One of our great day trips during our time in the Dordogne Department was when, rather than travelling up the Vezere Valley from Limeuil, we took the other route out of town up the Dordogne River. On this day our journey would not go back to pre-history times, but through villages and towns that would speak to us of the troubled history of this region of France during the Middle Ages.
As our travels around the pre-history sites of the Vezere Valley showed us, river valleys are wonderful places to live, not just for the riverine environment. River valleys allowed Cro-Magnon people protection in times when the climate was colder outside the valley as well as having the benefits of a smorgasbord of travelling food that passed through the Vezere Valley. The flip side of these benefits is that it’s just not reindeer and wild cattle that follow river valleys; in historical times it was ill-intentioned human travellers that came down the Dordogne River to prey upon its inhabitants. Taking our first stop, Beynac, as an example, any folk living on this wonderful bend in the Dordogne River in the fourth and fifth centuries CE would have had to deal with the travelling Barbarian hordes passing by. The Vandals and the Visigoths were escaping territory on the eastern side of Europe and passing through ‘France’ on their way, eventually, to northern Africa. The first fortress was built upon this bend in the river in the 9th century, presumably as some defence against the next version of marauding invaders. This time it was the warriors from the north, the Vikings, who used the rivers of France as highways for daylight robbery. Unlike the earlier Vandals, the Vikings were not passing through, they were unwelcome visitors who came for plunder and returned back to their bases in Ireland or settled down on the English Channel coast of France and became the Normans.
The fortress on the hill above the river on this spot was owned by the Beynac family and needed to be upgraded and extended to safeguard their land holdings in this area in the 12th century. The modern state of France was a long way from being established in the 12th century and Beynac and the Dordogne River were part of the Duchy of Aquitaine at the time. When Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future King of England, Henry II, who was the Duke of Normandy, a large section of France came under the control of the Plantagenet Kings of England and set the region up for centuries of warfare. In the castle at Beynac today, there is a tablet on a wall which lists the ‘Barons’ of Beynac and the third name down is Richard I (Cour de Lion, Roi d’Angleterre). Richard became the Duke of Normandy in 1169 and after the death of the childless owner of Beynac castle, took it over. While he never lived in Beynac, it was under the control of his Lieutenant while Richard was off on the mistake-riddled Third Crusade to Palestine. Richard died in 1199 and the castle reverted to the Beynacs. Apart from his short tenure at Beynac, Richard the Lion Heart is remembered today in France by his own tourist route from Limousin down into the Dordogne, following the castles that were built or rebuilt during his lifetime.
The next major source of bloodshed in Southern France began only 10 years after the death of Richard I. This time the Pope decided to send the soldiers of Europe against the Cathar heretics of Languedoc and not the infidels of Palestine. The ruthless Simon de Montfort (1175 – 1218) was placed in command of the French King’s army and sent to wipe out this religious scourge from places like Carcassonne and Minerve down south. (For those interested, details of what happened to Minerve at this time can be found here). Montfort, as a result of his conquests, inherited all the lands of the Count of Toulouse and decided to cross his border into Aquitaine in 1214 and attack fortresses along the Dordogne River. The ‘Castellan’ of Castelnaud was Bernard de Casnac who was a Cathar supporter. Montfort’s targets were the four castles we were due to see on our itinerary… Montfort (which he razed to the ground!), Domme, Castelnaud and the last to fall to him, Beynac.
The Beynac Castle continued to be developed by its owners as a fortress over the next few centuries as it dominated the Dordogne Valley, overlooking other castles in the surrounding Valley. The owners had about a century from the embarrassment of being conquered by Montfort until the devastating ‘One Hundred Years War’ broke out in 1337 and lasted until 1453. Like the arguments that resulted in Richard I ‘touring’ parts of France in the 12th century, the regal arguments started again in full force in the 14th century. The Beynac Family and its castle were on the side of the French King but unfortunately the Castle over the River (Castelnaud 6.4 km by road) was controlled by folk aligned with the English. Beynac was never attacked during this century of feuding but Castelnaud was not so lucky.
It seems in France in the Middle Ages that it was a rare century where the countryside was not ravaged by War and its close associates, Famine and Pestilence. You would have expected the one-sided contest such as the Cathar Crusade to be a big killer of innocents. Given few records were kept at the time, it is ‘guestimated’ the Cathar death toll was somewhere between 200,000 and 1 million. The War of Religions (1562-1598) illustrated how much more serious the death toll becomes when both religious sides (Catholics v Protestant Hugenots) of the argument have their own armies. The guestimate for the big three killers over the 36 years, War, Famine and Disease, was between 2 and four million. While the Beynac family spent more on developing their castle during these terrible years, luckily their castle had little role to play in the events of the Religious Wars.
The Beynac family no longer owns the beautiful castle we see today on the limestone cliffs overlooking the Dordogne River. The Beaumont Family inherited the castle by marriage and the last Beaumont spent all his fortune in the 19th century on renovating the castle and sadly went bankrupt in the process. It has been scheduled as a historical monument and, due to the changes in military technology, has no further role to play in wider affairs apart from being a delight to visit by the tourists of the world. These same visitors arrive in the village below the castle in the 21st century and can stroll the river-banks before taking the arduous walk up hill along the paved alleyways to the castle above. Strolling this beautiful, complex building and contemplating the history of warfare it saw over its thousand years of existence is a fascinating way to spend the day.
Appendix 1: The map of France during the 12th century…an illustration of the causes of warfare during the early Middle Ages.