The flourishing of a dualist heresy in Languedoc at the end of the twelfth century, known as Catharism, led to conflict with the Catholic Church. After the murder of a Papal legate in 1208, Pope Innocent III ordered a crusade against Raymond VI, count of Toulouse, and others who were suspected of aiding the Cathars. The Albigensian Crusade was begun, with the crusaders led by Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. Much of the fighting took place in sieges of remote fortifications that dotted the Pyrenees mountains. In the late summer and fall of 1210, the crusaders besieged the castle of Termes, which was commanded by Raymond of Termes. The account of this siege comes from The Song of the Cathars, which is written in verse by two authors. The first portion was written by William of Tudela, who was a supporter of the Papacy and the crusaders (the portion translated below comes from this author). A second, anonymous author continues the work about half way through. He was a supporter of the southern French forces who fought the crusaders. For another account of this siege, please see the Historia Albigensis, by Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay.
The Siege of Termes planned
Early on a Thursday morning the count [Simon de Montfort] joined the barons and princes in a palace, and it was decided to lay siege to Termes up in Termenes. This is a wonderful castle, and before it falls many souls will quit their bodies, dying unconfessed, and the siege will cost many a mark and many a penny of Tours. Horses and palfreys will be won, and much wealth, much fine armour, by men on either side to whom it is predestined.
The count de Montfort entered the palace with the countess and all his lords, and they took their seats on a carpet of silk. Robert of Mauvoisin and Sir Guy the Marshal had been summoned and were there side by side, and so was Sir William of Contres, for in the whole viscountcy there was no more powerful or more valiant lord. He was born, I am told, in Burgundy, two leagues from Nevers. These recommended that siege should be laid at once to the castle of Termes, and many other good men supported this proposal.
William of Contres to command in Carcassonne
The council broke up after a short meeting; then, after a brief interval they had dinner and returned for another session. The count de Montfort was very anxious to choose the right man to defend Carcassonne, but in the end he was advised to appoint either Sir Lambert of Crecy, a powerful and respected baron, or Sir Rainier of Chauderon. Both these were chosen, but neither of them would stay in that country, not for a kingdom, so hostile did they perceive it to be. But then they begged William of Contres to take on the task, and he, having considered it, agreed to do so. The count de Montfort, though, was very angry at this, and would not have left him in Carcassonne if he had had anyone else to put there, for in the whole land there was no wiser man nor a better or more reliable knight, more courteous, more valiant or more loyal, so God grant me his blessing!
Having listened and reflected, Sir William of Contres said: “In the name of Jesus Christ and St Mary, I will stay here since each of you asks me to do so.” But the count de Montfort would not have left him there if he had had any alternative, yet in the end since no one else would stay, he reluctantly agreed.
The men of the host, the knights and the countess all wanted Sir William appointed. And for companions the count de Montfort gave him Crespi of Rochefort, a very courteous man, and Sir Simon the Saxon, may Jesus bless him, his brother Sir Guy [brother of Simon de Saxon], whose very face shows his courage, and many other nobles of his host from Burgundy, France and Normandy. Then they separated and the count set off with his great lords to lay siege to Termes. Sir William of Contres parted from him the same day in the meadows by Pennautier and reached Carcassonne before moonrise and before it was fully dark.
Siege engines attacked
William of Contres left Pennautier, rode hard for Carcassonne and arrived there just as the townspeople were getting up from supper and about to go to bed. The castle servants ran to help him unarm; they lit the fire in the fireplace up in the great hall, prepared plenty of beef, pork and other food for them to eat, then made up the beds in the place where they were to sleep, for they would all have to get up at dawn next day in order to guard the mangonels and other engines which they were taking to Termes in carts for the attack on the castle. This was at Count Simon’s command; he had ordered them most urgently to send the siege engines and to guard the city; any other needs must take second place. The engines were to be closely guarded for those three days and when they arrived he would have them set up. Sir William of Contres immediately had them dragged out of the town onto the ground beside the River Aude and loaded promptly onto horse-drawn carts.
A spy left the host and went quickly to Cabaret, where he immediately told them that the count had sent wretched and useless men to transport the siege engines and that their escort would not number more than a hundred, horse and foot. When they heard that, they were delighted. They rode out of Cabaret by moonlight, captained by Peter Roger, if the account is correct, and by William Cat, I Raymond Mire and all their kinsmen. More than three hundred of them there were, each outriding his neighbour and galloping full tilt for Carcassonne.
Brave Sir William of Contres had the carts and siege engines under careful guard. When these guards saw the knights spurring towards them they shouted out, `To arms! To arms! Shame on any who turn away!’ Sir William heard these shouts, and quietly told his knights to hurry to arms, and that quickly; if glorious Jesus, the Father Almighty and the blessed mother Mary willed it, he would fight these men, and soon. Why make a long story of it? Sir Peter Roger and his men did not flinch, they dismounted, smashed the mangonels in the sight of all the bystanders, and used straw to set them alight. The fire blazed up, and if there had been a breath of wind all the engines would have burned at once, but God did not want this.
William of Contres heard the voices and instantly shouted, `To arms, knights!’ He had at least eighty sergeants with him, not counting the other knights, and they had the gates opened in blessed Mary’s name and attacked Peter Roger’s men there in the meadow. These saw them coming and did not despise them but rode boldy forward to meet their charge. Ah God, what good lances were shattered that day, what mighty blows struck on helmets from Pavia! Sir William of Contres spurred his Hungarian warhorse and charged raging and angry, may God bless me, into the thickest of the fight. He rode into the River Aude and there in the water thrust through the melee. He encountered one of Mir’s men and struck him so hard on his flowered shield that his hauberk was no more use to him than a rotten apple; down into the water he went, as all could see. Next he overtook a wretch in flight and struck him from the side with his bright sword; and he struck down another man at this time. Nor did Crespi of Rochefort or Simon hang back: no one they hit ever needed a road to walk on again.
They pressed home this attack for some time, and in the end Sir Peter Roger and all his men had by far the worst of it. Not one of them but cursed him for the way it had turned out. Defeated and fewer in number they rode away. Sir William of Contres gathered his men and went back into Carcassonne. They were all delighted at having saved the siege engines and the whole troop rejoiced at their victory.
August-November 1210, siege and fall of Termes
Count Simon de Montfort laid his siege before and all round Termes, and then he heard this news. You can imagine how pleased he was with Sir William of Contres and his companions for saving the siege engines, and more pleased still at their defeat of the baron called Peter Roger – God do him no good! For I believe the count would not be so delighted to be given all the gold of Macon as he was when they told him of the great victory Sir William of Contres had won. Ah God, how well the news was announced by the noble young man Sir William sent to escort those weapons! That task too, he did well, I can truthfully say, bringing them safely all the way to the siege before Termes.
Here there were many barons, many tents ofnch silk and fine pavilions, many silk tunics and rich brocades, mailshirts too and many a fine banner, many an ashen haft, ensigns and pennons, many a good knight and fine young men of noble race Germans, Bavarians, Saxons, Frisians, men from Maine, Anjou, Normandy and Brittany, Lombards and Longobards, Gascons and Provencals. The lord archbishop of Bordeaux was there and so was Sir Amanieu d’Albret and men from Langon. All those who came did their forty days’ duty, so that as some arrived, others left. But Raymond, lord of Termes, counted none of them worth a button, for no one ever saw a stronger castle than his. There they kept Pentecost, Easter and Ascension and half the winter, as the song says.
No one ever saw so numerous a garrison as there was in that castle, men from Aragon, Catalonia and Roussillon. Many were the armed encounters and shattered saddle-bows, many the knights and strong Brabanters killed, many the ensigns and fine banners forcibly borne off into the keep against the crusaders’ will. As for the mangonels and catapults, the defenders did not think them worth a button. Meat they had in plenty, both fresh meat and salt pork, water and wine to drink and an abundance of bread. If the Lord God had not dealt them a blow, as he did later when he sent them dysentery, they would never have been defeated.
My lords, will you hear how Termes was taken and how Christ Jesus there displayed his mighty power?
Nine months [actually from late July to 22 November 1210] the army sat around that stronghold until its water supply dried up. They had wine for another two or three months, but I do not think anyone can live without water. Then, God and the faith help me, there was a heavy downpour of rain which caused a great flood, and this led to their defeat. They put quantities of this rainwater into butts and barrels and used it to knead and cook with. So violent a dysentery seized them that the sufferers could not tell where they were. They all agreed to flee away rather than die like this, unconfessed. They put the ladies of the castle up into the keep, and then when it was dark night and no one could see what was happening, they went out, taking with them no possessions, nothing, I believe, except money. At that point Raymond of Termes told them to wait because he was going back into the castle, and while they waited some Frenchmen met him on his way in and they captured him and took him to the count de Montfort. The others, Catalans and Aragonese, fled to escape being killed. But the count de Montfort behaved very well and took nothing from the ladies, not even the value of a penny coin or a Le Puy farthing.
When it was known throughout the land that Termes had fallen, all the strongest castles were abandoned, and Le BezuI was taken, without any need for sieges. The men of these garrisons who left the castles never supposed that the crusaders would get that far. God who is full of mercy worked a great miracle there, for he gave finer winter weather than anyone has known in summer. I return to my subject, which I have left too long.
This text is from The Song of the Cathar Wars: The History of the Albigensian Crusade, translated by Janet Shirley (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996). We thank Janet Shirley and Ashgate Publishing for their permission to republish this text.