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History of the monument

Have you ever been to Carcassonne? With its castle and ramparts, the city seems straight out of a medieval fantasy novel. Step back in time to discover the history of Europe's most formidable fortified complex!

At the heart of the history of Carcassonne, a spectacular medieval city

The origins of the city

The history of Carcassonne begins at the site of Carsac, 2 kilometers southwest of the present-day city. There, archaeologists found traces of a settlement dating back to 800 BC! Around 550 BC, this first "village" gave rise to theoppidum . of Carcaso. The advantage? An unobstructed view over the surrounding plain and the River Aude. An ideal position in case of attack!

Carcaso became an essential stopover on the road between Narbonne and Bordeaux. Conquered by the Romans in 122BC, the town prospered thanks to the wine trade. Remains of Etruscan and Greek pottery confirm that the Gallo-Roman city was at the heart of the region's trade.

Paranorama cité de Carcassonne
La Cité de Carcassonne et son décor de conte de fées

© Geoffroy Matthieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

The rise of Carcassonne in the Middle Ages

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, a first wave of invasions by Germanic peoples caused the Roman Empire to falter. Carcassonne then built a 1,200-meter-long city wall. In the 5th century, new attacks led to the foundation of the Visigoth kingdom of Aquitaine. The city was occupied, then attacked again, in 725 by the Umayyads  and in 759 by the Franks. The latter episode inspired the legend of Dame Carcas, the city's patron saint.

In 888, the death of Charles the Fat marked the end of the Carolingian empire and the rise of local lords. In 1067, the County of Carcassonne came into the possession of Raimond-Bernard Trencavel, Viscount of Albi and Nîmes. This marked the beginning of a dynasty that would leave its mark on the town's history.

Visite cité médiévale de Carcassonne
Découverte du front ouest de la cité de Carcassonne

Laurent Gueneau / Centre des monuments nationaux

The House of Trencavel, Lords of Carcassonne

In the 11th century, Bernard Aton IV, son of Raimond-Bernard, united the territories inherited from his father and mother, dominating the Lower Languedoc. In Carcassonne, the Trencavels ordered the construction of the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, which began in 1096. Around 1130, they also built a palatium, which became the seigneurial residence. It was to become the future château comtal!

For the town, it was a period of abundance and expansion, with the creation of several suburbs. It was also a period of independence, during which the Trencavels asserted themselves against the Counts of Toulouse and Barcelona, their powerful neighbors. This period came to an end in 1209, with the start of the crusade against the Albigensians.

Château comtal Carcassonne
Le château comtal construit au XIIe siècle

© Geoffroy Mathieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

At the heart of Cathar country

To fully understand what was at stake in this crusade, let's take a look at Catharism. This Christian movement, which emerged in Europe in the 12th century, rejected the Roman Church, which it accused of not respecting the ideals of Christ. In the south of France, four churches adopted this doctrine: Albi, Val d'Aran, Toulouse... and Carcassonne.

In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against these heretical "Albigensians", with the support of King Louis VIII. The besieged city of Carcassonne fell after a 15-day siege on August 15, 1209. Raimond Trencavel was defeated by Simon de Montfort, military leader of the expedition, who took the town. Seventeen years later, in 1226, Carcassonne became part of the French royal domain. The crusade came to an end in 1229.

Entrée du château comtal de Carcassonne depuis la porte de l’est

© Geoffroy Mathieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

A stronghold with an exceptional defense system

In 1240, Raimond Trencavel tried to retake his lands with the support of certain suburbs, but to no avail. In retaliation, Louis IX had the houses of the traitors razed to the ground, forcing them to move to the other bank of the Aude. Carcassonne was split in two: on the right bank, the medieval city stood, while on the left bank, a new town appeared. This marked the birth of the bastide town   Saint-Louis!

It was in the 13th century that the town took on the appearance we know today. The former Trencavel palace became a château comtal, while a second 1,600-meter-long wall doubled the Gallo-Roman rampart. Under the reigns of Philip III the Bold and Philip IV the Fair, the fortifications were modernized. The walls were equipped with loopholes for crossbow fire, and new gates were built, including the monumental Porte Narbonnaise. From then on, Carcassonne was considered impregnable.

Entrée du château comtal de Carcassonne
Le château comtal au cœur de la cité fortifiée

© Geoffroy Mathieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

A long period of decline

The town was now a political, administrative and military center. It has also been a strategic defense post since 1258 and the Treaty of Corbeil, which placed the border between France and Aragon close by. In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees put an end to the Franco-Spanish war that had begun in 1635. As the border moved south, Carcassonne lost its privileged status.

By the 19th century, its former power was a distant memory. Napoleon even had it removed from the list of strongholds in 1804. Miserable dwellings were built between the lices  fortified castles. Left to decay, the walls were dismantled and sold piece by piece to local masons...

Coucher de soleil Carcassonne
La cité de Carcassonne s’embrase au soleil couchant

© Geoffroy Mathieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

Viollet-le-Duc's renaissance

It wasn't until 1840 that the city of Carcassonne regained its letters of nobility. That year, Carcassonne historian and archaeologist Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille had the basilica listed as a historic monument. Subsequently, Prosper Mérimée, national inspector of historic monuments, visited the site. He drew up an inventory of the work required and entrusted Eugène Viollet-le-Duc with its management.

Viollet-le-Duc began by restoring the Saint-Nazaire basilica, renowned for its flamboyant stained-glass windows. He then consolidated the upper parts of the Gallo-Roman and medieval military architecture. Begun in 1853 and completed in 1911, this immense restoration project returned the medieval city to its former splendor. Today, nearly 4 million visitors flock here every year!

With its castle and ramparts, the city of Carcassonne is a wonderful place to discover. What about admiring the panorama from the "chemin de ronde"?

Basilique Saint-Nazaire Carcassonne
La Basilique Saint-Nazaire conjugue style gothique et roman

© Patrick Cadet / Centre des monuments nationaux