About Montségur Castle
The Château de Montségur is a former fortress near Montségur, a commune in the Ariège department in southern France. Its ruins are the site of a razed stronghold of the Cathars. The present fortress on the site, though described as one of the ‘Cathar castles,’ is actually of a later period. It has been listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture since 1862.
History of Montségur
The earliest signs of human settlement in the area date back to the Stone Age. Evidence of Roman occupation such as Roman currency and tools have also been found in and around the site. Its name comes from Latin mons securus, which evolved into mont ségur in Occitan, which means “safe hill”. In the Middle Ages the Montsegur region was ruled by the Counts of Toulouse, the Viscounts of Carcassonne and finally the Counts of Foix. Little is known about the fortification until the time of the Albigensian Crusade.
In about 1204, Raymond de Péreille, one of the two lords of Montségur decided to rebuild the castle that had been in ruins for 40 years or more. Refortified, the castle became a centre of Cathar activities, and home to Guilhabert de Castres, a Cathar theologian and bishop. In 1233 the site became “the seat and head” (domicilium et caput) of the Cathar church. It has been estimated that the fortified site housed about 500 people when in 1241, Raymond VII besieged Montsegur without success.
The murder of representatives of the inquisition by about fifty men from Montsegur and faidits at Avignonet on May 28, 1242 was the trigger for the final military expedition to conquer the castle, the siege of Montségur.
In 1242 Hugues de Arcis led the military command of about 10,000 royal troops against the castle that was held by about 100 fighters and was home to 211 Perfects (who were pacifists and did not fight) and civilian refugees. The siege lasted nine months, until in March 1244, the castle finally surrendered. Those who renounced the Cathar faith were allowed to leave and the castle itself was destroyed.
In the days prior to the fall of the fortress, several Cathars allegedly slipped through the besiegers’ lines. This led to legends that they escaped with a secret treasure or esoteric knowledge. In 1906, esoteric French writer Joséphin Péladan proposed that the treasure was really the Holy Grail, arguing that Montségur was the Munsalväsche (or Montsalvat) of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century Grail romance Parzival.
This idea was followed and expanded upon by various later writers, especially in France, and has inspired legends, conspiracy theories, and fictional works associating the Cathars and Montségur with the Holy Grail.
The present fortress ruin at Montségur is not from the Cathar era. The original Cathar fortress of Montségur was entirely pulled down by the victorious royal forces after its capture in 1244. It was gradually rebuilt and upgraded over the next three centuries by royal forces. The current ruin so dramatically occupying the site is referred to by French archeologists as “Montsegur III” and is typical of post-medieval royal French defensive architecture of the 17th century. It is not “Montsegur II,” the structure in which the Cathars lived and were besieged, of which few traces remain today.
Montségur’s solar alignment characteristics, visible on the morning of the summer solstice in particular, are part of what set this castle apart as an architectural wonder. This often mentioned solar phenomenon, occurring in an alignment of two windows in the fortress wall, has been observed by hundreds of students, astronomers, spiritual pilgrims and locals alike who come to the chateau specifically to view it every year.
Montségur is open to the public today – it’s a steep climb and there are somewhat limited facilities around, so be sure to bring plenty of water. There’s a small museum in the town of Montségur which has a good potted history of the castle and the legends surrounding it.
The castle is open year round, with longer hours and slightly higher prices in the summer. The views over the Pyrenees are glorious on a clear day.
Getting to Montségur
Montségur is located deep in Cathar country in south west France: it’s a twisty 90 minute drive from Carcassonne via roads full of sharp drops and hairpin bends
3D reconstruction of the Cathar settlement and the castle (in French)