Toulouse is known as the “Pink City” because of the large number of buildings built from brick. These buildings include The Saint Sernin basilica, the Jacobins church and the modern art museum of Les Abattoirs. Toulouse was also involved in the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th Century and was the place where the leader of the crusade was killed five years after the initial crusade came to an end.

The basilica of St Sernin is named after the first bishop of Toulouse who was martyred by being dragged down some steps tied to the back legs of the bull he had refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. This basilica has the largest number of holy relics of any church in the south of France and this is mainly because of a large donation of them by Charlemagne, which swelled the numbers of pilgrims visiting the original church including those on their way to Santiago de Compostela. A bigger church was needed and so the current basilica was begun around 1080 and completed 270 years later.

Beautiful though St Sernin is I much preferred the church of Les Jacobins, founded by St Dominic in 1216 to try and counteract the spread of the Cathars – a sure indication that the Albigensian Crusade had failed. The inside of the church has a wonderfully light and airy feel, the decorations are kept to a minimum, and there’s only a few relics including those of St Thomas Aquinas. The most impressive feature is the single column at the eastern end of the church from whose top delicate ribs, each alternately red and green, fan out across and support the ceiling of the apse. Their pattern is quite mesmerising and they don’t look strong enough to provide support.

I visited the modern art gallery at Les Abattoirs on the other side of the River Garonne. The latest exhibition was being installed, so only the upstairs was open to visitors. including a video installation of a man being followed by an ice-breaker as he crossed the sea ice. There were also photographs of a different man burning holes in icebergs with a blowtorch. Back on the right bank of the river the Fondation Bemberg art collection in the Hotel d’Assezat (where hotel means Hall in English) has an extensive collection ranging from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Giacommetti, via Tintoretto and Picasso.

The best museum in Toulouse was the Musee des Augustins and in particular the 12th Century Romanesque sculptures. It wasn’t the actual capitals that were brilliant, but their presentation. The capitals were displayed on multi-coloured, plastic columns with a highly complex light fixture hanging from the ceiling above them. In other words, the capitals were fulfilling their original role in a modern way that illustrated their use rather than displaying them as dry museum exhibits. This was a superb idea with a lot of artistic flair thrown in for good measure.

Someone who had flair of a very different kind was Simon de Montfort. Simon headed to the Holy Land as part of the 4th Crusade, but when these crusaders attacked the city of Zara and then headed to Constantinople – acts Simon de Montfort didn’t agree with – Simon and his associates decided instead to press on to Acre where they saw action against the Saracens. Once he was back in France, Simon remained on his estates until he was called to take part in another Crusade, but this time against Christian dissidents in his own country. This was the initial campaign of the so-called Albigensian Crusade in 1209 against the Cathars, who were regarded as heretical by The Pope. After the fall of Carcassonne, Simon was elected leader of the crusade and viscount of the confiscated territories of Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who had died just after Carcassonne had surrendered.  

Simon was also rewarded with the territory conquered from Raymond VI of Toulouse, which in theory made him the most important landowner in Occitania. He soon became feared for his flair for ruthlessness. In 1210, he burned 140 Cathars in the village of Minerve who refused to recant their beliefs – though he spared the few who did. Prior to the sack of the village of Lastours, Simon brought prisoners from the nearby village of Bram and had their eyes gouged out and their ears, noses and lips cut off. One prisoner, left with a single good eye, led them into Lastours as a warning to the defenders of the three castles there.

In 1213 Simon defeated Peter II of Aragon at the Battle of Muret. In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, this completed the defeat of the Cathars though of course many survived even after the siege of Montsegur in 1244. However, Simon carried on the crusade as a war of conquest in many parts of Raymond VI of Toulouse’s former territories; Simon besieged Beaucaire, which had been taken by Raymond VII of St-Gilles, from 6 June 1216 to 24 August 1216.

Raymond VII of St-Gilles spent most of this period in Aragon, but did correspond with sympathisers in Toulouse. There were rumours in September 1216 that he was on his way to Toulouse. Abandoning the siege of Beaucaire, Simon partially sacked Toulouse so as to punish the citizens for their correspondence with Raymond. Raymond did return in October 1217 to take possession of Toulouse. Once again, Simon hastened to besiege the city, but after maintaining the siege for nine months, Simon was killed on 25th June 1218 while combating a sneak attack by some of the besieged. Simon’s head was smashed by a stone from a mangonel, operated, according to one source, by the donas e tozas e mulhers (“ladies and girls and women”) of Toulouse. The life of Simon de Montfort was at an end.

Simon de Montfort’s fourth son was also called Simon and it was this Simon de Montfort who took part in The Baron’s Revolt in England during the reign of Henry III and who is credited with calling the first parliament in England in the 1260s. It’s this Simon de Montfort after whom one of the universities in Leicester is named.