Carcassonne Castle

Carcassonne had two castles within the walls in 1034.  The first was the comotal castle and the second was the Narbonnais castle.  The latter has totally disappeared, although it was presumably near the current fourteenth century Narbonnais gate.  Possibly this indicated a joint lordship between the Comminges/Carcassonne family and the counts of Toulouse.

The second family of Comminges/Carcassonne died out in 1067 with the death of Count Raymond Roger II of Carcassonne, the title passing via his sister, Ermengarde, to her husband, Viscount Raymond Bernard Trencavel of Albi and Nimes (d.1074).  He is alleged to have built Carcassonne castle in the seven years he held the city, but as the castle is known to have been standing forty years earlier and the remains show that it is even older, this is obvious mere and faulty hearsay.  Raymond and Ermengarde's son, Bernard Aton Albi (d.1129), only inherited Carcassonne in 1099 on the death of his dowered mother.  He was using the title viscount of Carcassonne by 1101.  By 1125 the viscounts seem to have moved their main seat from Beziers to Carcassonne.

In 1194 their great grandson, Raymond-Roger Trencavel of Beziers inherited Carcassonne when aged only 9.  On 15 August 1209, aged only 24, he agreed to surrender Carcassonne to the Albigensian Crusaders on condition that all, including Cathars, could leave the city unmolested, but without any possessions.  However, this agreement was broken by the Crusaders who imprisoned Raymond-Roger in his own dungeon in the castle where he died 3 months later on 10 November, allegedly of dysentery, but generally thought to be murdered.  In his place Simon Montfort (d.1218) became lord of Carcassone castle.  He held the fortress for the rest of his life, which ended in 1218 outside Toulouse when he was hit by a trebuchet stone.  The castle then passed to his son, Amaury, who quit the castle and city in 1223 and sold it to King Loius VIII (d.1226). 

In 1240 Raymond Trencavel, the son of Raymond-Roger (d.1209) failed to take the city after a month's siege and formerly accepted King Louis IX (d.1270) as lord of the district in 1246.  The castle and city then became a royal border fortress with Spain after the 1258 treaty of Corbeil.  Finally in 1659, the treaty of the Pyrenees removed the military reason behind the fortress and it soon fell into ruins, only narrowly escaping demolition in the nineteenth century, after which it was terribly modernised by Viollet-le-Duc.

Carcassonne is an odd castle, added to the Roman walls as a kind of afterthought.  What appears to have happened is that firstly a tall rectangular tower without buttresses was added centrally in the west side of the west curtain wall of the Roman city.  This tower or keep appears originally 2 storeys high, being some 50' tall externally and showing many features of age, although the structure has been much refurbished and renewed.  The base to the exposed west rests on a stepped plinth and has fine quoins on both its corners which now butt onto walls to N&S.  Pieces of Roman tile look like they have been used in the initial construction of the basement, but cannot be seen above this level.  The ground floor is pierced by a single modern light, while the first floor has a rebuilt twin light Romanesque window.  As this is matched by a similar and also rebuilt window to the east, it is to be presumed that both are later insertions.  On the west front the second floor is marked by a series of about 16 putlog holes which may have been part of a hoarding.  Ten feet above this the old tower obviously ends in a nineteenth century rebuilding.  The 3 ‘windows' appear to be crenels in fossilised battlements.  The eastern front is similar, apart from the basement is buried and the ground floor now is occupied by the modern toilets and two ‘modern' doors.  At first floor level are a row of holes for joists to hold the flooring of the buildings that once lined the northern courtyard of the castle.  This front also has putlog holes running up to a slatey string course which is cut through by the twin light Romanesque window.  Above this is a similar projecting string course with a line of 15 putlog holes above, similar to those on the other side of the tower.  Presumably this too was for a hoarding or is nineteenth century.  Above this are clearly fossilised battlements.  The second floor then begins in ancient masonry before meeting the Victorian renovations.  Within the keep was found a mural showing combat between Crusaders and Muslims.  Presumably this dates to a Spanish ie Trencavel period.

The series of buildings north of the keep called the logis are also ancient as can be judged by the herringbone masonry seen in their east walls.  This is particularly prevalent above the postern that cuts through under the building.  This is on either side of a blocked doorway with a ‘Byzantine' arch similar to those found at Langeais and Aci in Sicily.  To the north the logis partially overlies the site of a first century AD house with a mosaic pavement which was overlain by the now vanished castle chapel.  This was destroyed in 1793.  Externally, on the east face just north of the keep, there is another ‘Byzantine' doorway which looks much rebuilt.  Above this is a rebuilt Romanesque doorway and the wall is topped by a Victorian rebuild of the battlements and a single machicolation covering the doors below. Clearly the logis has been much altered and rebuilt. 

The tall, some 90' high, rectangular watchtower to the south of the keep is also of an early provenance.  This, like the keep, may originally have been free standing, though logic would dictate that both must have once interrelated with the Roman wall.  Certainly the current walls to the east and west butt against it and therefore post date the watchtower.  This has been refaced from the adjoining trapezoid building roof line upwards.  The two small rectangular loops to the south above the castle wallwalk level may possibly be original, however the Romanesque loop above them is obviously in a build of a different phase.  This therefore indicates that the lower levels of the tower may be Visigothic.  In the same Romanesque rebuild is a worn twin light that appears similar to the rebuilt ones in the keep and in the building just north of the watchtower.

The two D shaped towers towards the north end of the logis would also appear to predate the castle of Louis IX (d.1270).  The southernmost Poudre Tower appears thirteenth century with its slight plinth, fine masonry and long, sightless and oilletless crossbow loops.  Towards its summit is a shoulder headed window of a type that appears in England between 1250 and 1350.  Immediately above this is a Viollet-le-Duc fantasy rebuild.  North of this is the Chapel Tower, so named as an old chapel once stood east of this against the north wall of the logis and on top of a Roman house.  The Chapel Tower would appear Roman, though it has been almost totally rebuilt with thirteenth century crossbow loops inserted in the old Roman, tile arched windows.  The base has been strengthened with a rather crude plinth, while the summit has been totally ‘le-Duc'ed!  The western logis wall between these two towers is also unusual in having two stepped plinths at the 2 floor levels.  This is an original feature.

Within the castle is a suite of lodgings that divides the current fortress into two unequal halves.  This begins just south of the keep with a trapezoid shaped building built close against, but not adjoining the keep.  This is then joined to the watchtower by a short length of curtain.  Running east from here are the main buildings which meet the east curtain of the castle just south of the passageway of the main east gate, dividing the castle into two wards, the upper, northern one being called the Court of Honour and the lower, southern one the Midi Court.  The base of the range is thought to date to Trencavel ownership, ie. before 1209, while the main floor is thought to be thirteenth century.  The upper floor is thought to be fifteenth century, although the summit is again a modern rebuild.  The trapezoid building, however, appears to be of one older build for all three of its floors.

Probably under Louis IX (d.1270), the current fortress was created by making it into a large rectangular enclosure, if it had not been one already, and including the ancient keep, two Roman D shaped city wall towers to the north and a small rectangular postern gate to the SW, none of which fits easily into the other three sides of the thirteenth century enceinte.  The whole is some 300' long by 130' wide.  The changing thickness of the city wall along the west front of the castle shows how much it has been altered as various internal buildings were built and altered. 

The castle was divided from the city by its own ditch, from the base of which the walls and towers begin without any berm at all.  A bridge totally rebuilt in the Romanesque style crosses the ditch and terminates in a half moon barbican, with a central, backless rectangular gatetower to the east.  This, said to have been built for Louis IX (d.1270), bears comparison with the barbicans at Goodrich and the Tower of London in England as well as Ranrouet in Brittany.  The new thirteenth century walls and towers are all well equipped with crossbow loops at ground level, controlling the dead ground of the great, revetted castle ditch.  This is somewhat similar to such features found at the thirteenth century sites at Grosmont, Rhuddlan etc in Wales.

The D shaped towers and the curtain battlements all seem to be equipped with putlog holes to support hoardings, if it can be presumed that Viollet-le-Duc has recreated them accurately.  The great twin towered gatehouse of 4 storeys has copious loops at ground and first floor, but is devoid of them at second floor level.  This echos the early thirteenth century design at White Castle in Wales.  Such twin towered gatehouse are quite common from the late twenth century onwards and are discussed under Pevensey castle in England.  Carcassonne gatehouse, together with the Romanesque entrance arches, may suggest that the enceinte dates to soon after 1210, rather than as late as 1270.  The wall towers were similar to the gatetowers, but generally larger than the two western towers in the logis.

Within the castle were numerous buildings set against the curtain walls.  Their embrasures tend to be Gothic at the base, but shoulder headed higher up in the walls.  Possibly this indicates a two phase build, or refurbishment.  The current battlements and wallwalks appear solidly Victorian, as too must be the top of the Casernes Tower which carries a fine twin light Romanesque window similar to those found in the keep.

To the NW the thirteenth century north curtain continues straight through the Roman city wall and terminates at the outer line of defence of the city.  With the postern defences to the SW this forms a narrow outer ward to the castle and leads to a long barbican leading to a chicane leading to a destroyed circular barbican or gun platform down the hill to the west.

Why not join me here and at other French castles?  Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry

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