Carcassonne City

The city of Carcassonne is at least 5,000 years old and has been an important centre for 2,500 years, commanding the trade route between Bordeaux in Aquitaine and Rome.  The site was improved by Roman veterans and was walled by the fifth century with defences of which a good third still survives.  In 462AD the surviving Romans officially ceded Carcasum to the Visigoths, who under Theodoric II had captured the place in 453 and improved its Roman walls.  Around the 470s the name Carcaso changed to Carcassona during the reign of the Visigoth King Euric (466-84).  In 508 King Gundobad of Burgundy (d.516) is said to have besieged the fortified city unsuccessfully for King Clovis (d.511).  They certainly reached Narbonne at this time.  By 568 Carcassonne, the main NW border defence of the province of Septimania, had passed to the rule of King Leovigild of Spain.  In this year King Guntram of Burgundy (d.592) invaded and again besieged Carcassonne without result.  He was then defeated in battle and abandoned further attempts at conquest in Spain.  In 589 Carcassonne cathedral was first mentioned.  Externally there is no sign of such antiquity in the church, but internally there are many Romanesque arches and one ‘Byzantine' style door similar to those found in Carcassonne castle and in Sicily, viz Aci castle.  This building work is traditionally dated to 925, the time in which the cathedral of Sts Nazaire and Celse was first mentioned.

After the fall of Spain in 711 the Saracens took the city in 725, but were expelled again by Pepin the Short in 759-60.  It has therefore been assumed that the early counts of Carcassonne were of Visigothic extraction because their names, viz Oliba and Dela were Visigothic.  It has also been assumed by some that they were of the same family.  However, as it was unusual in Visigothic and Carolingian lands for fiefdoms to be hereditary it seems more likely that these were random individuals.  Certainly there is no reliable genealogy of the early counts.  In 793 Count William of Toulouse was killed at the battle of Carcassonne fighting off Muslim attacks.  During the ninth century the suzerainty of Carcassonne is uncertain, possibly belonging to Catalonia.  Bello (d.812) seems to have been count of Carcassonne from about 790 and is claimed as the founder of the Bellonid dynasty that ruled both Carcassonne and the Razes to the south.  Certainly by the end of the ninth century the counts of Carcassonne owed allegiance to Toulouse, rather than Charlemagne (d.814) as Bello had.  Indeed in 872, King Charles II of the Franks granted Carcasonem and Rhedas to Count Bernard of Toulouse (d.874).  From then on Carcassonne was certainly a part of his county.  This seems to have ended the dispute over the district in favour of the counts of Toulouse.

The death of Count Acfred II of Carcassonne (908-34) ended the possible first comital family, although it is suggested that his daughter, Arsinde, married Count Arnaud Comminges (d.957) and took the title to her son, Count Roger of Carcassonne (d.1011+).  As none of the later counts used the names of the earlier counts, viz. Oliba, Acfred or Sunifred, it may be better to assume that the second family had no link to the first, who simply died out and were replaced.  The second family of Comminges/Carcassone 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).  Their son, Bernard Aton Albi (d.1129), only inherited Carcassonne in 1099 on the death of his dowered mother, Ermengarde Carcassonne.  He was using the title viscount of Carcassonne by 1101.  The overlordship of Carcassonne meanwhile passed to the counts of Barcelona, who the counts of Carcassonne played successfully off against the counts of Toulouse.  Both these larger powers therefore straddled the lands of Carcassonne.  In 1174 the counts of Barcelona became kings of Aragon, changing the balance of power in the region.  The status of the Bezier lords of Carcassonne, as underlords of the counts of Barcelona, was subsequently confirmed in November 1179 when Viscount Roger Bezier of Carcassonne (d.1194), the grandson of Bernard Aton Albi, confirmed his homage to King Alfonso II of Aragon (d.1195).  Indeed King Peter II of Aragon (d.1213) appeared at Carcassonne in 1204 for another inconclusive debate between the Cathars and the Catholics.  A second debate occurred at Carcassonne in 1206 which was lively, but equally as pointless.  Finally, after a dispute between Peter Castelnau and Raymond VI of Toulouse (d.1222), Peter was murdered by an unknown assassin and Raymond was excommunicated.  As a result the pope called for the Albigensian crusade to avenge Peter's murder, of which he accused Count Raymond.  By these means he proposed to deal with the Cathar problem permanently.

In 1209 Count Raymond of Toulouse accepting a scourging by the church to save his lands from invasion.  Raymond-Roger Trencavel Beziers, the great-grandson of Bernard Aton Albi (d.1129) and son of the Roger (d.1194) who had confirmed his vassalage to King Alphonso (d.1195), was made of sterner stuff and proposed resistence.  As a staunch Catholic the 24 year old thought himself in a strong position, despite the fact of his having dethroned the bishop of Carcassonne and replaced him with his own nomination - a man who's mother, sister and 3 brothers were all parfaits.  Raymond-Roger asked for talks concerning his conjectured joining of the Crusade, but the papal legate, Abbot Arnaud Amalric (d.1225), dismissed his appeal and marched on Beziers, while Raymond-Roger fell back on Carcassonne.  After the 22 July massacre at Beziers, Raymond-Roger burned the surrounds of his city and prepared for siege, the first Crusaders arriving on 1 August.  On the next day the suburb of Bourg fell and King Peter of Aragon (d.1213) arrived and asked for terms for his vassal, Raymond-Roger.  Again the request was refused with Arnaud merely offering the lord permission to retire and leave his city to its fate.  On 15 August Raymond-Roger, his city defences battered, but unconquered, agreed to surrender Carcassonne, apparently on condition that all, including Cathars, could leave the city unmolested, but without any possessions.  However, it would seem that Arnaud partially broke this agreement and imprisoned Raymond-Roger in his own dungeon where he died 3 months later on 10 November, allegedly of dysentery, but thought to be murdered.  The inhabitants, all but naked, were allowed to leave. 

After some deliberation Arnaud replaced Raymond-Roger as lord of Carcassonne and installed Simon Montfort (d.1218), a claimant to the earldom of Leicester, in his place.  After much negotiation Simon managed to gave his homage for Beziers and Carcassonne to King Peter II of Aragon (d.1213), who in turn gave his son, later to be King James I of Aragon (d.1276), into Simon's custody at Carcassonne.  After his father's death against Simon Montfort at the battle of Muret the Templars had to negotiate for James' release from the fortress.  The kings of Aragon finally seem to have granted their rights in Carcassonne away in 1262, although in reality they had lost the city in 1209.

Raymond-Roger (d.1209), the ex.lord of Carcassonne, left a 2 year old son, Raymond Trencavel (1207-63), who was disinherited.  In 1223 Raymond returned and besieged Amaury Montfort, the son and heir of Simon, in the fortress.  He finally took possession of city and castle when Amaury returned to the Ile de France in 1224.  Despite this, after 24 October 1224, King Louis VIII (d.1226) confirmed his disinheritance and Raymond withdrew to Aragon in 1226 when the king took city and castle.  In 1240 he, together with Oliver Termes and Peter Fenouillet and other faidit, failed to take the city during a 24 day September siege.  Consequently he renounced his claim to it in 1246 when making peace with the Crown.  Two years later the king ordered the suburbs of the city to moved to the other bank of the river and founded the Ville Basse.  It then became a royal border fortress with Spain after the 1258 treaty of Corbeil which defined their power in the district. 

In 1355 the city repulsed the Black Prince, although he destroyed the lower town or Ville Basse and laid waste the district.  After this the Ville Basse was fortified on the west side of the river and the final parts of the inner enceinte made under the regency of Duke Philip le Bold (d.1404).  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 rebuilt and modernised by Viollet le Duc.

Carcassonne City Defences
These consist of 2 concentric walls with 54 towers and barbicans making an inner walkwalk 0.8 of a mile long and an outer one of just over a mile in circumference.  The outer walls with 16 towers date to after the city's siege by Raymond Trencavel in 1240.  In the main enceinte there are 27 towers plus 11 in the castle.  In the outer ward these vary from small D shaped towers to large round ones like the Tour de la Vade, as well as varied posterns like the horseshoe shaped barbicans of Notre Dame and St Louis.  The loops in these towers appear to be without sighting slits and often have rectangular or fish tailed basal oillets.  The wall masonry, where it has not been ‘restored', looks similar to the lowest levels of the inner ward.  As such it could be that the base of the Roman walls have been refaced in the thirteenth century.  However, the scale and manner in which the ‘Roman' walls overlie it, makes it more likely that this is early work.

Built within the outer enceinte is the original Roman town with much of its plan still traceable.  The dates of the different phases of the construction are still not clear and possibly never will be.  If there is a ‘prehistoric' wall then this would appear to have been quite low, maybe originally 10-15' high.  The Roman wall would appear to have been about 25' high and the towers maybe 10' higher.  There must have been Roman gates at various points, but none of these have survived, no doubt being overbuilt by later works.  The thirteenth century walls were about 30' high and the work of Philip le Bold (d.1404), even higher, especially his towers, like the Narbonnaise gate.

A photograph of the Charpenterie Tower gives some idea of the early phases.  It seems possible that the base of the walls are Roman with thirteenth century refacing over it.  This walling consists of good quality masonry of rectangular blocks surrounding a rubble core.  This walling style is similar to the Roman layout at Caerwent in Wales which has no tiled levelling layers, but dissimilar to Portchester and Pevensey, which have the tile levelling layers.  At Carcassonne, above this probable refacing, are smaller blocks with red tile levelling layers.  This is generally taken to be the Roman phase.  However, it is possible that some or all of this might be Visigothic and overlie the earlier Roman work.  Against this is the fact that Pevensey fort, now dated to the 290s, has a similar build style, with little blocks and single red tile levelling courses.  The dating of Carcassonne walls to the late fourth century is apparently traditional and based on no scientific fact.

The oldest segments of the wall lie to the N&E.  They commence in the SE with the so-called Visigothic Tower and run northwards, past the castle and around to the Tresau Tower at the eastern apex of the site.  From here to the Narbonnaise gate the bulk of the wall is mainly fourteenth century work.  After the gate the Roman wall reappears and runs SW to just beyond the Castera Tower, with the section around the Balthazar Tower having been rebuilt late in the fourteenth century.  This ancient work makes up at least half the inner circuit.  Obviously these works have been much repaired over the many centuries between their building and the present day.  The original wall thickness appears to have been about 10'. 

Obviously this is a lot of wall to cover for a quick summary therefore, instead of a full description, a few pertinent points will be made.  Firstly the only surviving Roman gateway seems to be the postern on the west side of the Moulin d'Avar Tower.  The jambs of this have been replaced, while the lower half of the tower itself consists of the early/refacing that is discussed below on the Connetable Tower.  The head of the postern survives as an arch consisting of sandstone springers on what appears to have been a tiled impost.  Above this the voussiors consisted of two Roman tiles interspersed with sandstone voussiors.  The wall to the west of the doorway consists of the small Roman blocks interspersed with occasional large snecker stones.  The size of these stones would indicate that they were an original feature of the wall and therefore that this work may be prehistoric rather than Roman.

The Connetable Tower gives evidence of such early work or refurbishment.  It seems to sit on either a thirteenth century reconstruction or an earlier base of a rectangular tower.  As this base appears linked with the adjoining curtain base to the NW the former may be more likely.  Above this in the tower is some 25' of ‘Roman style' masonry which ends just below wallwalk level.  Above this is some 30' of post Roman work with regular putlog holes, surmounted by a Viollet-le-duc folly.  The same layout is apparent on the adjoining wall to the north with its reconstructed battlements.  To the south lay a new wall, probably built under the orders of Philip le Bold (d.1404).  Behind this wall running south to the Tresau Tower is the original Roman wall.  This connected to the rear of the D shaped Connetable Tower and seems to have contained a mural passageway at this level entered via a large Romanesque door with a reconstructed tile arch.  Of the 2 D shaped towers in this buried section of wall, the northern one has a rectangular base with Roman masonry on top of it, while the southern one has been totally refaced and has no base.  The reconstruction is similar to work at the summit of the surviving portion of the northern tower.

Perhaps the best early structure in the city wall is the Marquiere Tower.  Like many of its compatriots it stands upon a square masonry base.  It then rises in 'Roman masonry' to the curtain wallwalk height before being topped by one of Viollet-le-duc's fantasies.  However, in its upper Roman section are the remnants of 3 Roman windows.  The central one facing NE appears to be original, though its 2 flankers to E&W have been deepened and filled to take thirteenth century crossbow loops.  Presumably the central loop has been scooped out.  The arch of all 3 survives and consists of Roman tiles interspaced with slabs of sandstone.  This style has been copied by Viollet-le-duc throughout his 'reconstructions'.

The works attributed to Philip le Bold (d.1404) consist of the SW quarter of the defences from the Inquisition Tower south of the castle to the Prison Tower in the south wall of the city.  North of this the Balthazar Tower and the surrounding curtain also look like his work, as too are the Narbonnaise gate and the adjoining Tresau Tower.  The towers of this work are usually built of embossed masonry and have small beaks pointing towards the enemy.  This is a style allegedly brought in by King Henry II of England at Loches.  The towers and walls attributed to Philip are also built on a more massive scale than the rest of the military works at Carcassonne.

The Inquisition Tower in the west wall south of the Comtal Castle, may stand on the site of a Roman tower and although the thirteenth century Inquisition, commenced in 1233, seems to have been set in this tower, the current exterior seems more fourteenth century judging by the embossed masonry.  However, its smaller size compared with Philip le Bold's works and its lack of a beak, may well mean that it is earlier and may date from the early 1200s.  A letter was written around 1285 by the Consuls of Carcassonne to Jean Galand, a Dominican Inquisitor in the city, complaining of the conditions within the Inquisition Tower:
… you have created a prison called "The Wall", which would be better called "Hell".  In it you have constructed small cells to inflict pain and to mistreat people using various types of torture.  Some prisoners remain in fetters… and are unable to move.  They excrete and urinate where they are…  Some are placed on the rack; many of them have lost the use of their limbs because of the severity of the torture…  Life for them is an agony and death a relief.  Under these constraints they affirm as true what is false, preferring to die once than to be thus tortured multiple times.

At the NW side of the city defences lies the Comtal Castle.

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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