Siege of Montségur

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Raymond de Péreille

[1] He married in 1222 and resided over the castle together with his cousin Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix who also became his in-law by marrying Philippa, Raymond’s daughter, around 1239. Under Raymond’s protection, Guilhabert de Castres set up the center of Catharism at Montségur around 1232. The fall of Montségur in 1244 ended organized Carthar activity in the Occitan region. Surviving the end of Montségur he was interrogated by the inquisition in May, 1244.

In the Middle Ages the Montségur region was ruled by the Counts of Toulouse, the Viscounts of Carcassonne and finally the Counts of Foix.

In 1243–44, the Cathars (a religious sect considered heretical by the Catholic Church) were besieged at Montségur by 10,000 troops at the end of the Albigensian Crusade.

According to a deposition given to the Inquisition on March 30, 1244 by the captured co-seigneur of Montsegur, Raymond de Pereille (b.1190-1244?) (Catalan: Ramon de Perella, Occitan: Raimon de Perelha) was an Occitan nobleman was the lord of Château de Montségur. After his capture by the Inquisition in 1244, he testified that he rebuilt the destroyed castle after 1204 at the request of Cather perfecti Raymond de Mirepoix and Raymond Blasco.

[Source: Doat V 22 fo 207]

The Cathars needed military preparedness, for in 1209 Pope Innocent launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. At the time the territory in question was not a part of France. It was known as Occitania, ruled by powerful independent local aristocrats. Neighboring Catalonia and Aragon exerted their spheres of influence over the region and the English were attempting to penetrate as well. The Crusade was as much about the Capetian French Crown consolidating its power over the territory as it was a religious crusade.

In its first several years, the genocidal crusade devastated the Cathar Church, but as the crusade petered out into sporadic summer campaigns in later years, Cathars effectively regrouped by 1229.

The Castle of Montségur remained remote from the warfare and functioned as centre for Cathar refugees. In 1229 the Treaty of Paris was signed, officially calling an end to the crusade. The local lords agreed to recognize the authority of the French Crown and to aid in the persecution of Cathars.

It soon became evident that some of the Occitan lords only gave lip-service to the treaty and continued to aid the Cathars in secret.

In 1230, the leader of the heretics, bishop Guilhabert de Castres asked Raymond de Pereille for permission to make Montsegur the seat of the Cathar Church.

In 1232, the Cathars asked Raymond if they could live infracastrum — within the castle. Montségur was thereafter gradually fortified and various adjunct walls were constructed along its southern and northern slopes. Many Cathar refugees and clergy took up residence at Montsegur. A small terraced village grew in size beneath the fortress walls on the north-eastern flank.

In response to the reappearance of Catharism, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, in 1233 the Inquisition was officially resumed. Dominican and Franciscan friars were empowered to prosecute heresy to demand that local secular authorities assist and enforce the Inquisition’s actions. The Inquisition commanded insufficient military power and religious authority to achieve rapid victory over the Cathars. Inquisitors were frequently attacked and run out of town. Local lords issued advance warning to Cathars and secretly sabotaged Inquisitorial efforts. Even the new French masters disliked the Inquisition as they felt it was bad for commerce, disturbing local peace and order in their newly acquired domains.

In 1234, meanwhile, Raymond Pereille’s dispossessed cousin, Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix (b.1194/1202-d.1244/62 ?) arrived at Montsegur with his relatives, knights and men-at-arms and married Raymond’s young daughter Philippa. With the marriage he became the co-seigneur of Montsegur, and effectively its commander. The future administration and defense of Montsegur was to be conducted mostly by Pierre-Roger, and not the legendary Raymond Pereille.

Pierre-Roger Mirepoix was by reputation a young and bellicose lord who fought bitterly against the French Catholics during the crusade and as a result lost his lands to them after the Treaty of Paris. His father was Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix le Vieux, co-seigneur of Mirepoix and brother of Guillaume-Roger de Mirepoix, Raymond Pereille’s father. According to Inquisition records, Pierre-Roger le Vieux died circa 1209 and received the Cathar perfect’s consolamentum upon his death bed.

Upon his installation as co-seigneur of Montsegur, Pierre-Roger Mirepoix began to organize the defence of Montsegur. Pierre-Roger had brought with him a complement of dispossessed court officials, knights and men-at-arms who began to patrol and further fortify the approaches to Montsegur. Pierre-Roger himself is reported to have made appearances in various parts of the region, plotting and aiding in rebellion and disorder in Occitania.

In 1241, the local overlord Raymond VII, the powerful Count of Toulouse, who with his father Raymond VI, had fought the Crusaders for decades, made peace with the French Crown. Part of the terms included his promise to destroy Montségur. But Raymond VII was a Cathar sympathizer who continued plotting against the French and the Catholic authorities behind their backs. His siege of Montségur in the summer of 1241 was nominal and half-hearted. The roads and paths to Montségur remained opened; the besieging troops consisted of Cathar sympathizers and clandestine believers, and by the autumn the siege melted away.

This uneasy and unstable stand off ended in the aftermath of a ruthless assassination launched from Montségur by Pierre-Roger the next spring upon functionaries of the Inquisition. Thereafter, the Inquisition was determined to eradicate the stronghold of the Cathars at Montségur.

In the spring of 1242 a courier brought a letter to Montsegur from a clandestine Cathar, Raymond d’Alfaro, the bailiff at Avignonet, a town between Toulouse and Carcassone. Alfaro was very highly connected. He was the son of a Navarrese mercenary captain and the illegitimate half-sister of Count Raymond VII. He was also a dedicated Cathar believer. The letter informed Pierre-Roger that the chief Inquisitors of Toulouse, Etienne de Saint-Thibery (Stephen of St. Thibery) and Guillaume-Arnaud (William Arnald), along with their assistants and notaries, were coming to Avignonet in the next few days.

Pierre-Roger quickly descended from Montségur with a small force of men. At Gaja-la-Selve they recruited a small force of men armed with hatchets and cudgels. On May 28, 1242 — the eve of the Feast of Ascension — the Cathars positioned themselves in a copse of trees known as Antioch Wood on the outskirts of Avignonet. That evening they were met there by Guillaume-Raymond Golairan, one of Alfaro’s men, who informed them that he had personally insured that the friars were lodged down in the central chamber of the castle keep. He then rode back to the castle and visited the friars one more time, ensuring they were bedded down and the castle guards were looking the other way.

When night fell, Pierre-Roger remained behind, while his knights Guillaume de Lahille, Bernard de Saint-Martin, and Guillaume de Balaguire led the force into Avignonet under the cover of darkeness.

They were quietly allowed to slip into the castle by local sympathizers and were guided to the quarters where the Inquisitors were sleeping. The knight Bernard de Saint-Martin who had already been condemned to death in absentia by the Inquisitors a few years earlier, led the assault bearing a huge battle axe. The Inquisitors and their assistants were massacred — a total of approximately ten friars. The dead men’s clothes, funds and belongings were looted. More importantly, the Inquisition registers were carefully searched out and set on fire (other sources, say they were sold.)

According to a witness statement given years later to the Inquisition, the assassins returned to Antioch Woods, where one of them, Jean Acermat, gave Pierre-Roger the news of their success. Pierre-Roger is reported to have exclaimed, “Where is my cup?”

The assassin replied, “It is broken.”

Pierre-Roger allegedly laughed and joked, “Why did you not bring it? I would have bound it together with a circlet of gold and drunk from it all my days!”

They were talking about Guillaume Arnald’s skull.

[Source: Inquisition Records, Doat 22, 286b. See also Stephen O’Shea, The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars, Vancouver: 2000.]

News of the assassinations quickly spread. Again, in Inquisition records, it is reported that one Cathar woman, Austorga de Resengas upon hearing the news, said to her husband, “All is free”; to which he replied, “All is dead.”

[Source: Doat 24 fol 1r-7r — Quoted in Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars, Oxford: 1998.]

It could be argued this single act by Pierre-Roger essentially sealed the fate of Montségur and the Cathars. However, it is unlikely that the Inquisition would have been abandoned without reducing Montségur at some point. Perhaps passively waiting for the arrival of the forces of the Inquisition may have allowed the Cathars a few more years of liberty in the exercise of their religion.

Following the assassinations of the Inquisitors in Avignonet in May 1242, there were wide spread revolts in Occitania against the French Crown and Catholic authorities. By January 1243 it was all over. The rebellions failed and the leading local overlord Raymond VII, the Count of Toulouse, in whose territory Montsegur fell, signed a final peace treaty with the French King Louis IX. Raymond VII who had rebelled previously, and was until then, a strong Cathar supporter, if not a clandestine believer, was once again forgiven by the King and the Church. But Montségur was to be destroyed, and Raymond who in the past managed to sidetrack plans of French crusading forays to Montsegur, stood aside this time.

At a Catholic conclave held in Beziers in the spring of 1243, a call to bring down the “synagogue of Satan” at Montségur was issued. The operation was put under the military command of the King’s seneschal of Carcassonne Hugues des Archis, while the church was represented by Pierre Amiel, the archbishop of Narbonne. By Ascension Day in May 1243, on the anniversary of the assassination, warriors from Gascony and the Aquitaine, supported by local troops pressed into service, began to pour into the valley below the pog at Montségur. Over the next ten months, a total of ten thousand troops would mass beneath the fortress, drawing a tightening perimeter around Montségur.

The Cathars had been living within the fortress and in a small terraced village just beneath the north-eastern slope of the current fortress wall. Small settlements also dotted the northern face of the pog, which gently sloped downwards away from the fortress like a camel’s back, and finished at yet another manned outpost known as Roc de la Tour — “Tower Rock”–before suddenly dropping off into precarious cliffs. The main south-western approach to the fortress was very steep and protected by several walls. Despite all the Catholic troops, there were many secret footpaths leading up to the fortress: messages, troops, refugees and some provisions continued to infiltrate through the French lines–both into and out of Montségur.

Pierre-Roger Mirepoix took command of the defense of Montségur. From his own vassals he had a total of seventy men, 18 battle hardened knights–including the assassins of the Inquisitors, six light riders and an assortment of infantrymen and sergeants and two or three crossbow men loaned to Pierre-Roger by other lords sympathetic to the Cathars. There were at least another ten independent knights, making an extraordinary concentration of nearly thirty knights at Montségur. Other troops, archers and hired mercenaries rounded out the number of armed defenders at Montségur to approximately 150 warriors in total.

Montségur was relatively self-sufficient with a good reservoir system of cisterns for water and A metal forge for weapons and an ample supply of wood to fire it. Meat and dairy products were not in high demand by the strictly vegetarian Cathars and supplies continued to trickle in. Furthermore, the pog on which Montségur is perched, is riddled with an astonishing network of hidden caves which are still being discovered and explored today. What role they might have played in penetrating siege lines is still an unanswered question.

The civilian population of Montségur consited of some fifty to one hundred Cathar perfecti and an assortment of refugees, followers, believers, wives, children and other family members, servants, craftspeople and court officials –an estimated total of approximately five hundred people of both sexes and all ages.

The siege unfolded slowly for the first eight months, with Catholic forces painstakingly attempting to take the slopes of the mountain to position powerful trebuchets (catapults) within range of the castle. Yet the slopes proved to be so impregnable that by the end of 1243, the Catholic troops were severely demoralized by their lack of progress. The break came in January 1244, when Gascon mountain troops climbed up the north-eastern tip of the pog in the middle of the night and captured the lowest point of the plateau, the Roc de la Tour. From there, Catholic troops began to effectively fight their way up towards the fortress, capturing positions for a trebuchet and using the resources of the plateau to construct the catapult and mine the stone missiles for it. Today the slopes of the plateau are still dotted with piles of stone missiles shaped in workshops set up by the attacking troops.

After two months, towards the end of February, the Catholic catapult was close enough to launch the stone missiles with deadly accuracy. The progress of the French attack can be charted by the weight of the balls. At first only light stone missiles weighing between 25 and 35 kilograms (55 – 77 lbs) could be fired from the initial positions established by the Royal forces. By the end of the siege, the troops were close enough to lob 80 kilogram missiles (176 lbs) into the inhabited terraces with devastating effect.

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Stone missiles uncovered by GRAME archeologists on the terrace habitations in 1970

The Cathars attempted several sortie counter-attacks to dislodge the crusaders but it was too late. Heavy reinforcements had poured up through rear part of the pog and were now dug in. It appears that the majority of the combat fatalities at Montségur occurred in the months of January and February in skirmishes on the northern slope and under the increasing bombardment of stone missiles. Again, the Inquisition records give us glimpses into some of the fatalities:

Knight Jourdain du Mas is given consolamentum under special circumstances in February 1244 — he is in a coma after being struck by a stone missile — and cannot consciously acknowledge the procedure before dying;
[Doat 22, 209a, 241a, 281b, 253b.]

Knight Bertrand de Bardenac, given consolamentum before dying “after Noel 1243”;
[Doat 22, 209a, 241b, 254b.]

Sergeant Bernard Rouain, given consolamentum at his death from wounds on February 21, 1244
[Doat 24, 79b.]

Sergeant Bernard de Carcassonne, consolamentum at his death on February 26, 1244;
[Doat 22, 254a – 24, 207a.]

Pierre Ferrer, Catalan and bailiff of Pierre-Roger Mirepoix, consolamentum upon his death from wounds sustained, March 1, 1244
[Doat 22, 255a.]

Sergeant Guillaume d’Aragon, participant in the Avignonet assassinations, killed at an undetermined date.
[Doat 22, 205a.]

Now under bombardment, the terraced habitation outside the walls of the fortress had to be evacuated for the safety of the fortress walls. By the end of February, Pierre-Roger understood that there was no hope of relief from the outside and that Montsegur could not hold out much longer.

On March 1, 1244, Pierre-Roger Mirepoix emerged from the fortress and negotiated a fifteen day truce at the end of which Montsegur was to be surrendered. The Catholic troops gave the Cathar forces generous terms. The mercenaries would be allowed to leave with their arms. Any Cathars who abjured their heresy, would be forgiven. Lords and ladies, knights, soldiers, craftsmen, servants, would be allowed to depart after being deposed by the Inquisition and abjuring Cathar beliefs.

Most of the Cathar perfecti declined the offer, and twenty-six mercenaries, knights, soldiers and followers actually asked for consolamentum on March 13th–the spring equinox. This would guaranteed their death at the end of the truce.

At some point, either during the truce or before, or perhaps at two separate occasions, two or four Cathars snuck out of the fortress and descended down the steep northern-eastern slope, carrying with them some sort of valuable objects. Because many of the French Catholic troops were locals of dubious loyalty pressed into service, the Cathars found it easy to slip through the enemy lines. Their fate and destination is now a subject of myth and legend. It is, however, generally believed that the cache consisting of monetary valuables — the Cathar Church treasure and that it was smuggled from Montsegur and made its way to Cathar bishops in Italy where it was used to sustain the church there. Treasure hunters, nonetheless, continue today to rummage and dig around the vicinity of Montségur for this lost cache.

On the morning of March 16, between 205 and 225 Cathars marched down the southern slopes of the pog and positioned themselves on a mass execution pyre of wood and logs prepared earlier at the foot of the hill. Either they climbed ladders to the top of the bier or entered into an enclosure and were tied to stakes positioned in the wood. After the saying of prayers the pyre was set on fire.

Approximately sixty of these individuals have been identified by historians and researchers.

Montségur was destroyed in its entirety and no trace of the Cathar fortress built by Raymond de Pereille survived. The ruins of the terraced Cathar habitations, however, can still be seen today.

6. THE AFTERMATH: MYTH AND LEGEND

On July 1245, the new seigneur of Montségur, Guy I des Levis, took his oath to the King of France. The Levis would rebuild the fortress that today stands at the peak in the traditional style of French Royal military architecture. A small village named Montségur was established further down the slopes where it still is located today. A village church was built around 1620. The fortress itself underwent extensive renovation, expansion and restoration as it was actively garrisoned by France well into the 16th century against possible Spanish incursions. In 1757 it was still in the possession of the Levis family. The fortress fell into disuse and ruin in the late 18th century.

During the 20th century, Montségur became the focus of various occult and Gnostic revival cults. In 1909 the French neo-Gnostic patriarch Synesius (Fabre des Essarts) took as his title “Bishop of Paris and Montségur.”

Because of its Grail myths, Montsegur became the focus of Nazi archeological expeditions by the Ahnenerbe (“Ancestral Heritage Society”) — a criminal agency of Heinrich Himmler’s notorious SS dedicated to identifying past Aryan links with modern Germany through archeology and anthropology. It was the Ahnenerbe which collected skeletons and skulls of concentration camp prisoners specially selected and carefully killed as specimens.

Montségur was brought to the attention of the Nazi’s by Otto Rahn who explored the ruins of Montsegur in 1929 and went on to write two popular Grail novels linking Montsegur and Cathars with the Holy Grail: Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (“Crusade Against the Grail”) in 1933 and Luzifers Hofgesinf (“Lucifer’s Court”) in 1937. In 1936 Rahn joined the Ahnenerbe with a junior NCO’s rank in the SS. After supposed disciplinary problems he was assigned to a tour of duty at the Dachau concentration camp in 1937 — a training depot and punishment centre for SS men at the time. On the13 March 1939 — almost on the anniversary of the fall of Montségur — Otto Rahn mysteriously died in the snow on the Tyrolean mountains. His death is believed to be a suicide.

On March 16, 1944, on the 700th anniversary of the fall of Montségur, Nazi planes are reported to have flown patterns over the ruins — either swastikas or celtic crosses, depending upon the sources. The Nazi ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg was reputed to be on board one of the airplanes. None of these reports have been satisfactorily proven.

In 1947, the French government made some restorations of the fortress walls. Between 1964 – 1976 an extensive archeological dig was conducted at Montsegur and its vicinity. Many of the artifacts recovered can be seen today in the village museum.

The mythology of Montségur reached a new peak during the 1980’s with the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, a best-seller that linked the reported missing treasure of Montsegur with mysterious events in the nearby village of Renne-le-Chateau. It is the authors’ intriguingly original assertion that the contents of the Cathar treasure were in fact genealogies of Jesus Christ’s surviving family which were looted by the Romans in 71 AD from the Temple of Jerusalem. According to the authors, The Visigoths in turn captured this hoard when they sacked Rome in 410 AD and brought it with them to the Languedoc region of France where they eventually established their community. The Visigoths, who practiced an Arian heretical Christianity, and did indeed settle in the region, eventually interbred with the local populace, infusing them with a propensity for heretical faiths and the key to Jesus Christ’s ancestry, the authors suggest. This genealogy is what the authors allege was smuggled from Montsegur in 1244 and hidden in the village of Rennes-le-Chateau until its discovery in the late 19th century by a local priest who subsequently became fabulously rich for it (by blackmailing the Vatican) and rebuilt the local church in a bizarre manner–still standing today for all to see. (The village church of Rennes-le-Chateau is indeed decorated in a most peculiar and untraditional manner.)

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