The overlooked twin: Opoul
Part 1: an unclear, though intriguing, past
be interested in Perillos without any mention of Opoul, is hardly possible,
seeing that geography has made one intimately linked with the other. Indeed,
today, Opoul-Perillos is something of a marriage, engineered when the latter
was abandoned and many of its residents decided to settle in Opoul. It was
a marriage of convenience, if not necessity.
But despite this marriage, which was made official in 1972, their history was not always so intimate. Even today, with the slow rehabilitation of Perillos, co-ordinated from within the mayoral offices of Opoul, some form of rivalry can once again be discerned between the various factions of the community.
work on the lords of Perillos has reopened a vista on the religious and
political past of this abandoned and largely forgotten community. When we
began this effort, we were surprised to learn that as far away as the United
States, there were pretenders to the throne, i.e. people claiming they were
the legitimate “Lords of Perillos”. We thought these were just
the ravings of the new age lunatic fringe, but the more our organisation
became embedded within the social life of the local community, it became
clear that the past had wounds that had apparently never healed. The Lords
of Perillos had been Catalan, then the title had been “surrendered”
to France, only to be revived in Spain…
The local community reacted in sometimes intriguing ways, as if reopening this history, was like revisiting a bad memory of things that were once theirs, had been lost. Or, alternatively, that there was something about the past that people wanted not to be revealed. At the same time, this truth was not necessarily covered by a smokescreen of lies (such as an American “Lords of Perillos” or personal attacks against us, such as distorting claims that we had discovered the tomb of Ramon de Perellos y Roccaful, etc.), but rather with a blanket of silence.
At the same time, we began to see – or thought we saw – a certain pattern in a series of events that might appear to be random, but which would make any statistical analysis of coincidence to be pushed beyond the breaking point. It meant, of course, that it became hard to distinguish what was coincidence, however fortuitous, and design.
sharing close proximity, Opoul and Perillos, until the 20th century, had
little in common. They were once both part of the Roussillon, and that,
it seems, is where their similarity ended. Today, it may appear that Opoul
is far more important than Perillos, but in the past, it was definitely
the other way around. In fact, it is hard to find any trace of the existence,
let alone major accomplishments of any “Lord of Opoul”, whereas
the deeds of Ramon de Perillos are notorious as far as Ireland.
Indeed, the question we asked was: were there any local lords? An initial search, such as trying to find an emblem or a family history, proved negative. When we continued our quest in an effort to find out the origin of the village, we were equally met with silence, which seemed to be the result of confusion, erroneous information, if not embarrassment about not knowing – or being unwilling to reveal – the origins of this village.
of all, though, the plateau: it is a geological curiosity, located at an
altitude of almost 400 metres. It was natural erosion that has removed the
softer outer layers and has shown this extraordinary and beautiful plateau.
It must have been a primary feature since early Man first set foot in this
region – and we know that early Man sat foot here much earlier than
in other regions, as is in evidence by Tautavel Man.
But despite this knowledge, little archaeological remains have been found on or near the plateau: some coins, a ring, etc. The expert archaeologists that study Tautavel Man and his related findings are however formal that the entire area must have been occupied no less than 450,000 years ago. Furthermore, he was hardly unique: the reason that his remains survived was because he was buried inside a cave; others, some of whom were equally buried inside caves, did not withstand the test of time. But the experts agree that other caves in this area are known to contain ancient remains (a skull dating back 10,000 years and which is found in the region, is not something these experts get excited about) and that some caves may be uncovered that rival Tautavel Man, this veritable “Adam”, in scope. Some archaeologists do not at all feel uncomfortable as seeing the entire area as a vast and extremely ancient necropolis, making one question what made the area so unique – unless, of course, the very fact that some of our earliest ancestors died here, was the specific reason why some of our other ancestors desired to be interred here.
… with caves
of this to underline that the caves in and near the plateau itself may once
have seen a human occupation that dates back hundreds of thousands of years.
And whereas small and larger caves in the immediate and not too distant
vicinity have been left intact – allowing for major archaeological
discoveries to be made in the future – the caves and crevices in the
immediate vicinity of the plateau may have been ransacked by succeeding
waves of human occupation, resulting in the sad statement that only quite
recent remains can now be discovered.
Despite this, we were told that in at least two locations, some interesting discoveries had ben made. Though interesting, they were apparently not interesting enough, as these were never featured in an official communication. These sites have received only the briefest of mentions and it is an arduous search to find a “learned” publication that mentions them.
the Roman occupation of the plateau is accepted by all, the buildings they
constructed do not seem to have withstood the test of time. This may hence
imply that their constructions were not the sturdiest, or rather small,
such as an observation station, perhaps on the location of the present castle,
whose construction would have removed all sign of its existence. Throughout
time, certain locations have been identified as ideal or the best observatories,
and hence they see a succession of buildings, the more recent often annihilating
the previous structure’s existence.
The plateau of Opoul is a natural place of observation, because of the morphology of the area over which it looks out. The only road along which one could pass from north to south was more or less at its foot, and it is indeed here that the Romans built one of their major “highways”. The proximity to the sea was another major advantage, but the lay of the Pyrenees also meant that crossing this natural frontier could best occur at the lowest possible altitude, specifically in winter, and hence close to the shoreline.
Apart from moving north-south, there would also have been those who would have wanted to move east-west. And for those going further (for example in the direction of Rennes-le-Château), a veritable wall of rock was encountered, such as around Galamus and St Paul de Fenouillet, a natural barrier which has only been broken in the last few centuries. Before, that east-west “highway” lay much further north, i.e. Béziers-Carcassonne-Toulouse.
A military perspective
The above state of affairs is confirmed in ancient military records that have survived, which speak of the near impossibility to easily move troops, let alone rapidly, as well as any auxiliary material that became, as time progressed, more and more part and parcel of warfare. As such, most of the observatories were orientated in the sole direction from which any potential danger could come: the sea. The sea had both advantages and disadvantages: movement of troops was quick and easy. However, hiding a naval fleet’s arrival was more problematic. Furthermore, locations where the fleet could disembark would be best known by the defenders, and would – one would expect – also be the location where the defenders would install a fort. One fine example is Salses castle, an almost impossible to tumble castle, near an old marshy lake. The castle was designed in such a manner that it could withstand a continued artillery siege, the signs of which remain visible today. Yet any guided tour of the monument will reveal how well thought-out the construction was, in every detail.
Having said all of this, we should not be surprised to find that the plateau of Salveterra once saw human occupation, for its vista was impressive, incorporating as it does a wide viewing angle of “fragile” land below it, as well as looking out over the sea. At the same time, its very nature meant that if it came under attack, it was rather easy to defend. Let us quickly and finally add that the site was never subjected to an attack until the invention of the fire arm, a development in military warfare that radically changed the organisation of “the defence industry”.
As above, so below
Though occupied, we have no further details about what form the ancient occupation of the plateau took. The local town hall has some information, but this is not the most reliable, if only because it is very incomplete. Still, there are other records elsewhere, which are able to plug some of the gaping holes in the story. These reveal that a sedentary occupation of the site existed in the 7th century. As mentioned, there have also been certain archaeological discoveries, which reveal a human occupation of the site in Neolithic times, as well as certain Roman remains, such as tiles, confirming their presence.
from the archaeological record, there are other inroads into trying to uncover
the history of “Opoul” – linguistics for example. The
origin of the name “Opoul” stems from the Latin word “oppidum”,
which normally means “height”. It is therefore perhaps surprising
to some that the village in the valley has preserved this name, which in
truth corresponds to nothing of the village’s reality.
The same “problem” exists for the name “castel d’Opoul”, in the 14th century, which does not correspond to the structure on the plateau, but with a fortified construction, forgotten by all, which is in the village below. The confusion continued with the name “Oped”, wrongly attributed to the village below in the 11th century.
We find the name nevertheless linked with a series of names: king Wamba (673), a prince Calaron de Fortio (512), a Jewish Kabbalist with his family (892), Oliba, Arnaud Guillem de Salse, one Rodin de Borreau, who, in 910, disappeared without leaving a trace. There are also references to tribes, such as the Redon or Rodon, the Sardon or Sordon, etc.
From Oped to Salveterra
was in 1246 that James I of Aragon decided to create a village on the plateau
of Salveterra. The king granted several privileges, exceptions and immunities
to those who were willing to go and live there. Some present inhabitants,
it seem, continue to live under the wrongful impression that these immunities
are still in force. But under James I, the village of “Salveterra”
was thus created.
Tradition has it that the site of Opida, Oped, or Opol became as such the village and the plateau that of Salveterra – “the land of Salvation”, or the Blessed. If anything, it betrays a rather unique spin on the part of the political powers to lure people up the plateau, to live there under quite harsh conditions, exposed as the plateau is to the strong winds and often low clouds.
Still, it is clear that James I considered it to be necessary, and on numerous occasions, he underlined that the site was “indispensable for the security of the entire Roussillon”. His heir, James II, king of Mallorca, confirmed the privileges and added a few more, such as allowing animals to be taken as far as the watering points of Salses. It confirms the importance of the site, making sure that its inhabitants stayed where they were, rather than abandon it for easier places to live.
Building a wall… to hide a fortress?
perimeter of the plateau was, as can still be seen, strengthened with walls,
built on the brink of sheer drops, at least in those places where the natural
geology of the land was felt to be insufficient to guarantee the integrity
of the site. Several towers were constructed as well. Access was regulated
through an access point, which was defended by a series of walls and gateways
– three in total.
As to the castle itself, its dimensions are much less impressive than the impression it gives from below. That optical illusion, of course, could be seen as an important military advantage too. Its length is never more than forty metres and its width is on average 35 metres. Indeed, the walls are large and wide, with several openings that are well-orientated to observe and defend; there are indeed hardly any “blind spots”, but we would not expect anything else from a military castle.
There are four or five structures stuck to each, over two levels, enabling for lodgings, storage and the normal needs that accompany such a structure. The structure is protected by an enormous tower, with a diameter of eight metres, which overlooks everything. Finally, there is a ten metre wide ditch, which separates the castle from the rest of the plateau, in case anyone would ever gain access to it.
The Catalan architect, however, also designed the castle in such a way that any potential attacker would be made the object of ridicule. The toilets, for example, were installed in their direction from which an attack would have to be mounted. Thus, going to the toilet was not at all forfeiting any military advantage, but possibly increasing it!
we are perplexed when we look at the statement of James II, when he claims
that the site was of primary importance for the security of “the entire
Roussillon”. If so, it begs the question why only seventeen soldiers
were stationed here, and why they were equipped with less than the latest
technology. Furthermore, the village was occupied by men who had not received
any military training whatsoever and would hence not be a very helpful pool
from which to draft if necessary.
In 1369, we read how there were 16 crossbows and 1500 “squares” (projectiles used by the crossbow), 6 armours, 7 shields and some helmets, all of which appear to be slightly different. To this, one should add a trunk without lid, a straw mattress, a lantern and… a lid – apparently not belonging to the trunk which did not have one. In case anyone suggests the inventory is not comprehensive, it even states there is a “dog” present in the garrison and apparently belonging to it; apparently, he is there to make sure the sentinels do not fall asleep during the night, or if they do, that he would at least awaken them if he heard something.
This is thus allegedly the castle that will protect the security of all of the Roussillon, and the French must have laughed when they eventually knew what their Catalan opponents had to work with – as the French castles were almost immaculately equipped.
it seems the Aragon king realised conditions were rather poor, as he sent
ten sacks of flour, another with salt, an oil bottle, some wine and ham.
The king surely knew how to encourage his isolated garrison! And it is clear
that it was purely for their pleasure, for such provisions would help no-one
in case of a siege.
This state of affairs and the entire scenario of this “royal fortress” makes its purpose rather unclear and undefined. The information would suffice if the site was a pure observation post; but for troops that would be able to defend “the entire Roussillon”, the site is not only ill-chosen; few if any troops were ever placed there, begging the question whether we are faced with a change in use, early on, or whether there was another purpose. Was there something else, a fear or reason, somewhere in the back of the mind of the king and/or his planners? Was this perhaps “betrayed” in the name chose for the site – that despite the small contingent stationed here, this land could still “save” Aragon?
A road to a castle
a castle only has one principle entrance, or means of access – thus
greatly simplifying the task of defence. After all, the entrance is often
the weakest, and hence most often attacked. It is therefore also of primary
importance that it is well defended, and easily defendable. Whereas access
to towns could not be reduced to one entrance, in the case of the castle
of Salveterra, there is no need to expect more than one entrance.
Hence, it comes as a surprise to see – on a drawing of the 17th century – that this castle had two access routes. Only one remains in existence today. Let us furthermore express our surprise that we seem to be alone in making this observation, suggesting it has escaped the attention of all others.
One of these access roads, coming from the eastern side, is the one still used today to enter the site. The second one, surprisingly, is the extension of the road that comes from Perillos, the road that passes by La Mourtre. It is this road that has largely disappeared, at least in its use, replaced as it has been by the modern road, using the valley to the side instead. It is of course this old road that is, in the eyes of some, a favourite when they are trying to describe such sites as “ground zero” or “tomb this or that”, using Saunière’s model. If anything, the various treasure seekers may once again bring this old road into usage!
An important century
us teleport ourselves to the 17th century, which is an important era for
the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, at least if we accept the conclusions
of the leading researchers in that field. But the 17th century is also an
important era for Perillos – and Salveterra.
In the 17th century, the old road still existed, but began to loose some of its importance. Centuries before, the kings of Aragon had noted that this site was an “essential point” in the defence of the nation, but as time goes by, and specifically in the 17th century, things are beginning to change. Perhaps, of course, appearances can be deceiving, or were meant to deceive.
might argue it lost its importance because in the 17th century, the Roussillon
was attached to the Crown of France, which is true. It is in this century
in which archives – and the title – belonging to Perillos end
up in the hands of the Lords of Durban. As part of this annexation, one
Courtade makes an inventory of the region, and one of his descendants, a
priest of Brenac, becomes a good friend of Saunière, who enjoys Sunday
lunches in Durban.
A brief history of the castle stated that it is Richelieu who dismantled the castle of Salveterra, and that consequently the population living on the plateau abandoned their homes.
But perhaps they had not even had time to settle down in the valley below (or in Perillos?), before another envoy of the king arrives, Cassini, who begins to map the area in great detail – yet seems unwilling to share the fruit of his researches on his popular maps. The area he has left blank, however, is indexed by Courtade as containing a “royal and sacred tomb”. It is the area that Saunière has “illustrated” by creating a scale model of it.
Finally, it’s the 17th century that sees the birth of a “secret society” that contains the likes of Cassini, Charles Perrault and his brother, Philibert Delorme, Polycarpe de la Rivière and the Lupé and Urfé families, to only mention the best-known members.
Add detail, to achieve controversy
this brief overview lacks one small and important aspect. Before all of
that, there is one final episode in the story of this castle, and it involves
the “incident” involving Richelieu. We are still in the 17th
century – 1639 to be precise – and we find ourselves in the
situation that Henri de Bourbon has sent 600 men to lay siege to the castle
of Salveterra. The man in charge of the castle, however, is young and –
worse – inexperienced. On June 10 of that year, seeing what he is
facing, he surrenders, without a fight.
Richelieu wrote up the events: “the army of the king in Languedoc has entered the Roussillon. We have taken the castle of Opoul, which would only have been taken with great pain and after much time, if the governor had not been terrified.” Nunez Geraldo, the governor, thus was allowed to leave, accompanied by 72 men and the famous dog. Upon his arrival in Perpignan, he was arrested, judged, condemned to death and executed. The court did not, it seem, take his decision to abandon camp well.
And it is now that Richelieu ordered the castle’s destruction… and no-one spoke anymore about Salveterra. Then, with the Treaty of the Pyrenees, in 1659, the castle lost its importance.
Though the Treaty was long in coming – Courtade beginning his work in the 1620s – one does wonder whether Salveterra was taken not by treaty (1659), but by force, and, it seems, with the direct involvement of Richelieu, a man who has been placed by the leading Rennes-le-Château researchers at the very centre of some of the enigma. Coincidence?
Echoes and mirages
The plateau is not also an excellent visual observation post, depending on the wind direction, every sound made around it can easily be heard – even conversations in the valley below, around the Roc Redon, can be overheard. Despite this, there are few echoes of its glorious past, though the cisterns, once filled with 11,000 litres of water, are still there, as are the remains of the castle and the chapel. But the oratory of the fort, placed under the dedication of the Holy Saviour, has totally disappeared and we do not even known what it looked like, or where precisely it was located. The “Holy Saviour”, who protected the plateau of “Salveterra”, the “Land of the Saviour”… all of this not too distant from a location that was identified by Saunière on his model as the “Tomb of Christ” and which Courtade referred to as a “sacred and royal tomb”. There is, it would seem, a theme. Perhaps James I of Aragon chose well.
Douzet & Filip Coppens