The Kings of France in the 13th century, namely King Louis and his grandson, Philippe, between them ruled France with an iron hand. Both sought to centralize power within themselves while expanding the borders of their kingdom. In the process, they built extensive fortresses throughout the country, started wars, and in the case of Philippe, expelled the Jewish community from France, destroyed the Templars, and assassinated a pope.
During our recent visit to France, we visited numerous monuments to their respective rule, including Aigues Mortes, Carcasonne, and Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de La Cite in Paris.
Although Charlemagne built a tower at Aigues Mortes, the founding of the city dates to 1240 during the rule of King Louis. At the time, Louis had no port on the Mediterranean, so to gain access, he did a land exchange with the Church and immediately began construction of the fortified city. It is from Aigues Mortes that Louis departed on crusade, as did Edward of England (before he was king). The fortifications consist of a single defensive wall over thirty feet high with a dozen towers. Having been maintained by the citizens of the town for eight hundred years, it looks very much like it did in the 13th century.
Carcassonne was another walled city that was strengthened in the 13th century. Built initially by the Romans as we talked about last week, it was attacked and burned in 1209 by Simon de Montfort, a leader of the Albigensian Crusade, which I honestly had never heard of before coming to the south of France. Followers, who later came to be known as Cathars, appear to have believed that God and Satan were equals, that humans were fallen angels seduced by Satan, and in order to reach heaven, humans had to renounce the physical world entirely.
These beliefs were decreed heretical, and a Crusade called to stamp them out. Certain rulers in the south—the ruler of Carcassonne among them—were viewed as sympathetic to the Cathars, and targeted by the Church.
Montfort swept south from his lands in northern France, attacking Cathar strongholds along the way. He besieged and conquered Carcassone and then continued the Crusade, eventually dying, still fighting, nine years later. After more battles and sieges over the next decades, Louis, as King of France, made Caracassone the capitol of his newly conquered domain and began a half-century building program to refortify the city, which was continued by his son and grandson.
The City of Carcassonne declined after the 15th century, when it was no longer needed as a fort, such that by the early 19th century, Napoleon ordered it torn down. Before that could happen, however, leading citizens campaigned to have it restored to its medieval glory, which came about through the efforts of an architect named Viollet le Duc, who also, as it turned out, restored another medieval building constructed by King Louis: Saint-Chappelle in Paris.
As Carcassonne was a monument to Louis’ temporal power, Sainte-Chappelle celebrated his religious power. Begun in 1238, it was built to house Jesus’s Crown of Thorns, which he’d purchased from the Emperor of Constantinople. In buying the crown—and building the chapel—Louis was proclaiming Paris the center of Christendom in Europe, equal to Rome—and by extension, that he himself was equal to the Pope. This belief in his spiritual and temporal power was passed on to his grandson, Philippe, who ruled France after him. When Pope Boniface tried to rein him in, declaring that kings served at the pleasure of the pope and to disobey him was to disobey God, Philippe is said to have replied along the lines of “Your venerable stupidness may know, that we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters.”
Later, Philippe had Boniface beaten so badly he died shortly thereafter. This led to the election of a new pope who happened to be Philippe’s good friend—and who moved the papal seat from Rome to Avignon in southern France.