The ruins of Montségur are a reminder of the last
of the Cathars. Below Montségur lies a peaceful meadow, its name,
‘Field of the Burned’. In March 1244, 205 Cathars were burned
alive on the site, rather than renounce their faith.Their name
Cathari, means ‘pure’ in Greek, although some have argued that
their name comes from their fondness for cats! (See Horrible
History France) Either way, for the Catholic Church, the
Cathars were heretics who needed to be controlled.
Central to the Cathar religion is the idea of
Duality, the opposition of the material world to that of the spirit. For
the masses, this translated into a battle between good (Light or God)
and evil (Darkness or Satan). A Cathar life was an ascetic life. This
meant a life of simplicity and selflessness. The ‘priests’ of
Catharism were known as parfait or ‘Perfects’. Those who did
not live this Cathar life were doomed to perpetual reincarnation,
returning to suffer here on earth whilst the Cathars enjoyed an eternal
There was no Cathar church as such. The Parfaits
worshipped in forests and on mountain tops. Their initiations were held
in a series of limestone caves, chiefly near the Pic de St. Barthelemy.
Renouncing worldly riches, they wore plain dark blue gowns, ate
vegetarian foods, and kept strict vows of chastity in keeping with their
belief that it was sacrilegious to procreate. They were not to fear
death. Marriage, baptism, and communion were not recognized. For the
Cathars there was only one ritual: the Consolamentum. This
ceremony consisted of the Parfait laying his hands upon the head
of the believer who hoped to enter the community of the Parfaits.
But when he came to power in 1198 Pope Innocent
IIItried to destroy the
Cathars. The Roman Catholic Church and feudalism were rocked by
Cathar teachings. Practicing what they preached with great humility,
attacking the corruption of the Catholic clergy, and establishing
prosperous, cooperative communities in the land of Oc outraged Roman
Catholic Church. At first
Innocent III tried peaceful conversion, and sent into the affected
regions a number of legates or representatives. The powerful count
Raymond VI of Toulouse refused to assist and was excommunicated in May,
1207. Raymond met with a papal representative, Pierre de Castelnau, in
January 1208, and after an angry meeting Pierre de Castelnau was killed
the following day. The Pope reacted to this by a bull declaring a
crusade against Languedoc - offering the land of the heretics to any who
(Above: Pope Innocent III)
The crusade against the Cathars began in 1209. The
Albigensian crusade was led by Simon de Montfort. Whole towns
loyal to the Cathars were massacred in the most brutal fashion. By
mid 1209 around 10,000 crusaders had gathered in Lyon and began to
march south. In June Raymond of Toulouse promised to act against
the Cathars, and his excommunication was lifted. The crusaders
headed towards Montpellier and the lands of Raymond-Roger de
Trencavel, aiming for the Cathar communities around Albi and
Carcassonne. Like Raymond of Toulouse, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel
sought an agreement with the crusaders, but Trencavel was refused
a meeting and raced back to Carcassonne to prepare his defences.
(Above: Simon de Montfort)
In July the crusaders
captured the small village of Servian and headed for Béziers, arriving
on July 21. They surrounded the town and demanded the Cathars be handed
over; the demand was refused. The town fell the following day and the
population was slaughtered. The papal representative, Abbot Arnaud-Amaury,
apparently declared "Kill them all! God will recognize his
own". Béziers is believed to have held no more than 500 Cathars,
but over 10,000 citizens were killed.
was well fortified. The crusaders arrived outside the town on August 1,
1209. The siege did not last long, by August 7 the crusaders had cut the
town's access to water. The inhabitants were not massacred but all were
forced to leave the town. The crusader Simon de Montfort was granted
control of the area encompassing Carcassonne, Albi, and Béziers. After
Carcassonne most towns surrendered without a struggle. Albi,
Castelnaudary, Castres, Fanjeaux, Limoux, Lombers and Montréal all fell
quickly during the autumn.
1215 the crusaders entered Toulouse. Toulouse was gifted to de Monfort.
However, Raymond together with his son returned to the region in April,
1216 and soon raised a substantial force from disaffected towns. In 1217
while de Montfort was occupied in the Foix region Raymond took Toulouse
in September, de Montfort hurried back but his forces were inadequate to
take the town before campaigning halted. De Montfort renewed the siege
in the spring of 1218, in June while fighting in a sortie de Montfort
was killed. With De Montford’s death the first phase of the
Albigensian crusade came to an end.
Over the next 25 years the Cathars and their
supporters resisted the Catholic Church and its Inquisition often hiding
out in the remote castles of what is called today le
eventually through an act of treachery, in March 1244, Montségur, the
last Cathar stronghold surrendered. Singing, 205 Cathars marched down
the mountain and into the large bonfires awaiting them.
Coins and sacred objects left behind by the Cathars
were distributed to the conquerors, but according to Inquisition
records, the real treasure vanished the night before the capitulation.
Four Cathars and the Cathars' treasure were said to have been let down
the steepest side of the mountain by ropes and disappeared.
Speculation still exists about the nature of the
treasure - sacred books, the Grail Stone, or the Grail Cup? And where
might it be hidden? In one of the many limestone caves that surround
Montségur? In an abandoned, water-logged mine deep in the Ariège?