Now a symbol of resistance against repression, Montségur was the last refuge of the Cathars, who had been persecuted for years throughout southern France by the Pope's army.
In May 1243, the army reached Montségur, encircling the pog (rocky peak) on which the castle stood. The siege began with a huge show of strength: 6,000 soldiers against some 400 Cathars. Despite their hunger, the cold and mortal combat, the besieged Cathars held fast for a year, supported by powerful local rulers such as the lords of Foix and Mirepoix.
Pushed to the limit, the inhabitants of Montségur negotiated their surrender in March 1244. The victors promised to free anyone who renounced his Cathar faith. But the Cathars of Montségur were not prepared to accept that outcome.
They walked down to the foot of the pog. In a meadow, a fire had been started: they were to be burned at the stake. Of their own accord, they rushed into the flames. Today, a stele marks the spot where 220 men and women perished.
The tragedy that took place, along with the rumours of hidden treasure and the highly distinctive terrain here, have turned Montségur into a place of legend. Described by some as a Solar Temple or the home of the Holy Grail, it attracts crowds of followers of various esoteric beliefs from all over the world.
This phenomenon reaches its peak at the summer solstice, when the pog is overrun by a crowd hoping to catch sight of the famous red beam. At dawn on that day the sun's rays enter the loopholes in the east wall, exiting as a single beam through the loopholes in the west wall, pointing the way, it is claimed, to the treasure of the Cathars. This phenomenon is due to the way the castle was built, but many still believe in the myth of the treasure.
The Château de Montségur is one of the Great Tourist Sites in Midi-Pyrénées, as part of the 'Ariège, 14,000 years of history' collection.