We know for sure that the first men lived in this corner of Bigorre, as shown by the flint axes, cut stones and bones found in the caves of the “Espélugues” (currently the way of the cross of the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes).
The Gauls, Romans, Barbarians and Moors successively fortified the rock of Lourdes, where the Château-Fort castle stands.
Since the 9th century, the town has been governed in turn by the English and then by the French. During the religious wars of the 16th century, it was sacked by the Huguenot troops.
In the 17th century, Bigorre’s unification with France (1607) along with progress made in the use of weapons meant that the citadel became less important. It kept a small garrison and became a State prison (castle).
Lourdes came through the French Revolution (1789) without too much damage, and became an agreeable small town in the 19th century. In the early 1850s, the castle was occupied by an infantry garrison. Back then, the town was just a stopping place for spa visitors, who were attracted by the water at Barèges, Cauterets, Luz-Saint-Sauveur and Bagnères-de-Bigorre, and for the first Pyreneists on the way to Gavarnie. Lourdes was only the modest administrative centre of a canton of 4135 inhabitants.
Among them were François and Louise Soubirous, who lived at Boly mill for 10 years with their four children, the eldest of which was named Marie Bernarde, known as Bernadette (born on 7 January 1844).
In 1854, the Soubirous family became destitute: François lost an eye during a work accident, was accused of theft and was put in prison, and the windmill went bankrupt. Cholera eventually killed 38 people in Lourdes. Bernadette, who suffered from cholera and tuberculosis, remained fragile all her life.
Forced to leave the windmill, the family took refuge in an old 16 m² prison called Le Cachot, in 1857.
Aged 14, unable to read or write, and without even having had her first communion, Bernadette, hurt by all these events, would then have an extraordinary experience.
On 11 February 1858, her sister Toinette and a friend, Jeanne Abadie, went to look for wood in a cave, called Massabielle, beside the Gave. While Toinette and Jeanne gathered wood, Bernadette heard a noise like a gust of wind. Lifting her head, she saw, in the hollow of a rock, a small lady, bathed in light, looking at her and smiling.
This was the first apparition, which would be followed by 17 more.
For nearly 150 years, Lourdes has been welcoming over 6 million pilgrims and visitors each year.