The Albigensian Crusade: Heresy in Languedoc

Written by Chris Riley,

After the debacle of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), you would think that the Catholic west would reassess and have a long hard think about their efforts to spread Catholicism through the world but, they didn’t. With growing tensions within Europe, a small Christian sect found itself in the crosshairs of the Pope and his militant friends.

The Cathars

Southern France was and still is, a region of wine and fine countryside, and in the 13 century the region of Languedoc, was home to rolling hills and vineyards, stretching from Toulouse in the east, to Nîmes in the west. The region of Languedoc was under the loose control of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, in reality real power lay with the local aristocracy who valued independence over central control.

A map of France, showing he region of Languedoc in red SORCE: Wikimedia Commons

So what is a Cathar? A Cather is a Christian with slightly different beliefs to a catholic, choosing to focus ore on the spiritual side of their faith, rather than the perceived indulgent extravagance of the Catholic Church. As well as their decision to live life simply, eating no meat or eggs, Cathars also believed in two distinct gods. The Spiritual god was considered the ‘good’ god where as the material god was the ‘bad’ one, leading Cathars to reject material things including, the joining of two bodies in both marriage and sex. One of the main points of contention for the Church was the fact that the Cathars refused the idea of a physical Christ on earth (Jesus) and saw that as heretical, a massive difference between the two Christian denominations.

As mentioned before, Raymond VI was supposed to be in change of the region but, the aristocracy were far more powerful than Raymond, leading to constant internal wars, allowing Raymond no time to focus on such things as surprising heretics. It is important to remember that Languedoc was NOT a Cathar dominated region but was a region of great turmoil in the early 13th century, not the best look for Pope Innocent who needed a united, Catholic Europe to beat back all of the Pagans and Muslims on the fringes of his church's power.

Raymond and the Pope

Raymond did not have the greatest relationship with the Holy Father, and Innocent saw the southern French lord as, if not a Cathar himself, at least someone who would protect them from the power of the church. By 1207, Pope innocent was sick of the apparent inaction by Raymond and, after sending a Papal Legate by the name of Peter of Castlenau, he excommunicated him, turning the eyes of Europe onto Southern France.

A statue of Raymond VI of Toulouse SOURCE:

Understandably, Raymond was furious that he had been excommunicated and in his rage, threw out the papal legate who mysteriously turned up dead the next day. Upon hearing that his representative had been murdered (never proven that Raymond was to blame but, go figure…) a call to arms was made. A Crusade was coming to Languedoc.


Christians on Christians

A furious Pope Innocent III began recruiting for his next venture to rid the world of heretics, relying on another Papal Legate, Arnaud Aimery, to recruit an army to rid the world of both the Cathars and, Raymond who the Pope saw, as their protector.

Northern France was the target of the latest recruitment drive and after taxing the French Church (surely there’s something wrong with that but, hey ho), a large force of Frenchmen had formed. Upon hearing the news that thousands of his fellow countrymen (France was not a unified country yet, but, it is likely that they all saw themselves as French) Raymond quickly had a change of heart. In June of 1209, Raymond submitted to the Church, confessing to all of the ‘crimes’ that he had committed against the Papacy and the mother church. Raymond was ceremonially whipped by the Papal Legate and after performed an almighty U-turn, taking the cross himself against the Cathars. The decision to join the invading army wasn’t due to Raymond’s sudden religious desire to see the Cathar enemy unrooted but, by doing so, he protected his lands and titles from the Pope.

The main man on the other side was Raymond Roger of Trencavel, who was less a Cathar sympathiser and more an individual lord who wanted to keep that independence. By June of 1209, the crusader army was at the city of Béziers, laying siege. By 22nd July, the city had fallen and the population of around 10,000 were massacred (less than 1000 Cathars) apparently orchestrated by Legate Aimery who apparently said “kill them all, God will know his own”. whether or not Aimery said those exact words or not is unclear but, a clear message was sent to there lords in Languedoc, don’t expect mercy.

By August, Raymond Roger had surrendered but was soon thrown in jail where he later died. With the crusade going well, in stepped Simon de Montfort, known as ‘the ‘elder’ to differentiate from his rather famous son of the same name, and Simon had one thing on his mind, Toulouse.


Enter Pedro, Spain’s protector

Simon de Montfort spent much of 1211 an 1212 taking the lands in and around Toulouse, in a hope that the city would soon capitulate, but Simon would soon be hit with a massive blow. By 1213, the Pope was tired of Languedoc and decided to shift all of his crusading efforts once again, to the holy land. Pope Innocent removed the crusader status from Languedoc and ordered that all men taking the cross should do so in the east, leaving Simon out on his own. To make things worse, Raymond VI’s ally, Pedro II of Aragon, recent victor of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, where he defeated a massive Almohad force, was on route to kick out the northerner.

A painting of Pedro II of Aragon by Dalmau Ferrer. SOURCE: Public domain

After a long and arduous legal battle, the two sides couldn’t agree on how to proceed forcing Pedro to cross into Languedoc and on 12th September 1213, the army of Pedro met Simon de Montfort and his much smaller force outside the fortress of Moret. Pedro had brought with him some 5,000 knights and men-at-arms with Simon only able to field around 1,000 of his household retainers but, this didn’t stop the headstrong baron. As the battle lines were drawn, Simon had his centre charge directly at the Aragonese lines, causing mass panic, this allowed de Montfort’s few reserves to smash into Pedro’s flank, killing the Aragonese monarch in the process.

The victory at Moret was astounding, defeating a much larger force gave Simon and his men the much needed moral boost, allowing de Montfort to consolidate his power at Toulouse. Simon spent the next half decade subjecting the south to his harsh control, forcing town after town to swear oaths of allegiance to him but it was not to last. Raymond VI’s son, also called Raymond (soon to be Raymond VII of Toulouse) was a brilliant military leader and, had the support of the people and on the 12th September 1217, was able to sneak into Toulouse, where with the local population, they set in for a siege, kicking out Simon’s representatives.


The downfall of de Montfort and the end of the Crusade

Simon’s priority was to take back the city that was the de facto capital of his new domain but, after many attempts, de Montfort settled in for a siege that would last until June of 1218 where Simon himself was killed when a projectile fired from a mangonel (type of catapult) hit him in the head. With the head of the crusader (if you can even call it that at this point) effort literally removed, Raymond VII, who became count in 1222, was able to take back control of the region and soon, only a small part of Languedoc was under Northern control.

A painting of Louis VIII of France (r. 1223-1226) SOURCE: Public domain

Things really started to look up for the young count of Toulouse when the new Pope, Honorius III restored crusader status to the region, spurring the French king, Louis VIII into action. The French monarch had stayed out of the crusade for the first 15 years but, the years of turmoil gave the expansionist Capetian king an opportunity to add yet more land to his empire.

With overwhelming military power, the French Monarchy was able to capture Avignon, retaking much of Languedoc and by 1229, then Treaty of Paris was signed which saw the southern regions carved up between the children of Louis and Raymond VII.

The Albigensian Crusade showed just how much the crusader effort had swayed from its original goal of ridding the world of Heretical infidels, and became both a legal and military struggle to control a region of arguable the most Catholic and most pro-Pope Kingdom in the world. The only real success of the effort in Languedoc, was that of the French crown which was able to add the large area around Toulouse to its vast domains, completely destroying the regional identity of Languedoc.

What about he Cathars? Oh yeah, the whole reason for the crusade was the route out Heretics but in reality, Catharism survived well past the end of the Albigensian Crusade, but the hunt for heretics was just getting started. The Albigensian Crusade birthed the Inquisition movement, first focusing on the remaining Cathars in the region before moving onto greater targets.


Written by Chris Riley

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