Carcassonne is often described not only as the best-preserved mediaeval town, drawing thousands of visitors a year, but also as a perfect one. It’s two courses of walls and multitude of towers look more like a fairy castle, or Disneyland, than a relic of the mucky, violent, and destitute world of the Middle Ages. This perfection, however, has been long in the making.
The town’s fortifications date back to the before the Roman period, when the Celtic site was occupied by the Volcae Tectosages. The visible traces of ancient walls, however, date to the Roman period, made recognisable with bands of brick. These structures remained the main defences of the town into the mediaeval period (although they were doubtless actively kept up) and can still be seen in the town today.
At the end of the western Roman Empire, this region was granted to the Visigoths, with Carcassonne as a major fortified point within the new Kingdom of Toulouse. Throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, Carcassonne would straddle the border between the French and Spanish lands, a militarised frontier where defence was at the forefront of every ruler’s mind. When the city passed into the hands of the Trencavels (a local noble family) through marriage in 1067, however, it was the finer aspects of city life that were improved.
A lordly residence, with several wings and a dedicated chapel, was built, as well as the church of St Nazaire in the town proper. Traces of the beauty of the chateau can still be seen inside, where coloured frescos depict a battle between Franks and ‘Saracens’ (the Muslims of Spain.)
The prosperity of this vulnerable region can also be seen in the exhibition of local stone carving now housed within the castle. From the grave stones of Roman legionaries to the fine alabaster reliefs of a 15th century church, they demonstrate the cultural, as well as military, prowess of the southern French aristocracy.
When the town was captured by Simon de Monfort in 1209 as part of the Albigensian Crusade, however, the chateau was still unfortified, and the walls dependent upon their Roman foundations. The appearance of the town today, with its soaring keeps and many walls, can be attributed to two main individuals.
The first was Louis IX, King of France (r. 1226-1270), who became the lord of Carcassonne in 1247. An ambitious king, he encouraged both the re-fortification of the cite of Carcassonne and the construction of the grid-plan town across the river, the bastide of St Louis. Not far from Carcassonne on the Mediterranean coast, he also re-founded the port of Aigues-Mortes, an act demonstrating his concern to establish royal authority over the urban landscape of this turbulent border region.
During both his and his successor’s (Phillip III) reigns, the chateau was fortified as a fortress-within-a-fortress, secure both from civil unrest and from attackers who might breach the outer walls.
These outer walls were also doubled from the original circuit to two: an inner and an outer wall studded by towers. Fortified by these measures, the town was considered to be impregnable, and helped it to resist attack by Edward, the Black Prince, during his raiding into the area in the 14th century. Over time, however, the commercial centre of Carcassone moved from the cite to the bastide along the riverbank, and the prosperity of the walled settlement declined.
By the 19th century, its walls had begun to crumble and shanty-houses occupied all the available space within their circuit. Nonetheless, it was recognised even in this condition as a cultural treasure by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, an architect with a passion for mediaeval ‘restorations.’ He meticulously recorded the appearance of the town, and from his copious drawings created a master-plan for returning Carcassonne to its 13th century glory.
Thanks to him, the town now has a pristine appearance, but there are some incongruities. Those pointed tower-tops, for example, are more characteristic of northern rather than southern French castle architecture, and reflect the 19th century architect’s own vision of a perfect mediaeval settlement.
Thus, the Carcassonne of today has been two centuries in the making. From Roman military architects to the reconstructive energies of Viollet-le-Duc, the city has grown into a masterpiece of military construction and mediaeval splendour.