THE torch of persecution lit up the thirteenth century with baleful fires.
Not the State but Rome "Lord of the conscience" now self righteously persecutes. Fulminating edicts fostered blazing piles as she claimed the exclusive right to prescribe for every human being their worship and belief.
The Saracens, particularly, professed an impure creed. Rome pronounced sentence of extermination. Countless crusaders went to execute her ban and expropriate to the true Church their lands, cities, and wealth. Lack of power alone is only ever Rome's restraint.
The fervour of the Crusades in the Holy Land was now abating. But Rome saw such zeal might render richer account nearer home. The popes were at first indifferent to powerless sects such as the Albigenses but when Innocent III ascended the papal throne he perceived that their purity and simplicity rendered them incapable of absorption into the Roman system. Accordingly exterminating vengeance was halted in the east and re-directed to chastise the South of Europe.
France was then divided into four regions. The most southerly, Narbonne-Gaul, was goodly territory, stretching from the Dauphinese Alps on the east to the Pyrenees on the south-west, and comprising the modern provinces of Dauphine, Provence and Languedoc. Its people were industrious and cultured. Their Provencal dialect excelled all the languages of Europe, and promised to become the universal tongue of Christendom. The New Testament was freely circulating in Provencal, the earliest of all the versions of the Scriptures of our times, and colporteurs and missionaries were everywhere stirring great revolt against Rome. It fell to Innocent III to crush such a movement. He realised he must order the extermination of all heretics, lest Rome perish.
Enter Innocent III
The Council of Toulouse, in 1119, presided over by Pope Calixtus II, pronounced a general excommunication upon the Albigenses, casting them out of the Church and delivering them to the sword of the State together with all who afforded them defence or protection. The second General Council of Lateran, 1139, under Innocent II reiterated the decree. Each succeeding Council strove to excel its predecessor in its sanguinary and pitiless spirit. The Council of Tours, 1163, under Alexander III., stripped the heretics of their goods, forbade, under peril of excommunication, any to relieve them, and left them to perish without succour. The third General Council of Lateran, 1179, under Alexander III., enjoined princes to make war upon them, to take their possessions for spoil, to reduce their persons to slavery, and to withhold from them Christian burial.
Innocent III opened the fourth General Council of Lateran presided over by himself together with 800 abbots and priors, 400 bishops, patriarchs, deputies, and ambassadors from all nations declaring, "With desire have I desired to eat this Passover with you". Princes were commanded to take an oath to extirpate heretics from their dominions. Obedience was sought by appealing to avarice, transferring the heritages of the excommunicated to those carrying out the sentence. Forty days service now commanded the same indulgence as had the dangerous crusades of Syria. Any disobedient prince, after a years grace, would be excommunicated, his vassals loosed from their allegiance, and his lands given to whoever could both seize them and purge them from heresy. Bishops were to make an annual visitation of their dioceses, closely search for heretics, and extract an oath from the leading inhabitants to inform upon erring neighbours and acquaintances.
Rivers of blood
Rivers of blood soon flowed. The first heralds were the monks of Citeaux, sent abroad to preach the crusade throughout France and the adjoining kingdoms. St. Dominic and his band, the embryonic Inquisition, followed behind marking out those who were to be burned when opportunity should offer. For the Crusaders, to shed Albigensian blood was to wash away their own sins. Never before had Paradise been so cheap! The preparations for this war of extermination went on throughout the years 1207 and 1208.
One body had assembled at Lyons. Led by Arnold, Abbot of Citeaux and legate of the Pope, it descended by the valley of the Rhone. A second army gathered in the Agenois under the Archbishop of Bordeaux. A third horde of militant pilgrims were marshalled in the north, the subjects of Philip Augustus, and at their head marched the Bishop of Puy. The near neighbours of the Albigenses rose in a body, and swelled this already overgrown host.
The Abbott's chief military commander was Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, a French nobleman, who had practiced war and learnt cruelty in the crusades of the Holy Land. He was influenced quite as much by covetous greed of the rich territories of Raymond, Count of Toulouse, as by hatred of the heresy that Raymond was suspected of protecting. The number of crusaders who now put themselves in motion is variously estimated at from 50,000 to 500,000. The former is the reckoning of the Abbot of Vaux Cernay, the Popish chronicler of the war; but his calculation, says Sismondi, does not include, "the ignorant and fanatical multitude which followed each preacher armed with scythes and clubs, promising themselves that if they were not able to combat the knights of Languedoc, they might, at least, be able to murder the women and children of the heretics".
Simon de Montfort
Raymond VI., Count of Toulouse, seized with dread, wrote submissive letters to Rome, and offered to accept whatever terms the Papal legate might dictate. For reconciliation it was required of him that he surrender seven of his strongest towns, be beaten with rods, take the cross, and join with those who were seizing and plundering his cities, massacring his subjects, and carrying fire and sword throughout his territories. He changed sides again, but his resolve to brave the Pope's wrath came too late. Smitten with interdict; his possessions were given to Simon de Montfort.
Next in rank to Raymond was the young Raymond Roger, Viscount of Beziers. The murdering crusaders were drawing daily nearer to his territories. Of his fortified castles, two, Beziers and Carcassonne, were judged capable of defence. His Knights were Papists but rightly perceived that the approaching horde would shed Catholic or Albigensian blood without making any distinction.
The castles were garrisoned and provisioned, the peasantry of the surrounding districts gathered into them, and the cities were provided against a siege. Placing in Beziers a number of valiant knights, and telling the inhabitants that their only hope of safety lay in making a stout defence, young Viscount Raymond shut himself up in Carcassonne, and waited the approach of the army of crusaders.
Kill all! Kill all!
In July, 1209, the three bodies of crusaders arrived, and sat down under the walls of Beziers. The citizens quailed as they surveyed the host from the ramparts. "So great was the assemblage," says the old chronicle, "both of tents and pavilions, that it appeared as if all the world was collected there." The men of Beziers rushed the encampment, but in vain. Crusaders, mingling with the citizens re-entered the gates amongst them, and Beziers was lost. The knights inquired of the Papal legate, the Abbot of Citeaux, how they might distinguish the Catholics from the heretics. Arnold at once cut the knot which time did not suffice to loose by the following reply: "Kill all! kill all! The Lord will know His own." (See illustration.)
The bloody work now began. The ordinary population of Beziers was some 15,000. The multitude, when they saw that the city was taken, fled to the churches, and began to toll the bells by way of supplication. This only the sooner drew upon themselves the swords of the assassins. The wretched citizens were slaughtered in a trice. Their dead bodies covered the floor of the church; they were piled in heaps round the altar; their blood flowed in torrents at the door. "Seven thousand dead bodies," says historian Sismondi, "were counted in the Magdalen alone". When the crusaders had massacred the last living creature in Beziers, and had pillaged the houses of all that they thought worth carrying off, they fired the city reducing it to a vast funeral pile. Not a house remained standing, not one human being alive.
Keep no faith with heretics
The terrible fate which had overtaken Beziers, which had been converted, in one day, into a mound of ruins as dreary and silent as any on the plain of Chaldaea, warned the other towns and villages of the destiny that awaited them. The inhabitants, terror-stricken, fled to the woods and caves. Even strong castles were left tenantless, their defenders deeming it vain to think of opposing so furious and overwhelming a host. Pillaging, burning, and massacring as they had a mind, the crusaders advanced to Carcassonne, where they arrived on August 1st. Standing on the right bank of the Aude and strongly fortified, its garrison was numerous and brave with young viscount, Raymond Roger at their head. The defenders poured streams of boiling water and oil, and launched great stones upon the crusaders. But forty days service was drawing to an end, and bands of crusaders, having fulfilled their term and earned heaven, were departing home. The wily Papal legate held out to Raymond Roger the hope of an honourable capitulation offering him safe conduct with 300 of his knights, should he present himself at the Legate's tent outside the walls.
The maxim of Innocent III., that, "to keep faith with those that have it not is an offence against the faith", resulted in the young viscount and all his knights being arrested. When the garrison saw that their leader had been imprisoned, they resolved, along with the inhabitants, to make their escape overnight by a secret passage known only to themselves - a cavern three leagues in length, extending from Carcassonne to the towers of Cabardes. The crusaders were astonished on the morrow, when not a man could be seen upon the walls. Still more mortified was the Papal legate to find that his prey had escaped him, for his purpose was to make a bonfire of the city, with every man, woman, and child within it. But if this greater revenge was now out of his reach, he did not disdain a smaller one still in his power. He collected a body of some 450 persons, partly fugitives from Carcassonne whom he had captured, and partly the 300 knights who had accompanied the viscount, and of these he burned 400 alive and the remaining 50 he hanged....
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism and edited by Dr Clive Gillis.