One of my favourite vide-greniers (car boot sales) of the season took place last weekend in the grounds of Chateau Lagarde not far from Mirepoix on the Aude/Ariege borders. As it happened I came away empty handed but not before soaking up the atmosphere. With all the stalls set out, colourful, gay; people and dogs milling around, chatting, buying, selling (the people no the dogs that is…then again?) I wondered if this was the modern equivalent of the medieval fair and market.
In the 17th century, the chateau was known as the Versailles of Languedoc but it has its roots deeply in the Middle Ages and warfare. It perches, unmissable for miles around on the top of a hill just outside the village of Lagarde, on the left bank of the River Hers – a strategic placement since the river was the means of access to the Pyrenees and the plains below. The occupants could always see who and what was coming and going.
The Albigensian crusade against the so-called heretic Cathars brought a pack of land and booty hungry Northern French nobles into the area and after the defeat of the Cathars, Simon de Montfort, leader of this mob, confiscated the chateau and its lands and gave it over to Guy de Levis, a lesser lord keen to reap the rewards of his faithful service to Montfort.
At the beginning of the 14th century the castle underwent a complete makeover – an inscription found reads “Monsieur Francois de Levis, Seigneur of Montsegur and Madame Elix de Lautrec, his woman, built this castle in CCCXX.” Mmm, not sure about the ‘his woman’ bit, sounds a tad derogatory.
Francois had the choice of two castles, that of Montsegur and Lagarde. Since Montsegur is open to all the winds and snow that blow for most of the year and almost inaccessible to boot, the Seigneur (or perhaps ‘his woman’) decided to live at Lagarde.
The most eye-opening transformation of the castle took place in the 15th century when, discarding its defensive fortress role its owner and his heirs began another extensive makeover to take upgrade the old fortress to the level of a luxurious Renaissance castle. Three stories high; twenty bedrooms; any number of reception rooms including a drawing room, the Great Hall, a gallery, the Knights Hall and a games room; décor and furnishings of the most sumptuous. Later still a terrace and formal gardens were added. It must have been a gorgeous bit of glam.
By the end of the Ancien Regime (just before the French revolution) the castle was said to rival those of the Loire and indeed, Versailles itself. When taken to task by King Louis XVI for his poor attendance at court, the owner, Gaston de Levis-Leran replied “Sire, it is obvious that your Majesty has never been to Lagarde.” Risky thing to say to a King whose pride and joy was Versailles, oh and Marie-Antoinette of course.
During The French Revolution the castle was sold as a state possession and since it had once been a fortress it was doomed to demolition. The new owner demolished all the residential buildings so that he could sell off the stone. The demolition ceased part way and some of the castle was reduced to serving as grain and fodder storage; one part became a forge and those parts that still remained became accommodation for the locals in need of a des. res. Over the years the stone continued to be robbed out. Eventually Lagarde was completely abandoned and classified as an historic monument. Today, the current owners are trying at least to stabilise the ruins and restore or preserve whatever is possible.