The Walls of Carcassonne: Power and Wealth in Defensive Architecture

Throughout the medieval world it wasn’t exactly difficult to work out who the powerful and wealthy members of society were, you just had to look for the biggest buildings. Medieval fortifications were, to put it simply, an expensive and often audacious symbol of power. As discussed in one of my previous articles examining Edward I’s ring of castles in Wales, in addition to being a beacon of power and wealth, fortifications were often the mark of conflict as a result of invasion; the occupation and control of fortifications was fundamental to success in prolonged medieval warfare. Individual pitched battles or skirmishes may not require the support offered by a fortified site, but a campaign of significant length, especially one conducted in enemy territory, simply demanded the defensive and recuperative characteristics of a fortification. In addition, a site of particular significance, be it through proximity to enemy territory or through economic prominence, required substantial defensive capabilities. To maintain an air of dominance, or to dominate an invaded people, fortifications were built in massive numbers across medieval Europe. As a result of this, Europe is simply dotted with castles, forts, towers, and walled cities, and for anyone who has read my previous work, it will be evident that I have long been fascinated with them.

For today’s article we will take a brief look at one of the world’s most impressive, formidable, and prominent examples of medieval fortification, the walled city of Carcassonne in southern France. Many fortifications throughout Europe are at least part Roman in origin; as is the case with Carcassonne. Often the original structures grew and evolved as both building and especially siege weapon technology improved. As a result, many of the Roman features or aspects disappeared as the buildings transformed to reflect their medieval purposes. Additionally, the foundations of razed Roman fortifications were often repurposed as the base for new medieval structures, potentially indicating the tactical necessity of the sites and also the volatility of the locations where such activity occurred. In addition to the Romans, Carcassonne was also inhabited by the Visigoths, who repaired, rebuilt, and improved, the remnants of the Roman structure; the city was so highly valued during this time, that it is said that it housed ‘the rich treasury of the Gothic kings’.

As opposed to a castle, the defensive purpose of fortifications is arguably most evident in the medieval walled city. Sizeable and sustainable towns and cities could provide an army with numerous advantages, serving as a place to assemble and protect troops; stockpile supplies such as food and weapons; compile a skilled work force; and provide a ready source of funding with which to support a prolonged campaign. Containing the non military residents, markets, and workforce inside the same walls as the soldiers who would generally reside in a castle, within one large structure seems a rather sensible choice. This eliminates need to rush the townsfolk inside the walls when under attack, limits the damage to the non military buildings that would normally be placed outside of the walls and offers greater control of items such as food. However, there is now substantially more wall to defend, and obviously more wall to construct.

As highlighted in a previous post discussing the Crusader city of Acre, the significance of cities in a military capacity stems from both their commercial power and their population density. The stronger the economy, the larger the viable population. Subsequently, the greater the population, the greater the sustainable army. Further highlighting this significance, in later medieval France, outlying cities such as Carcassonne developed to control much of the regional economy. It follows that the more significant the economic centre, the more important the defences, therefore, and yes it almost goes without saying, as towns grew, so did the need to defend them.

The city of Carcassonne profited greatly from its location; situated in the south of France close to both the Spanish border and the Mediterranean coastline. The closeness of the city to the trade routes of the Mediterranean enabled its inhabitants to deal easily and directly with a greatly expanded market when compared to northern French cities. Carcassonne gained economic strength through its wool and cloth trade. As discussed earlier, this provided the support required for its military viability. With the expansion of the commerce resulting from the closeness of the Mediterranean trade routes, the city flourished as one of the centres for cloth trade in the medieval world.

Now although the Romans and Visigoths had previously fortified the site of the town of Carcassonne, the city’s defences were substantially renovated and enhanced during the thirteenth century. So successful were the upgrades and modifications that Carcassonne was never again conquered, lasting as a stronghold until the nineteenth century when its military requirement and status expired. Although the realities of medieval life forced the evolution of fortifications, it was the events of the Crusades that directly impacted and influenced the nature of medieval structures in France. On their marches to Jerusalem, generations of European knights and chroniclers passed through the new worlds of Byzantium and the Middle East, undoubtedly they did not fail to take note of the imposing and inspiring fortifications along the way. In conjunction with the observations of the Crusaders, the numerous lessons acquired through their experiences led to a variety of adaptations and modifications to French structures. The most significant of these lessons came as a result of conducting siege warfare against fortifications of a size not previously experienced by Europeans. The city of Carcassonne is a prime example of the magnitude to which some of the modifications were implemented.

Prior to the thirteenth century, the defences of Carcassonne consisted of a single line surrounding a key structure, often understood to be a castle or citadel. The previous walls and towers, dating from both Roman and Visigothic times, having been repaired and slightly enhanced some time in the early twelfth century. The famed Syrian castle Krak des Chevaliers provided the blueprint for the most dramatic change at Carcassonne, with its principal defence system of double outer walls being applied with great effect to the French city. In the first decade of the thirteenth century the yet to be upgraded defences of Carcassone were put to the test as the southern region of France played host to its own crusading activity with the Albigensian Crusade. During this period, the military activity of the Crusade demonstrated a number of weak points which required addressing. The economic strength of the city provided the funds required to conduct the repairs, but city was so prosperous it was capable of much more. The affluence of Carcassonne was owed in some part to the strength of the nearby Italian states; the resultant sea-borne commerce allowed the city to thrive through the trade of cloth, wool, and wine. The city of Carcassonne was flourishing and as such was capable of undertaking significant renovations and upgrades on its fortifications. The product of these works was a truly formidable, and impregnable fortress.

Beginning in 1247, and continuing for almost four decades, extensive construction work was carried out at Carcassonne.  The existing city wall was extended at one end, and the majority of structures were rebuilt.  The towers of the Narbonnais gate, among others, received pointed beaks on their outer face; this allowed the defensive combatants on the emplacements increased line of sight for the use of flanking or enfilading fire upon the attackers.  There was a general move away from square or rectangular towers as the polygonal or D-shape afforded a better line of sight and additionally aided defence by deflecting artillery stones.  As noted earlier, the most important addition to the city’s defences was the construction of a second defensive wall, outside of the first. The building of this second wall, which also comprised towers, left a narrow terrace between the two lines of fortification, known as the ‘lists’.  As was consistent with concentric fortifications, the outer wall of Carcassonne was noticeably lower than the inner wall; this allowed for simultaneous resistance from both levels of the defensive platforms.  By the time of the completion of the works in 1285, the defences of the city featured more than forty towers spread across its double walls; the line of which spanned a length of 1650m.  To further bolster the defences of Carcassonne, and to impede potential attackers’ siege machinery, a moat running the entire length of the outermost side of the outer eastern wall was constructed; this was not mirrored on the western side of the city, as this was afforded natural defence from the steepness of the land.

In a world where wealth and status was demonstrated through powerful architecture, Carcassonne stood as a shining example of both the majesty and authority of fortifications, and the importance of economic strength and prosperity. The true measure of the efficacy and indomitability of the French medieval city remain clear for all to see; the imposing double walls of Carcassonne, impervious to enemy aggression, still dominate the modern city.

-Jamie Gatehouse


  1. Feature image:
  2. E. Kaufmann and H. W. Kaufmann, The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2004)
  3. Ivy A. Corfis and Michael Wolfe (eds) The Medieval City Under Siege (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995)
  4. Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage, Castles and Fortified Cities of Medieval Europe: An Illustrated History (London: McFarland, 2002)
  5. Thomas Wright, The History of France: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, vol. 1 (London: The London Printing and Publishing Company, 1856-1862)
  6. Sidney Toy, Castles: Their Construction and History (New York: Dover Publications, 1985)
  7. Sidney Toy, A History of Fortification from 3000 BC to AD 1700 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military Classics, 2006)
  8. John R. Kenyon, Medieval Fortifications (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990)
  9. Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Castles and Warfare in the Middle Ages, translated by M. Macdermott (New York: Dover Publications, 2005).

See our bibliography on Fortifications.


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