade falling to the crusaders in 1211 but then being taken back during the period from 1223 to 1229 putting up a strong resistance to the advances of the French King Louise VIII's Crusade. It was rebuilt in 1238 and was then re-integrated back into the French kingdom's South of France defense system.

Another bonus to heading towards Lastours is that it is very close to Limousis underground caves so if the weather did turn a little inclement, you could take shelter via a tour of the grotto.

Puivert Chateau

The Congosts, lords of Puivert, were protectors of Catharism and in their turn were captured by the crusaders in 1210. After this Lambert de Thury laid claim to the property followed by Pons de Bruyeres. Ultimately, however, Puivert was to become a stately home rather than a fortress and as such it has taken on a more sophisticated form.

One of the most interesting features of the castle is the 'Keep' which now houses eight figurative musical instruments on its second floor in what is known as the Minstrels' Room. Once again though, due to its elevated position, there are some wonderful views to be had from the top floor of the Keep.

There is also the Quercorb museum in the village of Puivert which is dedicated to the craftsmanship of the region with a reconstruction of a former forge.

Puilaurens Chateau

Puilaurens sits atop a 697m high mountain and was part of the Saissac lineage during the crusade. When you see it, it is hard to imagine how it could have been built back in the days when everything was done through manual labor. As with all of the Cathar Fortresses you are left marveling at the ingenuity of the men that built them.

It's location meant that it played a part in the repression of the Spanish attacks during the 17th century only to become obsolete following the treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.

Aguilar Chateau

Another chateau that effectively became obsolete with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Once a key element of the Corbieres defense it was fortified around the end of the XI century and controlled by the lords of Termes. This family was one of the most hostile towards the armies of the crusade.

Like many of the other chateaux of this region it was ultimately integrated into the royal defense system for Southern France before it became obsolete.

Aguilar is the nearest of the Cathar Fortresses to the Mediterranean coastline not very far from Fitou.

Termes Chateau

Termes is most famous for the length of its siege during the Albigensian Crusade. A full four months and when the water tanks were empty Raymond de Termes one of the most prolific Cather heretics finally offered to surrender. But changed his mind when an overnight storm partly replenished the tanks.

Unfortunately it only delayed the inevitable and shortly after the fortress fell and Raymond was captured.

The fortress then followed the same path as many others in the area and became a part of the royal's southern defense. Ultimately it was demolished by royal decree when it became base used tby criminal elements to terrorize the inhabitants of the region.

Arques Chateau

Another of the Termes controlled chateaux taken over by the royal power after the Crusade. Perhaps more significant today because of the fact that the village sheltered a small Cathar community as late as the 14th century and was the birthplace of Deodat Roche who died in 1978 but during his life attempted to revive Cathar ideals.

His house is the location for a permanent exhibition devoted to Catharism and its interpretations.

Villerouge-Termenes Chateau

One significance of this chateau is that it is where Guilhem Belibaste, widely regarded as the last 'Bon Homme' or 'Parfait' of Languedoc, was burned at the stake in 1321.

He had killed a shepherd before fleeing to Catalonia in Spain, but was ultimately betrayed, returned to Languedoc and after his trial, Bernard de Farges, an archbishop of Narbonne ordered that he should be burnt at the stake.

You can take a guided tour inside the chateau to experience the life and times of Guilhem Belibaste and also to understand why the chateau was so important as a part of the possessions of the archbishops of Narbonne.

The Fortress of Peyrepertuse

The Fortress of Peyrepertuse

Located at the southern edge of the Corbieres its main function was to serve as an essential part of the French Kingdom's defense system against Aragon from around 1242.

It played less of a part in the Albigensian Crusade due to the fact that it was a part of Aragon. It was only when Pierre II of Aragon entered the conflict in 1217 that Peyrepertuse became involved.

In terms of size,its scale is close to that of Carcassonne itself, but its position is one that reflects Quéribus, Puilaurens, Termes, and Aguilar, all are situated at the top of effectivle 'unassailable' rocky peaks and collectively they are known as the 'Five Sons of Carcassonne'.

Chateau de Montsegur

Chateau de Montsegur

The chateau you can see today is not the chateau that existed at what is widely regarded as the last significant Cathar stand in 1244. This is because following its fall, the original structure was completely dismantled. It was actually rebuilt over the following 3 centuries from a period beginning at the end of the 13th century through into the 16th century.

That shouldn't be a disappointment however, just think about how amazing it is, that this massive structure built on the top of a rocky precipice was not just achieved once, but twice.

Queribus Chateau

Queribus Chateau

Queribus was where the last of the Cathars sheltered following the fall of Montsegur in 1244, but it wasn't until 1255, some eleven years later, that Chabert de Barbaira was forced to surrender the citadel. That really was the end of the Cathar or Albigensian Crusade some 46 years after it started in 1209.

Catharism was, to all intents and purposes, eradicated. But it was a long hard crusade that saw many deaths, burnings and conflicts. All initiated by the Roman Catholic Church, although the main instigator Pope Innocent III didn't actually survive to see the end of the crusade he started, he died in 1216 only seven years after it started.

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