The historical facts
At about 40 km from Carcassonne, in the French region of Aude, there is a small village that would have been easily forgotten or even abandoned if it wasn’t for a series of unexplained events in late XIX century: its name is Rennes-Le-Château
On June 1st 1885, the new curate, François Berenger Saunière
, came to the village. He was young, athletic, bright and politically opinionated but, above all, he couldn’t bear authority on him. That’s why he ended up in such as remote location. He managed to start there a quiet life, out of his small salary, and became a friend of the priest of the neighbouring parish of Rennes-Les-Bains. His new friend convinced him to renovate Rennes-Le-Château church, a XI century building which was erected over an older construction. With a small loan from the local council, he engaged the contractor Elie Bot and the builders Pibouleau and Babou, together with two altar boys: Rousset and Verdier. All these people would be witnessing the events that were about to follow….
Once the workers removed the heavy marble plate on the altar, they realised that one of the two pillars was hollow. Inside it, they found four sealed wooden cylinders, containing four parchment scrolls.
Unfortunately, those parchments have been lost and the story that follow is primarily based on what the witnesses have reported.
It looks like these parchments were containing genealogies: two of these were dated 1244 and 1644, and the other ones would be from 1870, and were sealed there by Saunière’s predecessor. With the Carcassone bishop authorisation, Saunière went to Paris in search of somebody who could translate the parchments. The abbot Beil, the head of the Saint Supplice seminary, introduced him to his nephew Émile Hoffet, a young and promising linguist, who also happened to have esoteric interests. Émile introduced Saunière to one of the most exclusive occultist French groups, whose members included writer Stéphane Mallarmé
and composer Claude Débussy
. The curate stayed in Paris for three weeks and, after that, his life would not be the same anymore.
When back in Rennes-Le-Château, Saunière showed access to an unbelievable amount of money: he completed the church renovation, built a new road to the village, had the unusual Magdala tower erected on a cliff, together with Villa Bethania (where, by the way, he would never live) and bought six pieces of land. At a certain point, the new bishop asked him where this money was coming from, but he refused to respond; and the bishop suspended him. So Saunière appealed to the Vatican and got reinstated.
It has been calculated that the curate spent an amount of money that, translated to today’s value, would reach 3.5 million Euros. The source of this money is still unknown, though some receipts have been found bearing the signature of the Archduke Johann Salvator of Austria
, the cousin of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph I
. Saunière was also receiving visits from influent people, like the at-the-time Fine Arts Secretary Henri-Charles Étienne.
On January 17th 1917, Saunière had a heart attack. A priest was called to provide him with the Extreme Unction but, after hearing the curate’s confession, he got out from the room very upset and refused to give him the Last Sacrament. On January 22nd, the curate Saunière died without religious consolation.
The day after, his body, richly covered, was exposed in a mortuary in the Magdala tower and a long list of prestigious people – including the Archduke Wilhelm of Austria
– came to pay respect….
How these facts have been used
A 1948-article in the Belgian magazine «Le Soir Illustré», written by Roger Crouquet, collected the testimonies of the locals about Saunière, but was left forgotten. In the Fifties, this story came back in some articles about Rennes-le-Château published in the magazine «Depêche du Midi». Then Robert Charroux published the book «Trésor du Monde». Another publication, «L’or de Rennes» by Gérard de Sède in 1967, was claiming that the curate had discovered, in the oldest parchments, the genealogy of Jesus-Christ and Mary Magdalene
: it would lead to the Merovingian dynasty
. This secret would have been kept by an old and mysterious Order, the Priory of Sion – which Leonardo Da Vinci
would have also been part of. The objective of this secret society would have been to restore monarchy in France. Later, Henry Lincoln
gave a wider audience to this mystery in his documentaries for the BBC. That’s where Dan Brown
got inspired from, for his «Da Vinci Code».
Is it finished?
Well, the Priory of Sion mystery is fundamentally a hoax: it has been established that, behind it and the Merovingian dynasty plot, there was one Pierre Plantard who, in 1989, went to jail for scam, putting this way an end to his aspirations to restore monarchy in France.
Still today, though, we don’t know – and we’ll probably never know – what Saunière discovered in his church, who was funding him and why they invested all this money with no obvious reason. From this perspective, the mystery of Rennes-Le-Château remains unsolved.
Update on 19-Oct-2013
As part of my research, I have contacted Mr Mariano Tomatis, who owns the website renneslechateau.it: the most accurate and complete collection of documentation I could find, really impressive for the quantity and the quality of the information available! Unfortunately, those who don’t read Italian won’t make much advantage of it….
I asked him whether there was a definitive explanation for the source of Saunière’s funds. In a very nice and short e-mail, Mr Tomatis agreed that Saunière’s source of funds was still unclear and has confirmed the above story, apart from the fact that there is no historical evidence of the parchments and no proof of Saunière’s travel to Paris. Most probably, this is yet another invention of Pierre Plantard….