The Siege of Montsegur

Chateau Montsegur

Chateau  Montsegur – its ruins perch precariously on a ‘pog’ (rock formation) 1200 metres above the eponymous village in southwest France. It looks out across the surrounding countryside for miles around. Even in summer lusty, gusty winds buffet the tumbled walls and sweep through open archways.  In winter, snow and ice make it inhospitable and almost impregnable.

The castle was destroyed by the royalist forces in the thirteenth century in the last major action against the Cathar sect – a group which rejected the corruption of the Catholic Church and many of its rites and rituals.

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It had been the centre of operations for the Cathars – the seat and head of the Cathar church and the last refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution from elsewhere in southern France. Even after other Cathar strongholds were destroyed and their adherents fled, it was the last bastion of resistance in the crusade against the sect.

From the base of the hill the castle looms, grey-black, unapproachable, secure and as you walk up through the thickly wooded mountainside the idea of besieging it seems unthinkable and yet to put an end to Cathar resistance once and for all, the royalist forces, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, did just that.

In May 1243 ten thousand soldiers gathered at the foot of the steep rocky hillside leading up to the castle. How must they have felt when they squinted up at the dark mass looming above them? Apparently confidant that they could starve out the inhabitants. But they did not count on local knowledge and goodwill. The castle was well provisioned and under cover of darkness local people crept up through little known pathways to add to its supplies.

Several full-on assaults up the steep hillside inevitably failed. The hundred fighting men in the castle easily repulsed these attacks. You can imagine the frustration and fatigue of the soldiers as time after time they were beaten back to base camp only to hear the order to repeat the assault.

It took treachery (some call it) of several Basque mercenaries to find the solution by scaling one of the rocky walls to gain a foothold from where a giant catapult could hurl rocks at the castle. The Barbican breached , a day and night bombardment commenced; a relentless crump and thrump of massive stones; the crack of the castle walls as they shuddered and fell.

Many of the Cathar refugees who lived just outside the shelter of the walls fled into the castle itself; living conditions deteriorated quickly; sickness spread. The Cathar leaders decided to surrender. Conditions for the surrender were negotiated. All could leave who would renounce their faith and a two week truce was declared.  Many of Cathars took the ‘consolatum’ at this time – a ritual intended to purify them and prepare them for the end they knew must come.

Imagine those last days within the broken walls. After the thunderous noise of the stone barrage – silence.  Families and friends came together, comforted each other, fasted and prayed together. They made their choices – to die in the fire for their faith and beliefs or to live, renouncing all they believed and fought for.

In March 1244 around three hundred ragged souls came out from the ruins, of whom about two hundred chose death. The bonfire awaited them. It is said that there was no need for stakes to which to tie them; they walked, hand in hand, men, woman and children, nobles, soldiers, artisans, servants, into the searing flames. Their cries of agony flew up to the heavens as their ashes scattered on the four winds. What faith. What courage.

At the foot of the mountain in the ‘Prat dels Cremats’  (Field of the Burned) is a modern monument to commemorate their deaths. It bears the inscription “Als catars, als martirs del pur amor crestian. 16 de març 1244″ (The Cathars, martyrs of pure christian love. 16 March 1244).

monument on the Field of the Burned


7 thoughts on “The Siege of Montsegur

  1. Catharism represents a 200 year challenge to Catholicism. Its success was probably down to its support from the aristocracy of Southern France which allowed it to develop a formalised administrative structure in contrast to similar heresies in the Rhineland or Flanders where there were particular class group, such as textile workers, who formed the base of heretical movements. As a theology it was grounded in dualism but initially this was a mix of absolute and mitigated dualism. The shift to absolute dualism came in the late twelfth century with the St Félix-de-Caraman Council. After this theological paradigmatic shift Catharism and Catholicism failed to find any common ground and in 1209 Pope Innocent III decided that force was the only option to counter it.

    Entry into the Cathar elite was via a ceremony inherited in large part from the Bogomils – the consolamentum. Being more exposed to theological arguments and having more contact with the Bogomil east, most Cathar theological texts actually come from Italy rather than France. `The Secret Supper’ predates the Nicetas mission, was probably a Bogomil text and described Satan as the original regulator of all things who sat alongside the Father. Too greedy, he was cast out but not without taking one third of the angels with him. God forgave him and Satan created the material world with his dominion supported by Enoch and Moses. God sent Christ to expose that Satan was not the one true god which he claimed to be. The Virgin Mary was not a mortal; she was the angel of the Lord. To counter Satan sent his angel, Elijah, in the guise of John the Baptist. This is the moderate dualist position. On account of the Fall from grace the Catholic Church found some common ground.

    One of the earliest theologians to reject the above was Desiderius – the first sign of a potential break between the theology of the Bogomils and the developing Cathar movement. However, the real prime mover is the writer of `The Book of Two Principles’, assumed to be John of Lugio. Lugio’s book suggests that Catharism was now forging its own ideas in which each `principle’ had existed for eternity and each had created its own world.

    `La Gleisa de Dio’ expected chastity of the perfecti, promoted abstention from meat, eggs, cheese and chicken, and taught its adherents to refuse to lie, kill or take oaths. It also rejected the Catholic concepts of contrition and confession, playing down sin before the consolamentum. Cathars ate fish – perhaps because they believed that transmigration of souls was limited to warm-blooded creatures.

    The renewed crusade in 1210-11 picked off the castra of the local nobility one-by-one but the territory of Raymond Roger de Foix proved more difficult. Montfort attempted to attack Toulouse but abandoned the siege. In 1212 however, reinforcements were brought in from across Europe. Montfort’s position throughout was affected by papal vacillation as the Pope himself was subject to competing influences. The French Crown became involved and Beaujeu’s attacks on the Toulousan hinterland brought Raymond VII to the Treaty of Paris in 1229. The murder of inquisitors at Avignonat sparked the iconic attack on Montségur in 1243-44 which pulled the plug on Cathar supporting infrastructure.

  2. It’s hard to reconcile that sort of fanaticism and slavish belief, for me. This is indeed a fascinating account, uncomfortable in the extreme but quite extraordinary. For me Montsegur simply meant a cheese I am quite partial to. Which seems pretty fascile 😦

  3. I agree, yet it takes a certain sort of courage which I know I don’t have. If we look around today we see the same fanatical ideology wearing different clothes…to a degree that was the parallel I perceived when I visited the castle and did my research. Didn’t know Montsegur was a cheese must look it up 🙂

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