Tolerance, today considered a virtuous trait, was a dirty word in

medieval Europe. This was particularly true of Christian belief, which

developed into a straight and narrow path from which it was dangerous,

and frequently fatal, to stray.

One thirteenth-century pope, Innocent III, actually made it a crime to tolerate the presence of heretics in a community. This unbending frame of mind did not arise only from the zealous dogmatism of the medieval Church. It was also a form of self-defence against the challenges that

The heretic Cathars were besieged in the walled town of Carcassonne, France by Catholic forces sent by the pope. The defenders of Carcassonne, both Cathar and Catholic, made heroic efforts against their attackers, whose crusade was instigated by Pope Innocent III Outgunned and outnumbered, their resistance proved futile.

confronted Christianity at this time. The enemies of the Church were strong, determined and dangerous. The Muslims, for example, were dedicated to the spread of Islam throughout the world. Paganism, in its multifarious forms, had monopolized faith in Europe and elsewhere since ancient times and would not relinquish its supremacy lightly.

Within the Church, it was felt that the only way to overcome these rivals was to treat their beliefs and practices or, indeed, any dissent that cast the smallest doubt on received wisdom, as heresy or the work of the Devil. The punishments incurred were fearful. Burning dissenters at the stake was meant to purify the world of their presence. Torture was designed to force out the demon possessing an individual and thereby save the victim's immortal soul.

Yet despite the extreme perils involved., Christianity was still confronted from time to time not only by other religions but, perhaps more insidiously, by alternative views of its own basic tenets. One of the most pervasive of these challenges came from the Cathars, a religious sect that first arose in around 1143 in the Languedoc region of modern southwest France. From there, Catharism spread into Spain, Belgium, Italy and western Germany and was well rooted in all these places by the thirteenth century.

Then, Raymond V, Count of Toulouse presented another, much less patient, tougher way to deal with the Cathars. In 1177, the Count asked the General Chapter of the Cistercian Monastic Order for help in dealing with Cathars who, he said, were close to overwhelming his domains in Languedoc. The Cistercians believed they had just the man for the job - Henri de Marcy. Originally a Cistercian abbot, Henri had his own hard-line views about how to go about crushing heresy and heretics: his way was force of arms applied relentlessly and for as long as it took. In 1178, the Cistercians sent him to Languedoc at the head of a high-powered papal legation, including a cardinal, a bishop and two archbishops.

Christianity was still confronted

from time to time not only by other

religions but perhaps more

insidiously by alternative views

of its own basic tenets.


Henri may have thought he had a simple and straightforward solution, but he rapidly discovered that his task was much more complex than he had imagined. The Cathars were highly regarded in Languedoc and the people, the nobles who ruled them and the resident bishops were not best pleased when outsiders sought to interfere. Targeting the ring of support that gave the Cathars protection therefore became Henri's first task. Top of his list was the renegade Roger II de Trencavel, Viscount of Carcassonne, who had imprisoned William, Bishop of Albi in 1175 over a dispute about which of them could claim the lordship of Albi and with that, supreme power in the area.

A Cistercian abbots Henri had his own hard-line views about how to

go about crushing heresy and

heretics: his way was force of arms

... for as long as it took.

In 1209, Pope Innocent III approved the Primitive Rule of the Franciscan Order of Friars. The Rule established the basic disciplines of the monastic life, such as the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty.


From the first, the popes in Rome regarded the Cathars as heretics with dangerously subversive beliefs. It was no wonder that the popes became so alarmed. To begin with, Catharism was a 'dualistic' religion similar to eastern faiths such as Zoroastrianism, which was once based in Persia (present-day Iran).The Cathars believed that the world was evil and had been created by Satan. They identified Satan with the God of the Old Testament, the ultimate blasphemy in the eyes of 'true' Christians. Human beings, the Cathars contended, went through a series of reincarnations before translating into pure spirit, which represented the presence of the God of Love as described in the New Testament by His messenger, Jesus Christ. The Cathars were totally opposed to Catholic doctrine and regarded the Church in Rome as immoral, and both politically and spiritually corrupt.

Naturally enough, within the Church, such ideas that exchanged God for Satan and displaced Jesus from the

A painting by Fra Angelico (1395-1485) depicting the Miracle of the Book. Dominican and Cathar books are thrown into the fire. The former miraculously escape the flames while the Cathars' heretical volumes are consumed. St Dominic (with halo) is pictured at left being returned his undamaged book.

prime position were considered sacrilegious.They needed to be expunged. In 1147, Pope Eugene III, a former Cistercian monk, 'innocent and simple', as his friend St Bernard of Clairvaux described him, had made wiping out the Cathars an urgent priority after his election two years earlier. But he proved too soft for the task. When he applied gentle persuasion on the Cathars to convert to Catholicism, he soon discovered that they were intensely stubborn and refused even to consider such an idea. Bernard of Clairvaux, acting on Pope Eugene's behalf, managed a few conversions, but not nearly enough to make the major difference required to extinguish the Cathar sect.

.     1

Pope Innocent III appears in this medieval manuscript illustration in the act of excommunicating the Albigenses, a name generally given to heretics.

Henri swiftly cut Roger loose by declaring him a heretic and excommunicating him. This was enough to persuade Roger to release the Bishop of Albi, but it was not the end of the matter. In 1179, Roger incurred the wrath of Pons d'Arsac the Archbishop of Narbonne, who had been a member of Henri de Marcy's legation the previous year. The Archbishop accused Roger of lacking sufficient enthusiasm for the fight against heresy and excommunicated him again.

Two years later, in 1181, Henri de Marcy returned to Languedoc. This time, he prepared to attack the castle of Lavaur, but did not need to fight for it. Roger II's wife Adelaide surrendered to him without demur. As a bonus, Henri captured two Cathar Parfaits, or Perfects, the ascetic 'priests' of the Cathar faith who embraced poverty, chastity and celibacy.



Excommunication means putting a man or woman outside

the Christian communion. It was the worst punishment an

individual could incur, for it cut them off from the protection

of the Church and from contact with Church life. Among

other crimes, the punishment could be incurred for

committing apostasy, (abandoning Christian beliefs), heresy,

schism (division within the church) attacking the pope

personally or procunng an abortion. Anyone who ordained a

female priest was also subject to excommunication.

In medieval times, the Catholic Church regarded    

excommunicants as either viands (to be avoided or

shunned), or tolerates (meaning they could have social or

business relationships with other Catholics): They were

allowed to attend Mass, but could not receive communion,

the ceremony celebrating the Last Supper. The ceremony of

excommunication was both dramatic and daunting. A bell

was tolled as if the excommunicate had died, the book of

the gospels was closed and a candle was snuffed out.

However, excommunication was not necessarily permanent.

If the guilty parties made a statement of repentance, they

could be restored to full membership of the Church.

The Archbishop accused Roger of lacking sufficient enthusiasm

for the fight against heresy and excommunicated him again.

Yet despite his efforts, Henri's success was limited. The Cathars were proving a very hard nut to crack and appeared to be impervious to any approach the Church might make. In 1204, Innocent III, who had been elected pope in 1198, was so wary of them that he suspected a number of the bishops with sees in the south of France were virtually Cathar collaborators. More faithful, trustworthy advocates of the established Church, including the Spanish priest Dominic de Guzman (the future St Dominic), replaced the maverick bishops. Dominic launched a rigorous campaign of conversion in Languedoc but though unremittingly zealous, he achieved very little. The few converts he managed to make were a poor return for his efforts, which included strongly argued Cathar-Catholic debates in several towns and cities. Even so, the core values of Catharism remained untouched. Eventually Dominic realized why: only Catholics who matched the Cathars for real sanctity, humility and asceticism could hope to change their minds about their faith.

The Cathars were proving a very

hard nut to crack and appeared

to be impervious to any approach

the Church might make.


To respond to the formidable undertaking, in 1216 Dominic founded the Order of Friars Preachers, better known as the Dominican Order, dedicated to preaching the Gospels and saving the souls of the Cathars and other heretics. Dominic told the monks who joined the Order:

Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth.

Like the Cathars, Dominic believed, his monks should eschew all materialistic benefits, live in poverty with only minimal possessions, tramp the roads barefoot and beg for their food. In addition, they must be celibate and keep themselves strictly chaste. Dominic was sure that this way of life, strong on humility and self-sacrifice, was the way to attract the Cathars back to the Church of Rome.

But Dominic was forestalled. Someone much more aggressive and bloodthirsty than himself had already applied a solution that the peaceable Dominic could not consider. After ten years of resolute resistance in which most Cathars maintained their contempt for the Catholic Church and their certainty of its evil nature, Pope Innocent III finally lost patience and turned up the heat. In the spring of 1207, he dispatched a papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, Archdeacon of Maguelonne, to Provence where he ordered the nobility to actively persecute the Cathars, Jews and any other heretics they might find.

De Castelnau encountered determined opposition from the start. Count RaymondVI ofToulouse, son of Raymond V, and the most powerful lord in Languedoc, was intimately bound up with the Cathars and declined to cooperate. Raymond had friends, relatives, nobles and allies who were devout adherents of Cathar beliefs and did not bother to hide his affection for them. He even made a practice of travelling with a Cathar Perfect in his

Pope Innocent III ... dispatched a

papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau,

Archdeacon of Maguelonne,

to Provence where he ordered

the nobility to actively persecute the

Cathars, Jews and any other

heretics they might find.

retinue. When de Castelnau learnt of Rajinond's disobedience to an order that effectively came from Pope Innocent III himself, he excommunicated the Count at once and pronounced the traditional anathema upon him. 'He who dispossesses you will be accounted virtuous!' de Castelnau thundered, 'He who strikes you dead will earn a blessing.'

Raymond was not made of particularly stern stuff - he was better at dissembling than defiance - and, apparently frightened, he backed down and promised to carry out the persecutions as required. De Castelnau, it seems, believed him. A few weeks later, he pardoned Raymond and restored him to his rights as a Christian. De Castelnau should have known better: Raymond VI was a natural-born liar who would break his word as soon as he had the chance. This time, though, he opted for a new ploy: he did nothing.

The Miracle of the Books, in which Cathar books burned while St Dominic's Catholic books remained undamaged, is also known as the Miracle of Fanjeaux, after the town in the Languedoc where it occurred. It is pictured here by the Spanish artist Pedro Berruguete (c. 1450-1504).

It took some weeks for this non-event to sink in, but when it did, Pierre de Castelnau reacted to Raymond's perfidy with fury. Raymond was accused of condoning heresy in Languedoc, stealing Church property, offending bishops and abbots and supporting the Cathars. At the end of this tirade, de Castelnau excommunicated Raymond once again. Raymond suggested talks to break the impasse, but they got nowhere and the Count resorted to threats and insults in front of several witnesses who later reported what had happened to Pope Innocent in Rome.


On 13 January 1208, the dialogue was finally broken off and Pierre de Castelnau and his retinue departed for Rome. The following morning, the travellers reached Aries and rode down to the landing stage to embark on the ferry that would take them across the River Rhone. De Castelnau never made it. Before his

Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse was forced to do public penance for the assassination of Pierre de Castelnau.

retinue could come to his aid, a strange horseman rode swiftly towards them and killed de Castelnau with a single sword thrust in his back. Later there were rumours that the murderer was a knight in the employ of the Count of Toulouse. Raymond vigorously denied any involvement and in June 1209, even volunteered to undergo a public scourging as penance for the dark deed. When the punishment was over, the Count, beaten, bloody and sore was obliged to pay his respects at the tomb of de Castelnau, who was already being classed as a blessed martyr. All the same, Raymond was still the principal suspect and remained in disgrace. The assassination of de Castelnau was never solved. But innocent or guilty, Count Raymond protested too late.

A few weeks after the killing. Pope Innocent III lost patience with the diplomatic approach and called for a crusade. This was the so-called Albigensian Crusade named after the town of Albi, a stronghold of the

A strange horseman rode

swiftly towards them and killed

de Castelnau with a single

sword thrust in his back.

Cathars in Languedoc. In this call to arms, Raymond of Toulouse thought he saw a chance to convince the Pope of his Catholic credentials. To this end, Raymond loudly proclaimed his intention to pursue heretics and punish all who aided and abetted the Cathars and their priests. It was all a charade. Raymond was in no way penitent, but it was, of course, politic that he give the appearance of making common cause with the tens of thousands of knights who were gathering at Lyons in eastern France, each of them boasting their own retinue of infantry, archers, grooms and other

Pierre de Castelnau, papal legate to Pope Innocent III, was brutally murdered in January 1208. The deed was done with a sword thrust into his back, rather than a frontal spear attack as shown here.

attendants. Their commander, handpicked by the Pope himself, was the murdered de Castelnau's superior, Bishop Arnaud Amaury, the Cistercian Abbot of Citeaux. Ruthless and retributive by nature, Amaury was ideal for the task Innocent set him, which was to exterminate the Cathars once and for all. He was both ruthless and retributive and was resolved to wipe out the Cathars by the most brutal means at his disposal.

Together with the routiers, the mercenaries who made up a large part of most feudal armies, the Albigensian crusaders were so numerous that as the procession moved southwest into Languedoc, it stretched for more than six kilometres (3.7 miles) along the road. Every man had been promised splendid rewards - full remission of their sins, suspension of their debts and a wealth of Church funds to fill their pockets.


Quite possibly, the extreme measures adopted against the Cathars by Arnaud Amaury, the Bishop of Citeaux and military commander of the Albigensian Crusade, were in revenge for the humiliating treatment he had received when he went to Languedoc and, like St Dominic and St Bernard of Clairvaux, attempted to persuade the Cathars to relinquish their beliefs. As related in the Song of the Cathar Wars, a history of what is now southern France covering the years 1204-18, the Cathars made fun of Amaury, and dismissed him as a fool. 'That bee is buzzing around again' they said when Amaury preached to them. The Cathars and their Perfects were, of course, devoted to a frugal, ascetic way of life and despised luxury and self-indulgence. But like many clergy of the early thirteenth century, Arnaud Amaury's lifestyle was both ostentatious and hedonistic and the Bishop made the mistake of appearing before the Cathars in all his splendour. As the eighteenth-century French writer Voltaire related in his 1756 Account of the Crusade against the People of Languedoc:

'The Abbot of Citeaux appeared with the entourage of a prince. In vain he spoke as an apostle, the people shouted at him, "Abandon either your luxury or your preaching!'"

Arnaud Amaury, a Cistercian monk, led the crusade that crushed the heretics of southern France.

Amaury was ideal for

the task Innocent set him ...

He was both ruthless and retributive

and was resolved to wipe out the

Cathars by the most brutal means

at his disposal.


The crusader army reached its first destination, Beziers, a strongly fortified town on the River Orb in southwestern France, in late July 1209. The inhabitants were in defiant mood. Cathar and Catholic alike, they had no intention of giving in to any demands the crusaders might make. When the Bishop of Beziers arrived and presented the burghers of the town with a list of 222 Cathar Perfects who were to be handed over at once, he threatened that if they did not agree, the town would be besieged next day. The burghers appeared unfazed. They refused to give up any Cathars, Perfects or otherwise, and, according to one chronicler, told the Bishop: 'We would rather drown in the salt sea.'

At that, the Bishop remounted his mule and rode back to the camp the crusaders had set up a day's march away. The following day, 22 July, the inhabitants of Beziers were greeted with a daunting sight. The crusader army had moved up and transferred their camp until it surrounded the walls of the town. They filled the landscape as far as the horizon with their tents, horses, campfires, flags,

The town of Beziers was completely destroyed by the Albigensian crusaders in 1209. 

banners, the elegant pavilions of the crusader lords and their siege machines.

Suddenly, a lone crusader appeared on the bridge that spanned the River Orb near the southern fortifications of Beziers and began to shout insults and threats at the people lining the walls above. A crowd of young men, spoiling for a fight, grabbed spears, sticks and any other makeshift weapon easily to hand, swung open the town gate and surged down the slope to the riverbank. Before he could get away, the lone crusader was seized, thrown to the ground, and soundly beaten. Finally, he was thrown off the bridge into the muddy water of the Orb.

But in their frenzy to get hold of him, the young men of Beziers made the worst possible mistake by leaving open the gate into the town. It was an irresistible invitation to the crusaders who came charging over the bridge and into the narrow streets. Taken by surprise, the defenders scrambled into retreat, intending, perhaps, to put enough distance between themselves and their attackers to regroup and launch an assault of their own. But there was no chance of that.

A crowd of young men, spoiling for

a fight, grabbed spears, sticks and

other makeshift weapons...

Eventually, there were no survivors, and having disposed of the entire population, Amaury's crusaders prepared to loot and pillage the empty houses. Beziers was an affluent town, offering plenty of prizes and valuables of all kinds. The French knights among Amaury's men believed that they had priority when it came to seizing booty, but to their fury, the servant boys and the mercenaries got there before them. The chronicler William of Tudela described what happened next. He wrote:

The servant lads had settled into the houses they had (captured), all of them full of riches and treasure, but when the French (lords) discovered this, they went nearly mad with rage and drove the lads out with clubs, like dogs.

But before the knights could get their hands on any valuables, William of Tudela continued:

These filthy, stinking wretches all shouted out "Burn it! Burn it!" (And) they fetched huge flaming brands as if for a funeral pyre and set the town alight.



The excommunication of a town, city or other district, even entire countries, was called being 'placed under interdict'. In practice, this meant that no Christian marriages, funerals or church services could take place as long as the interdict remained in force, although the populations involved were allowed to make confession and receive baptism. If a country placed under interdict came under attack, the pope was under no obligation to come to its assistance. In addition, an interdict released the subjects from their oaths of loyalty to the offending ruler, which allowed them to rebel against him with impunity, if they wished.

Kings, emperors or other rulers whose behaviour had offended the Catholic Church usually incurred this blanket form of excommunication. The ruler in question had to repent before the penalty coujd be lifted, and the country could be restored to the Catholic communion. This, for instance, is what happened in 1207 when King John of England refused to accept Cardinal Stephen Langton, the Pope's choice for Archbishop of Canterbury. John was excommunicated and England was placed under interdict until 1212, when the King at last gave in and agreed to Langton's appointment. After that, the interdict was withdrawn.


Amaury's army was inexorably driven on by what the Vikings of Scandinavia used to call berserker (battle madness); and cut down anyone and everyone within range of their broadswords. They burst into a church where a vigil was being held and amid screams of agony, terror and frenzied, but useless, attempts to escape, they slashed, stabbed and slaughtered their way through the congregation until all that was left of them were piles of bloody corpses slumped in the aisles. Next, the crusaders moved on to the church of Mary Magdalene and killed every man, woman and child — Catholic or Cafhar - who had been sheltering inside. Around 1000 people died inside the church within a few minutes, leaving only a pall of deathly silence to cover the scene of slaughter. Nearly 700 years later, in 1840, when the church was being renovated, their bones were discovered under the floor of the church. There were hundreds of them, piled roughly together in a huge mass.

There was no escape for the congregation sheltering inside the church at Beziers when the crusaders burst in and started laying about them with their weapons.

Having disposed of the entire

population Amaury's crusaders

prepared to loot and pillage

the empty houses.


The buildings in Beziers were mainly constructed of wood. They burnt quickly and easily as the flames ate their way through one quarter after another. Very soon, all that was left was a raging inferno of death and destruction. To their rage and horror, the treasure the French knights hoped to claim burnt to ashes or quite literally melted away before their eyes. The Cathedral of St Nazaire, built some 80 years previously, was said to have 'split in half, like a pomegranate' in the ravening blaze, before collapsing in ruins. The congregation that had taken shelter there were burnt to death. Beziers was later rebuilt, but the damage had been so extensive that the work took some 200 years to complete.

Before the onslaught, the Catholics had been given the option of leaving the town to escape the punishment that was going to consume the Cathars. Most of them refused, electing to remain and share with their fellow townsfolk whatever fate might bring. This presented the crusaders with a difficulty. How were they to know Catholic from Cathar? It was said that Bishop Amaury ordered, 'Kill them all! God will know His own.' His order was obeyed down to the last drop of blood. Amaury was so elated with the day's work he wrote to Pope Innocent:

Our forces spared neither rank nor sex nor age. About 20,000 people lost their lives at the point of the sword. The destruction of the enemy was on an enormous scale. The entire city was plundered and put to the torch. Thus did divine vengeance vent its wondrous rage.

The Cathedral of St Nazaire ...was said to have split in half, like a

pomegranate' in the ravening blaze before collapsing in ruins. The

congregation that had taken shelter there were burnt to death.


The massacre that took place at Beziers was not spontaneous. It had been meticulously planned in 1208., even before the Albigensian Crusade began, when Arnaud Amaury, a lawyer called Milo (who was the Lateran Apostolic Notary) and 12 cardinals went to Rome to discuss with Pope Innocent III how the crusade should be conducted. The plan they formulated was consistent with the strategy adopted by Crusader forces in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, which had begun more than a century earlier in 1096. The blueprint for the massacre at Beziers was set out in a manuscript called Canso d'Antioca, which a crusader knight, Gregory Bechada, is believed to have written some time between 1106 and 1118. Describing the eleventh-century Crusader army, which the Albigensian Crusaders were to emulate, Bechada wrote:

The lords from France and Paris, laymen and clergy, princes and marquises, all agreed that at every stronghold the crusader army attacked, any garrison that refused to surrender should be slaughtered wholesale, once the stronghold had been taken by force. They would then meet with no resistance anywhere, as men would be so terrified at what had already happened.



Anathema was the name given to a Church decree excommunicating an individual or denouncing an unacceptable doctrine. As a punishrrieht, however, anathema went beyond excommunication. In the New Testament, there is a reference in Corinthians that says, "If man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema'.' In Galatians, anathema is named as the punishment for preaching a rival gospel:

But even if we, or an angel from Heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you,he is to be anathema  

The book of John went even further.

He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ he hath both the Father and the Son. But if there come any unto you that bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.

News of the atrocities perpetrated at Beziers soon spread through Languedoc and the rest of southern France. Lords and landowners whose lowland territories might be the next target for Amaury and his avenging army began to rethink their loyalties. One after another, they came to the encampment where the crusaders spent three days after their rampage through Beziers, to pay homage to Amaury and assure him of their support.

But one of the most powerful among the local lords, Raymond Roger III de Trencavel, Viscount of Carcassonne, Beziers, de Razes and Albi, adopted a different approach. Raymond Roger was the son of the renegade Roger II of Carcassonne and the nephew of the shifty Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, but he was more astute than either of them. When Raymond VI suggested teaming up to oppose Amaury and his crusaders, Raymond Roger, knowing only too well how perfidious his uncle could be, turned him down. He could not risk the chance that if the going got tough, Raymond VI would resort to his usual Plan B, which was to abandon any agreement they might make and cravenly submit to the enemy.

News of the atrocities perpetrated at Beziers soon spread through Languedoc and the rest of southern France. Lords and landowners began to rethink their loyalties.

If that were to happen, Raymond Roger III had too much to lose. For a start, he could find himself in personal danger and might even be forced to relinquish his lands because of his relaxed, tolerant attitude towards the multicultural society he ruled. Consorting with heretics, as the rabid zealotry of the time would judge this laissez-faire approach, was as bad as actually being a heretic, if not worse.


Though Raymond Roger was not himself a Cathar, a large number of his subjects belonged to the sect. His territory also included a community of Jews who had for years been responsible for running Beziers, his secondary seat of power after Carcassonne. Carcassonne also had its Jewish community and they, too, could be in grave danger. Amaury's army would undoubtedly have killed them, for the massacre at Beziers had given ghastly proof of how far crusaders were willing to go to express their 'religious' zeal. For this reason, Raymond Roger took the precaution of sending the Jews of Carcassonne out of the city before the crusaders could get there.

However, it was not as easy to shift the much larger Cathar population. For their sake, as well as his own, Raymond Roger first resorted to diplomacy, seeking to make a deal by promising to persecute the Cathars and any other heretics in his territory. Did he mean it? Probably not, but he may well have learnt from his father the value of dissembling to postpone an evil day. His promise was never put to the test for there was no deal. Amaury did not even grant Raymond Roger a meeting to discuss the matter. It was likely, though, that the crusader leader realized that if he were to guarantee the safety of Carcassonne and Raymond Roger's other cities, there would be nowhere else for his loot-hungry followers to pillage.


This cynical response set off alarm bells. Raymond Roger hastened back to Carcassonne and prepared for war. First, he implemented a 'scorched earth' policy so that the crusader army would be denied the chance to live off the land, as was customary in medieval warfare. Raymond Roger ordered the surrounding area to be laid waste: crops and vineyards were to be burnt, windmills and farm implements destroyed and cattle and other herds either slaughtered or driven

Consorting with heretics was

as bad as actually being a

heretic, if not worse.

into Carcassonne where they could shelter behind the city's huge defensive walls. That done, Raymond Roger's troops made their preparations. With their weapons primed they kept constant watch for the crusaders' approach.

Amaury's army came within sight of Carcassonne on 1 August, ten days after the massacre at Beziers. They quickly calculated that capturing the city, with its mighty fortifications and stout defenders was not going to be a straightforward task. There were no open gates, no weak defences and no easy pickings. In fact, Amaury did not dare let his forces make camp too near the city walls where they might come within range of the fearsome crossbowmen of Carcassonne. The crusader knights parked their tents and pavilions some distance away. So did Amaury's soldiers, who laid their fires and chose their sleeping places well out of the reach of the deadly crossbows and other long-range weapons arrayed against them in Carcassonne.

The defenders of Carcassonne made a brave show, but the truth was that they were totally outnumbered. They were also 'outgunned', for Amaury had at his disposal powerful siege machines and many more archers - the artillery of medieval warfare - than Raymond Roger could mass against him. The day after the crusaders' arrival outside Carcassonne, 2 August, was a Sunday, when making war was banned by papal decree. Amaury's forces had to wait until Monday but as soon as dawn broke, they quickly deployed their battering rams, laid ladders against the walls for heavily armed soldiers to climb, and poured a hail of arrows inside Carcassonne where defenders and citizens alike could be indiscriminately killed.

The bloody hand-to-hand warfare that took place during the battle for Carcassonne in 1209 is vividly depicted on this frieze in the Cathedral of St Nazaire in Beziers.


The site the crusaders chose for their first attack was Bourg, one of two suburbs of Carcassonne that lay just outside the city. Of the two, Bourg was the less well fortified and defended and after two hard-fought hours, the crusaders were able to force their way through and scatter soldiers and citizens alike. As they fled into Carcassonne proper, seeking the safety they hoped to find behind its walls, archers and crossbowmen standing high on the battlements loosed down blast after blast of fire upon the attackers, all to no avail. A mass of crusaders poured inside Bourg, but this time, they were not intent on slaughter. Their targets were the water wells by the River Aude. Soon they had these had under control together with the northern approaches to Carcassonne.

The loss of the wells was a severe blow to the defence of the city, but the people of Carcassonne fought on. On 7 August, when the crusaders tried to storm Castellar, the other, southern, suburb of the city, they were plastered with rocks, arrows and other missiles, which sent them running for shelter among the nearby trees. It was obvious to the crusader knights that the time had come to deploy the trebuchets, ballistas, mangonels and catapults - all formidable siege machines. Between them, these deadly pieces of equipment poured clouds of rocks, pebbles, flaming firebrands and anything else they could launch over the walls of Castellar and into the streets. Anyone caught out in the open was likely to be injured, maimed or killed.


Now that the walls were breached, the crusaders swarmed into Castellar and in the ferocious fight that followed, most of the defenders were killed. The crusader lords left a small garrison in Castellar and

The inhabitants of Carcassonne were allowed to leave the town after its capture by the Albigensian crusaders, led by Simon de Montfort IV. However, they were only allowed to take the clothes, they stood up in.

retired back to their camp. But revenge was not long in coming. Lords, whose lands lay in the highlands around the valley of the River Aude close by the Pyrenees Mountains, and supported by Raymond Roger, arrived. These men, unlike their more cautious lowland counterparts, were the type who preferred death to surrender and with Raymond Roger at their head, they charged out of Carcassonne and fell on the garrison, slaughtering them to the last man. Beziers, they might have thought, was avenged.

But the short, sharp action seems to have been observed from the crusader camp and suddenly, a large troop of armed knights, much more numerous than Raymond Roger's men, came riding towards them. Roger's men hastily retreated into Carcassonne and swung the gate closed. The city itself was once more secure, but within its walls a fearful drama was being acted out. The shortage of water caused by the loss of the wells was fouling the city's cisterns and

Amaury had at his disposal powerful

siege machines and many more

archers than Raymond Roger could

mass against him.

poisoning what little water they still contained. In the boiling August weather people, young and old, began to die. Sickness and fevers spread and a cloud of flies settled on the bodies of the dead as they lay rotting in the streets.


Huge siege machines had been a feature of war as long ago as the eighth century BCE, when the Old Testament recorded that during the reign of King Azariah of Judah, soldiers were using 'engines, invented by cunning men to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal'. Much later, the Greeks and Romans also employed siege warfare, subjecting town populations to days and nights of thunderings, shudderings, crashings and the sinister whistle of dozens of arrows raining down from the sky. Streets, squares, houses, churches — anywhere and everywhere townsfolk might be was susceptible to the damage and death dispensed by the siege machines.

By the thirteenth century when the towns of Languedoc came under siege during the Albigensian Crusade, the machines and the fearful destruction they wrought had hardly changed since the days of ancient Rome. A medieval army besieging a castle or town still used catapults, ballistae and battering rams, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans had done. They also employed scaling ladders and siege towers, as well as 'cats' or 'penthouses' to protect themselves against missiles flung down at them by defenders manning the walls.


One engine of war used by the Albigensian Crusaders in Languedoc was developed from the Roman onager (wild donkey). The onager got its name because it kicked like the rather bad-tempered animal. The trebuchet had a similarly vicious action, using a windlass that twisted ropes or springs. When the ropes or springs were suddenly released, the spoke 'kicked' at a crosspiece on the wooden frame of the trebuchet and the missiles contained in a large cup were propelled forward at speed. This method of firing was known as the 'counterweight' system. Trebuchets were normally used to hurl large stones, but they could also fling incendiary materials like burning pitch or flaming oil. Used this way they truly became weapons of terror and were greatly feared for the way they disfigured anyone standing in their path.

The ballista, which was invented by the Romans, was much like the hand-held crossbow but on a much

A siege tower enabled an attacking army to draw level with the defenders of a besieged town and fire their arrows directly at them. The battering ram was a crude but effective weapon for breaking down walls, while the sharpened stake could destroy a wall by picking its stones apart.

larger scale. Built exclusively of wood, it included a Tsry powerful spring frame that enabled the engine to throw a stone or other object weighing more than 22 kilograms over a distance of around 366 metres. The ballista could also be loaded with a mass of arrows that fell inside a castle or city in massively destructive and often inescapable showers.


The end of conventional siege warfare, as practised since Biblical times, arrived in the early fourteenth century, with the introduction of gunpowder and with that, firearms and field guns, such as the primitive but effective vasi, terror weapons of another more novel kind. The vasi, also known as pots de fer (iron pots) were first illustrated in an English manuscript of around 1327 as a vase-like weapon lying on its side with an arrow sticking out of its muzzle. At the rear end, a gunner stood with a red-hot rod poised over a firing hole. Vasi and their successors let off thunderous explosions, setting woodwork defences on fire and

In medieval warfare, mining was used to make the walls of a castle collapse by destroying their base. A fire was lit to destroy the wooden posts holding up the tunnel.

pounding walls, town gates and towers into a mass of rubble. Even the mightiest monsters of medieval warfare up to that date had been unable to achieve this destruction.

But 'mining', a silent, insidious method of warfare, proved even more terrifying than the siege engines. This involved digging under the foundations of a castle or walled city and temporarily shoring up the walls with small wooden stays. The resulting tunnel was stuffed with straw soaked in oil and anything else that would burn and then set alight. As the stays burned through, the walls collapsed. This tactic had a devastating effect at Carcassonne. The defenders of Castellar sited at the top found their foothold suddenly gone as they fell, along with a mass of loose stone that smashed to rubble as it hit the ground. Most did not survive.


The situation could not go on. Around the middle of August, two weeks after Amaury's army arrived outside Carcassonne, an emissary from the crusaders arrived. He had a simple but chilling message: surrender now or share the fate of Beziers. Raymond Roger recognized the end when he saw it. He agreed to parley and under a guarantee of safe conduct, rode to the crusader camp to meet with the Count of Nevers, Herve de Donzy. Neither his family, nor his followers saw Raymond Roger, Viscount de Trencavel, alive again.

What happened in the privacy of Herve de Donzy's tent never became known and even contemporary chroniclers, usually eager for any shred of gossip and rumour, failed to reveal any clue. The only facts to emerge at this juncture were that, to their great relief and puzzlement, the Carcassonnois - Cathar, Catholic and Jew alike - were told they could go, but had to leave everything behind except for the clothes they stood up in.

Knights on horseback are shown fighting at close quarters during the siege of Carcassonne in this Languedoc manuscript.

They departed, passing one at a time through a narrow postern gate under the sharp eyes of crusader guards who watched out for any sign they were trying to smuggle out any of their possessions.

'Not even the value of a button were they allowed to take with them,' one chronicler recorded. Or, as another chronicler expressed it, the Carcassonnois took away 'nothing but their sins'. Precisely how Raymond Roger managed to obtain freedom for his people in Carcassonne was, and remained, a mystery, although it has since been suggested that the real purpose of the crusader attack was not the destruction of the Cathars, but the elimination of its dangerously tolerant viscount who preferred to consort with heretics rather than follow the 'true' faith of Christ. However that may be, once the city was empty and

It has since been suggested that the real purpose of the crusader attack on Carcassonne was not the destruction of the Cathars but the elimination of its dangerously tolerant viscount who preferred to consort with heretics rather than follow the 'true' faith of Christ.

the now destitute Carcassonnois had gone., Raymond Roger was brought back in chains, forced down into the depths of his castle, the Chateau Comtal, and manacled to the wall of its dungeon. On 10 November 1209, 13 weeks later, he was found dead. He was 24 years of age. Raymond Roger left behind a five year-old son, Raymond Roger IV, but despite efforts over many years, the heir to Trencavel never received his patrimony. Instead, the Trencavel lands were given to Simon de Montfort IV, father of the more famous baron of the same name who became Sixth Earl of Leicester and pioneered parliamentary power in England later in the thirteenth century. On 15 August 1209, the elder de Montfort was made Viscount of Beziers, Carcassonne and all the other possessions once owned by the Trencavel family.

The Chateau Comtal, built in the late 12th century, was the inner fortress of Carcassonne and was selected as a UNESCO World Beritage Site in 1997.


Subsequently, de Montfort, who succeeded Arnaud Amaury as military leader of the crusade, blamed the death of Raymond Roger on dysentery and added a vague mention of 'divine punishment' for sheltering and supporting the heretic Cathars. The idea of direct punishment from God for sins was very seductive to the medieval mindset, for it demonstrated God's active involvement in human affairs. Even so, many Languedocoise were unconvinced and strongly suspected foul play. They were not alone, although six years passed before anyone voiced these suspicions in public, at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The occasion was significant for Pope Innocent III himself summoned the Council. Innocent was present when Raymond de Roquefeuil, one of the lords who also attended the Council directly accused Simon de Montfort of murder. De Roquefeuil went further, and implicated the Pope. He told Innocent II:

As the (crusaders) have killed the father and disinherited the son will you, My Lord, give him his fief and keep your own dignity? And if you refuse to give it to him, may God do you the grace to add the weight of his sins to your own soul!

These were fighting words few would have dared address to a pope, but Innocent, it seems, merely answered: 'This shall be seen to.' The murder charge was no news to Pope Innocent who had already told Arnold Amaury in 1213 that Raymond Roger had been 'wretchedly slain'. All the same, nothing was done to restore the rights of Raymond Roger IV and the Trencavel family.

After the fall of Carcassonne on 15 August 1209, the city, silent and deserted, was thoroughly looted and despoiled. Once that sordid task was done, Amaury and his crusaders went home, carrying fortunes in gold, silver, jewels and other prizes so rich that even the most impoverished among them were set up for life. The few weeks they had spent in Languedoc, punctuated by atrocity and pillage and tainted with innocent blood has long been accounted one of the most sordid episodes in Christian and papal history. But though they severely damaged the Cathars, killed them by the thousand and created a tide of refugees that swelled the population of other cities in Languedoc, the crusaders failed to destroy them or disturb their beliefs. Nor did they convert Cathars to the Catholic faith in sufficient numbers to claim a decisive triumph over heresy.


Evidently, the work of 'purifying' the Church of heresy was not yet finished, which was why the Pope issued the call to crusade every year. But, the purpose behind it began to change after news of the Albigensian 'success' at Beziers and Carcassonne alerted new recruits from all over Europe. Before long, thousands came to join the party. For large numbers of them, their first thought was not to perform the work of God and the Church, but to satisfy the prime motives of feudal warfare: the acquisition of loot, land and power. The chief beneficiary of this new, materialistic ethos was Simon de Montfort IV who ranked quite modestly

Amaury and his crusaders went

home carrying fortunes in gold

silver jewels and other prizes

so rich that even the most

impoverished among them were

set up for life.

among the great feudal lords and landowners of the time until he was given the Trencavel holdings in Languedoc. Before that, de Montfort's estates in France were few. A more substantial inheritance was his half share, with his mother, in the Earldom of Leicester in England. This, though, became purely theoretical in 1207 when John, King of England confiscated the earldom and appropriated its revenues. In this context, de Montfort, a courageous, but cruel commander known for his 'treachery, harshness and bad faith', was bound to seek recompense by some

It took Pope Innocent III some time

to discover that de Montfort and his

new 'crusaders' were serving

themselves rather than God

and before he did more cities were

attacked and plundered more

populations were terrorized and

more atrocities were committed.

other means. Languedoc gave him his chance, and once in command of the crusader army, he made the most of it.

It took Pope Innocent III some time to discover that de Montfort and his new 'crusaders' were serving themselves rather than God, and before he did, more cities were attacked and plundered, more populations were terrorized, more atrocities were committed even though the appearance of crusade was provided by the killing of hundreds more Cathars. Eventually, in 1213, Innocent ordered an end to the crusade against the heretics of Languedoc. The soldiers of Christ, he believed, had better things to do, such as ending the power of the Muslim Moors in Spain or reconquering Jerusalem, lost to the Saracens in 1187.

The Pope's decision came too late. By 1213, after four years of war and persecution, the Albigensian Crusade took on a life of its own in which the elimination of the Cathars was entwined with the territorial ambitions of feudal lords and kings and one vital, inescapable fact: despite all the damage the Crusade had done so far, the destruction of castles and cities, the slaughter of thousands of people and the

Simon de Montfort IV suffered a bizarre death. He was hit on the head by a stray stone from a nearby catapult during the siege of Toulouse in 1218.

ruin of as many lives, the Cathars, though weakened, had survived with their heretic faith intact. This, Pope Innocent was told by the strong-minded Arnaud Amaury, was no time to leave the field. The fight, in which Amaury had already invested so much time and effort, had to go on. Innocent had no option but yield

The Cathar War,

as the Albigensian Crusade was also

called dragged on for another

16 years and outlived some of its

chief protagonists.

to the logic of the situation, and he rescinded his call for an end to the Albigensian Crusade only five months after issuing it.


But the ultimate downfall of the Cathars was not brought about solely by military action, as Arnaud Amaury probably envisaged, or by wholesale conversion, as Pope Innocent may have hoped. The Cathar War, as the Albigensian Crusade was also called, dragged on for another 16 years and outlived some of its chief protagonists. Pope Innocent died in 1216. Simon de Montfort was killed in 1218 when a stray stone from a catapult struck him on the head during his seige of Toulouse. And Arnaud Amaury died in 1225.

Four years later, the Albigensian Crusade came to its close after the French defeated Raymond VII of Toulouse, son of Raymond VI. It was reckoned that in the 20 years it lasted, one million people were killed as the horrors of Beziers and Carcassonne were repeated over and over again. At the Treaty of Paris, signed on 12 April 1229, Raymond VII ceded his castles and his lands, which by that time included Languedoc, to the French King, Louis IX. This was a belated triumph for Louis' grandfather, the wily and treacherous Philip II Augustus, who entered the Wars late (in 1215), but 14 years later, posthumously scooped the pool. With this, Raymond's landholdings shrank to a limited area, with the city of Toulouse as his only notable possession.

This, though, was not all. On the day the Treaty was signed, Raymond was made to suffer the utmost humiliation. The start of the Crusade 20 years earlier had been signalled by the public penance of Raymond's father, Raymond VI. Now, his son marked the end of the Crusade with the same punishment. Forced to endure public penance, Raymond VII was whipped with a bundle of birch twigs in the square outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Afterwards, he was thrown into prison. Most significant, though, was the promise extracted from him to use his army to aid in the persecution of the Cathars.


At this time, the hunt for Cathars and other heretics was entering a new and much more deadly phase. Gregory IX who was elected pope in 1227 was not content, as previous popes had been, to call for a crusade and then leave it to the military to do the dirty work. He had a better, though much more chilling idea. He reinvented the Episcopal (bishops') Inquisition, as a method of dealing with heretics that was first introduced in 1184 but had never quite fulfilled its purpose.

The bishops who had been supposed to conduct the Inquisition seemed to have little taste for

The bishops who had been

supposed to conduct the

Inquisition seemed to have little taste

for hunting heretics and even less

for the terrifying punishments

they had to impose.

hunting heretics and even less for the terrifying punishments they had to impose. Some bishops were unable to recognize heresy when they saw it. Others were too closely tied to the families in their diocese to contemplate the possibility that they might find themselves persecuting their own kin. These problems effectively stymied the bishops' Inquisition for as Pope Innocent III put it in 1215:

It often happens that bishops, by reason of their manifold preoccupations, fleshly pleasures and bellicose leanings, and from other causes, not least the poverty of their spiritual training and lack of pastoral zeal, are unfit to proclaim the word of God and govern the people.

In some places, the people were, in any case, barely governable, for the mob frequently took charge when an alleged heretic was uncovered and immediately administered their own summary justice.

The new, papal or Roman Inquisition introduced by Pope Gregory was not only meant to discourage such abuses, but to bring better organization, more efficiency and greater dedication to the business of saving souls from heresy, and punishing - severely - anyone who refused to recant. In this more retributive form, the Inquisition became, and remained for centuries, a byword for torture, terror and unimaginable suffering.

In 1231, Pope Gregory IX, who was elected in 1227 near the end of the Albigensian Crusade, introduced the Inquisition which even today, remains a byword for terror and suffering.




Keith Hunt