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A military architecture

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

The Berbie palace is characterised by an original military architecture designed for passive resistance, a refuge apt to resist siege tactics.

Bernard de Combret was the first to suffer the combined pressures of royal pretensions and popular demands.

He did not feel secure in Durand de Beaucaire’s two buildings, separated by around 25 metres. The wooden floorboards could readily catch fire in case of attack. It was necessary to reinforce the defences of the Episcopal residences to make a coherent and unified ensemble.

Bernard de Combret ordered that vaults be constructed over all the buildings built or repaired by Durand de Beaucaire turning the Episcopal Residence into a genuine fortress.

The major modifications were:

Between the Bisbia Vielha and the new tower built by Durand de Beaucaire he built a curtain wall through which the Palace’s entrance was to pass. The fortified gate, equipped with a ’murder hole’ (a hole in the ceiling of the gateway through which the defenders could fire, throw or pour harmful substances at attackers), and a portcullis flanked by two buttresses sheltering a spiral staircase, illustrates clearly the purpose of the construction. The Bisbia Vielha was raised higher and two of its chambers were given ribbed vaults. The exterior walls were reinforced by semi-circular buttresses, the central buttress replacing some of the windows of Durand de Beaucaire’s design. In between the buttresses he built arches with machicolations (floor openings through which stones, or other objects, could be dropped). These works, the best conserved of those undertaken under Bernard de Combret, introduce semi-cylindrical buttresses, a novelty which was to be seen more and more in the developments of the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries, as much in the later extensions of the palace as in the Cathedral itself. The main body of the building which came to be known as the Suffragans’ Wing (a suffragan Bishop is a Bishop subordinate to a diocesan Bishop) was built at the northern end of the palace, along the ramparts. Its windows and upper levels were substantially refurbished in the 16th and 17th centuries but today there still remain two lower superimposed chambers with rib vaults. The majesty, unity of conception, and size of these chambers (25 x 7.6m) is astonishing. One of them was doubtless intended to replace the Grand Hall built by Durand de Beaucaire, judged too small by the new Bishop.

Finally, Bernard de Combret built an eastern curtain wall to close the palace off from any risk of surprise attack.

There remain no traces of this eastern wall, what remained of it was destroyed by the new wing built by Louis d’Amboise in the 15th century.

At his death in 1271 Bernard de Combret bequeathed to his successor an imposing, almost completed palace, protected and organised around a court, the northern wing of which was built against the towns ramparts. The principle residence was situated in a heavily protected tower at the western end of the palace, the furthest point from the town.

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