According to legend Princess Carcas ordered the bells in her fortress to be rung to celebrate the end of Charlemagne’s siege against her stronghold. When the residents heard the pealing of the bells, they cried in jubilation, “Carcas sonne!” or “Carcas rings.” Thus the name of the town, Carcassonne, was born.
In another version of the folk story, the princess ordered a pig to be filled with cereal and thrown over the castle’s walls. Upon finding the stuffed pig, Charlemagne’s soldiers reasoned that the residents were not on the verge of starvation as they had believed earlier and quit their siege.
Unfortunately the truth, as history records it, offers a different portrait of Carcassonne. In August 1209, Raymond-Robert Trencavel, a French noble whose family had held the fortress for 142 years, surrendered it to Simon de Montfort. Before the siege the residents of the fortress collected water for everyday use from the nearby Aude River. When their route was blocked by the Crusaders, the townspeople had only a small well inside the fortress to draw water from. They nearly perished from lack of water before Trencavel’s capitulation. He was promptly thrown into prison in his own castle and died shortly afterward.
Trencavel escaped the grisly end that many others suffered under de Montfort. Only a month earlier, the pope’s emissary wiped out 20,000 Cathars in the city of Béziers, nearly its entire population, while leading Pope Innocent’s Albigensian Crusade.
The fortress’s strategic location on a hilltop made it desirable from the Romans through the reign of King Louis IX. He and his successor, King Philip III, constructed the double wall of ramparts and created the town, the ville basse, at the base of the fortress.
The castle fell into disrepair following Napoleon’s reign and the French government marked it for demolition until Carcassonne’s mayor, Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, and the writer Prosper Mérimée, France’s first inspector of ancient monuments, objected and pleaded in 1849 for its restoration. That task was handed over to Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.
Viollet-le-Duc earned a rather controversial reputation during his lifetime for his “enhanced” restorations. Critics lambasted him for using slate roof tiles on Carcassonne’s fortress and also objected to the pointed roofs atop the towers, a design used traditionally in northern, not southern, France. Viollet-le-Duc went on to restore Notre Dame de Paris, adding a third tower of his design, and he conceived the interior of the Statue of Liberty.
Can’t make a personal visit to Carcassonne castle? You can see it in Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” or via a virtual tour: http://www.photojpl.com/virtual-tour-of-the-medieval-fortified-french-town-of-carcassonne/-/e35prMOM7W/.