Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Siege of Montségur: Cathars Now out in paperback

The Cathar fortress of Montségur

With Raymond now a spent force, the Church had only one place left to tackle that openly defied them: the Pyrenean fortress of Montségur, the so-called ‘Synagogue of Satan’ that had been a Cathar stronghold ever since the days of Innocent’s ‘peace and faith’ campaign. At a council at Béziers in the spring of 1243, it was decided that action against Montségur had to be taken. By the end of May, an army led by Hugh of Arcis, the royal seneschal in Carcassonne, was in place at the foot of Montségur, but given the fortress’s reputation for impregnability, they knew they would be in for a long wait.

  Montségur had been refortified in 1204 by Raymond of Pereille. He was a Believer, and both his mother and mother-in-law were Perfect. The castle had been a refuge for Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade, and when the Inquisition began its work, Guilhabert de Castres, the Cathar bishop of Toulouse, approached Raymond with the request that the castle become the centre of the faith. By the time Guilhabert died (of natural causes) around 1240, it was home to around 200 Perfect, overseen by Guilhabert’s successor, Bertrand Marty. They were protected by a garrison of 98 knights, under Peter Roger of Mirepoix, whom Raymond of Pereille had appointed co-lord of Montségur at some point prior to 1240. Raymond had guessed – rightly – that the community would need armed protection as the noose of the Inquisition tightened around the Languedoc. Peter Roger, who was from a family of Cathar Believers, had more in common with the bellicose Paulicians than the pacifist Perfect: he was not averse to armed robbery in order to keep the community fed, and had been the instigator of the assassinations at Avignonet. During its heyday, Montségur had been busy as a centre of both intense devotion and industry. Pilgrims travelled great distances to hear the Perfect preach, to be consoled, or simply to spend time in retreat. When not busy with tending to the needs of the Believers, the Perfect helped support the community by working as weavers (a craft long associated with heresy), blacksmiths, chandlers, doctors and herbalists. By the time the siege began, the total number of people living there – including the knights’ families – was somewhere in the region of 400.

  Hugh of Arcis did not have enough men to encircle the two-mile base of the mountain, and in such craggy terrain siege engines were useless. Hugh had no choice but to try to take the fortress by direct assault. His forces made numerous attempts to scale the peak, but each time were driven back by arrows and other missiles lobbed over Montségur’s ramparts by Peter Roger and his men. The months dragged on wearily and, by Christmas, Hugh’s army was becoming disillusioned. He needed a breakthrough if there was any chance of raising morale. He ordered an attack on the bastion that sat atop the Roc de la Tour, a needle of rock at the eastern end of the summit. The men climbed the Roc by night, and caught the garrison at the top by surprise. The defenders were all killed. When daylight came, the royal troops looked down in horror at the sheer face they had scaled, swearing they could never have made the ascent by day. Nevertheless, it gave the royal forces a strong foothold just a few hundred yards from the main castle itself, and work began immediately on winching up catapults and mangonels. Bombardment began immediately.

  Inside the walls of Montségur, the atmosphere of devotion intensified. While Peter Roger’s men returned fire on the French troops, who were edging ever nearer from their foothold at the Roc, Bertrand Marty and Raymond Agulher, the Cathar bishop of the Razès, attended the spiritual needs of both the garrison and the non-combatants. A messenger arrived to say that Raymond VII might intervene to lift the siege. Rumour had it that Frederick II was also planning a rescue mission to liberate Montségur. The weeks dragged on, but no one came. Finally, on 2 March 1244, Peter Roger walked out to announce the surrender of the fortress to Hugh of Arcis. The victors were lenient with their terms: everyone could go free, provided they allowed themselves to be questioned by the Inquisition, and swear an oath of loyalty to the Church. Past crimes, including the assassinations at Avignonet, were forgiven. For the Perfect, the choice was as stark as it had been for their forebears at Minerve and Lavaur: renounce Catharism, or burn. They had two weeks to think about it.

- Posted on the anniversary of the fortress's fall. The Cathars: The Rise & Fall of the Great Heresy is out now in paperback.

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