The medieval city of Mirepoix sits on the banks of the river Aude about halfway between Carcassonne and Foix. In the early 13th century many of the merchants and artisans of Mirepoix had converted to the Cathar religion, regarded as heretical by the Catholic church.
In 1206 rumours of a war against the Cathars brought together, in Mirepoix, around 600 people – lords, ladies, tradesmen, farmers – to discuss what they should do in the event of a war. They were right to do so for in 1209 the Pope declared a holy war against the Cathars – the Albigensian Crusade – a war that lasted twenty years. Simon de Montfort led the Pope’s army with his second in command Guy de Lévis. Carcassonne fell to them and they headed for Foix via Mirepoix.
It was a walk in the park for de Monfort. Mirepoix was neither garrisoned nor possessed of defences. A few were killed but it was a relatively bloodless occupation. De Monfort gave the town to his second in command together with all the surrounding region. Ultimately this proved no bad thing. Guy de Lévis, originally from Normandy, seems to have been a relatively cultured and rational man. He did not oppress the people of Mirepoix rather he helped them; he added the town’s name to his own – Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix and built the Church of St Maurice. The town prospered until disaster struck in June 1289.
It had been cold wet and snowy that year. The rivers were running high some of which flowed into a dam at Puivert some thirty kilometres away. The dam broke and in three days the town of Mirepoix was destroyed completely except some few ruins of the old feudal château.
John, the grandson of Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix was now the Seigneur and he gave the people of Mirepoix enough land to rebuild their city but this time on slightly higher ground on the other side of the river l’Hers. The new city was rebuilt as a Bastide – that is built on a grid system around a central market place. This was slightly unusual since such towns were normally built around the church.
The big market square was surrounded by shops, half timbered and galleried and a new church of St Maurice was built by John and his wife Constance of Foix. It became a cathedral in 1317.
Under the watchful eye of their seigneur, the people of Mirepoix and their city prospered. All went well until the late 14th century.
Enter the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock,eldest son of Edward III. During the Hundred Years war he sacked, looted and pillaged towns and cities in the region including Mirepoix, half of which he burned down
But you cannot keep a good city down. Nothing daunted the citizens built again and a new Mirepoix emerged from the ashes. This time they built surrounding walls and stone ramparts together with four stout gateways – the remains of one, La Porte d’Aval, can still be seen.
The townspeople constructed more half timbered houses with colonnades wide enough for horses and carts to pass under thus keeping their occupants dry whilst shopping. The finest example of these houses is the Maison du Consuls with its array of fantastic carvings.
The cathedral was destroyed in the fire and so began major reconstruction and enlargement that did not finish until 1865. Models depicting the different stages of reconstruction are on display within the cathedral.
Today Mirepoix is a bustling small city, popular with tourists. In particular the tradition of the market continues every Monday when the square is filled with colourful stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables, clothes, bric a brac – you name it Mirepoix market sells it…probably!