In the early thirteenth century the Languedoc was ruled by the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII. Although he was less than a king and was theoretically vassal to the King of France, Raymond was effectively independent, being brother-in-law to the Kings of England and Aragon in Northern Spain.
It was the tolerant Raymond who had allowed the Cathar heresy to flourish in his territories which spread across the whole of the south of modern France and into Provence. So it was against him that the Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III in 1209 – the only crusade against a theoretically Christian country.
The papacy did not have its own armies so they had to recruit from among the princes of Western Europe to assemble a force to invade the Languedoc. This was not difficult since the crusade was in effect a licence to invade the rich lands of Southern France and carry off whatever plunder they could grab.
The Pope tried to induce the French king, then Philllip II, to lead the crusade but he refused to attack his cousin. So a variety of bishops and nobles fought together and they had initial success in seizing Béziers and Carcassonne (see photo). However, when they encountered serious resistance, the army began to break up and it was decided that an overall leader was needed. The man selected was Simon de Montfort.
Simon was a giant of a figure in all ways and for the next ten years he set about systematically reducing the whole of the Languedoc and bringing it under his control. City after city was captured and the Cathar heretics in each one were burned at the stake before he moved on to the next. However the campaign was brought to an end when they laid siege to the capital city of Toulouse and Simon was killed in 1218.
His death lifted the siege and the Count of Toulouse retook much of his territory which he had lost during de Montfort’s campaigns. For a while the church’s battle to wipe out Catharism seemed to have been lost. However there was now a new Pope, Honorius III, and more importantly a new French king, Louis VIII.
Honorius was so worried about losing religious control of a substantial part of the Christian world that he approached Louis to take over leadership of the crusade. The king, for his part, wanted to take the Languedoc into the French kingdom and he agreed to lead the crusade provided that he was awarded all of the lands which he conquered. He also required the rich Church to pay him a substantial sum of money each year to keep his treasury in credit. From that moment the fate of the Cathars was sealed.
I will tell you about the end of the crusade next week.
Once again, I am indebted to Zoe Oldenbourg’s Massacre at Montségur for much of the above information. The conclusions I have drawn are my own.