Albigensian Crusade

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The Albigensian Crusade or Cathar Crusade ( 1209 - 1229) was a 20-year military campaign initiated by the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate the religion practiced by the Cathars of Languedoc, which the Roman Catholic hierarchy considered apostasy. It is historically significant for a number of reasons: the violence inflicted was extreme even by medieval standards; the church offered legally sanctioned dominion over conquered lands to northern French nobles and the King of France, acting as essentially Catholic mercenaries, who then acquired regions for France which at the time had closer cultural and language ties to Catalonia (see Occitan); finally, the Albigensian Crusade had a role in the creation and institutionalization of both the Dominican Order and the Medieval Inquisition.


The Catholic Church had always dealt vigorously with strands of Christianity that it considered heretical, but prior to the 12th century these groups were organized in small numbers such as wayward street preachers or small localized sects. The Cathars of the Languedoc represented an alternative and popular mass movement, a phenomenon that the Roman Church had not seen for almost 900 years since Arianism and Marcionism in the early days of Christianity. In the twelfth century much of what is now Southern France was converting to Catharism, and the belief was spreading to other areas. Catharism, along with other religious movements of the period such as the Waldensians, appeared in cities and towns of newly urbanized areas. Although Cathar ideas had not originated in the Languedoc, one of the most urbanized and populated areas of Europe at the time, it was there that their theology found spectacular success.

The Cathars were especially numerous in what is now western Mediterranean France, then part of the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation or the Kingdom of Aragon. They were also called Albigensians, after the city of Albi; there are at least two plausible explanations of this fact - first, simply because of the movement's presence in and around the city, and second, that the name stems from a Church Council held near the city in 1176 which, after considering the Cathar doctrine, declared it to be a heresy. Political control in Languedoc was divided amongst many local lords and town councils. Before the crusade, there was little oppression in the area and a fairly advanced cultural level.

When he came to power in 1198, Pope Innocent III was determined to suppress the Cathars. At first he tried peaceful conversion; however priests sent in to convert the Albigensians met with little success. The Cathars were protected by local nobles, and also by bishops who resented papal authority. In 1204 the pope suspended the authority of the bishops in the south of France, appointing papal legates. In 1206 the Pope sought support for action from the nobles of Languedoc. Noblemen who protected the Cathars were excommunicated.

The powerful count Raymond VI of Toulouse refused to assist and was excommunicated in May, 1207. The Pope called upon the French king, Philippe II, to act against those nobles who permitted Catharism, but Philippe declined to act. Count Raymond met with the papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, in January 1208, and after an angry meeting, Pierre de Castelnau was killed the following day. The Pope reacted to the killing by issuing a bull declaring a crusade against Languedoc — offering the land of the heretics to any who would fight. This offer of land drew much of the nobility of the north of France into the conflict, against the nobility of the south.


The military campaigns of the Crusade can be divided into a number of periods: the first from 1209 to 1215 was a series of great successes for the crusaders in Languedoc. The captured lands, however, were largely lost between 1215 and 1225 in a series of revolts and reverses. The situation turned again following the intervention of the French king, Louis VIII in 1226. He died in November of that year, but the efforts continued under Louis IX. The area was reconquered by 1229, and the main protagonists made peace. From 1233 the efforts of the Inquisition were crucial in crushing Catharism. Resistance and revolts continued until the military action finally ended in 1255, but Catharism's days were now numbered.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassone in 1209.
Cathars being expelled from Carcassone in 1209.

Initial success 1209 to 1215

By mid 1209 around 10,000 crusaders had gathered in Lyon and began to march south. In June Raymond of Toulouse, recognizing the potential disaster at hand, 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 sought an accommodation with the crusaders, but he was refused a meeting and raced back to Carcassonne to prepare his defences.

In July the crusaders captured the small village of Servian and headed for Béziers, arriving on July 21. They surrounded the town and demanded that the Cathars be handed over; the demand was refused. The town fell the following day when an abortive sortie was pursued back into the town. Although Béziers is believed to have held no more than 500 Cathars, the whole population was slaughtered. According to the Cistercian writer Caesar of Heisterbach, one of the leaders of the Crusader army, the Papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, was asked by a Crusader how they might distinguish the Cathars, their enemies, from other citizens. He answered: Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" — "Kill them [all]! Surely the Lord discerns which [ones] are his." Contemporary sources give estimates of the number of dead that range between seven and nearly twenty thousand; this latter figure appears in Arnaud-Amaury's report to the Pope. The news of the horror at Béziers quickly spread and many settlements were cowed.

The next major target for the crusade was Carcassonne. The town was well fortified, but vulnerable and over-populated with refugees. 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. Raymond-Roger sought negotiations but was taken prisoner while under truce, and the town surrendered on August 15. The inhabitants were not massacred, but all were forced to leave the town — naked according to Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay; "in their shifts and breeches" according to another source. Simon de Montfort, who now took charge of the Crusader army, 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. However some of the towns quickly taken later revolted.

The yellow cross worn by Cathar repentants.
The yellow cross worn by Cathar repentants.

The next struggle centred around Lastours and the adjacent castle of Cabaret. Attacked in December 1209, Pierre-Roger de Cabaret repulsed the attackers. Fighting largely halted over the winter, but many new crusaders arrived. In March 1210, Bram was captured after a short siege. In June the well fortified town of Minerve was invested; it withstood a heavy bombardment, but in late June the town's main well was destroyed, and on July 22, the inhabitants surrendered. The Cathar residents were given a chance to convert, and the 140 who refused were burned. In August the crusade proceeded to Termes, and despite attacks from Pierre-Roger de Cabaret, the siege was solid, and in December the town fell. It was the last action of the year.

When operations resumed in 1211 the actions of Arnaud-Amaury and Simon de Montfort had alienated several lords over the winter, including Raymond of Toulouse, who had been excommunicated again. The crusaders returned in force to Lastours in March and Pierre-Roger de Cabaret soon agreed to surrender. In May the castle of Aimery de Montréal was retaken; he and his senior knights were hanged, and several hundred Cathars were burned. Cassès and Montferrand both fell easily in early June, and the crusaders headed for Toulouse. The town was besieged, but for once the attackers were short of supplies and men, and so Simon de Montfort withdrew before the end of the month. Emboldened, Raymond of Toulouse led a force to attack de Monfort at Castelnaudary in September. De Montfort broke free from the siege but Castelnaudary fell and the forces of Raymond went on to liberate over thirty towns before grinding to a halt at Lastours in the autumn. The following year much of the province of Toulouse was re-captured.

In 1213, forces led by King Peter II of Aragon, I of Catalonia, came to the aid of Toulouse. The force besieged Muret, but in September a sortie from the castle led to the death of King Peter, and his army fled. It was a serious blow for the resistance, and in 1214 the situation became worse: Raymond was forced to flee to England, and his lands were given by the Pope to the victorious Philippe II, a ploy which succeeded in interesting the king in the conflict. In November the ever active Simon de Montfort entered Périgord and easily captured the castles of Domme and Montfort; he also occupied Castlenaud and destroyed the fortifications of Beynac. In 1215, Castelnaud was lost and swiftly recaptured by de Montfort, and the crusaders entered Toulouse. Toulouse was gifted to de Montfort, and in April 1216 he ceded his lands to Philippe.

Revolts and reverses 1216 to 1225

However, Raymond, together with his son, returned to the region in April, 1216, and soon raised a substantial force from disaffected towns. Beaucaire was besieged in May and fell after a three month siege; the efforts of de Montfort to relieve the town were repulsed. De Montfort had then to put down an uprising in Toulouse before heading west to captured Bigorre, but he was repulsed at Lourdes in December 1216. In 1217, while de Montfort was occupied in the Foix region, Raymond took Toulouse in September. De Montfort hurried back, but his forces were insufficient to take the town before campaigning halted. De Montfort renewed the siege in the spring of 1218; he was killed in June while fighting in a sortie.

The crusade was left in temporary disarray. The command passed to the more cautious Philippe II, who was concerned with Toulouse rather than heresy. Innocent III had also died in July 1216. The conflict fell into something a lull until 1219, although the crusaders had taken Belcaire and besieged Marmande in late 1218 under Amaury de Montfort. Marmande fell on June 3, 1219 but attempts to retake Toulouse faltered, and a number of de Montfort holds fell. In 1220, Castelnaudary was taken from de Montfort, and while Amaury de Montfort attacked the town from July 1220, the town withstood an eight month siege. In 1221, the success of Raymond and his son continued: Montréal and Fanjeaux were captured, and many Catholics fled. In 1222, Raymond died and was succeeded by his son, also called Raymond. In 1223, Philippe II died and was succeeded by Louis VIII. In 1224, Amaury de Montfort abandoned Carcassonne and fled. The son of Raymond-Roger de Trencaval returned from exile to reclaim the area. Amaury de Montfort offered his claim to the lands of Languedoc to Louis VIII, who accepted.

French King intervenes

In November 1225 Raymond, like his father, was excommunicated. Louis VIII headed the new crusade into the area in June 1226, towns and castles surrendering without resistance. Avignon, nominally under the rule of the German emperor, did resist, and it took a three month siege to finally subdue the town into surrendering in September. Louis VIII died in November and was succeeded by the child king Louis IX. But Queen Blanche of Castile allowed the crusade to continue under Humbert de Beaujeu. Labécède fell in 1227 and Vareilles and Toulouse in 1228. However, Queen Blanche offered Raymond a treaty, recognizing him as ruler of Toulouse in exchange for his fighting Cathars, returning all Church property, turning over his castles and destroying the defences of Toulouse. Raymond agreed and signed a treaty at Meaux in April 1229. He was then seized, whipped and briefly imprisoned.


Languedoc now was firmly under the control of the King of France. The Inquisition was established in Toulouse in November 1229, and the process of ridding the area of heresy and investing the remaining Cathar strongholds began. Under Pope Gregory IX the Inquistion was given almost unlimited power to suppress the heretics. A ruthless campaign started in 1233, burning Cathars wherever they were found, even exhuming bodies for burning. Naturally, many resisted, taking refuge in a few fortresses in Fenouillèdes and Montségur or inciting uprisings. In 1235, the Inquisition was forced out of Albi, Narbonne, and Toulouse. Raymond-Roger de Trencavel led a military effort in 1240, in which he was defeated at Carcassonne in October and then besieged at Montréal. There, he soon surrendered and was allowed passage to exile in Aragon. In 1242, Raymond of Toulouse attempted a revolt to coincide with an English invasion, but the English were quickly repulsed and his support collapsed. He was pardoned by the king.

The Cathar strongholds gradually fell. Montségur withstood a nine month siege before being captured in March 1244. The final holdout, a small, isolated fort at Quéribus, had been overlooked until August 1255 when it quickly fell. The last known Cathar burning by the Inquisition in the Languedoc occurred in 1321.

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