22 July 1209: French crusaders slay thousands in the name of God

Catholics and Cathars alike are cut down in the city of Béziers


The Albigensian Crusade, which began in 1209, was one of the most blood- stained pages in medieval European history. At its heart was Pope Innocent III’s desire to stamp out the Cathar heresy – a form of Christianity condemned by the Catholic church – as well as the French king Philip II’s eagerness to crush the semi-detached County of Toulouse. But the victims, whose voices have largely been lost to history, were the people of the Languedoc, southern France, who found themselves facing a French royal army determined to take no prisoners.

In July 1209 the crusaders arrived outside the first major Cathar stronghold: the city of Béziers. Both sides expected a lengthy siege, but on 22 July, before the struggle had really got under way, some of the defenders launched a disorganised sortie from the city walls. In the chaos that followed, a group of mercenaries managed to break into the city. What followed was utter carnage.

“Within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls, and Béziers was taken,” reported the papal legate, Abbot Arnaud Amalric, in a letter to the pope. Even townsfolk who sought refuge in the churches fell before the crusaders’ swords. “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people,” Amalric wrote. “After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt.”

What the abbot did not record, however, was his own role in the massacre. According to a later chronicler, when the abbot was asked by a crusader how they should distinguish between Cathar heretics and good Catholics, who lived side by side within the walls of Béziers, Amalric replied dismissively: “Kill them all. God will know his own.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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