A Roman coin of the Emperor Gallien (260-68) and Roman tools have been found around the peak of Montsegur.  Despite this, it is uncertain when the castle was founded, or by whom - the district being ruled by the counts of Toulouse, the viscounts of Carcassonne and the counts of Foix.  But around 1204, Raymond Pereille (d.1244+), the joint lord of Montsegur with his cousin, Peter Roger Senior Mirepoix (d.1209 as a parfait), agreed, at the suggestion of two parfaits, to rebuild the castle which had been derelict for 40 years or more.  This suggests that the early fortress had been destroyed around 1160.  Possibly it had suffered when the kings of Aragon had died out in the male line in 1157.  In 1229 the Albigensian Crusade came to an end with the treaty of Paris, with the lords of Languedoc agreeing to recognise the authority of the French Crown.  The next year in 1230, the Cathar Bishop Guilhabert Castres asked for Montsegur to become his caput.  In 1232 Raymond Pereille finally accepted this and the fortress became the centre for the surviving Cathars, with defences being installed all around the hill top, which contained some 500 rebels living on the summit around the castle.

In 1241, Count Raymond VII
of Toulouse (1197-1249) besieged Montsegur in a half-hearted attempt to suppress the Cathar heresy for the French Crown as he had promised.  After his withdrawal, about 50 men from the castle murdered the representatives of the inquisition at Avignonet on 28 May 1242.  This was part of a general European plot against King Louis IX (d.1270) involving King Henry III (d.1272), King James of Aragon (d.1276), Count Raymond VII (the nephew of Henry III, d.1249), Count Roger Foix (d.1265), the dispossessed viscount of Carcassonne and even the Holy Roman Emperor.  The result was the defeat of Henry III at the battle of Tailebourg and the retirement of his mother to Fontevraud abbey.  Consequently Raymond VII once more paid fealty to King Louis and finally put aside any opposition to the reduction of the fortress.  Partially as a result this, the council of Beziers in 1243 decided to route out the Cathar heresy once and for all.  Seneschal Hugh Arcis of Carcassonne led royal French troops, allegedly 10,000 strong, against the castle which resulted in a 9 month siege, waged against allegedly some 100 fighters and 211 parfaits who were pacifists.  Initially the siege was not hard pressed and access remained open to the rebels both within and without the castle, the attackers hoping to starve the occupants out as they had done 30 years before at Carcassonne, Minerve and Termes.  The garrison also hoped for relief from Count Raymond VII of Toulouse, who although still excommunicated, proved not willing to risk a further breach with the papacy or his king.

Finally, in the winter, skilled Gascons were brought up by Bishop Durand of Albi and they scaled the cliff face, making a lodgement on the east side of the summit at a fortified outpost called Roc de la Tour.  From here men and materials were hauled up the hill to reinforce the attackers.  The French then fought their way from the Roc de la Tour the half mile or so to the outer fortress defences by the end of January.  At this point a trebuchet was assembled and despite a similar weapon being used by the defenders, the outer defences to the east of the castle were crushed into submission, including an outpost called the barbican.  The French then moved their war machines into the fallen defences, compelling the surviving townsmen to retire into the castle proper, their encampment now under direct fire from ‘the barbican'.  A formal attack 2 weeks later failed, but many stone balls from the assaults still litter the summit around the castle.  The fighting was heaviest at the end of February 1244 according to the Inquisition and at least 6 professional soldiers, including 2 knights and the bailiff of Peter Roger Mirepoix were killed.  Finally on 2 March 1244, the garrison led by its joint lords, Peter Roger Mirepoix, the later mayor of Lordat and Raymond Pereille, negotiated a fortnight truce, after which the castle would be surrendered to Guy Levis (d.1255).  Guy his father (d.1233) had been given Mirepoix after it had been taken in 1209, which must have lent a certain animosity to the meeting.  Despite this quite easy terms were agreed.  Any paid troops could leave with their arms and any Cathars who abjured their heresy would be forgiven.  There followed 2 weeks of fasting and prayer in the castle, which led rather surprisingly to some 26 new converts to the Cathar faith - in effect a decision for martyrdom.  At the agreed time on 16 March 1244 the parfaits, having given away their possessions to their Catholic friends in the garrison, marched down the hill where they were corralled into a firewood filled pen and burned to death while the Catholics sang hymns to God.  One source stated that the heretics went straight from the flames of this world to those of the next.  Some 220 Cathars were burned that day according to Inquisition records.  Others, who claimed to be Catholics, even the murderers of the Inquisitors in 1242 like Raymond Pereille, were allowed to go free.  Sources differ on the number of victims. The Chronique de Guillaume de Puylaurens, gives the number as 200; the Chronique de l'Abbaye de Berdoues, states 205; The Chronique de St-Paul de Narbonne 215; and Gerard de Frachet 224.  The castle was then demolished, although the terraced Cathar houses and defences on the hillside appear to have been left alone and have consequently survived. 

In July 1245 Guy Levis (d.1255) swore homage for the lordship of Montsegur and began to rebuild the fortress, the town being refounded in the valley below, where it still stands.  The castle was garrisoned well into the sixteenth century and was still owned by the Levis family in 1757, though it fell into ruin soon afterwards.  Puivert and Roquefixade castles can be seen from the site, which is as high as Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales.  After excavations from 1964 to 1976 the archaeologists reported:
There remains no trace within the present-day ruins, neither of the first fortress which was abandoned before the 13th century (Montsegur I), nor of the one which was built by Raymond de Péreille around 1210 (Montsegur II)..."
The current castle would therefore seem to be entirely of late thirteenth century Levis construction, if not later still.  As no trace of earlier castles were found it is to be presumed that Montsegur was the first stone (presuming both predecessors were actually of stone) castle to be actually fully demolished in a deliberate act of finality, rather than just burned and abandoned.  Alternatively the earlier walls may be encased in the current ruins which are therefore merely refacings.

The ruins of Montsegur castle consist of a large rectangular keep with an angular bow-shaped bailey.  The whole bears some comparison with the much older inner ward of Puilaurens castle in shape.  At Montsegur the keep, set on the highest rocky crag, is nearly 100 feet long, the northern third of which consisted of a water cistern with room above.  The main two thirds had a spiral stair in the chamfered off south corner and 2 crossbow loops to NE and SW.  A single loop commanded the bailey to the SE.  The ground floor of the keep was vaulted and lit only by the narrow crossbow loops with shoulder headed embrasures, while the upper floor was well lit with shoulder headed windows of a style popular between 1250 and 1350, which probably dates the construction of the keep.  There is a marked darkening of stone colour in the upper storey, although it appears unlikely that this denotes a change in building phases.  A similar raising of the bailey wall with darker coloured stone is also apparent.  Entrance to the keep was gained at first floor level, via wooden steps, the underside of which was covered by the loop within the keep.  The crease of a wooden porch roof over the entrance is still visible on the front of the tower.  Presumably the steps ran up on the south side of the loop, which explains the loop being offset to the north.  Externally the tower has a slight plinth and is made with a fine ashlar exterior.

SE of the keep lies the bow-shaped bailey with the prow facing east and a sharp point to the south.  There is no flanking at all.  The main entrance was set at internal ground level centrally in the SW wall and had machicolations above.  Steps ran up to the wallwalk between the keep and this gate as well as opposite the gate and in the NE corner.  These led up to the prow, the thickest masonry of the defences looking due east.  This also had machicolations of which some trace remains.  The internal walls to the SE and NE were both covered by lean-to buildings of which only foundations remain.  There was also a postern centrally in the north wall, which appears fourteenth century in style, against the earlier pseudo-Romanesque main entrance to the south.  Neither entrance has any defence beyond a gate with drawbar sockets, there being neither portcullis nor drawbridge.

It is noticeable that the curtains make awkward joins with the keep and it is obvious that the keep is of an earlier building phase.  At the east end of the north wall is a stepped plinth of up to 4 courses.  Some of this work is highly crude, nothing like the good ashlar work above.  Quite possibly this is the only remaining fragment of the earlier, older 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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