The Mighty Citadel of Carcassonne 

Having existed in some way, shape, or form since the Roman era, the city of Carcassonne is home to one of the world’s best-preserved medieval fortified cities. Attracting visitors from across the globe, Carcassonne serves as a key example of medieval defensive architecture and its castle is arguably one of Europe’s most famous. 

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Carcassonne is renowned worldwide for its deep historical significance, as well as the remarkable condition that both the citadel and its castle remain in to this day, thanks in large part to significant restoration works that were carried out during the 19th century. This article explores the history of Carcassonne, as well as some of its most prominent architectural features. 

The History of the Cité de Carcassonne 

The citadel of Carcassonne was constructed across hundreds of years, but it began taking on the form that it has today during the 13th century. Initial construction of the fortress was overseen by the wealthy Trencavel family, who ruled over the surrounding region. 

An impressive panorama of the fortified city of Carcassonne.

During the Albigenesian Crusades, Carcassonne was a place of refuge for a great many Cathars fleeing persecution in the region. Carried out as part of the Episcopal Inquisition, the Albigenesian Crusades took place predominantly in the south of France and saw practicing Cathars targeted, and, for the most part, exterminated. 

While Carcassonne was fortified extensively, it was also vulnerable to attack due to the number of refugees sheltering in the city. Following a series of massacres in other parts of the south of France, the Crusaders moved on Carcassonne, and quickly managed to disrupt the local water supply. 

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, not long afterwards, Carcassonne formally surrendered, with Cathar refugees forcibly evacuated from the city. 

Louis IX and Philip III

Following on from this, in the 1240s, Carcassonne was incorporated into the kingdom of France. The kings Louis IX and Philip III further expanded on the fortress’ structure, and the city would go on to attain real geopolitical significance for the country, thanks in large part to its relatively close proximity to Spain. 

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Indeed, Carcassonne was even the site of a major battle during the Hundred Years’ War, with Edward the Black Prince destroying the Lower Town as part of his siege on the citadel. However, the fortress itself was seen at the time as being impregnable, and Edward failed to take the city proper. 

The Black Prince
The Black Prince, Edward, attacked the fortified City during the 100 Years War.

In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees transformed the significance that the citadel of Carcassonne held for France more generally. Its importance began to decline, and, over the centuries, the fortress eventually fell into disrepair. 


However, in the 1850s, the Cité de Carcassonne’s historical and cultural significance began to gain more and more recognition across France, and the French government determined that the structure should be restored and protected against further damage. The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was tasked with this monumental undertaking. His work was of key significance in bringing Carcassonne back to its former glory. 

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In modern times, Carcassonne is recognised as one of France’s most important historical monuments, and is one of the south of France’s most popular tourist destinations. The city has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a breathtaking example of medieval architecture that is, for the most part, in remarkable condition. 

The Architecture of the Citadel

As is typical for buildings constructed during the medieval period, Carcassonne features extensive crenelations, or battlements, around its perimeter. Crenelations were an ingenious medieval innovation, as they allowed a defensive structure like a tower or a wall to serve as far more than a simple physical impediment against invading forces. 

The Cité looking up at the Pont-Vieux.

Indeed, battlements provide cover for defenders, allowing them to conceal themselves behind the parapets of the structure. From there, defenders can easily fire between the embrasures of the crenelation before quickly returning to cover. 

It probably goes without saying that the sheer length of Carcassonne’s crenelations, as well as the citadel’s strategic position more generally, would have been a real boon for defenders. Regardless of the angle the citadel was being besieged from, defenders would have had access to crenelations from which they could station themselves and fire on invading forces from a safe, fortified position. 

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Interestingly, crenelations like the ones that can be seen in Carcassonne have also been used purely as a decorative feature on buildings across Europe, particularly in England during the later medieval period. They can even be seen on cathedrals and other religious structures, suggesting that their prevalence during the Middle Ages may have, to an extent, been spurred on by aesthetic preferences as well as practical considerations. 

Conical Roofs

One of Carcassonne’s most distinctive, eye-catching features is the conical roofs sported by the towers that ring the citadel’s perimeter. These roofs were actually reintroduced to the design of the structure as part of Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration works of the 19th century, and were actually the cause of significant controversy when they were unveiled. 

This was due in large part to the materials used for the project; the roofs were completed with slate tiles. Strictly speaking, however, an authentic or faithful restoration of the towers should have used terracotta instead, as this was far more typical of medieval architecture in the south of France. 

The city from above. Beauty everywhere you look.

Viollet-le-Duc’s error here is generally attributed to the fact that he was working extensively on other projects in northern France at the time that Carcassonne was being restored, where slate tiles are far more commonplace. 

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Nevertheless, Viollet-le-Duc’s decision to incorporate conical roofs into Carcassonne’s restoration was clearly a prescient one; the citadel’s towers are now a crucial aspect of its iconic skyline, lending plenty of charm to the structure. 

The Narbonnaise Gate 

Another of Carcassonne’s most significant defensive features is the Narbonnaise Gate (porte narbonnaise). By the end of the 13th century, the kings Philippe III le Hardi and Philippe IV le Bel had resolved that the citadel was in dire need of some enhanced fortification. One of the resulting projects was the Narbonnaise Gate, which stands at the main entrance into the fortress of Carcassonne. 

Narbonnaise City
The Narbonnaise Gate. It held firm during many an attack.

The Gate was designed to function as a free-standing defensive feature and boasts two towers standing at 30 metres tall. Additionally, the Gate features its own storage spaces, guardroom, and cistern. Across the way is the Saint-Louis Barbican, which serves to reinforce the Narbonnaise Gate; it is a remarkably well-designed fortification. 


The Cité de Carcassonne’s ramparts are perhaps one of the most notorious aspects of the structure. They form not one but two defensive rings around the fortress, making it, naturally, significantly harder for invading forces to penetrate the exterior of the citadel complex. 

In fact, the outer rampart alone is over 1,600 metres long. The extensive fortification provided by the Cité de Carcassonne’s walls is arguably the main reason that the fortress was considered to be impregnable by so many. The second rampart, which was built in the 13th century, served to make Castle Comtal and the surrounding citadel into a single fortified unit. 

Carcassonne Castle (Château Comtal)

At the heart of the citadel of Carcassonne is the castle of Comtal. It was originally constructed by the Trencavel family, who, at the time, held the viscounty of Carcassonne. The castle was intended to serve as a place of residence for the family, with its location inside the fortress being, naturally, of great defensive significance. 

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Throughout the early 12th century, both the castle and the wider citadel complex were both expanded upon further by the Trencavels. Indeed, for the family, Comtal Castle was more than just their residence; it was representative of their power and influence over the surrounding region. 

Some of the expansion works carried out on the building and the fortress were ordered for pragmatic reasons, though. For instance, the Pinte Tower, which is the tallest in the citadel, was erected during the Albigenesian Crusade in order to give defending forces a place to survey their surrounds from. 

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However, by 1226, Carcassonne had been made a part of the Kingdom of France. As a result of this, Comtal Castle was no longer the property of the Trencavel family; it transferred ownership to the king’s seneschal, who used it as his residence. The French king was hardly a popular figure in the Languedoc-Rousillon region at the time, and, as a result, it was prudent that his representative have a place to stay that was easily defended and well fortified. 


The castle also boasts many of the distinctive features for which Carcassonne is so recognisable, including conical, slate roofs and extensive crenelations. And, as mentioned previously, it also joins the fortress complex’s inner rampart, which, crucially, turned the Cité de Carcassonne into a fully-fledged defensive superstructure. 

Not all were welcome in Carcassonne however. Cathars are seen here being expelled.

From the 12th to 14th centuries, Comtal Castle was continually expanded upon and improved by the seneschal. Administrative and ceremonial rooms were added to the castle complex, allowing the seneschal to greater demonstrate his power and control over the region; this also led to Carcassonne acquiring a greater geopolitical significance within France. 

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Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of Carcassonne was key in bringing Comtal Castle back to its former glory after an extended period of neglect led to the building falling into a state of disrepair. It is now arguably one of the best-preserved examples of medieval castles in France, and, as a result of this, holds real historical and cultural significance, too.