During the time of the Albigensian Crusade, the most powerful nobleman in the Languedoc was Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. When we look at momentous events in history like the Albigensian Crusade, it is sometimes only too easy to lose sight of the fact these were real people that were involved. That it was the personalities and temperaments of these individuals that helped to shape the events that unfolded around them and in the case of someone as powerful as Count Raymond, even be pivotal in deciding what happened next.
So what did it mean to be the Count of Toulouse at the end of the 12th century? Raymond was born into the mighty Saint Gilles family in 1156, at a time when the Languedoc was a prosperous and cultured region in the south west of France. It was a patchwork of petty nobles and fiefdoms, with the Counts of Toulouse holding the largest swathe of territory. His many titles included Marquis of Provence, Count of Melgueil, Duke of Narbonne and Count of Agen.
The largest portion of Raymond VI’s lands he held as a vassal of the King of Aragon, but he also held lands in Provence from the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of England and the King of France. This inevitably led to conflicting loyalties and the need for a great skill in diplomacy when dealing all these different interests. At the end of the 12th century, the city of Toulouse was one of the largest in Europe, with only Venice and Rome being bigger. It was a centre for the poetry of the troubadours, courtly love, commerce and was also very welcoming and tolerant of different cultures and religions.
This was another pattern that Raymond would repeat, as he was also to enjoy many marital adventures, marrying at least five times, and maybe even six. His first wife was Ermessende, Countess of Melgueil, who died after only a few years of marriage in 1176. Raymond VI then married Beatrice of Béziers, a strategic match as she was a sister of Roger II Trencavel, another powerful Languedoc nobleman. They had one daughter Constance of Toulouse, who grew up to marry King Sancho VII of Navarre. The couple divorced in 1189, with Beatrice apparently choosing to become a Cathar Perfect.
His next marriage to Bourgogne, a daughter of King Amalric II of Jerusalem, also ended in divorce in 1194. Then in 1197 he won the hand of Joan of England, who was a sister of Richard the Lionheart and the infamous King John. Joan was so impressed with her marriage she ran away from Raymond in 1199 to become a nun. The poor lady died in childbirth shortly after, providing Raymond with his only male heir, the future Count Raymond VII of Toulouse (1197-1249). It is believed he then married a daughter of Isaac Comnenus of Cyprus, or at least had a relationship with her. The last of his wives was Leonor, a daughter of King Alfonso II of Aragon and Sancha of Castile. It would seem that being an ideal husband was not one of Raymond’s strengths.
For in the lands of Count Raymond of Toulouse, there flourished a heresy that was anathema to the Church of Rome. This heresy was Catharism, a form of Christianity that believed the world and our material life was inherently evil and the god they worshipped was a purely spiritual being that only dwelt in the heavenly realms. As the Catholic Church was an earthly institution, the Cathars regarded it with the same suspicion they held any other material entity. Although outwardly a good Catholic, Raymond was very supportive of the Cathar cause. Many of his own family and friends were Cathars, as were many of his retinue and vassals. He also appointed Jews to official positions in his administration, in direct contrast to the lot of Jewish population in most of the rest of Christian Europe.
The local churchmen, however, were themselves a problem and Raymond VI was a great friend of one its most degenerate members, Raymond of Rabastens, the bishop of Toulouse. This enterprising clergyman had managed to bankrupt his diocese by paying mercenary troops to wage war against his own flock, which did nothing to endear him to his superior in Rome and did nothing to boost Raymond’s reputation either.
Events began coming to a head in 1207. The petty nobility of the Languedoc, who were vassals of Raymond, were busy fighting amongst themselves and employing mercenaries to do so. They were also in conflict with their liege lord, Raymond. A papal legate, one Peter of Castelnau, travelled among these nobles exhorting them to drop their private wars and turn their energies towards persecuting the Cathars instead. They agreed to this demand, but Raymond refused. He had no stomach for persecuting his own people and moreover, needed the paid mercenaries to achieve his territorial ambitions.
However, it soon became apparent to the Pope that Raymond had no intention of fulfilling either promise and a list of his offences against the Church was drawn up. This extensive list of misdeeds included stealing Church property, being a Cathar sympathiser, allowing Jews to hold public office and not showing senior clergymen their due respect. He was once more excommunicated, so he invited the papal legate Peter of Castelnau to spend some time at his estates in Saint Gilles so he could renegotiate his position.
These negotiations, predictably, did not go well and culminated in Raymond threatening his papal guest in front of witnesses. Peter de Castelnau left in high dudgeon, but unfortunately for Raymond, disaster struck when he was murdered on the road by an unknown assailant. The identity of the murderer was never discovered, but it more than suited the Church to make Raymond VI responsible for this crime, although he was never tried for it.
The murder was the spark Pope Innocent III needed to spur the monarchs and nobility of northern Europe into action. In 1209 a Crusade was amassed to march south on the Languedoc and, although Raymond VI protested his innocence, he had to voluntarily subject himself to a public whipping in the square at St Gilles in order to have his excommunication revoked. He was also ordered to get on with eliminating the Cathars, purge his retinue of Jews, renounce any of his rights to the monasteries on his land, and make an apology to any clergymen that he had upset.
In order to protect his estates, Raymond VI reluctantly gathered together a fighting force and joined the Crusade; his logic being that if he was with the advancing army they would give his lands a wide berth. To say this move did not go down well with the other large landowners of the Languedoc, such as the Trencavels, was an understatement as it meant the Crusade would inevitably concentrate their efforts on their lands instead.
The towns of the Languedoc were besieged and fell one by one. First Béziers was sacked and the inhabitants were massacred and then Carcassonne was taken by trickery. At the end of the campaigning season the ruthless northern baron, Simon de Montfort was named the new Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne. Raymond VI returned to Toulouse, where he still refused to persecute the heretics and also gave sanctuary to Cathars fleeing from the lands of Simon de Montfort, who was zealous in upholding his Catholic duty when it came to matters like heresy. Rather predictably, this led to Raymond once more being excommunicated in 1209. To make matters even worse, the civic government of Toulouse was also excommunicated and the city placed under interdict, so no religious sacraments could be carried out.
To support Raymond VI, who was his vassal, King Pedro II of Aragon totally bypassed the rightful Trencavel heir and recognised Simon de Montfort as his vassal in his place. The implicit deal was that by making this conciliatory gesture, the papal legates should return the favour by restoring Raymond to his lands and the full favour of the Catholic Church. However, Arnold Amaury the papal legate, was not prepared to play the game and handed Raymond VI a document containing terms that left him and King Pedro literally stunned.
The legate demanded that all of Raymond’s property and possessions were forfeit to the Crusaders, that Raymond was to demolish all of his castles and strongholds, that Raymond and his subjects could only partake of one meal containing meat a week and that they all had to dress in rough, brown robes. And the real sting in the tail was that Raymond was to take himself off to Palestine and remain there until the Church allowed him to return. Not surprisingly these terms were not acceptable to Raymond VI and he rode back to his estates, never to join the Crusade again. Equally not surprising was the fact that Raymond was excommunicated again.
|Seal of Raymond VI of Toulouse|
Raymond decided to once more plead his case directly to Pope Innocent III and went to Rome to attend the Fourth Lateran Council accompanied by Raymond Roger of Foix. The Pope initially was sympathetic to Raymond’s pleas and he started to believe there might be a positive outcome. But the usual behind scenes politics took place and the outcome was that Raymond was forced to hand over his lands and possessions to Simon de Montfort. The only consolation he was given was that he retained the titles of Marquis of Provence and Beaucaire for his son and heir.
Once more an exile, Raymond VI sought sanctuary at the court of Aragon where he amassed an army and retook his city of Toulouse in 1217. Simon de Montfort and the Crusaders besieged the city in 1218 in an attempt to gain it back, but the mighty warrior that was Simon de Montfort was killed in June of that year. A major thorn in Raymond’s side was now gone and de Montfort’s son Amaury was not the fighting machine his father had been.
So by the time of Raymond’s death in 1222, he managed to retake most of his lands. However, because his last excommunication had never been lifted, he had had to abdicate in favour of his son before his death or his estates would have been forfeited. The final indignity of Raymond VI’s life was that because of his excommunication at the time of his death he was denied a Catholic burial – a truly Christian act!
Raymond VI may have been a lecher, paid mercenaries to do his dirty work and was happy to help himself to Church property, but he was also a tolerant man who refused to bow to any pressure to persecute heretics, even if this put him beyond the favour of the established Catholic Church for eternity.