Art & Architecture

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A defensive system against the kingdom of Aragon

The city of Carcassonne has long stood as a bulwark between the rival kingdoms of France and Aragon. Discover how it became the centerpiece of a powerful defensive system...

Carcassonne and the Trencavel Family

In 1067, the county of Carcassonne reverted to Raimond Bernard Trencavel, viscount of Albi and Nîmes. The following year, however, he sold it to Raimond Béranger Ist, Count of Barcelona. The latter died in 1076, followed in 1082 by his successor, Raimond Béranger II. Bernard Aton, son of Raimond Bernard Trencavel, then went to Carcassonne and proclaimed himself its defender until the legitimate count came of age. Except that 8 years later, he refused to return the town to its owner!

Bernard Aton Trencavel made the city his capital. It's ideally situated between Narbonne and Bordeaux, on the trade route between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic! He helped build the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, as well as his palace, the Château. However, the locals had a hard time putting up with this usurper. In 1107, and again in 1120, they appealed to the Count of Barcelona, to whom they swore loyalty. But each time, Bernard Aton succeeded in retaking the town!

Château comtal Carcassonne
Fortifications et tour des Casernes du château comtal

© Geoffroy Mathieu /Centre des monuments nationaux

Vassal city of the King of Aragon

In the early 12th century, the Counts of Toulouse extended their authority from the Garonne to the Rhône. To protect their independence, the Trencavels decided to change sides. The Counts of Barcelona had joined the Crown of Aragon in 1137, to which they now pledged their allegiance.

At the same time, a new religion appeared in Europe: Catharism . Its followers reject the Roman Church, which they believe flouts the precepts of Christ. The movement found a favorable echo in Languedoc and Roussillon. The "Albigensians", as they were known, became increasingly numerous. The viscount of Carcassonne's main advisor, Roger de Cabaret, was one of them.

For Pope Innocent III, these Albigensians were heretics. In 1209, he launched a crusade, with the support of King Louis VIII. Carcassonne was besieged from August 1st. King Peter II of Aragon went there to mediate between his vassal, Raimond-Roger Trencavel, and Simon de Montfort, the Catholic military leader. Alas, negotiations failed and Carcassonne fell after 15 days. Raimond-Roger died a few months later in captivity.

Lices cité de Carcassonne
Les lices de la forteresse

© Geoffroy Mathieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

The lock on the Franco-Aragonese border

Carcassonne became part of the French royal domain in 1226, under the reign of King Louis IX, known as Saint Louis. This displeased King James 1st of Aragon, successor to Peter II, who still had rights to the Trencavel lands. Finally, in 1258, they both signed the Treaty of Corbeil. Saint Louis renounced his suzerainty over Roussillon and Catalonia, inherited from Charlemagne. James 1st relinquished his claim to Carcassonne. The border between the two kingdoms corresponded roughly to that of today's Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales departments.

Saint Louis now intended to show that he would not tolerate any further Aragonese intervention beyond the border. He made Carcassonne, some 50 kilometers away, the seat of a seneschaussée, centralizing military, judicial and administrative powers. Major works were undertaken to fortify what was now a royal city.

Five mountain castles were also built as sentinels atop the Pyrenean foothills and the Montagne Noire. These include Aguilar and Quéribus. Two other castles, Lastours and Termes, were built to the north and south of the Cité. At the heart of this impressive system, Carcassonne was the center of the defense against Aragon!

Barbacane Carcassonne
Barbacane du front ouest

© Laurent Gueneau / Centre des monuments nationaux

From golden age to decline

Saint Louis' peace did not last long. In 1285, his successor, Philippe III le Hardi, set off on a crusade against Aragon. Carcassonne served as a rear base and supply center for the royal army. However, the expedition was a failure, and the king lost his life. His bones were repatriated by his heir, Philip IV the Fair, to the royal necropolis in the cathedral basilica of Saint-Denis.

It was against this tense backdrop that the last fortification campaign of the medieval city was completed. Begun in 1280, it saw the reconstruction of the southern corner of the inner wall. The Porte Narbonnaise was built to defend the main entrance to the Cité. And Carcassonne took on the silhouette we know today!

Until the 17th century, the Cité was a "master fortress", guardian of the Languedoc region. It housed a permanent garrison of soldiers, as well as a large arms depot. In 1635, Louis XIV, King of France, decided to take part in the Thirty Years' War, which was tearing Europe apart. And guess who was among his adversaries? Philip VI of Spain! Although the conflict ended in 1648, the two sovereigns continued to clash. The Franco-Spanish war did not end until 1659, with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. This involved the annexation of Roussillon by France. The border drawn by the kingdoms of France and Aragon in the 13th century was moved further south, and Carcassonne lost its strategic importance. It was the end of an era...

At the beginning of the 19th century, the prestigious past of the medieval city was a distant memory. But the determination of a local archaeologist, Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, and the creative talent of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc were not enough. But that's another story!

Today, Carcassonne is the most incredible fortified city in Europe. Come and discover its secrets for yourself!

Visite barbacane Carcassonne
Autre barbacane

© Laurent Gueneau / Centre des monuments nationaux

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