MONTSEGUR
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FORTRESS (PART I)

Copyright Peter Wronski 2002

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NOTE ON THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE RUINS OF MONTSEGUR

The intention of this website is to present a sober and factually accurate as possible history of Montsegur and its relationship to the Cathar faith.  Central to this objective, is the decidedly unromantic fact that the present fortress ruin at Montsegur in France,  is not from the Cathar era.  The original Cathar fortress of Montsegur was entirely pulled down by the victorious French Royal forces after the fall of the castle and the surrender of the Cathers in 1244.   It was gradually rebuilt and upgraded over the next three centuries by Royal forces.  The current ruin dramatically occupying the site, and featured in illustrations, including those in this website,  is referred to by French archeologists as "Montsegur III" and is typical of post-medieval Royal French defensive architecture.  It is not "Montsegur II",  the structure in which the Cathars lived and were besieged and of which no trace remains.   

This is a fact that the French tourist authority underplays and one that Cathar enthusiasts often overlook; especially when discussing Montsegur's alleged solar alignment characteristics said to be visible on the morning of the summer solstice.  This often mentioned solar phenomenon, allegedly occurring in an alignment of two windows in the fortress wall,  has not been scientifically surveyed, measured, recorded or confirmed.    

The Groupe de Recherches Archeologiques de Montsegur et Environs  (GRAME) which conducted a definitive thirteen year archeological excavation of Montsegur and its vicinity in 1964 -1976, concluded in its final report that:  "There remains no trace of the actual ruin of the first fortress which was abandoned before the 13th century (Montsegur I), nor of the one which was built by Raymond de Pereille around 1210 (Montsegur II)..."  

(See: Groupe de Recherches Archeologiques de Montsegur et Environs (GRAME), Montsegur:  13 ans de rechreche archeologique, Lavelanet: 1981.   pg. 76.:  "Il ne reste aucune trace dan les ruines actuelles ni du premier chateau que etait a l'abandon au debut du XII siecle (Montsegur I), ni de celui que construisit Raimon de Pereilles vers 1210 (Montsegur II)...")  

The small ruins of the terraced dwellings, however, immediately outside the perimeter of the current fortress walls on the north-eastern flank, are confirmed to be traces of authentic former Cathar habitations.

( For further discussion on this issue see:  http://www.cathares.org/heresis/heresis33-49.html  
                                                          and  http://www.cathares.org/montsegur.html )

 

 1.  THE PRE-CATHAR PERIOD 

The south western region of France, where Montsegur is located, has some of the oldest traces of human inhabitants since the dawn of time.  

The cave of
Chavet-Pont-D'Arc, for example, discovered in 1994 contains the world's oldest known cave paintings--dating back an astonishing 30,000 years!

The region in the immediate vicinity of Montsegur, the Lasset Valley is dotted with numerous prehistoric sites.  The region is also densely laced with deep and complex cave formations and underground rivers sources.

It appears that some kind of fortress or temple already existed on the site of Montsegur, perhaps Spanish, prior to its conversion into a Cathar stronghold.  Nonetheless, the only archeological trace discovered of pre-Cathar human habitation on the peak of Montsegur, was a Roman coin dating to the year 260-268 AD.  It was found in 1964 immediately outside the north-eastern wall of the fortress where several terraced habitations were once located.


[Source:  Groupe de Recherches Archeologiques de Montsegur et Environs (GRAME), Montsegur:  13 ans de rechreche archeologique, Lavelanet: 1981.]

 

 2. THE CATHAR ERA 1204 - 1242 

According to a deposition given to the Inquisition on March 30, 1244 by the captured co-seigneur of Montsegur, Raymond de Pereille (b.1190-1244?), the fortress was "restored" in 1204 at the request of Cather perfecti Raymond de Mirepoix and Raymond Blasco.
[Source: Doat V 22 fo 207] 

The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars was launched in 1209.  At the time the territory in question was not a part of France--it was known as Occitania, ruled by powerful independent local aristocrats.  Neighboring Catalonia and Aragon exerted their spheres of influence over the region and the English were attempting to penetrate as well.  The Crusade was as much about the Capetian French Crown consolidating its power over the territory as it was a religious crusade.

In its first several years, the blitz- like crusade devastated the Cathar Church, but as the crusade petered out into sporadic summer campaigns in later years, Cathars effectively regrouped by 1229.  Montsegur remained remote from the warfare and functioned as center for Cathar refugees.  In 1229 the Treaty of Paris was signed, officially calling an end to the crusade--with the local lords agreeing to recognize the authority of the French Crown and to aid in the persecution of Cathars.  But some of the lords only gave lip-service to the treaty and continued to aid the Cathars in secret.

In 1230, the leader of the heretics, bishop Guilhabert de Castres asked Raymond de Pereille for permission to make Montsegur the seat of the Cathar Church.

 In 1232, the Cathars asked Raymond if they could live infracastrum--within the castle.  Montsegur was thereafter gradually fortified and various adjunct walls were constructed along its southern and northern slopes.  With the torrent of Cathar refugees and clergy arriving at Montsegur, a small terraced village grew in size beneath the fortress walls on the north-eastern flank.

In 1233 the Inquisition was officially instituted, empowering Dominican and Franciscan friars to prosecute heresy and demanding, according to the terms of the Paris Treaty, local secular authorities to assist and enforce the Inquisition's actions.  The Inquisition spread terror throughout the region but it was not an easy going.  Inquisitors were frequently attacked and run out of town--local lords issued advance warning to Cathars and secretly sabotaged Inquisitorial efforts.  Even the new French masters disliked the Inquisition as they felt it was bad for commerce,  disturbing local peace and order in their newly acquired domains.

In 1234, Raymond Pereille's dispossessed cousin, Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix (b.1194/1202-d.1244/62 ?) arrived at Montsegur with his relatives, knights and men-at-arms and married Raymond's young daughter Philippa.  With the marriage he became the co-seigneur of Montsegur, and effectively its commander.  The future administration and defense of Montsegur was to be conducted mostly by Pierre-Roger, and not the legendary Raymond Pereille.

Pierre-Roger Mirepoix was by reputation a young and bellicose lord who fought bitterly against the French Catholics during the crusade and as a result lost his lands to them after the Treaty of Paris.  His father was Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix le Vieux, co-seigneur of Mirepoix and brother of Guillaume-Roger de Mirepoix--Raymond Pereille's father.  According to Inquisition records, Pierre-Roger le Vieux died circa 1209 and received the Cathar perfect's consolamentum  upon his death bed.

Upon his installation as co-seigneur of Montsegur, Pierre-Roger Mirepoix began to organize the defense of Montsegur.  Pierre-Roger had brought with him a complement of dispossessed court officials, knights and men-at-arms who began to patrol and further fortify the approaches to Montsegur.  Pierre-Roger himself, is reported to have made appearances in various parts of the region, plotting and aiding in rebellion and disorder in Occitania.

In 1241, the local overlord Raymond VII, the powerful Count of Toulouse, who with his father Raymond VI, had fought the Crusaders for decades,, made peace with the French Crown.  Part of the terms included his promise to destroy Montsegur.  But Raymond VII was a Cathar sympathizer who continued plotting against the French and the Catholic authorities behind their backs.  His siege of Montsegur in the summer of 1241 was nominal and half-hearted.  The roads and paths to Montsegur remained opened; the besieging troops consisted of Cathar sympathizers and clandestine believers, and by the autumn the siege melted away. 

It would be an assassination launched from Montsegur by Pierre-Roger the next spring, that would bring down the Cathar community forever.

 

  3. THE MASSACRE OF THE INQUISITORS AT AVIGNONET  

In the spring of 1242 a courier brought a letter to Montsegur from a clandestine Cathar, Raymond d'Alfaro, the bailiff at Avignonet, a town between Toulouse and Carcassone.  Alfaro was very highly connected:  he was the son of a Navarrese mercenary captain and the illegitimate half-sister of Count Raymond VII.  He was also a dedicated Cathar believer.  The letter informed Pierre-Roger that the chief Inquisitors of Toulouse, Etienne de Saint-Thibery (Stephen of St. Thibery) and Guillaume-Arnaud (William Arnald), along with their assistants and notaries, were coming Avignonet in the next few days.

Pierre-Roger quickly descended from Montsegur with a small force of men.  At Gaja-la-Selve they recruited a small force of men armed with hatchets and cudgels.  On  May 28, 1242--the eve of the Feast of Ascension--they positioned themselves in a copse of trees known as Antioch Wood on the outskirts of Avignonet.  That evening they were met there by Guillaume-Raymond Golairan, one of Alfaro's men, who informed them that he had personally insured that the friars were lodged down in in the central chamber of the castle keep.  He then rode back to the castle and visited the friars one more time, ensuring they were bedded down and the castle guards were looking the other way.

When night fell, Pierre-Roger remained behind, while his knights Guillaume de Lahille, Bernard de Saint-Martin, and Guillaume de Balaguire led the force into Avignonet under the cover of darkeness. 

They were quietly allowed to slip into the castle by local sympathizers and were guided to the quarters where the Inquisitors were sleeping.  The knight Bernard de Saint-Martin who had already been condemned to death in absentia by the Inquisitors a few years earlier, led the assault bearing a huge battle axe.  After the Inquisitors and their assistance  were massacred--a total of approximately ten friars--their clothes, funds and belongings were looted.  More importantly, the Inquisition registers were carefully searched out and set on fire (other sources, say they were sold.)

According to a witness statement given years later to the Inquisition, the assassins returned to Antioch Woods, where one of them, Jean Acermat, gave Pierre-Roger the news of their success.  Pierre-Roger is reported to have exclaimed, "Where is my cup?"
     The assassin replied, "It is broken."
     Pierre-Roger allegedly laughed and joked, "Why did you not bring it?  I would have bound it together with a circlet of gold and drunk from it all my days!"
     They were talking about Guillaume Arnald's skull.

[Source:  Inquisition Records, Doat 22, 286b.  See also Stephen O'Shea, The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars, Vancouver: 2000.]

The news of the assassinations quickly spread. Again, in Inquisition records, it is reported that one Cathar woman, Austorga de Resengas upon hearing the news, said to her husband, "All is free";  to which he replied, "All is dead."

[Source:  Doat 24 fol 1r-7r -- Quoted in Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars, Oxford: 1998.]

This single act by Pierre-Roger essentially sealed the fate of Montsegur and the Cathars forever.

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THE SIEGE OF MONTSEGUR