Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Battle of Montségur

Montségur, where Raymond du Tourmalet flees with the grail stone in The Night's Dark Shade, was one of the last Cathar strongholds. The following is an account of the long seige and final battle:

Montsegur Castle sits atop a mesa-like hill 400 feet above the surrounding wooded plain. It has a smaller outer fortification, a barbican, just to the west outside the main walls. The population had long regarded Montsegur as the headquarters of the Cathar movement, and it was certainly one of the last strongpoints. The lord of the castle, Raymond de Pereille, had long been a Cathar supporter, and the Cathars used the site as a temple, performing the rite of consolamentum, the initiation ceremony upon reaching the level of perfecti. The Cathars lived in homes outside the walls on the hilltop, as the castle itself was too small to house everyone. When the French troops marched on the castle, a force of eleven knights and 150 soldiers and their families brought the number in the defenses to about 500. The fighting men were under the command of Pereille's son-in-law, Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix.

The invading force of 1,500 under command of Hugues de Arcis arrived in May 1243. He hoped to starve the defenders into submission, but the size of his force and the wooded terrain meant that he was never able to completely invest the position. Local supporters easily and regularly passed through the besiegers in the night, taking supplies to the fort. The height of the fort was such that no catapults available to Arcis could reach the top. Over the next several months, Arcis received reinforcements until his force finally reached almost 10,000. Still, the locals were able to sneak supplies through the lines.

Circumstances changed in November, when Arcis was able to position a force on a level piece of ground near the top of the hill. Once in possession of that point, Arcis' forces spent the next two months slowly hauling siege equipment up the rugged slope. In December they got some catapults constructed and in operation, raining stones down on the barbican. Local Cathars smuggled an engineer into the fort who oversaw the building of a catapult of their own, which returned fire from the barbican. The besiegers were forced to expose themselves both to severe winter weather and heavy return fire. Just after Christmas, the French (probably with the aid of a local turncoat) took a circuitous path along the edge of the mesa to the base of the barbican, which they took in a rush. That placed them some 60 yards from the fort, but the only access to it was across a 6-foot-wide pathway that fell off precipitously on both sides. Still, they had two catapults now and both were turned against the fort.

All accounts of the battle record that after the fall of the barbican, two Cathars stole from the fort with a large amount of gold, silver, and treasure, and got through the enemy lines. To this day no one knows where the treasure was taken. But the fact that it was removed indicates the garrison was assuming the worst was soon to happen. The only hope came from a few crossbowmen who sneaked into the fort with a message from Count Roger: could they hold on until Easter? Roger was raising a relief force, the defenders were told. Also, an agent approached a Spanish mercenary about bringing in fifty men-at-arms to stiffen the defense. They could not get through the French lines. The garrison attempted a sortie at the end of February to retake the barbican or at least destroy the catapults, but it failed. A follow-up assault on the fort was thrown back as well. On 1 March, Raymond de Pereille and Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix appeared on the ramparts, calling out that they wanted to negotiate.

The talks were brief and the terms fairly lenient. The knights and soldiers could leave with their possessions, if they would go to the Inquisition and confess their sin at fighting in the Cathar cause. The Cathars had fifteen days' peace to consider their position. If they would abandon the Cathar faith, they could go free with light penance. No criminal charges would be pressed. The fort would become the possession of the French Crown. Hostages were surrendered, and after a few days the soldiers left. On the evening of 15 March, the Cathars celebrated Easter, and any who desired it received the consolamentum. None of them abjured their faith.

On the morning of 16 March 1244, French soldiers escorted the Cathars out of the fort and took them to their camp below. As heretics who would not recant, they were all to burn. Rather than be given a stake each, they were gathered into a corral stacked with firewood. After rejecting a last call to return to the Catholic Church, the Cathars watched the pyre set alight. All of them, as many as 225 (the number varies by account), walked up ladders and threw themselves into the flames. Those too old or infirm to climb the ladders were unceremoniously tossed into the fire.



Julygirl said...

Wow! Fascinating account!

Brantigny said...

This view is not nearly as imposing as from the other side of the castle.

I once heard a radio evalgelist tel his audience that the Catholic Church commited genocide by killing the "Cathar Christians". That shows some sign of the ignorance of other ecclesiatic communities when speaking of Catholic history.


Doreen McGettigan said...

Wow..I love it!!

lara77 said...

I read this and at the end was saddened by the outcome; lives destroyed.When one thinks of all the human lives destroyed for faith and religion. It still continues today. Muslims killing Christians in Africa; the constant struggle between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.I am still saddened at the disrespect and dehumanization that still continues today.

Julygirl said...

Living with the lack of physical violence between people of different races and religions is a fairly new experiment started in 1776.

elena maria vidal said...

1776? That's when the revolutionary war started. And don't forget the Civil War....

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Pennsylvania, a Quaker Governor and a secretly Catholic King (Charles II was a secret Catholic up to his death bed, whereas James II who was openly Catholic was so after his wife's death without ever hiding) did what was just claimed for 1776 decades before 1700.