Massacre at Béziers

Deaths 20,000
Location Béziers, County of Toulouse (now in Hérault, Occitanie, France)
Died Unknown
Date 22 July 1209 (1209-07-22)
Criminal penalty Unknown


The Massacre at Béziers was the slaughter of the inhabitants during the sack of Béziers, an event that took place on 22 July 1209, and was the first major military action of the Albigensian Crusade.


After Pope Innocent III had declared a crusade to eliminate Catharism in the Languedoc, a Crusader army consisting of knights with their retinue (mostly from northern France), professional soldiers, mercenary bands (routiers), and pilgrims, assembled and departed from Lyon in early July 1209. Many participants believed that "crusade indulgence" officially absolving their sins ensured that they would suffer no punishment in the afterlife.

Béziers, a stronghold of Catharism, was the first major town the Crusaders encountered on the way to Carcassonne. It was well fortified, amply supplied, and in a position to withstand a long siege. Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse was able to switch sides in time and joined the Crusaders at Valence. The attempt by Raymond Roger Trencavel, viscount of Béziers, to peacefully submit was rejected at Montpellier. The viscount departed from Montpellier in a hurry, ahead of the Crusader army, to prepare his defenses. On the way to Carcassonne, he stopped at Béziers, promising reinforcements, and taking along some Cathars and Jews.

The sack of Béziers

Commanded by the Papal legate, the Abbot of Citeaux, Arnaud Amalric, the Crusader army reached the outskirts of Béziers on 21 July. As they started to pitch their camp, the Bishop of Béziers, Renaud de Montpeyroux, tried to avert bloodshed and to negotiate. He came back to Béziers with the message that the town would be spared provided it would hand over their heretics. The bishop had drawn up a list of 222 individuals, mostly Cathars, some Waldensians, likely to be perfecti or leaders of their communities. But in a meeting at the cathedral, it was determined that to hand over these people was not possible because they had too much support within the town. So the bishop asked the Cathars to leave the town to save themselves. This proposal was rejected, and the bishop left the town with just a few Cathars.

On 22 July the Crusaders were busy getting settled and still days away from starting the siege proper. A group of soldiers (perhaps merely armed civilians from the town) made a sortie exiting the gate overlooking the river Orb. As they started to harass routiers and pilgrims of the Crusader army, a brawl ensued and soon the attackers from the town found themselves outnumbered and retreated in disarray. The routiers quickly took advantage of the chaos, stormed the walls that were not properly manned, and entered the gate, all without orders. The Crusader knights, realizing that the defenses had been broken by the routiers, soon joined the battle, overwhelming the garrison, and the city was doomed.

The routiers rampaged through the streets, killing and plundering, while those citizens who could run sought refuge in the churches – Béziers Cathedral and the churches of St Mary Magdalene and of St Jude. Yet the churches did not provide safety against the raging mob of invaders. The doors of the churches were broken open, and all inside were slaughtered.

Although the knights did not stop the massacre, they soon intervened to claim the valuables of the city for themselves. In retaliation, the angry and disappointed routiers burned down buildings, destroying most of the plunder, and the Crusaders were quickly forced to leave the ruined town.

"Kill them all; God will know His own"

Amalric's own version of the siege, described in his letter to Pope Innocent in August 1209 (col.139), states:

Indeed, because there is no strength nor is there cunning against God, while discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying "to arms, to arms!", within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt, as divine vengeance miraculously raged against it.[citation needed]

About twenty years later, Caesarius of Heisterbach relates this story about the massacre:

When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot "Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics." The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius – Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His" (2 Tim. ii. 19) and so countless number in that town were slain.[unreliable source?]

While there remains doubt that the abbot said these words – also paraphrased as "Kill them all; God will know His own", "Kill them all; God will sort his own", or "Kill them all and let God sort them out" – there is little if any doubt that these words captured the spirit of the assault, and that the Crusaders intended to slaughter the inhabitants. The Crusaders allowed the routiers to rampage and kill without restraint, sparing neither women nor children, but swiftly put a stop to looting.

Amalric's account of the death of 20,000 was likely exaggerated, just like Peter of Vaux de Cernay's report that 7,000 were slain in the Church of St Magdalene. The town's population at the time is estimated at 10,000–14,500, and an unknown number may have escaped the massacre.[unreliable source?] Christopher Tyerman says that "[t]he true figure was almost certainly far less." Historian Laurence W. Marvin calls Amalric's exhortation "apocryphal", adding that the "speed and spontaneity of the attack indicates that the legate may not have actually known what was going on until it was over". Marvin claims that "clearly most of Beziers' population and buildings survived" and that the city "continued to function as a major population center."


The Crusaders had achieved a quick and devastating victory. Horror and terror spread through the land, and many castles and towns submitted without further resistance. Carcassonne fell within a month and Raymond-Roger Trencavel died in captivity later that year, his lands being given to de Montfort. However, the Crusaders lost the support of the local Catholic population and became a hated occupying force. "Thereafter, adherence or opposition to the Crusaders was determined largely by secular considerations". The war became protracted, and eventually the French king entered the war and took control over the Languedoc.

During the fire the Cathedral of Saint Nazaire burned and collapsed. A plaque opposite the cathedral records the "Day of Butchery" perpetrated by the "northern barons". A few parts of the Romanesque cathedral survived, and repairs started in 1215. The restoration, along with that of the rest of the city, continued until the 15th century.