In 1226 the French King Louis VIII took over leadership of the crusade against the Cathars with the blessing of Pope Honorius III. His aim was less the extermination of Catharism than to add the province of the Languedoc to his kingdom. By 1230 he had overrun virtually the whole of the Count of Toulouse’s lands and compelled him to submit to the Treaty of Meaux which ceded protection of his territories to France. The Count himself, Raymond VII, was imprisoned for a time to ensure that he complied with the extremely humiliating terms forced on him.
However this didn’t succeed in exterminating Catharism but only drove it underground. As a consequence the next Pope, Gregory IX, set up the Inquisition in 1233 charged with hunting out and burning the heretics. For the next ten years this religious body systematically worked its way through the territories where the Cathars had flourished, spreading terror before it. Ever since that period the Inquisition has been thought of as the most horrendous and bloodthirsty of the Catholic Church’s weapons against heresy.
Nevertheless the excesses of the Inquisition raised great resentment and resistance among the local population and sympathy increased for the Cathars who were gradually driven back in their reduced numbers towards their unofficial headquarters of Montségur in the high Pyrenees. In fact the increased support for Raymond VII led him to rebel in 1240 against the French overlordship of his kingdom and for a period he won back some of the independence he had previously known. However he couldn’t hope to lead his weakened province successfully against the might of the French nation and he accepted final defeat in late 1242.
With the last hurdle to their complete domination removed, the crusaders finally felt strong enough to attack the last Cathar stronghold of Montségur and this was besieged in May 1243. You will see from the photo that the castle occupies a spectacular site on top of a rocky outcrop 3,500 feet above sea level with deep valleys on three sides and approached by an easily defended ridge on the fourth side. Around the area are clustered peaks up to 10,000 feet high, capped by snow for much of the year. The castle can be visited and the walk up is quite challenging.
It is not therefore surprising that only about 200 Cathars and their supporting men at arms were able to hold off several thousand besieging soldiers for nearly a year. This was partly because the difficult terrain made it almost impossible to completely surround every track leading up to the castle and the local population were sympathetic to the Cathar cause, so they were able to receive small quantities of supplies and probably to release bulky items of treasure and families who might have otherwise been at risk.
Next week I will describe the final wiping out of the Cathars. Once again, I am indebted to Zoe Oldenbourg’s Massacre at Montségur for a lot of the above information although the conclusions I have drawn from it are my own.