Rennes le Chateau

The Mystery

The enigmatic Tour MagdalaThe Priest, the Demon and a Most Curious French Village

It is the hiding place of the Holy Grail, or a great secret that will rock the Church. It is a place of hidden treasure and dark knowledge. It is the place where Jesus is buried... These are just some of the many theories now current about the village where a Victorian priest became strangely - and massively - rich, and where he left clues to a great mystery in the very fabric of his church. What is the truth about Father Sauniere and the now-famous village of Rennes-le-Château?

Rennes-le-Château mapThe Sauniere Story

François Bérenger Saunière - he preferred to use his middle name - was born in 1852 in the village of Montazels, just 3 miles (5km) as the crow flies from the place with which the priest is now synonymous: the remote hilltop village of Rennes-le-Château, in the Languedoc area of south-west France.

Sauniere was the eldest of seven children - one of his brothers, Alfred, also became a priest. His father was the estate manager for the Marquis de Cazemajou, who was related to the former lords of Rennes-le-Château, the Hautpoul family.

Abbé Bérenger Saunière, priest of Rennes-le-ChâteauIn that impoverished region of France, there were only two ways for a young man of intelligence to make a living - clerical work, such as becoming a notary or an official in the local prefecture, or the priesthood. As Saunière preferred the outdoor life - walking, hunting and fishing - becoming a priest offered more opportunity than office work.

Although strong and very physical, he was also intelligent and well-read. In addition to the Latin that all priests learn, he also knew ancient Greek and, since he later subscribed to a German newspaper, presumably he spoke that language too. Later he assembled an eclectic collection of books that he housed in his curious custom-built library, the Tour Magdala (Magdala Tower).

The house in Montazels in which Bérenger Saunière was bornSaunière was ordained a Catholic priest in 1879 and then was for three years parish priest of the small mountain village of Le Clat. (Perhaps significantly, his predecessor as priest of Rennes-le-Château a hundred years earlier, Abbé Antoine Bigou - who appears to have played his own part in this drama - was also its priest.) But on 1 June 1885 Saunière took up his new post in the parish of Rennes-le-Château, by his day only a small and insignificant village, although one with a long and chequered history. In the foothills of the Pyrennees, Rennes-le-Château is in the Languedoc, a region with a colourful and turbulent past, many chapters of which may have a bearing on the discoveries that changed Saunière's life.

A Troubled Start

Home to a mere 300 villagers - now just 100 - Saunière's library and study, the Tour MagdalaSaunière found himself master of the ancient and run-down church of St Mary Magdalene and a presbytery so derelict as to be virtually uninhabitable. He took up lodgings instead with the Dénarnaud family. Their young daughter, 18-year-old Marie, was to give up her job in a nearby hatmakers to become his housekeeper - and perhaps the sole confidante of his secret.

St Mary Magdalene's church was originally the private chapel of the lords of Rennes-le-Château, whose castle, which gives the village its name, stands nearby. The last noble family to inhabit it were the Hautpouls, the last of whom, Marie de Nègre d'Ables, Dame d'Hautpoul-Blanchefort, died on 17 Rennes-le-Château, the village of mysteryJanuary 1781, a few years before the French Revolution, and during the tenure of Abbé Bigou.

Within a few months of arriving in Rennes-le-Château, Saunière was in trouble.

The burning political issue in France at that time was whether it should continue as a republic or return to a monarchy. The monarchists were pro-Catholic and supported the Church, whereas the Republicans wanted the separation of Church and state - in which they were successful in 1905.

Marie DénarnaudThe elections of October 1885 saw this inflame the public as the major issue. In one of his sermons, Saunière delivered a stridently anti-Republican speech, urging his flock to vote against it, declaring 'all our forces must be employed against our adversaries.' For this, the local authorities wanted him dismissed, but the Bishop of Carcassone compromised by sending him to a seminary at Narbonne for some months.

Back in his parish, Saunière received a gift of 3000 francs from Marie-Thérèse, the Countess of Chambord, the widow of the main claimant to the French throne, presumably for supporting her husband's cause. He used this to undertake some renovations in his old and decrepit church, installing a new altar and replacing some of the stained glass windows.

What exactly happened next has been the subject of debate ever since. What is clear is that, at some point in the following years, something happened that made him an immensely wealthy man. It is generally assumed that he found something, either a horde of treasure or a secret of great value. But exactly what he found - and when - is the core of the mystery.

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