Cathar castles (in French châteaux cathares) are castles
in the Midi – the South of modern France – dating from
the Middle Ages and associated with the religion of the Cathars.
Most of them are in the Languedoc.
The Cathars were a religious group who disagreed with the Roman
Catholic Church on many points. They refused to eat meat, they were
pacifists, they refused to discriminate against Jews or women, they
abhorred wealth and luxury, they practiced poverty, they accepted
suicide, contraception and euthanasia,. they refused to swear oaths
or to kill. They refused to pay tithes to another Church. For these
and several other reasons they were condemned as heretics.
The Catholic Church organised a crusade against them, the infamous
Albigensian Crusade. The Cathars and their sympathisers took refuge
in local strongholds, especially the defensible castles and castra
located on mountain tops. These are the sites of so-called Cathar
For two generations Catholic armies and later Inquisitors undertook
the extirpation of the Cathars, frequently besieging them in their
spectacular mountaintop eiries.
All of the main "Cathar Castles" advertised to tourists as romantic
vestiges of the Cathar period are no such thing. They are
generally castles built by the French after the Cathar Crusade,
and used to defend their new border with Aragon. These castles
were slighted, or left to decay, after the Treaty
of the Pyrenees in the seventeenth century. They are often
built on the site of earlier castles occupied by vassals and allies
of the Counts of Toulouse during the Cathar period.
Broadly there are five categories of "Cathar Castle".
- Genuine Cathar Castles, advertised as Cathar Castles:
There are very few of these, although you may find a few vestiges
near to existing structures (eg castles at Peyrepertuse,
probably has the best claim to be a Cathar Castle, followed by
three quarters of Lastours
- Later French Castles built on the site of Cathar strongholds,
advertised as Cathar Castles: Coustaussa,
- French Castles with no Cathar connections, but sometimes advertised
as Cathar Castles: such as Arques.
- Cathar Castles not generally advertised as Cathar Castles although
they are: Pieusse,
- Sites of Cathar Castles: Béziers,
There are also castles of interest because of their links with
events during the Cathar period, for example: Avignonet,
where Cathar sympathisers helped some particularly unpleasant Inquisitors
into their next incarnations. Villerouge
Termenès, a castle belonging the the Archbishop of Narbonne,
where the last known Cathar Parfait in the Languedoc was burned
alive, and Montaillou,
the home of Beatrice de Plannissols, a major character in the events
following the arrest of a whole village by the Inquisition on suspicion
of Cathar sympathies.
In 1659, Louis XIV and the Philip IV of Spain signed the Treaty
of the Pyrenees, sealed with the marriage of the Infanta Marie Therese
to the French King. The treaty modified the frontiers, giving Roussillon
to France and moving the frontier south to the crest of the Pyrenees,
the present Franco-Spanish border. The fortresses thus lost their
importance. Some maintained a garrison for a while, a few until
the French Revolution, but they slowly fell into decay, often becoming
shepherds' shelters or bandits hideouts.
You learn more about the Cathars
here and Cathar