History

There is much evidence in the form of flint axes, and bones etc found in the “Espélugues” grottoes to indicate that this area of Bigorre was inhabited from the earliest times. Since that time the Gauls, the Romans who called the town Lapurda, and the Barbarians fortified the rock on which the castle stands. During the VIIth century Lourdes became the focus of skirmishes between the Moors and Carolingians.

According to the legend in 778, Charlemagne, with his army, lay siege to the Fortified Castle, which was occupied by the Moors under their Saracen leader Mirat. The French army, attacked the castle on many occasions but were never able to breach its formidable defences. The Moorish army held out despite these attacks and famine.

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King Charlemagne

The legend claims that an eagle unexpectedly appeared on the horizon and flew over the castle and dropped from its mouth an enormous trout, which landed at the feet of Mirat the leader of the Moors. In order to try and convince the French that his army was not starving, Mirat presented the trout to Charlemagne to persude them that they still had plenty of food in store and were not about to surrender the castle. Charlemagne was himself about to lift the siege when his companion Turpin, the Bishop of Puy-en-Velay, had an inspired idea and persuaded Charlemagne to allow him to speak to the Moors in the besieged castle. He suggested to Mirat that he should surrender, not to Charlemagne but to the Queen of the sky. Mirat was impressed with the idea and he went to Black Virgin of Puy, to offer gifts and was converted to Christianity. On the day of his baptism, Mirat took on the name of Lorus, which was then given to the town and later became Lourdes.

During the XIth and XIIth centuries the Counts of Bigorre lived in Lourdes castle and the town was the capital of the countship of Bigorre.

After being the residency of Bigorre counts, Lourdes was given to England by the Brétigny Treaty which bought a temporary peace to France during the course of the Hundred Years War with the result that the French lost the town to the English, from 1360. At the end of the fourteenth century despite the war and famines an extraordinary musical society flourished in southern France. One of the principle patrons of this music was Gaston Febus III, Count of Foix and Béarn, two small but wealthy territories in southern France. Febus’s actions in dealing with the problems of that century demonstrated a shrewdness unmatched by many of his peers. Under a policy of careful neutrality, Febus navigated these difficult times miraculously well, thus sparing his people much turmoil. Such was his leadership that his power and court rivalled that of the French king.

At the time of Febus, the Lourdes castle was commanded by Pierre Arnaud de Béarn, and then Jean, his brother, both cousins to the Prince of Béarn. With the help of 39 mercenaries known as the Compagnons de Lourdes, they all signed in 1379, an agreement with the prince stipulating that any money and prizes in kind (wine, wheat etc) that might be received from the people of Bigorre had to be shared, in exchange for his protection.

In 1405, Charles V laid siege to the castle during the course of the Hundred Years War and eventually captured the town from the English following the 18 month siege.

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Henry IV of France – King during the religious wars

Later on, during the late 16th century France was ravaged with the Wars of Religion between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots (French protestants). In 1569 Count Gabriel de Montgomery attacked the nearby town of Tarbes when Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre established Protestantism there. The town was overrun, in 1592, by forces of the Catholic League and the catholic faith re-established in the area.

In 1607 Lourdes finally became part of the Kingdom of France.

The castle became an Estate jail under Louis XV but in 1789, the General Estates Assembly orders the liberation of prisoners. Following the rise of Napoleon in 1803, he again made the Castle an Estate jail.

Towards the end of the Peninsular War between France, Spain and Britain in 1814, English forces, under the Duke of Wellington, entered France and took control of the region and followed Marshall Soult’s French army and defeated the French near the adjoining town of Tarbes before the final battle took place outside Toulouse on 10th April 1814 which brought the war to an end.

At the beginning of the 1850s, just before the apparitions, Lourdes was a quiet modest sleepy county-town with a population of only some 4,000 inhabitants. The castle, was occupied by an infantry garrison. The town was a place people passed through on their way to the waters at Barèges, Cauterets, Luz-Saint-Sauveur and Bagnères-de-Bigorre, and for the first mountaineers on their way to Gavarnie, when the events which were to change its history took place.