Once upon a time...the castle stronghold of Lourdes

Once upon a time, a very ancient time, there was a big rock, carved by the ice. According to their needs, men made it a count’s castle, a fortress, a hideout for mercenaries, a prison, a barracks, and today, a Pyrenean Museum…We present you with the keys to its story.

THE GEOLOGICAL TIMESCALE: The rocky peak resists the ice
Around 65 million years ago, the African continent slides northwards and collides with Europe. The shock throws up the Earth into a range of mountains: the Pyrenees. Later, a cold climate prevails for several hundred thousands years. The valley of Lourdes and the river Gave of Pau are thus made by the glaciers which, retreating, spare the rocky outcrop upon which the fortress will eventually be built.

PREHISTORY: The first men of Lourdes
The climate softens. About 13000 years ago, man settles in the caves on the lower slopes of the Pyrenees. He hunts wild horse, reindeer and bison. He also lives on what he gathers and later, makes weapons and tools from flint and reindeer antlers, carving mammoth-tusk ivory. The appearance of a temperate climate modifies the daily life of these men: they clear the ground, cultivate, and raise animals. Masters of fire, the Pyrenean shepherds use metal for their tools and weapons.

ANCIENT TIMES: The new settlement & the roman town
The conquest of Gaul by the Romans does little to change the social and economic life of these mountain-dwellers. The Romans are the first to take advantage of the strategic qualities of the rocky outcrop. The writings of Antonin, a 3rd century tour guide, mention a fortified site on the Roman road which connects Toulouse and Bordeaux: it is the new settlement which will come to be known as Lourdes several centuries later.

THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE RENAISSANCE: The castle stronghold—home to the Counts of Bigorre
The legend of the eagles and the trout: In 778, Charlemagne lays siege to the fortress occupied by the Saracens. The legends tells of an eagle dropping a trout at the feet of Mirat, chief of Saracens, who offers it to Charlemagne to make him think that the castle is still well-stocked with food. The bishop of Puy-en-Velay, friend and companion of Charlemagne, proposes to Mirat that, as he does not wish to surrender to the king, he should surrender to the Blessed Virgin. Mirat accepts and is baptized under the name of Lorus. The castle, called Mirambel, now takes the name of Lorus, who gave his name to the town of Lourdes. In the 11th and 12th centuries, this site, virtually impregnable thanks to its system of enclosures, is the principle residence of the Counts of Bigorre.  The fortress takes its definitive form in the 14th century with the construction of the keep, which dominates three other towers.

THE 16TH CENTURY: The castle during the wars of religion
During the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, Lourdes is pillaged and burnt. The Lourdais, who benefit from the right to protection since the Middle Age, fall back into the castle. In 1590 peace returns with Henri IV who formally attaches Lourdes and the Bigorre to France. Lourdes becomes an important halt on the roads to St-Jacques de Compostelle.

THE 17TH AND 18TH CENTURIES: The castle as a state prison
The castle is placed in the charge of a governor who exercises his power in the King’s name. From the end of the 17th century, the king uses it to imprison both dangerous criminals and opposants alike. During this period, the medieval towers, except for the keep, are demolished, and in 1685 development plans are drawn up by the great royal architect Vauban. On the eve of the French Revolution the fortress is saved from demolition by a plea addressed to the king from the Lourdais. From 1792, the castle is once again used as a prison for the insurrectionist royalist chiefs.

THE 19TH CENTURY: The castle is transformed into a barracks
The castle, fortress and prison, is again rearranged by Chausenque, commandant of the stronghold: the keep is given a new roof. The military engineers build up and improve the entire group of the stronghold’s buildings. The castle stronghold of Lourdes is no more than a simple barracks. In 1894 the town of Lourdes buys the redundant fortress.

  • A new town: The Marian complex
    In 1858 Bernarde-Marie Soubirous receives 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin. This miracle, recognized by the church, radically changes the history of Lourdes. Around the sanctuaries a new town springs up, a centre of Christian pilgrimage, with a worldwide reputation.
  • The Pyreneistes and the conquest of the summits
    The end of the 18th century is marked by the Pyreneist movement, with its keen mountaineers conquering peaks, discovering the romantic charms of the villages and spa towns. The castle stronghold is made famous by Viollet le Duc, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, as a picturesque halt.

THE 20TH CENTURY: The Pyrenean museum in the castle
In 1921 a museum is born under the auspices of Margalide and Louis Le Bondidier, its first curator. In 1960 they leave to the town collections worthy of a great regional museum of the Pyrenees. Today, the museum welcomes almost 100,000 visitors per year. Various works is accomplished in the course of this century: the fortifications of Lourdes are destroyed, except for the Garnavie tower, the parish church of Saint Pierre is demolished in 1904. A proportion of its religious objects are currently held in the castle chapel.

THE 21ST CENTURY: The castle stronghold—historical monument at Lourdes
Classed as a historical monument in 1995, the castle walls bear witness to the evolution of military architecture from the Middle Age to the present day, and to the long story of the town of Lourdes. At the same time the museum tries to carve a niche in modern times, with a renovation plan and a project to create a network of Pyrenean Museums.

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