The Inquisition introduced by Pope Gregory IX in 1231

was designed to fight all heresy wherever it occurred in Catholic Europe,

but its first target was the unorthodox brand practised

and preached by the Cathars.

The danger the Cathars presented to the established Church lay in their vast numbers., the support of high-ranking nobles, like Raymond VI of Toulouse and his son, Raymond VII, the spread of Cathar territory in southwest France and northeast Spain and the resilience that enabled them to survive, with beliefs stubbornly intact, the 20 gruelling years of the Albigensian Crusade. However,

The mass burning of Cathars at their stronghold of Montsegur in 1244 finally broke the back of the Cathar faith. Pope Gregory IX appointed the Dominican friars as chief investigators of heresy.

the sequel to the Treaty of Paris, which brought the Crusade to an official close in 1229, was even more punitive and lasted even longer. Ultimately, the fight against heresy was to outdo most other conflicts of medieval times in the cruelty and terror that was used to achieve its ends.


As far as the medieval Church was concerned, extreme measures were justified when heresy placed Christianity in mortal danger. The foundations of society itself were at stake, for the freethinking heretic, who rejected the 'one true Church' and chose

The freethinking heretic

who rejected the 'one true Church'

and chose his own beliefs and

practices was a fundamental

threat to the faithful.

his own beliefs and practices, was a fundamental threat to the faithful. The Church, after all, was the bedrock on which their peace of mind rested, and its teachings were central to their certainties. Rob them of that, and mayhem would follow.

Over the next quarter of a century, the sieges of towns and castles and the massacres of their inhabitants continued, but it was not the mixture as before. It was infinitely worse. Pope Gregory's Inquisition gave an extra edge to atrocity as inquisitors exploited the wide-ranging powers he allowed them. Even their job description, inquisitor hereticae pravitatis (inquisitor of heretical depravity), was a terrifying term with its overtones of madness and the link that superstition made with demons, devils and their evil.


The Cathars were fully aware that no quarter would be given once the Dominicans got down to work, and when the Inquisition was set up in Languedoc in the Spring of 1233 thousands of them fled to safer places

Pope Gregory's Inquisition

gave an extra edge to atrocity

as inquisitors exploited the

wide-ranging powers he 

allied them

such as Caudies de Fenouilledes or Montsegur, both of them on the French side of the Pyrenees. Montsegur was remarkable for its fortress, sited high among the snow-capped mountain peaks. It was easy to feel safe in such remote refuges, but not everyone was able to elude the Inquisition or seek safety elsewhere.

Inevitably, a climate of dread and suspicion began to pervade Toulouse and other cities of Languedoc where anyone, Cathar or not, could be betrayed to the Inquisition and so incur its terrible penalties. Loyalty to the Church and its teachings was supposed to be the prime motive for leading inquisitors to heretics. But there were other agendas at work. Piety was all too often outmatched by a range of personal reasons, such as the chance to pay off old scores, get rid of an inconvenient rival or otherwise satisfy the warped imaginations of mischief-makers and misanthropes.


The Dominicans, members of the Order of Friars Preachers, who were to be the pope's chief inquisitors were a special type of monk, purposely trained by their Spanish founder Dominic de Guzman to mirror the asceticism, poverty and piety of the Cathar Perfects. De Guzman, who was canonized as St Dominic only 13 years after his death in 1221, perceived that the Perfects' humble, self-denying way of life was the key to the devotion they earned among the Cathars. The Dominicans, he decided, must match the Perfects for piety and self-sacrifice if they were going to succeed in saving Cathar souls for Rome. They had to live in the world, not within the confines of the monastery, and like the Cathar Perfects, communicate directly with the people and eschew all luxury, and the self-indulgence too eagerly embraced by too many churchmen.

Unfortunately, Dominic did not take sufficient account of the self-righteousness inherent in the strictly puritan way of life, nor of the way it produced a sense of moral superiority that ran counter to the self-effacement he tried to instil in his followers. In addition, extremes have always bred extremists, and fanatics who would today be classed as psychopaths were drawn to the Order of Friars Preachers by the chance the Inquisition offered to use barbarity disguised as righteous zeal. The pope may or may not have recognized them for what they were. But just the same, he welcomed them to the ranks of his inquisitors and dispatched them to France and elsewhere in Europe where many Dominicans became notorious for conduct that was horrific even by the brutal standards of the time. It was no wonder that, ultimately, the Dominicans became widely known as 'The Black Friars'.

St Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order, is shown here performing self-flagellation. The practice, also called 'mortification of the flesh', was eventually outlawed by the Catholic Church in the 14th century.


Madame Boursier, an elderly Cathar lady and native of Toulouse was on her deathbed when Dominican inquisitors arrived at her home a few doors down from the city's cathedral on 5 August 1234. She was about to endure a shocking fate.

The Cathars of Toulouse had kept quiet about their beliefs, hoping to avoid persecution, and till now, the dying and delirious old lady had been one of these secret credentes (believers). Until, that is, she was betrayed to the Dominicans by one of her own servants. One of the Dominican monks, Guillaume Pelhisson, was an official inquisitor, another, Raymond du Fauga, Bishop of Toulouse was a man with an overdeveloped taste for cruelty and guile. When the two Dominicans entered Madame Boursier's house and climbed the stairs to her room, her family became terrified: they had long been under suspicion of heresy and believed that now, they had reached the end of the line. This was certainly so for Madame Boursier.

One member of the family, hoping to warn the old lady of her dangerous visitors, whispered to her that the 'Lord Bishop' had arrived. But Madame Boursier was too far advanced in her delirium. She imagined that the Cathar Perfect, Guilhabert de Castres was at her bedside. Raymond du Fauga let her go on believing it and pretended to be the Perfect as he encouraged her to be true to her Cathar beliefs for, as he told her: 'The fear of death should not make you confess anything other than that which you hold firmly and with your whole heart.' To the horror of her relatives, the poor old lady condemned herself out of her own mouth and the Bishop, having made certain of his victim, declared his true identity and pronounced the death sentence, effective immediately.

In a scene rarely matched for sheer malevolence, even in the annals of the Inquisition, the helpless old woman was tied to her bed, carried downstairs and along the street outside to a field that lay beyond the city limits. There, a bonfire had already been lit, and in front of a large and curious crowd, Madame Boursier and her bed were flung into the flames. Barely conscious, the old lady may have been too far gone to be aware of what was happening to her, nor to ever have known how her own servant had been tempted to accept the payment offered by the Inquisition to anyone who denounced a heretic.


The papal inquisition did not care about motives. Its inquisitors were trained to net all the victims who were betrayed to them and at the same time close any loopholes that might enable them to escape the 'justice' they were supposed to dispense. First in was an inquisitor who arrived in a town, consulted the local clergy and then called on all males over the age of 14 and all females over the age of 12 to declare their loyalty to the orthodox Catholic faith. Needless to say, those who refused were instantly classed as sinners and, most likely, heretics. The inquisitor gave them one week to think over their position, confess their wrongdoings and denounce themselves.

After that, those who still refused to cooperate were summoned to appear before the Inquisition and its frightening, insistent interrogators. They presented themselves, knowing full well that no one was safe, not the dying, like Madame Boursier, nor the sick, nor the lunatics whose ravings were accepted as solid evidence.

Where the late Pope Innocent III had used the gentle, diplomatic approach, sending Cistercian monks among the Cathars to debate their beliefs and hopefully convert them, Gregory IX was much more proactive. He preferred to manipulate the situation and exploit baser human instincts in order to gain the results he wanted. Inevitably, where Innocent failed, Gregory succeeded. To achieve his ends, he gave preference to

Piety was all too often

outmatched by a range of personal

reasons such as the chance

to pay off old scores.

Dominicans who were adept at terrorizing witnesses and so confusing them that they soon reached a state where they could barely think straight.


Did they know of any heretics? Had they seen them, how often, where and when? Who was with them? Who visited them? Had they seen anyone treat a Cathar with reverence or revered him themselves? Did they know of any bequest made to heretics and, if so, how much was it worth and who drew up the deed? Faced with this persistent pressure, designed to trip them up


Even the dead were not immune from this orgy of telling tales. The 'accused' soon learnt - or thought they learnt — how to elude the inquisitor's need for more and more fodder for their endless probing and quizzing. When required to give a list of names, the longer, the better, they identified dead men and women who, they imagined, could escape any punishment the inquisitors could impose. How wrong they were. The next thing they knew, the interrogators had appeared in the local cemetery to dig up corpses. No matter what their state of decomposition, the bodies were piled on a cart and taken to a specially designated place of 'execution'.

As the cart rolled through the streets, the priests accompanying them intoned: 'Whoso does the like, will suffer a like fate!'

Once they reached their destination, the rotting cadavers were bound to stakes. The fires were lit and they were ceremonially burnt. It was a macabre, utterly grotesque sight but the rest of the punishment was carried out as if the dead 'heretics' were still alive. Their houses were razed to the ground. Their families lost everything they owned. Some were imprisoned, or were forced to wear yellow crosses to show that they were indelibly stained by the sins of a 'heretic' relation.

The 'accused' as they were called in the manuals of the Inquisition, were not allowed to know whether or not they were themselves suspected of heresy.

or make them contradict themselves, most people would say anything, not matter what, to escape the barrage of quick-fire questioning. Loyalty, love, friendship, decency and honesty were all abandoned as victims, sensing danger, made desperate bids at self-defence. The 'accused' as they were called in the manuals of the Inquisition, were not allowed to know

Cathar heretics are abused and beaten as they march to a fiery death in this 19th-century colour lithograph.

whether or not they were themselves suspected of heresy. Fear-filled imagination drove them to divulge scores of names and so provide the Inquisition with yet more suspects.


The burning of dead 'heretics' and other excesses committed by inquisitors provoked widespread disgust, and this soon led to serious revolts and even murder. In 1235, two years after the Inquisition first arrived in Languedoc, three inquisitors died after they were hurled down a well some 30 metres (100ft) deep. Another, Arnold Catalan, whose sphere of operations was at Albi, was set upon by an infuriated mob after he condemned and burnt two heretics and did the same to several corpses he had exhumed.

In his history of the Inquisition in Toulouse between 1230 and 1238, Graham Pelhisson, a Dominican who was himself an inquisitor, described what happened next:

The people of Albi sought to throw him into the River Tarn but at the insistence of some among them, released him, beaten, his clothing torn to shreds, his face bloody...

The burning of dead 'heretics'

and other excesses committed

by inquisitors provoked widespread

disgust and this soon led to serious

revolts and even murder.

The victims of the sadistic Konrad von Marburg, the Pope's inquisitor in Germany, soon learned that it was a waste of their final breaths to ask him for mercy.

This, though, was not an isolated incident for as Pelhisson continued:

The chief men of the region, together with the greater nobles and the burghers and others, protected and hid the heretics. They beat, wounded and killed those who pursued them...many wicked things were done in the land to the Church and to faithful persons.

Another victim of this violent backlash was Konrad von Marburg. In 1227, the year he was elected pope, Gregory IX engaged von Marburg to wipe out heresy in his native Germany. Konrad was already an infamous sadist at the time, but as a reign of terror, his work in Germany outdid everything he had previously 'achieved' and inevitably led to his murder in 1233.


Before he was appointed a papal inquisitor, Konrad von Marburg had acted as advisor and confessor to Elisabeth, the widow of Prince Ludwig IV of Thuringia, who died of plague in 1227. Before long, Konrad held the unfortunate Elisabeth in thrall. He replaced her favourite ladies-in-waiting with two termagants and punished her for lapses by slapping her on the face or hitting her with a rod. It was an exceptionally harsh regime which, combined with the ascetic lifestyle she led after her husband's death, damaged her sufficiently to kill her at the age of 24. She was afterwards canonized as St Elisabeth and became for many an icon of misused womanhood.

There was more than a hint of what Elisabeth had gone through at the hands of the brutal Konrad in his later conduct as the pope's inquisitor in the German districts of Hesse and Thuringia. A rumour that he was in the area could create panic. According to some reports, panic changed to hysteria if he appeared in person, riding through a town or village accompanied by his grim-faced assistant, a man called Dorso, and a character named John, who had only one eye and one hand.

There was good reason for this terror. Konrad saw heretics everywhere and those he did not see, he fancied were hiding from him in castles, churches and even in monasteries and nunneries. Actual guilt or proof of guilt became superfluous because Konrad would accept almost any accusation as fact and judged suspects guilty of heresy unless they could prove they were innocent. This was easier said than done, for Konrad employed mobs whose task it was to find heretics, terrify confessions out of them and burn them at the stake if they refused to recant. Victims had one chance to avoid this fate: they could denounce more 'heretics', not from any real knowledge, but by deliberately falsifying evidence. Hundreds, maybe thousands, Cathars and Catholics alike, were accused of heresy, and, in their turn, offered the chance to live if they would agree to incriminate others. If they refused, Konrad was not one to hang around waiting for them to make up their minds. Many of his 'heretics' were burnt at the stake on the same day they were charged.

Konrad did not confine himself to snaring minnows for the Inquisition. He aimed for the top, implicating priests, aristocrats and other high-ranking notables in sins and shortcomings that qualified them for punishment. One of his victims was the Provost of Goslar, Heinrich Minnike, another was Heinrich II, Count of Sayn, who was found guilty of participating in 'satanic orgies'. Minnike burnt at the stake, but the Count fought back and was exonerated by the bishops of Mainz. They refused to reverse their verdict as Konrad demanded.

Needless to say, Konrad made enemies wherever he went and after he left Mainz to return to Marburg, the inevitable happened. On 30 July 1233 while on the road, Konrad was waylaid by knights who murdered both him and his assistant Dorso. It was suspected, but never proved, that the assassins were in the pay of Heinrich II.

In 1230 Pope Gregory IX ordered his chaplain and confessor, St Raymond of Penaforte, to compile a collection of ecclesiastical laws and rulings. He is seen here being handed the collection, known as the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX.


The killing of the pope's man, whatever the circumstances, was usually treated as a great scandal, virtually an insult to the pontiff himself. The death of Konrad of Marburg, however, drew a guileful response from Pope Gregory IX. He could not have been unaware of Konrad's barbarous doings and yet he wrote to the archbishops of Cologne and Trier in terms that subtly shifted the blame onto them.

'We marvel' the pope told the two archbishops 'that you allowed legal proceedings of this unprecedented nature to continue for so long among you without acquainting us of what was happening. It is our wish,' Gregory continued disingenuously 'that such things should no longer be tolerated and we declare these proceedings null and void. We cannot permit such misery as you have described.'