Thursday, May 7, 2015


Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209

The march from Lyon and the sack of Béziers had taken its toll on the crusaders, and because so much appears to have been destroyed in the sack the crusaders were no better off logistically for having done it. They were tired, justifiably or not. The crusading army camped not in the city, perhaps uninhabitable for the moment, but in the meadows outside it. There they remained for three days before marching on to the next large castrum controlled by Raimon-Roger Trencavel. The crusaders moved to the southwest until they hit the Aude river, which would lead them to Carcassonne. In doing so they crossed close by the territories of Aimery III, Viscount of Narbonne. In fact, they came within at most six kilometers of the city of Narbonne itself. Narbonne was the seat of the senior churchman in this part of Occitania, the Archbishop of Narbonne. Neither Aimery nor his lands was an intended target for the crusade as Raimon VI had been, but Archbishop Berengar’s failure to act vigorously against heresy prior to 1209 meant the crusade might be redirected to take this city just as it had been diverted against Béziers. By now the inhabitants, the viscount, and the archbishop were well aware of what happened to the people of Béziers, for many who had escaped that carnage had fled to Narbonne. Rather than face the possible ire of the crusade, Aimery quickly took himself off a possible target list by swearing to fairly harsh peace terms. He agreed to open all fortified places to crusaders and support the crusade both militarily and financially. As well, the viscount and archbishop agreed to turn over to the legates all heretics who had fled Béziers, and to suppress heresy more vigorously in the castrum of Narbonne. Aimery honored his pledge to aid the crusade by providing lackluster military service later in 1209 and assisting in the siege of Minerve in 1210, but in general the viscount and the Narbonnais maintained a low profile during most years of the Occitan War. Along the way the crusade marched through or near perhaps dozens of other towns and castra, some of whose inhabitants submitted to the crusade while many more simply fled. In their hurry to do so, they very often abandoned strong fortifications and large stocks of food to which the crusaders helped themselves, perhaps accounting for the relative abundance of supplies they enjoyed during the siege of Carcassonne.

The crusading army marched a distance of about forty-seven kilometers from the Aude above Narbonne and arrived at Carcassonne by Saturday, 1 August 1209.92 As the seat of the Trencavel viscounts Carcassonne was considered at that time to be the heart of Cathar resistance. The city of Carcassonne was smaller in population than either Béziers or Narbonne, with a population of less than 9,500, the number estimated from data of the early fourteenth century before the Black Death. Most likely it was even smaller in the early thirteenth century, although its population was larger than usual as people fleeing the crusader army came there for refuge. Carcassonne’s fortifications still exist, though they were substantially modified in the later thirteenth century by an additional set of curtain walls and the site was greatly restored in the nineteenth century. Today ‘‘La Cite´’’ is considered one of the finest extant examples of a complete medieval defensive structure and ranks as one of the biggest tourist draws in the Midi-Pyrénées.

In 1209 ‘‘La Cite´’’ was perched on an outcrop located some distance east of the Aude, surrounded by a single set of walls and ditches as well as three suburbs, only two of which, the Bourg and the Castellar, had a perfunctory set of walls and ditches around them. Overall the outcrop upon which the castrum sat did not lend much to its defenses. Contrary to the seeming strength of its fortifications as related by William of Tudela, Carcassonne was a far easier target than Béziers for blockade and siege, particularly along its river side. Still, since the city had ample warning of what this crusader army was capable of, it was probably more competently defended than Béziers had been. Viscount Raimon-Roger had already lost one of his main cities and did not intend to give this one up without a spirited defense. Initially the twenty-four-year-old viscount gathered together 400 of his knights and mounted sergeants to sortie out and attack the crusade army in the open. Prudent counsel from one of the viscount’s vassals, the old mountain lord Peire-Roger of Cabaret, now in Carcassonne to lend his assistance, convinced Raimon-Roger Trencavel to stay within the castrum rather than squandering his resources in a fruitless attack against overwhelming numbers.

From the time the crusading army arrived before Carcassonne, it surrounded the city and its suburbs, making it impossible for the defenders to reinforce themselves. Through the evening of 1 August and the next day the army rested and planned its attack. Perhaps hoping for the same success they had enjoyed at Béziers, on the morning of 3 August the crusaders assaulted the Saint Vincent suburb to the west of the castrum without support from siege engines. This suburb was the least protected, but it covered the most strategic side of the main fortifications, between the city and the river. After a fight led by Simon of Montfort, the crusaders captured the ditches of the suburb. Saint Vincent was soon abandoned by its defenders and burned by the crusaders, who then occupied the ground next to the castrum. This assault had only taken about two hours. Thus by 3 August they had cut off Carcassonne completely from its water supply. Since assaults had worked so well on two occasions, on 4 August the crusaders attacked the northern suburb, the Bourg. Because the Bourg had both ditches and walls, and the southerners had readied themselves against a possible assault, this attempt stalled in the fosses under a heavy bombardment of stones thrown from the heights. The crusaders retreated but not before Simon of Montfort, accompanied by a single squire, performed another act of courage by going back under the hailstorm of rocks into the ditch to rescue a fellow knight trapped there with a broken leg. Now that the crusaders saw that direct assault would not work on a prepared and determined enemy, they began to construct siege machines. As the sources report, among the types of machines constructed during the siege of Carcassonne were mangonels, catapults, and petraries, all standard thirteenth-century siege weapons in use in western Europe since the Roman era. These machines threw stones of various weights to destroy walls, buildings and human beings. At Carcassonne the crusaders made good use of machines to batter the walls of suburb and castrum.
During the next few days, as the crusader bombardment weakened the walls of the Bourg, the crusaders constructed another siege weapon, a wagon covered in oxhides called a ‘‘cat.’’ Now engineers concealed inside the cat began to sap the foundational walls of the suburb. The defenders destroyed the cat by throwing down incendiaries, logs, and stones, but by the time this was accomplished the sappers had burrowed far enough into the walls to move into the hole they had dug and continue digging into the foundation, untouchable now by missiles thrown down from above. The next day, 8 August, the wall over the hole fell in, allowing the crusaders to mount another assault, taking the Bourg while its defenders withdrew into the city. Complacency immediately set in however, as the crusaders placed only a few men in the Bourg and went back to their tents. The defenders of Carcassonne sortied back into the suburb, killed its few defenders and burned the suburb before retreating back into the city, thus denying the crusaders their homes and property.

During the time of the Bourg’s bombardment another event occurred which almost altered the course of the crusade and certainly set the stage for further conflict. Sometime between 4 and 6 August the King of Aragon, Pere II, arrived with 100 horsemen and attempted to mediate between the crusaders and his vassal Raimon-Roger. Pere was the natural leader to perform this sort of function, because of his extensive family ties in Occitania and his suzerainty over Carcassonne. Thirty-five years old in 1209, Pere II was charismatic, affable, devout in his fashion, but a man inclined to overindulgence in both wine and women. He was an extremely effective crusader-soldier in his own right, a fact borne out three years later when he helped engineer the decisive Spanish victory over the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. In the long term, since he had direct ties to Occitania and was anxious to hold on and expand his overlordship in the region, Pere and the royal house of Aragon represented an alternative authority to Occitania’s theoretical place in the regnum Francorum.

Since he arrived with what amounted to no more than an escort, Pere had no intention of offering military aid to his vassal in Carcassonne, as doing so would have deliberately defied the crusade. The sight of the huge crusader army surrounding the city and its suburbs must have been quite a shock to the Aragonese monarch. Nevertheless the crusaders greeted him warmly and he dined with the Count of Toulouse in the crusader camp. After the meal Pere entered Carcassonne with only three men to talk to Raimon-Roger Trencavel. The viscount and people of Carcassonne were overjoyed at the king’s arrival, thinking he was there to deliver the castrum from the crusade. Pere knew from the size of the crusader host and the determination of its leadership that he could not prevent the crusaders from taking the city. Even after hearing Raimon-Roger discuss the mass killing at Béziers, Pere admonished the viscount for his weak efforts against the Cathars and urged him to treat with the crusaders immediately. The king offered to get what terms he could for the viscount. After arriving back at the crusader camp, Pere discussed Raimon-Roger’s position with the secular lords and the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury. Showing the inflexibility with which he commonly treated everyone, Arnaud-Amaury told Pere that the crusaders would allow Raimon-Roger to leave the city with eleven men of the viscount’s choice, but that the city would have to surrender all its people and goods. In essence the terms were a slap in the face and angered the king. He already knew what his vassal’s reaction was going to be: no noble anxious to retain his honor could agree to desert a combat zone with a few of his cronies. Nevertheless the king rode into Carcassonne again to reveal the terms to Raimon-Roger, who reacted in typical fashion. The viscount knew that if he accepted them he would be branded a coward for deserting his people. He told the king he would fight on. Pere, realizing he could do nothing more to save the city, left for Spain in great distress and annoyance.

Though Carcassonne was reputed to be a powerful structure that could have held out indefinitely in normal circumstances, this was not a normal circumstance. In light of what had happened at Béziers, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of refugees had swarmed into the city with their personal goods and livestock. This greatly strained the water supply, and with the capture and occupation of Saint Vincent’s suburb cutting the city off from the river on 3 August, the defenders and refugees were reduced to relying on wells and cisterns. These fast dried up under the heavy demands placed upon them and the hot August sun. The stench of close-packed people and the bodies of those who had succumbed to heat, dysentery, or direct combat, coupled with the rotting skins of cattle slaughtered for their meat but also for their hides to protect against fire, made conditions in Carcassonne unbearable. Though those besieging a fortification usually suffered as much or more than those inside it in pre-modern western warfare, the siege of Carcassonne was an exception. Both our major sources mention that, contrary to the usual siege conditions, provisions were actually plentiful in the crusader army. Prior to the siege those in Carcassonne had destroyed grain mills in its vicinity to deny them to the crusaders, but there was a plentiful supply of salt for seasoning and trading for flour. William of Tudela remarks that bread was so cheap that one could buy thirty loaves for a penny, and Peter Vaux-de-Cernay supports this too, saying the besiegers had a plentiful supply of bread. By any standards this was a rare situation, no doubt facilitated by the empty towns and villages whose storehouses were open to the crusaders to take what they wanted.

Thus with every passing day the situation for the Carcassonnais and the refugees in the city grew more desperate, while the crusaders suffered few adverse effects from conditions in their camp. After the departure of Pere of Aragon, the crusaders made plans for a direct assault on the castrum, though they were concerned lest another Béziers occur and Carcassonne be lost to the crusade as a base of operations. Basically both sides hoped that the city would surrender quickly, the crusader leadership being anxious to capture the city intact, Raimon-Roger Trencavel to ease the suffering of his population. One of the leaders of the crusade, perhaps a relative of Raimon-Roger, suggested a parley with the viscount to discuss the possibility of terms. Raimon-Roger accepted the offer of a safe-conduct and, escorted by a hundred of his knights, entered the crusader camp. In spite of the safe-conduct, after walking to the Count of Nevers’s tent where the discussions were to be held, the viscount placed himself and nine of his companions in crusader custody. Why he did this is not explained by our poet. Was it to secure favorable terms for the inhabitants? Did he offer himself up as a sacrificial lamb? Did he expect to be released after the town had surrendered? We simply do not know.

All of our major sources are consistent on the harsh and humiliating terms of the surrender. The citizens of Carcassonne (and the refugees presumably) were to be expelled from the city in their shirts and breeches, i.e., with minimal clothes on their backs and without any moveable property. The city of Carcassonne and all its contents were forfeited to the crusade, to be reserved for the military head of the crusade when one was chosen. Viscount Raimon-Roger Trencavel was imprisoned, with no length of sentence determined. The people of Carcassonne left for whatever safe havens they could find, some going to Toulouse while others fled across the Pyrenees to Spain.

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