The initial invasion of 1210 took Raymond, count of Toulouse, off guard. Simon de Montfort proved an able commander. He pursued sieges to their conclusion, and his heavy cavalry won victories at Castelnaudary (1211) and Muret (1213). Although crusader numbers fluctuated wildly, their determination in difficulty and constant reinforcement from all over Europe guaranteed their triumph. De Montfort’s death in 1219 enabled a Toulousain recovery, but this lasted only until 1226.
While leading a crusade against the heretical Cathars in southwestern France in September 1213, the French knight and nobleman Simon de Montfort found himself outnumbered at the fortified town of Muret by a large force from Aragon and Toulouse. His daring sortie unexpectedly routed the Aragonese, killed their king, and dealt a blow to the Cathar cause.
The Languedoc region of France had shared the experiences of its neighbours: first the Romans who brought Christianity; then the Visigoths; the passage of the Vandals going south, followed by conquering Arabs going north; then liberation by Charlemagne going south with his Franks; and finally the arrival of feudalism. Through all this change the region retained some important characteristics. The language Oc survived, though it is barely spoken nowadays. A different interpretation of Christianity evolved – Catharism. Cathar society treated women as the equals of men and embraced the pleasures of song and dance (it is from this region that troubadours spread across Europe). The Cathars had no churches, only domestic meeting places where Good Men and Women preached to the faithful. Above them were deacons and bishops. The Good Men and Women rejected all materialism as unspiritual and therefore evil. They also condemned the established Catholic form of priesthood as being licentious, rapacious and materialistic.
For hundreds of years Catholic and Cathar tolerated each other, living in the same towns and villages. That tolerance started to crumble and dissent turned to criticism, then to dispute and, ultimately, intolerance. The Catholic archbishop wrote to the Pope about the situation. The Pope appointed a legate, who reported back to Rome that he had found an entrenched heresy. Next the Pope wrote to the local lord, Raymond IV; count of Toulouse, instructing him to act against the dissenters. He prevaricated and the Pope was exasperated. Catharism continued to spread. Eventually the Pope played his strongest card and declared a crusade against the heretics. An army assembled at Lyons on 24 June 1209, commanded by Arnaud Amaury, abbot of Citeaux, who was advised by Eudes III of Burgundy and Herve de Donzy of Nevers. They advanced to Valence, Montelimar fell, Beziers fell. Catholic and Cathar were slaughtered together. ‘God will know his own’, the abbot said.
Other towns fell to different columns. At Carcassone the heretics were allowed to go free, but the city was pillaged. When the 40 days were up the crusaders went home, almost. One minor lord was persuaded to stay. Simon de Montfort IV, father of the famous English rebel, agreed to remain and continue the fight.
Although, in the beginning, hundreds of Cathars were burnt as heretics, that persecution began to take second place to de Montfort’s carving out his own fiefdom among the gorges and peaks of the Pyrenees. As the seasons turned he found he could keep conquering because although Raymond IV was in the field against him, with a much larger army, he continued to prevaricate and would not be brought to battle. The town of Muret was taken in September 1212 with the aid of another batch of 40-day men. At about the same time the fiefdoms of Lords Comminges and de Bearn were also attacked and absorbed into de Montfort’s domain. This was a mistake – they were vassals of Pedro II, king of Aragon. To him they appealed for redress, after all Simon de Montfort was also a fellow vassal of the king, but he was setting himself up to be more powerful than his lord. Both sides, the abbot with Simon and the king of Aragon, lobbied the Pope in their cause. At an ecclesiastical council at Lavaur, Pedro was not allowed to speak, only to submit written argument and eventually the Pope sided with his own abbot. A showdown was inevitable. Pedro gave his protection to the people of Toulouse, revoked it for de Montfort and summoned his own host.
In September 1213 Pedro’s forces arrived at Muret. Inside were 30 French knights and 700 infantry holding the town for de Montfort. Pedro’s host included the men of Raymond IV; Lords Comminges and de Bearn. It was made up of between 2000 and 3000 mounted knights and sergeants plus an unknown but larger number of infantrymen. They camped to the north of the town above the small River Louge. The position was protected to the east by the Garonne and to the south by the Louge. It was, however, open to the west and north, and here Pedro’s troops erected the stone throwing engines with which they started to batter the walls on 11 September.
Meanwhile news of the attack had reached de Montfort at Fanjeaux 64km (40 miles) to the east. He had summoned his, much smaller, forces. Time being of the essence, they were cavalry only, consisting of 240 knights and 500 sergeants.
The resident defenders of Muret were too few to hold the walls of the town and the attackers swarmed in, just as de Montfort was seen arriving from the west. Whether by order or in panic the assaulting troops withdrew in haste. Better that than being caught in the rear by newly arrived knights. De Montfort entered the town unopposed. The next day negotiations were opened between de Montfort’s bishops and the king of Aragon. During this brief lull, the northern Toulouse gate, nearest to the Aragonese army, was left open (some say by design, some by mistake). Either way Pedro could not ignore such a gift and ordered it rushed by the count of Foix’s men who formed the Spanish vanguard, aided by some of Raymond IV’s foot soldiers from the rearguard.
The Spanish attempted to force their way in over the narrow Louge bridge, foot soldiers and cavalry together. A few got into the town, but were there outnumbered, surrounded and those few that couldn’t escape were killed. The count ordered them to withdraw and eat before trying again. Meanwhile Simon had led his entire mounted force out of the Sales gate on the southern/western wall. He then organized them into three battles. The first two were to charge the front of the enemy, the third under his own command would sweep wide to the east and plunge onto the already engaged flank of the enemy. It was a bold plan. Each of his battles were but 250 strong. The Spanish vanguard easily matched that number on its own. But they had been distracted and at least some were taking lunch. Yet consider the time required to catch, saddle and bridle nearly 800 horses and arm the knights to ride them. This was surely no fortuitous series of coincidences. De Montfort’s men must have been standing by ready to move on command.
The first battle exited the gate heading south on the Avenue des Pyrenees. De Montfort, echoing a stratagem from the Chinese Sun Tzu, placed all the banners of his host in this first division. The head of the column wheeled off the road to their right and moved out beyond the concealing walls. Time was of the essence. They executed a right turn, forming one deep line, and crossed the Louge to advance rapidly on the enemy. The second column followed, passing the rear of the first before performing its own right turn. So the two lines were then advancing on the first Spanish division in echelon. The Spaniards were mesmerized by the advancing knights with all their banners. Chaos reigned with dismounted lords calling for their squires and horses, those mounted struggling to find their position in the line. The impact of the advancing crusaders scattered the count of Foix’s division like ‘dust before the wind’. The infantry ran for the camp while the king’s division struggled to maintain the line and was hit in turn by the pursuing horsemen. Simon, meanwhile, had stuck to his plan and now came in on the flank of the hapless men of Aragon. The king was killed in the melee and the rest fled, closely pursued by the desperate crusaders. Such was the disparity in numbers that de Montfort’s men could not afford to deplete their own strength by taking prisoners for ransom and a great number were killed.
Co-ordinating the manoeuvres of Simon’s two leading columns deserves some examination. Each would have been more than 500m (1640ft) long, assuming two abreast and allowing 4m (13ft) for each horse and space between it and the next. Turned into a line each would be only 307m (1007ft) long, 1.2m (4ft) for the frontage of each horse. The commander at the front would indicate the moment for the turn to be executed, but there was great potential for him to get it wrong. Turn the first column too early and the last man could still be in the city gate. Turn the second column early and it would overlap the rear of the first and some men would be ineffective. Turn it too late and the gap between lines would be too large, risking each being swamped by the enemy’s superior numbers.
There are two ways an efficient turn could have been achieved (although we don’t know which was used). Either the order to turn was given by the last man in the column as he reached the critical position or the commander used some mental calculation to register the distance covered. With modern infantry you can rely on counting a regular pace to judge these distances. Either way we must give credit to both de Montfort for his excellent plan and his subordinate commanders, Bouchard of Marly leading the first column and William d’Encontre leading the second, for its execution.