Although the castles in the Aude department of France are now referred to collectively as ‘Cathar Castles,’ the term is misleading in that while their sites may once have provided refuge for Cathars fleeing the Albigensian Crusade or the subsequent Holy Inquisition, many of them had no connection at all with the religion or with its adherents. Some castles that were taken by the Catholic crusaders were awarded to senior commanders in recognition of their service and were subsequently completely redeveloped by the victors. Castles close to the border with Aragon were taken and garrisoned by King Louis XIV of France (known as ‘Saint’ or Holy-Louis) as frontier fortresses with the royal castles of Quéribus, Termes, Aguilar, Peyrepertuse and Puilaurens being known as the ‘Five Sons of Carcassonne.’ These castles guarded the frontier between France and Spain prior to the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659 when Roussillon was ceded to France as part of the dowry of the Infanta Maria Theresa upon her marriage to the French king. After this they lost their strategic importance. Although some of the castles were garrisoned until as late as the French Revolution, they gradually fell into decay and it was not until the 1950s that restoration work was undertaken both to preserve them as historical monuments and to transform them into tourist attractions.
Le Chateau de Quéribus
Sited on a rocky pinnacle at an elevation of 728 metres overlooking the village of Cucugnan (made famous by Alphonse Daudet in ‘Lettres de Mon Moulin’,) Quéribus is one of the most visited of the Cathar castles. Its location provided an ideal vantage point for the surveillance of the local countryside. Originally a possession of Barcelona then Aragon and later Narbonne, the ruins date back to the 10th or 11th century.
At the time of the Albigensian Crusade, Quéribus was owned by Chabert de Barbaira, a knight who was sympathetic to the Cathar cause and who, under the protection of the Lord of Roussillon, allowed it to become a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution. Upon the death of the Lord of Roussillon in 1241 this protection came to an end and Quéribus was besieged and eventually captured in 1255, one of the last Cather refuges to fall. The Cathars who were sheltering within the castle at the time managed to escape undetected.
The fate of these last remnants of the Cathar faith is unknown and this has given rise to speculation about a hidden Cathar treasure or a lost secret concerning the shadowy ‘Priory of Sion’ which sparked a whole industry of pseudohistorical conspiracy theories most notable of which was the book ‘The Holy Blood and Holy Grail’ (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln that appeared as an unofficial follow-up to a three part BBC2 ‘Chronicle’ documentary series. Dan Brown, author of the best-selling ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2003) was subsequently sued by Baigent and Leigh who accused him of plagiarising their research but this was eventually overturned by the High Court. Access to the castle is by means of a steep path from the car park and takes about 10-15 minutes but there are numerous places where one can take a breather and admire the stunning views.
Le Château de Peyrepertuse
Situated only a short drive from Quéribus, Peyrepertuse occupies a limestone ridge 800 metres above the village and vineyards of Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse. It is the largest of the so-called ‘Cathar Castles’ and because of its size and lofty location was referred to as ‘Celestial Carcassonne’. The first written mention of the castle was in 806 at which time it belonged to the Catalonian Count of Besalú but the fortifications were extensively enlarged over the centuries under various owners with most of what can be seen today dating from the 13th century. Saint Jordi’s Keep itself and the ramparts were rebuilt in the 16th century.
I have read numerous descriptions of French military châteaux written by English writers that refer to ‘dungeons’ but visitors looking for them will be disappointed as this is usually due to a mistranslation of the French word ‘donjon’ which simply means the keep or principal tower of a fortress.
The fortress is reached by a path from the car park that is steep in places and more difficult than the one at Quéribus. Accessing the lower castle takes 20-25 minutes depending on one’s individual fitness and many visitors get no further as the Saint Louis Staircase to the upper castle can be daunting to those who suffer from vertigo and downright terrifying to all but the bravest during windy conditions. The rocks and steps are slippery after rain so it is important to wear stout footwear during your visit. During severe weather the castle is closed to visitors.
The views from the upper reaches of the site are truly breathtaking and Quéribus can clearly be seen like a pimple on the shoulder of a distant peak.
I put Minerve on our list of places to visit as not only is it one of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ but because it was also a Cathar place of refuge besieged by Simon de Montfort in July 1210 following the massacre at Béziers. De Montfort used four huge trebuchets to bombard the town and after its well was destroyed, the Commander of the garrison was forced to surrender but 180 Cathar Perfects who refused to recant their faith were burned at the stake. A Cistercian chronicler wrote at the time that it was not necessary to throw the heretics into the flames as they went willingly to their deaths.
The siege of Minerve was described in the contemporary ‘Song of the Cathar Wars’ written in Occitan by a poet sympathetic to the Crusade. One of the siege engines was named ‘Malvoisin‘ which translates as Bad Neighbour.
Now in Summertime, my lords, when winter was past
and fine days and hot weather had returned,
the Count de Montfort prepared for his expedition
against Minerve, which lies towards the coast.
He laid siege to the place as he had planned,
and set up his catapults, making ‘Bad Neighbour’
the queen and lady of all his siege engines.
He smashed openings in the high walls and in the stone-built hall,
mortared with sand and lime;
many a good penny they had cost and many a masmudina.
If the King of Morocco and his Saracens
had sat down all around the place, by St Catherine,
they could have done no damage worth an Anjou halfpenny,
but against the host of Christ, the judge of all,
no high rocks, no steepness may avail, no
mountain fortress hold out.
The castle of Minerve sits not on a plain,
But stands, as God is my witness, on a high spur of rock.
There is a no stronger fortress this side of the Spanish passes,
Except Cabaret and Termes at the head of Cerdagne.
William, Lord of Minerve, rested and bathed,
Shut up in the castle with his whole troop.
Our French men and those from Champaigne,
From Maine, and Anjou and Brittany,
From Lorraine, and Frisia and Germany
Drove them all out by force before the grain ripened.
And there they burned alive many heretics, sons of bitches,
Frantic men and crazed women who shrieked among the flames.
Not the value of chestnut was left to the survivors.
Afterwards, the bodies were thrown out and mud shovelled over them
So that no stench from these foul things
Should bother our foreign forces.
Although only a single narrow tower remains of its castle, Minerve is the site of a memorial to the martyred Cathars that was erected there in 2010, 800 years after the events described above took place. Finding the memorial stone was something of an anti-climax, a bit like the Stonehenge scene in ‘Spinal Tap’, as it is surprisingly small and decidedly unimpressive.
For me, the highlight of our trip to Minerve (which frankly was a bit of a disappointment) was a chance detour that we made to the little village of Le Someil on our way back to our campsite near Narbonne. Here we had a delightful stroll along the Canal du Midi, had a coffee at a little bar and met and chatted to a charming English ex pat who lives an apparently idyllic lifestyle there with his dog aboard his ‘wide narrowboat’.
Visiting Cathar Castles
The most important advice I can give is to dress appropriately and, if possible, choose a fine, clear day for your visit. The rocks, paths and staircases while perfectly safe in good weather become hazardous during or after rain and the winds that howl around the peaks can make the ascents and descents both challenging and dangerous. Good hiking boots that support the ankles are recommended.
© text & images Tom Pudding 2020
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