Unlike the sun-soaked countryside of the Provence with its harmonious Romanesque monasteries in fields of lavender, the Cathar castles tell the dark side of the Middle Ages.
The Cathar Castles were built as refuges against the dangers of the world -- robbers and rivals, Saracens and French. From their inception they were defensible, and as such they implied the need to be defended. Out there, beyond the walls, the gates, the barbican was danger and darkness.
That, to a greater or lesser extent, was true of all castles, but unlike the great castles of the English kings, the French barons or the markgrafs of Saxony, the Cathar Castles offered very, very little in the way of accommodation or comfort. The Cathar Castles were not built as residences or courts, but as fortresses pure and simple. They were on the whole not very large or very elaborate -- not to be compared to the sophisticated design or engineering of Edward I's castles in Wales or the great crusader castles like Krak de Cheveliers. What they did, however, was use the terrain to maximum advantage and so they were perched on the top of the most inaccessible piece of land available.
The most famous -- and arguably the only genuinely Cathar castle -- was Montsegur. While most of the castles that became associated with the Cathars were build as the seat of local noblemen and only became "Cathar" castles because they were held by men who opposed the French invasion, Montsegur was explicitly built as a refuge for heretics. It was built in the first decade of the 13th century by Raymond de Pereille on a spur of rock in the St. Bartholomew Range at the foot of the Pyrenees, and stood almost four thousand feet above sea level. It became the seat of the Cathar bishop, Guilhabert de Castres in 1232. It was well known that from Montsegur, Cathar "good men" went out to preach, and it was inevitable that the Catholic Church would call for the eradication of this "nest of vipers."
In 1241, King Louis of France ordered the Count of Toulouse to destroy Montsegur, but although the Count organized an expedition, he did not pursue the siege vigorously. Just a year later, two Inquisition judges were murdered along with some of their clerks and servants in Avignonet; allegedly the knights responsible for the murders sallied forth from Montsegur. Now the French crown demanded the complete destruction of Montsegur.
In May 1243, 6,000 men under the command of the French seneschal of Carcassone, Huges des Arcis, and the Archbishop of Narbonne, Pierre Amiel, laid siege to Montsegur. The castle was defended by between five and six hundred armed men loyal to the Cathar cause -- but not themselves Cathar, since the Cathar faith did not allow the bearing of arms.
At first the defenders had the advantage because the surrounding villages supported them and supplies were smuggled in, but in January 1244, some of Huges de Arcis men scaled a rock face during the night (allegedly they were terrified of their own courage when they saw the sheer drop by light of day) and captured an outpost of Montsegur, the Tower Rock. Here the attackers constructed an trebuchet and then a catapult, and a bombardment of Montsegur castle began. In February 1244, the besiegers made a first assault on the barbican of Montsegur. Although the French were driven off, the defenders suffered heavy casualties.
By March, the remaining men and women in Montsegur were suffering from shortages of food and firewood. They also started to despair of reinforcements. The decision was made to negotiate. Huges de Arcis agreed to a 15 day truce after which the castle was to be surrendered in exchange for amnesty and freedom for the defenders of Montsegur, including the murderers of the Inquisition judges in Avignonet, who accepted the Catholic faith. Indeed, it was agreed that anyone who abjured the Cathar heresy could go free. However, those who refused to accept the Catholic faith were to be burned at the stake as heretics.
On March 16, 1244, Montsegur surrendered, and Raymond de Pereille himself was among the prisoners. True to the terms of the truce, he was allowed to go free. But to the amazement of the victors, not a single Cathar was prepared to abjure his/her faith and some of the defenders, particularly the sick and wounded, chose at this time to convert to Catharism.
On a field at the foot of the mountain now marked by a monument, between 205 and 225 men and women were burned at the stake for their Cathar beliefs. Among the burned were Raymonde de Pereille's wife, daughter and mother-in-law.