The Crusades

The Albigensian Crusade


In addition to the ongoing war with the Moslems, the 13th century also brought escalated conflict with groups within the sphere of Christianity that the Catholic Church viewed heretical. The Fourth Crusade that had already seen the Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox faith, also saw the beginning of several military crusades against heretics.

Despite a renowned tough stance on branches of Christianity considered heretical, before the 12th-century action by the Catholic Church against heretics was usually limited to individual preachers or small movements in towns or villages. However, throughout the previous century, more significant organised actions of separatist Christian groups had begun to take on a more substantial following. Among these groups were the Cathars, whose progress in Western France was starting to gather momentum.
Albigensian Crusade
Albigensian Crusade

The Cathari were unlike Christian groups in the traditional sense. The dualist belief of two equal gods was separate from the Catholic doctrine of one all-powerful. The Cathari belief held that the world was the creation of the God’ Rex Mundi’ the King of the World, and bringer of evil, whereas the second God was the bringer of love, though his existence was discarnate. The Catholics found themselves at odds with their views on the divinity of Jesus Christ. The church also harboured concerns that the Cathari shared the doctrine with elements of early Gnosticism.

Following his inauguration in 1198, Innocent III sought a new tough stance on heretics. After attempts at peaceful conversion failed, Innocent suspended some of his bishops in the Languedoc region where the religion was at its most dominant due to their soft stance on the faith. In some areas noblemen and bishops supported the belief due to frustration from Papal interference in their sees. Attempts to entice noblemen and even the King of France to assist in his efforts to wipe out the Cathars brought little progress. The refusal of Count Raymond of Toulouse to offer his support eventually brought conflict with papal legate Pierre de Castelnau, leading to the legate’s murder. In response, Innocent launched a crusade against Languedoc, beginning the Albigensian Crusade – the term Albigensian was frequently used for Cathars in the Languedoc region, allegedly due to their association with the city of Albi.

By 1209 the possibility of action in the crusades was imminent. Over 10,000 men in Lyon were ready to head south. Before the end of the year, Raymond of Toulouse accepted the Pope’s call and was forgiven his excommunication. On the march south, the crusaders captured the small village of Servian and arrived at Béziers on 21 July. On reaching the city, the crusaders called for Cathar surrender and for the Catholics in the city to assist in the endeavour. When both groups refused the entire city was razed to the ground and the population killed. The city of Carcassonne fell soon after, though on this occasion the community was spared – one account suggests they were forced to evacuate the town naked. Several other towns surrendered without a fight, all of which then became part of the northern Kingdom of France. By now the new leader of the crusader army was Simon de Montfort, the 5th Earl, father of the future leader of the barons’ revolt against King Henry III of England.

1210 began with the siege of Lastours, but the crusaders were repelled. In June the crusaders won the city of Minerve. Accounts from the attack tell that the Cathars were allowed to return to Catholicism, and many accepted the terms. One hundred and forty who refused were burned at the stake. The crusaders ended the year by taking the town of Termes, before returning to Lastours. Despite his progress, de Montfort had alienated many important lords, including Raymond of Toulouse who was once more under excommunication from the church. Lastours surrendered in May, leading to the execution of several hundred Cathars. The towns of Cassès and Montferrand were taken in June, following which de Montfort led the crusader army to Toulouse. Despite a strong start, the crusaders withdrew due to a lack of supplies. Following this, Raymond of Toulouse, now fighting against the crusaders, took on de Montfort at Castelnaudary. De Montfort escaped the siege, but the forces under Raymond went on to take over twenty towns, most of which were retaken the following year. By 1213, Peter II of Aragon had come to the aid of Toulouse, but his subsequent death at Muret led to the forces scattering. Following Raymond’s being forced to flee to England de Montfort took advantage of the turmoil and by the end of 1215 Toulouse had surrendered to de Montfort.

Innocent’s death in 1216 coupled with Raymond’s return, marked a change in fortunes for the besieged. After assembling a large travelling force from citizens of the affected towns, the town of Beaucaire fell. By 1217 Toulouse was also back in its original hands. De Montfort’s return to siege the town again failed, and during the conflict he was killed. Without a prominent leader, the crusade came to a halt, until the command was taken by Philip ‘Augustus’ II of France. The next three years saw improved fortunes for the forces of Raymond and his son, Raymond VII of Toulouse, with many towns recaptured from their occupation by de Montfort’s forces. In 1222 Raymond senior died, and was replaced by his son. A year later, when Philip died the crown of France fell to Louis VIII.

Raymond, like his father, was executed for his role in defending the heretics, though both Philip and Louis undoubtedly saw the endeavour for land as greater than putting down heretics. In 1225 a levy was placed on raising funds, following which the momentum swung to the King of France. Avignon surrendered after a three-month siege, before Louis’s death. After being succeeded by Louis IX, the child king, the crusade continued under the permission of Queen Blanche of Castile, and by 1228 many significant towns, including Toulouse, were captured. Raymond was offered a truce by Blanche: his rule of the town in exchange for his assistance fighting the Cathars. The terms also included his sister being married to the King of France with Toulouse being returned. Raymond agreed and was subsequently seized and imprisoned.

With the fall of Raymond and Toulouse complete, Languedoc was now firmly under the control of France for the first time. 1229 saw the beginning of the infamous inquisition in which the Cathars were tortured for their heretical beliefs. Based on the evidence at hand, the proceedings were reasonably civilised compared to the later Templar interrogation and only 11% of Cathars were imprisoned, and only 1% burned at the stake for their steadfast beliefs. Various Cathar strongholds, such as Albi, Narbonne withstood the inquisition while others such as Montségur withstood a siege of over eight months before finally surrendering in 1244.