Draw a square. Now draw another one surrounding it, with a nice big border. Now do it again. Now draw a big rectangle alongside one of the sides, as wide as one of the sides of the square, and maybe 3 times as long. There. You’ve just given yourself a brief history of the Château de Lagarde.
We had a better history lesson, because we were there, in cold gusty conditions, being introduced to the site by Fabrice Chambon, as part of the series of events organised as part of this season’s Laissez-vous conter le Pays des Pyrenees Cathares.
Lagarde is a ruined castle, an imposing and dramatic addition to the skyline hereabouts. We always assumed it was medieval, destroyed in one of the many wars that characterised that stormy period of history.
And certainly it was first constructed in the 11th century, by Ramire de Navarre, King of Navarre and Count of Barcelona. During the crusades against the Cathars, it came into the possession of Simon de Montfort, who always gets a look in round here to any story from that time. He gave it to his lieutenant, Guy de Lévis, and this is the family to whom it’s mainly belonged over the centuries. They owned châteaux everywhere in the area: Léran, Montségur, Terrefort – all within easy distance of Lagarde. It was a fortress, a castle, and occupied that inner square you drew.
By the late 15th – 16th centuries, defensive castles were so last year. Jean V de Lévis-Mirepoix had the money and the leisure to go travelling, and admired all those famous Châteaux of the Loire: Azay -le- Rideau, Chambord and so on. He liked what he saw and had his own château remodelled with some of the features he had so admired, and windows piercing the original solid medieval masonry. The finest feature may have been a splendid staircase with wide shallow steps curving upwards through the central tower: it was said that it was possible for horses to mount these stairs. It was a fine Renaissance palace, and extended to fill that second square, because it included space to accommodate his artillery forces and a large dry moat. Of course by the time the work was done, the style he’d copied had also become so last year.
By the time of Louis XIV, the château had become a fine palace. The site had been considerably extended (to fill that third square!), and copied aspects of Versailles. Think of Versailles, and it’s the formal gardens that come to mind, and the Hall of Mirrors. That’s what Lagarde should bring to mind too. But the vast and elegant formal gardens no longer exist: even the land on which they were constructed is no longer part of the site. It had a Hall of Mirrors too, which though inevitably on a smaller scale than that at Versailles, was said to be magnificent.
Then came the French Revolution. Lagarde escaped destruction, despite an order to knock it down in April 1794. But its glory days were over. It became an arsenal, a stables, an immense barn, a munitions factory and a bit of a ruin, until in 1805 it became once more the property of the Lévis-Mirepoix family. These days a variety of charitable and national associations are working to restore the site and make it, at the least safe to visit, and at best a place where its glorious past will be explored and celebrated.
The photos I took are all of the exterior of the site, as it’s too dangerous still to penetrate the inner courtyards, much less the interior of the building. Nor can I show you pictures of the château in its Renaissance glory days, nor of its time as a palace with formal gardens.
Sadly, because of the poor weather , the pictures I took yesterday weren’t up to much, so I’m mainly using some others I took recently. I can show you the ruins. And I can show you the castle’s lawnmowers: an inquisitive and friendly herd of donkeys with their charming foals.
UPDATE: May 2nd 2013
Thanks to local historian Martine Rouche, I can now show you some images of Lagarde as it was in its final most glorious days before the Revolution.