The fortress of Peyrepertuse became one of the most imposing defences along the southern border of France following its refortification in the second half of the 13th century. Here it is shown following these improvements, with a 120m-long curtain wall on the northern side containing the main entrance (I), protected by a barbican (2).The internal buildings consist of the keep complex (3), which housed the church of St Mary (4) and the commander of the castle’s quarters (5), and a further domestic structure along the south wall (6). At the very tip of the fortress was a triangular-shaped bastion (7, shown in the inset) that dominated the valley below.
Although archaeologists have found evidence that the site of the fortress at Peyrepertuse had been occupied since the 1st century BC, and the territory called the pagus Petra Pertusense is mentioned as being part of the county of Razes from the 9th century AD onwards, it is not until the 11th century that a fortification is first recorded there. This first mention occurs in the will of Bernard Taillefer, the count of Besalu, dating from 1020. Mentions of the fortress are rare over the next 150 years, but it is clear that the site, along with the region of the Perapertuses associated with it, became part of the lands of the count of Barcelona in 1111, before being handed over to his vassal the viscount of Narbonne in 1112, along with the fortifications of the Fenouilledes, in return for assurances of his support.
As part of the domains of the viscount of Narbonne, Peyrepertuse played no part in the opening years of the Albigensian Crusade. It is only when the viscount of Narbonne’s overlord, Pedro of Aragon, aligned himself with the counts of Toulouse and Foix in hostilities against Simon de Montfort, culminating in the battle of Muret in 1213, that this area of the Languedoc was drawn into the conflict.
Following his victory at Muret, Montfort claimed the titles of count of Toulouse and duke of Narbonne, with the viscount paying homage to him. In 1217, William of Peyrepertuse followed his overlord in acknowledging Montfort’s mastery. However, by 1226 his fortress had been confiscated and granted to Nunyo Sanche, count of Roussillon, a vassal of Louis VIII and, later,
Louis IX. Sanche sold the castle directly to Louis IX in 1239. The following year it appears that William of Peyrepertuse occupied his old lands once more during the revolt of the faidits - the dispossessed southern lords. Jean de Beaumont, chamberlain of Louis IX, besieged Peyrepertuse and, on 16 November 1240, William of Peyrepertuse surrendered to the forces of the crown.
From this point onwards the castle remained firmly in French royal hands and, following the Treaty of Corbeil of 11 May 1258, Peyrepertuse stood on the front line between the kingdoms of France and Aragon-Castille – one of the ‘five sons of Carcassonne’ protecting the south from foreign invasion.
The fortress of Peyrepertuse is situated 800m above sea level on a rocky platform. The site consists of three separate sections: the lower enceinte, the middle enceinte, and the higher fortification of San Jordi.
It is difficult to state with any great certainty which, if any, of the fortifications that cover this rocky platform existed under the stewardship of William of Peyrepertuse prior to the occupation by royal forces. It is probable that the castrum of the Cathar period consisted only of elements of the central keep and the church of St Mary, surrounded by the dwelling places of the inhabitants.
Following the royal occupation in 1240, Peyrepertuse was the only fortification in the region directly controlled by the crown – nearby Queribus was still controlled by faidit lords. An intensive programme of fortification followed William of Peyrepertuse’s surrender and, in the years 1250/51 over 100 men were at work refortifying the site. It was during this period, and later in the 13th century, that the fortifications that now dominate the site were erected.
The lower enceinte is triangular shaped and protected on its northern side by a 120m-long wall, 1.2m thick, with two semicircular towers projecting over the gorge below. The main entrance to the fortress is situated at the near end of this wall, protected by an exterior barbican covered by arrow slits in the main wall. At the far end of this wall stands a triangular-shaped bastion, consisting of three levels equipped with numerous arrow slits. The southern wall runs along the edge of a precipitous drop over which the fortresses latrines are situated. This wall would also have had a tower on it, though little of this remains. Further along stands the remains of a two-storey stone-built building, which may well have held water cisterns. Beyond this lies the keep of the fortification.
The keep consists of two main structures – one building consisting of living quarters and store rooms, the other housing the church of St Mary along with a water cistern. The two buildings are joined by thick walls to create a single structure with an open courtyard in between. There are two gateways to the keep: one opens onto the interior of the lower enceinte, the other leads outside the walls of the enceinte to the next level of fortifications.
The middle enceinte leads to the steps of St Louis, which in turn lead up to the fortification of San Jordi. This higher fortification, constructed during the great building project of 1250/51, contains a further chapel, two water cisterns, living quarters and towers over the lower and middle enceintes.
First the bad news. There is very little remaining from Cathar times, castles or anything else. 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. The justification for the deceit is that 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, and Puivert). Carcassonne probably has the best claim to be a Cathar Castle, followed by three quarters of Cabaret (Lastours).
French Castles with no Cathar connections, but sometimes advertised as Cathar Castles: such as Arques.
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.