The Citadel of Carcassonne competes with Mont St. Michel and the Eiffel Tower for the most visited site in France. In 1997, this citadel was placed on the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site.
The fortification of the Medieval City of Carcassonne consists of two outer walls and 53 towers and barbicans (an outer defense connected to a wall) to prevent attack by siege devices. These walls or ramparts run nearly 2 miles around the perimeter of the medieval city.
The towers were built during different time periods. One section is Roman and is notably different from the medieval walls. One of the towers housed the Catholic Inquisition in the 13th century and is still known as “The Inquisition Tower.”
First-time visitors to the Citadel are often surprised to discover that a living town is located inside its walls. Shops, cafes, and even 50 full-time residents live here.
The Romans settled in Carcassonne during the 2nd Century before the Christian era and initially set up an observation post and defense works. A colony of Roman citizens settled around the fort.
The town spread over the centuries, surrounding the fortification. After the fall of Rome, Carcassonne fell to the Visigoths, who occupied the area for nearly 300 years from about 440 A.D. until 725 A.D. During this period, they restored the ramparts; but the Saracens (Muslims from Spain) suddenly invaded the area in 725.
The Christian cause triumphed and the Franks (Germanic tribes) became all powerful. The name France (Francia) is derived from their name. After the death of the Emperor Charlemagne and following the rapid disintegration of his Empire, the representatives of the local government gradually became independent. This was the beginning of the feudal period, during which the Counts and Viscounts of Carcassonne ruled without interruption for three centuries. This included the dynasty of the Trencavels, who lived in the Citadel. The Trencavels built the Basilica of Saints Nazarius inside the walled city.
The Basilica is known for its beautiful and intricate stained glass windows. The Nave dates from the 11th and 12 centuries, and the Gothic Transept and Choir dates from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Commerce flourished in the region, and it was through these exchanges during the 11th century which led to the introduction of Catharism, or Albigensianism, which flourished between the 11th and 13th centuries in and around Carcassonne.
The Catholic Church considered the Cathars to be heretics. The Cathars refused all materiality in the sacraments and claimed that no event in this world was due to the divine will. God reigned in the invisible world and the material world was the work of Satan. The Roman papacy was concerned over the growing strength of the Catharist church in the Languedoc region, where Rome saw it as a threat to Christian unity. Thus, began the Albigensian Crusade, the armed repression of the Catharist heretics.
The crusaders marched into Beziers and slaughtered the Cathars, and then marched on Carcassonne on July 26, 1209. In August, the Papal Legate forced its citizens to surrender. Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel was imprisoned when he attempted to negotiate his city’s surrender and died three months later in his own dungeon. Simon de Montfort was appointed the new Viscount, who added to the fortifications of the Citadel.
Around 1240, St. Louis wanted to strengthen the Citadel, which was in the southern frontier of his kingdom not far from Barcelona, Spain. His builders started constructing the outer wall around the inner wall; however, it was Philip the Bold, son of St. Louis, who from 1270 to 1285 gave the Citadel its full development and its Royal Defense works.
The defense works of the fortress were so formidable, that the Black Prince, son of Edward III of England, was not able to penetrate the Citadel.
Because sentries had to stick their bodies half way out from the ramparts exposing themselves, “hoardings” were used in the time of siege. Stout beams were placed in the square holes at the level of the sentry-way.
At the end of the beams on the outer side were fitted sloping beams connected together with planks. Flooring was laid on top of the main beams, with a gap left in the planking, which enabled the defenders to stand outside the battlements with a commanding view of the base of the battlements, while being completely sheltered. Carcassonne was the first fortress to use “hoardings” in time of siege.
The Pyrenean Treaty of the 17th century destroyed Carcassonne’s strategic importance by moving the frontier between France and Spain right up to the Pyrenees. The inevitable decline of Carcassonne followed.
In 1849, the Citadel was nearly demolished; it had been struck off the roster of official fortifications under Napoleon. The Citadel fell into such disrepair that the French government decided that it should be demolished, which caused an uproar among local citizens. Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayreviele, Mayor of Carcassonne; and inspector of ancient monuments, Prosper Merimee, led a successful campaign to preserve the walled city. Architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to renovate the site. The restoration was criticized during Duc’s lifetime. Having worked in Northern France, he made the error of using slates instead of terracotta tiles; slate was more typical of the north as was the addition of the pointed tips to the roofs. Yet, overall, Viollet-le-Duc’s achievement at Carcassonne is agreed to be a work of genius.