Perched on a narrow rocky outcrop, the magnificent castle of Queribus stands at an altitude of 728 metres. The castle was first mentioned in 1020 as part of the County of Besalù, then of Barcelona and was held as a royal fortress by the house of Aragon in 1162.

During the Albigensian Crusade the owners of Queribus were fervent defenders of the Languedoc cause taking food and stores to the heretics in the castle of Puilaurens and sheltering the dispossessed knight Guiraud d’Aniort and the Cathar deacon of the Razès, Benoît de Termes. When the knight Chabert de Barbaira was caught by forces loyal to King Louis IX in 1255, the knight had to trade his life for the surrender of Queribus, though no Cathars perished as they had long since left to head into Aragon taking who knows what with them. Chabert de Barbaira had fought against the French many times and was captured by a former ally, Olivier de Termes, who knew Chabert was a lifelong supporter of the Cathar cause and believed in their heresy.

Queribus was the last stronghold sympathetic to the Cathar cause to fall, eleven years after the fall of Montsegur. The castle then became a key element in the French defence system against Aragon. Queribus was one of the ‘five sons of Carcassonne’ with Aguilar, Peyrepertuse, Puilaurens and Termes, which formed the key defensive line between Languedoc and Roussillon. Queribus overlooked the plains of Roussillon to the south and acted as a deterrent to prevent the enemies of France from entering the Corbières massif from Aragon. The castle lost its strategic importance with the 1659 treaty, which fixed the border with Spain at its present location, the peaks of The Pyrenees.

From the car park area the path leads in front of the castle and I became aware of how exposed I would have been as an attacker to the arrows of the defenders if I was intending to try and storm the ramparts. Queribus has the most impressive entrance to any castle in the region with a fine stone staircase leading to the gate. The views northwards are towards the village of Cucugnan in the valley and the castle of Peyrepertuse on a distant ridge. The wind here is strong on a normal day and shows how open to the elements the castle is on its high ridge. The outstanding sight inside is the Salle du Palmier in the donjon where vaulted ribs spread out across the ceiling from a single supporting pillar, a meatier version of the pillar found at Les Jacobins church in Toulouse.

Three ramparts extend the natural cliff upon which the castle was built and exhibit different eras of defence, ranging from narrow slits for archers to wider apertures for cannons, all of them lethal to attackers. The highest point on the third rampart is dominated by a polygonal donjon inside which was a gothic hall on two levels illuminated by a large mullioned window.

The current layout of Queribus dates from the 13th Century although it was remodelled by the French three hundred years later to take into account improvements in artillery. Even though the castle has changed since Cathar times the bleakness and the exposed location have not changed and it must have been a hard place to live for those people who were used to living in a more community based environment where the Parfaits could draw strength from visiting their fellow believers living in the countryside.

On the way to Peyrepertuse the road passes through the village of Cucugnan. The Saint Julien parish church here contains a pregnant Virgin Mary statue protected by a pane of thick glass to ensure it’s not damaged by worshippers throwing coins. After remaining ruined for nearly 200 years, the Omer’s windmill in the village was renovated in 2003 and now produces the flour for the organic bakery selling biscuits and cakes. There are a few shops and places to eat and one hotel. The street signs are tiles and there’s plenty of flowers and plants outside people’s homes. Visitor’s cars have to remain in the car park on the edge of the village.

The castle of Peyrepertuse is located 800 metres above the garrigue and vines of the Haute-Corbieres region and is highly visible. During the Albigensian Crusade the master of the castle, Guillaume de Peyrepertuse refused to submit to the crusaders and was excommunicated. The castle only came into French possession in 1240 after Guillaume’s siege of Carcassonne failed and Peyrepertuse surrendered.

One of the things visitors don’t initially appreciate is the size of this castle which has three parts – the lower enclosure (officially called an enceinte), the middle enclosure, and the dungeon of St Jordi, which was built during 1250 and 1251, just after the set of 60 steps dedicated to Louis IX were constructed, which connect St Jordi to the rest of the castle. These steps are built above a steep cliff so it is best to hang on to the handrail in windy weather. Peyrepertuse is a castle for exploring with many different rooms to see and views to admire especially to the south where Queribus stands proud on the near horizon. I read somewhere Peyrepertuse, on its ridge, covers the same area as La Cite of Carcassonne, a statistic that doesn’t surprise me given the amount of clambering up and down rocks and stone walls I did during my visit.

The other “son of Carcassonne” I visited was Puilaurens, a castle more shrouded in mystery than the others I saw. The first identifiable lord of Puilaurens was a man called Pierre Catala who appeared as witness on Guillaume de Peyrepertuse’s record in 1217. Twelve years later Guillaume commanded at Puilaurens and then thirteen years after that Roger Catala was master of the castle. To say the historical record is sketchy is an understatement.

The Cathars were here in the 1240s for shelter only especially after the fall of Montsegur though they left before the castle came under the control of the King of France. Puilaurens has a wonderful defensive layout I was better able to appreciate, once I was standing in the meadow between the vast curtain walls inside the castle.

Puilaurens is approached through zig-zag trenches with, on the right, a barbican whose field of fire was across the open area in front of the main gate, where there was no cover. Even if an attacker got through the front gate, the next defence was a small courtyard whose walls were punctured by a dozen loopholes whose firing lines would have been at the people coming through the front gate. There were no places for the attackers to take cover and no opportunity for them to fire back at any identifiable targets.

Once through the small courtyard the castle opens out into a huge area, which looks like a meadow full of wild flowers, surrounded by curtain walls. The main part of the castle, the keep or donjon, was built on a steep bluff surrounded by cliffs behind the small courtyard. Any attackers who’d made it this far would have to skirt around the courtyard wall, where they’d be exposed again, this time to arrows from the North curtain wall, even before they arrived at the gate to the donjon enclosure. All this time they would have been running uphill.

I explored the donjon the highest point of the castle though not the oldest as the current building probably replaced an older one from before the Albigensian Crusade. The latrines were over the steepest cliff. The cistern was where the life-giving rain was carefully collected as there were no wells within the castle walls.

The westernmost tower is named Dame Blanche’s Tower in honour of Blanche de Bourbon, a grand-niece of Philippe le Bel or Philip IV, who once visited Puilaurens. On the left hand side of the tower, just by the entrance, is a speaking duct which would have allowed communication between the various levels of the tower. It’s possible a lookout would have been able to raise an alarm should they have seen forces approaching the castle from the West using this duct. The south facing curtain wall of the donjon enclosure contains more loopholes that would have allowed the defenders to fire further arrows down on to any attackers approaching the castle.

 

This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker