Situated in a strategic position on the Aude River between the Toulousain and the Mediterranean port of Narbonne, the city of Carcassonne served throughout the Middle Ages as a military stronghold and center of administration. Occupied at least since the first century A.D. by the Romans, Carcassonne was a major Visigothic stronghold after the fifth century, before becoming one of the largest walled cities in western Europe during the later Middle Ages. In the Carolingian period, the fortress of Carcassonne became the seat of a county; a comital dynasty appeared in the early 9th century. During the 11th and 12th centuries, Carcassonne was at the center of the vast domains controlled by the family of Trencavel. The city, twice lost and regained by the viscounts, played a pivotal role in the struggles between the counts of Toulouse and Barcelona.
Carcassonne was the seat of a bishopric from about 570 and a Romanesque cathedral, Saint-Nazaire, had been built within its walls. In 1167, the Cathar communities of the Carcassès were sufficiently numerous and tolerated by the comital authorities to organise themselves into a Church, with an ordained bishop. In August 1209 the stronghold was taken by the crusading army. Its young viscount, Raymond Roger Trencavel, who had been designated by the Pope as protector of the heretics, died at the bottom of a dungeon. After the failure of the attempt by Simon and Amaury de Montfort to establish a new dynasty, the crusade of Louis VIII burned the Cathar bishop of Carcassès, Pierre Isarn, at Caunes-Minervois in 1226, and led in 1229 to the attachment of the Trencavel viscountcies to France: Carcassonne became the capital of a sénéchaussée and the royal administration gave the Old City its definitive appearance, encircling it at that time with a second wall.
After Raymond Trencavel’s attempt to retake the town in 1240, the suburbs, too exposed, were destroyed and from the middle of the century a nucleus of repopulation was built on the other side of the Aude and provided with a consulate. This Lower Town became a prosperous drapery centre while the Old City, around its Gothic-choired cathedral, remained the episcopal see and inquisitorial seat, keeping, within its walls, its military and political role. After 1350, the city declined rapidly both in commercial and military importance. A raid by Edward, the Black Prince, in 1355 again left the bourg destroyed.
The city consists of a rectangular castle, 247 feet by 148 feet, and double curtain walls separated by grassy lists; the outer ramparts (about 5,000 feet long) have some twenty reinforcing towers or strongholds, and the inner ramparts (about 3,600 feet), twenty-five. The so-called Palace of the Viscounts was actually built, according to Héliot, in the 13th century by Simon de Montfort and especially Louis IX. Constructed of rough-worked sandstone, it is surrounded on three sides by a deep moat and protected by nine towers. Its main entry, between two half-round towers, is defended by a bridge and a semicircular barbican. Within, in lieu of a central keep, is an open courtyard flanked by a high watchtower. Construction on the walls was continued under Louis’s son Philip III, who was responsible for several of the more remarkable towers, notably the Tour du Trésaur and Tour de l’Inquisition. A number of the towers have their own well and could be independently defended in the event other sections fell. The principal entry to the town, the Porte de l’Aude, was defended by a series of barbicans and outer works; those entering were required to approach first parallel to the line of defense, then perpendicular to it, thus exposing themselves to fire from every angle.
In its present state, and in spite of major restorations by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, Carcassonne is one of the finest examples of a medieval walled city. Its ramparts and towers, with their crenellations, arrow loops, embrasures, potlug holes, hoarding, walks, and battlements, provide an outstanding example of medieval military architecture.
A Visit to Carcassone - by L.C. McCabe – she gives a good description of her experience in the city, along with photos of various places
The medieval magic of Carcassonne – by Anthony Peregrine
Castles in the clouds – by Tim Bowden
Walled Medieval Town Carcassonne Conquers Tourists – by Eleanor Berman