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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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THE COMTÉ OF FOIX
THE Comté de Foix and its civilization goes back to prehistoric, Gallic and Roman times. This much we know, but what the detailed events of these periods were, we know not. Archæology alone, by means of remaining monuments in stone, must supply that which history omits. The primitives of the stone age lived mostly in caverns, but here they lived in some species of rude huts or houses. This at any rate is the supposition. With the Romans came civic importance; and fortified towns and cities sprang up here and there of which existing remains, as at St. Lizier, tell a plain story.
The principal historical events of the early years of the Middle Ages were religious in motive. Written records are few, however, and are mostly legendary accounts. Dynasties of great families began to be founded in the ninth century; and each region took on different manners and customs. The Couserans, a dismemberment of Comminges, became practically Gascon; while Foix cast off from Toulouse, had its own development. Victor Balaguer, the poet, expresses this better than most historians when he says: "Provence et Pyrénées, s'écrie-t-il, pot-tent le deuil du monde latin. Le jour où tombèrent ceux de Foix tomba aussi la Provence."
The resistance of the counts in the famous wars of the Albigeois only provoked the incursion of the troops of the cruel Simon de Montfort. The Comte de Foix fell back finally on his strong château; and, on the sixteenth of June, 1229, in the presence of the papal legate, representative of the king of France, Roger-Bernard II made his submission without reserve.
In 1272, under Comte Roger-Bernard III, the Château de Foix underwent a siege at the hands of Philippe-le-Hardi; and, at the end of three days, seeing the preponderance of numbers against him, and being doubtful of his allies, he surrenders . By marriage with Marguerite de Moncado, daughter of the Vicomte de Béarn he inherited the two important fiefs of Catalogne and Béarn et Bigorre, thus pre- paring the way for possession of the throne of Navarre. By the thirteenth century the great feudal families of the Midi were dwindling in numbers, and it was this marriage of a Comte de Foix with the heiress of Béarn which caused practically the extinction of one.
The modern department of the Ariège, of which the ancient Comté de Foix formed the chief part, possesses few historical monuments dating before the Middle Ages. There are numerous residential châteaux scattered about, and the most splendid of them all is at Foix itself. Fine old churches and monasteries, and quaint old houses are numerous; yet it is a region less exploited by tourists than any other in France.
Not all these historic shrines remain to-day unspoiled and untouched. Many of them were destroyed in the Revolution, but their sites and their ruins remain. The mountain slopes of this region are thickly strewn with watch-towers and observatories; and though all but fallen to the ground they form a series of connecting historical links which only have to be recognized to be read. The towers or châteaux of Quié, Tarascon-sur-Ariège, Gudanne, Lourdat and Vic-Dessos are almost unknown to most travellers. They deserve to become better known, however, especially Lourdat, one of the most spectacularly endowed château ruins extant.
The fourteenth century was the most brilliant in the history of Foix. These were the days of Gaston Phbus; and the description of his reception of Charles VI of France at Mazères, as given by the chroniclers, indicates an incomparable splendour and magnificence. Gaston Phbus, like Henri de Béarn, was what might be called a good liver. Here is how he spent his day when he was not warring or building castles. He rose at noon and after a mass he dined. Usually there were a great number of dishes; and, on really great occasions, as on a fête or festin, the incredible number of two hundred and fifty. These princes of the Pyrenees loved good cheer, and their usage was to surcharge the tables and themselves with the good things until the results were uncomfortable. Gaston's two sons, Yvain and Gratain, usually stood behind him at table, and the youngest son, another Gaston, first tried all the dishes before his august father ate of them. He was weak and sickly, a "mild and melancholy figure," and no wonder! The feasting terminated, Gaston and his court would pass into the Salle de Parlement, "where many things were debated," as the chroniclers put it. Soon entered the minstrels and troubadours, while in the courts there were trials of skill between the nobles of one house and another, stone throwing, throwing the spear, and the jeu de paume. The count "toujours magnifique" (no chronicler of the time neglects to mention that fact) distributed rewards to the victors. After this there was more eating, or at least more drinking.
When he was not sleeping or eating or amusing himself, or conducting such affairs as he could not well depute to another, such as the planning and building of castles, Gaston occupied himself, like many other princes of his time, with belles-lettres and poesy. He had four secrétaires to do his writing; and it is possible that they may have written much which is attributed to him, if the art of employing literary "ghosts" was known in that day. He composed chansons, ballades, rondeaux and virelais, and insisted on reading them aloud himself, forbidding any one to make a comment on them. How many another author would like to have the same prerogative!
Gaston Phbus de Foix, so named because of his classic beauty, was undoubtedly a great author in his day. This bold warrior wrote a book on the manners and usage of hunting in mediæval times, entitled the "Miroir de Phbus;" and, while it might not pass muster among the masterpieces of later French literature, it was a notable work for its time and literally a mirror of contemporary men and manners in the hunting field.
Gaston de Foix was another gallant noble. He died at the age of twenty-four at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512. Jacques Fournier, who became Pope Benoit XII, also came from Foix.
The honour of being the most celebrated of the Counts of Foix may well be divided by Gaston Phbus (1343-1390) and Henri Quatre (1553-1610). The latter was the last of the famous counts of the province; and he it was who united it with the royal domain of France, thus sinking its identity for ever, though his predecessors had done their utmost to keep its independence alive.
During the Hundred Years War the Comtes de Foix, masters of the entire middle chain of the Pyrenees, were the strongest power in the southwest; and above all were they powerful because of their alliances and relations with the Spanish princes, whose friendship and aid were greatly to be desired, for their support meant success for their allies. This is proven, absolutely, from the fact that, when the English were ultimately driven from France, it was through the aid and support of Gaston Phbus himself and his successors, Archambaud, Jean I and Gaston IV.
The fifteenth century saw the apogee of the house of Foix. One of its princes married Madeleine de France, sister of Louis XI. The sixteenth century saw sad times during a long civil war of more than thirty years duration. War among the members of a household or among one's own people is really an inexcusable thing. In the Comté the Abbey of Boulbonne was destroyed. At Pamiers all the religious edifices were razed; and the Abbey of St. Volusien at Foix, the special pride of the counts for ages, was destroyed by fire.
Calm came for a period under the reign of Henri IV, at Paris; but, after his death, local troubles and dissensions broke out again, inspired and instigated by the wily Duc de Rohan, which culminated at Pamiers, where the great Condé and Montmorenci appeared at the head of their troops.
The peace of Alais ended this final struggle; and, to assure the security of the country, Richelieu gave the order to dismantle all the walls and ramparts of the fortified places in the Comté, and all the châteaux-forts as well. This was done forthwith, and that is why many a medieval château in these parts is in ruins to-day. The Château de Foix, by reason of its dignity, was allowed to keep its towers and battlemented walls.
For a hundred and fifty years, that is up to the Revolution, Foix was comparatively tranquil. Under the reign of Louis XIV, however, the region saw the frequent passage of troops and warlike stores as they came and went to the Spanish wars. This nearly ruined many dwellers in town and country by reason of the tax they had to pay in money and provisions.
Like the Basques and the Béarnais the inhabitants of the Ariège, the descendants of the old adherents of the Comtes de Foix, bear many traces of their former independence and liberty. Civilization and their easy, comfortable manner of living have not made of them a very robust race, but they are possessed of much fairness of face and figure and gentleness of manner.
The smugglers of feudal times, and considerably later times for that matter, were the pest of the region. It was rude, hard work smuggling wines or tobacco over the mountains, in and out of Spain, and its wages were uncertain, but there were large numbers who embarked on it in preference to grazing flocks and herds or engaging in other agricultural pursuits.
It was hard work for the smugglers of Foix to get their burdens up the mountains, but they had a custom of rolling their load up into great balls bounds around with wool and thongs and rolling them down the other side. Thus the labour was halved. The Romany chiel or gypsy adopted the contraband business readily; and with the competition of the French and Spanish, there were lively times on the frontier between Foix and Gascogne and Spain and Andorra.
M. Thiers recounts an adventure in an auberge of the Pyrenees with such a crew of bandits, and thought himself lucky to escape with his life.
The chief of the band, as the travellers were all sitting around the great log fire, began cleaning his pipe with a long poignard-like knife which, he volunteered, was ready to do other service than whittling bread or tobacco if need be. The night passed off safely enough by reason of the arrival of a squad of gendarmes, but the next night a whole house full of travellers were murdered on the same spot.
The roads of the old Comté de Foix, a very important thing for many who travel by automobile, are throughout excellent and extensive. There are fourteen Routes Nationales and Départementales crossing in every direction. The highway from Toulouse to Madrid runs via St. Girons and Bayonne into Andorra by way of the valley of the Ariège, and to Barcelona via Perpignan and the Col de Perthus.
The valley of the Ariège, to a large extent included in the Comté de Foix, has a better preserved historical record than its neighbours on the east and west.
In the ninth century the ruling comte was allied with the houses of Barcelona and Carcassonne. His residence was at Foix from this time up to the Revolution; and his rule embraced the valley of the Hers, of which Mirepoix was the principal place, the mountain region taken from Catalogne, and a part of the lowlands which had been under the scrutiny of the Comtes de Toulouse.