Massacre at Béziers

Massacre at Béziers

The Massacre at Béziers refers to the slaughter of the inhabitants during the sack of Béziers, an event that took place on July 22, 1209 and represented the first major military action of the Albigensian Crusade.

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After Pope Innocent III had declared a crusade to eliminate Catharism in the Languedoc, a crusader army consisting of knights mostly from northern France with their retinue, professional soldiers, mercenary bands (routiers), and pilgrims assembled and departed from Lyon in early July 1209.[1] While Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse was able to switch sides in time and joined the crusaders at Valence, the attempt by Raymond-Roger Trencavel, Viscount of Béziers, to peacefully submit was rejected at Montpellier. The Viscount departed from Montpellier in a hurry, ahead of the Crusader army, to prepare his defenses. On the way to Carcassonne he stopped at Béziers, promising reinforcements, and taking along a few heretics and the Jews.[1] Béziers, a stronghold of Catharism, was the first major town the crusaders would encounter on the way to Carcassonne. It was well fortified, amply supplied, and in a position to withstand a longer siege.

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Commanded by the Papal Legate, the Abbot of Citeaux Arnaud Amalric,[2] the crusader army reached the outskirts of Béziers on July 21, 1209. As they started to pitch their camp, the Bishop of Béziers, Renaud de Montpeyroux, tried to avert bloodshed and to negotiate. He brought the message that the town would be spared provided it would hand over their heretics.[3] The Bishop had drawn up a list of 222 individuals, mostly Cathars, some Waldensians, likely to be perfecti or leaders of their communities. In a meeting at the Cathedral it was determined that this was not possible as these leaders had too much support within the town, and the Bishop asked the Catholics to leave the town to save themselves. This proposal was rejected, and the Bishop left the town with just a few Catholics.[1]

On July 22, the crusaders were busy getting settled and still days away from starting the siege proper. A group of soldiers or perhaps just armed civilians from the town made a sortie exiting the gate overlooking the Orb River. As they started to harass routiers and pilgrims of the crusader army, a brawl ensued and soon the attackers from the town found themselves outnumbered and retreated in disarray. The routiers quickly took advantage of the chaos, stormed the walls that were not properly manned, and entered the gate, all without orders. The crusader knights, realizing that the defenses had been broken by the routiers, soon joined the battle overwhelming the garrison, and the city was doomed.[1]

The routiers rampaged through the streets, killing and plundering, while those citizens who could run sought refuge in the churches — the Cathedral, the church of St Mary Magdalene and of St Jude. Yet the churches did not provide safety against the raging mob of the invaders. The doors of the churches were broken open, and all inside were slaughtered, nobody was spared.

After the massacre it came to the distribution of the spoil of the city. The crusader knights became enraged that the rabble of the army had already taken the plunder. They took control of the situation, chased them from the occupied houses and took their booty away. In turn, the angry and disappointed routiers responded by burning down the town. In the engulfing fire the plunder was lost, and the army left the city in a hurry.

“Kill them all, God will know His own”

Amalric’s own version of the siege, described in his letter to Pope Innocent in August 1209 (col.139), states:

While discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying “to arms, to arms!”, within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt…[4]

About twenty years later Caesarius of Heisterbach relates this story about the massacre,

When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot “Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.” The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius – Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Tim. ii. 19) and so countless number in that town were slain.[5][6]

While there remains doubt that the abbot said these words – also paraphrased as “Kill them all, God will know His own”, “Kill them all, God will sort his own”, or “Kill them all ,/and let God sort them out” — there is little if any doubt that these words captured the spirit of the assault,[7] and that the crusaders intended to kill the inhabitants of a stronghold that offered resistance.[8] However, typically that would involve killing the men, not women and children, and not the clergy. The crusaders allowed the routiers to rampage and kill without restraint, but quickly stepped in when it came to the loot.[1]

It is quite possible that Almaric’s account of the death of 20,000 is exaggerated, just like Pierre des Vaux de Cernay’s report that 7,000 were slain in the Church of St Magdalene.[9] It has been estimated that the town inhabited less than 14,500 people at the time and an unknown number may have escaped the massacre.[9]

Simon de Montfort who would later lead the crusade was a participant in these events but not yet in a leadership role.

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The crusaders had achieved a quick and devastating victory. Horror and terror spread through the land, and many castles and towns submitted without further resistance. Carcassonne fell within a month and Raymond-Roger Trencavel died in captivity later that year his lands being given to Simon de Montfort. However, the crusaders lost the support of the local Catholic population and thus became a hated occupying force.[1] The war became protracted, eventually the French king entered the war and took control over the Languedoc. The Inquisition, then, hunted down the remaining Cathars.

During the fire the cathedral of Saint Nazaire, burned too and collapsed. A plaque opposite the cathedral records the ‘Day of Butchery’ perpetrated by the ‘northern barons’. A few parts of the Romanesque cathedral of St-Nazaire survived, and repairs started in 1215. The restoration, along with that of the rest of the city, continued until the 15th century.

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