History of Rennes Le Chateau

While all eyes are on the mysterious village itself, the area around Rennes-le-Château has a chequered and ancient history that should not be ignored - and may even provide exciting clues to the Saunière story.

The tiny hilltop village of Rennes-le-Château lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which form the border between France and Spain. It lies within the region known as the Languedoc, after the language formerly spoken there - the Language of Oc or Occitan. It is in the départment (administrative region) of the Aude, named after the main river than flows through the area - Rennes-le-Château overlooks the valley of the Aude. The village lies between the historic walled city of Carcassone to the north and Perpignan to the south. The nearest town is Limoux, famous for its blanquette or sparkling wine. The surrounding area is also known as the Corbières. The rural area of the Aude is among the poorest in France.

After the break-up of the Roman Empire, this part of Gaul was settled by the Visigoths, who migrated into France from central Europe. They sacked Rome in 491 and are known to have carried off the sacred treasure that the Romans had taken from the Temple of Jerusalem, including the fabled Menorah. This treasure - of great material and symbolic value - is last recorded in the Visigoth treasury at Carcassone, but disappears from history after the Moorish invasions from Spain in the 8th century.

It is believed by many historians - although it is not conclusively proven - that Rennes-le-Château occupies the site of the 'lost' Visigoth stronghold of Rhedae, which is reported to have had a population of 30,000. The Visigoths dominated the Languedoc in the 5th-8th centuries, and Rhedae was their third largest stronghold after Carcassone and Narbonne, but its exact location is unknown. There are many remains of foundations and fortifications in and around Rennes-le-Château - at least indicating that it was once a major settlement.

Apart from the Romans and Visigoths, the region retains the memory of many other peoples who have, at one time or another, flourished there. After the Visigoths, the Arabs dominated the area for much of the 8th century. There was a substantial Jewish population in the region from Roman times - and astonishingly, in 768, following the pushing back of the Arabs, a Jewish principality, Septimania, was established there. Although it owed nominal allegiance to Pepin III, King of the Franks - who permitted it to be established in return for the Jews' help in forcing out the Arabs - in practice Septimania was autonomous. Even the Basques, that enigmatic people from western Spain and France, made incursions into the area during the 8th century. From the 8th to 12th century the area around Rennes-le-Château became known as the Comté (County) of the Razès.

St Mary Magdalene's Church, Rennes-le-Château.

St Mary Magdalene's Church, Rennes-le-Château.


The château of Rennes.

The château of Rennes.


The seal of the Knights Templar of the Languedoc.

The seal of the Knights Templar of the Languedoc.


The ruined abbey of Alet-les-Bains.

The ruined abbey of Alet-les-Bains.


Building constructed on the foundation of the old St Peter's church; the crypt still lies beneath.

Building constructed on the foundation of the old St Peter's church; the crypt still lies beneath.


The Château Hautpoul

The Château Hautpoul


Home to the Heretics

Until the 13th century the area was independent of the rest of France, the territory of the Counts of Toulouse - who, although nominally swearing allegiance to the King of France, were in practice independent and actually richer and more powerful than he was. The Languedoc also had its own distinct culture, which at that time - probably because of its closeness to the Arab kingdoms of Spain - was the most cultured and advanced in Europe. It was here that the semi-heretical >Troubador movement flourished.

>Rennes-le-Château's church, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, was built during this time, in the 11th century, although there has been a church on the site since Visigoth times - perhaps from as early as the 5th century.

In the 12th and 13th centuries the region was the heartland of the Cathar heresy. This gnostic form of Christianity, totally opposed to the materialism and authority of the Church of Rome, flourished in this cultured and freethinking environment. Inevitably, however, the Cathars attracted the wrath of the Pope who ordered a Crusade against them - the bloody and traumatic genocide of the Albigensian Crusade, so named after the major Cathar town of Albi. The crusade against the Cathars infamously ended at the siege of Montségur, the Cathar's mountaintop stronghold, in the Ariège about 50 miles from Rennes-le-Château.

The Albigensian Crusade marked a watershed in the history of the Languedoc, ending the south of France's independence: after this, much of the land passed into the possession of the northern knights who had used the Crusade as an excuse for plunder, and it was absorbed into the kingdom of France, becaming subordinate to the north - instigating a decline from which the region has yet to recover, 700 years later. Rennes-le-Château found itself with a new noble family, the de Voisins, after it was granted to one of the leaders of the Crusade. It was the de Voisins who built the château that gives the village its name.

The other major power in the medieval Languedoc were the Knights Templar, that mysterious order of warrior-monks formed during the Crusades who became the richest institution in Europe after the Church in the Middle Ages. Although the Templars were found throughout Europe, the greatest concentration of their lands - about 30% of all that they owned in Europe - was in the Languedoc and the neighbouring Roussillon region, and there is evidence that at one time they planned to create their own state there. The Templars were particularly well represented in the area around Rennes-le-Château.

There are many ruins of Templar commanderies and preceptories in the region, most of which have never been explored by archaeologists. Near Rennes-le-Château are the ruins of Le Bézu and the former Templar town of Campagne-sur-Aude, while not far away is the site of the major Templar commandery of the area, Mas Deu.

After the crusade against the Cathars, the Languedoc retained its heretical character. The first witch trials in Europe were held at Toulouse in the 14th century. In later centuries, it was famed as a centre for alchemists - the town of Alet-les-Bains, 5 miles north of Rennes-le-Château, being a particular centre for the so-called 'black art'. The family of the famous prophet Nostradamus is said to have lived at Alet-les-Bains.

Originally Rennes-le-Château had its own parish church, dedicated to St John the Baptist, but this was destroyed in 1362 by the soldiers of the Catalan adventurer Henri de Trastamare in an attempt to find some treasure that he believed was hidden there. He went away disappointed. (There was a also a chapel dedicated to St Peter, the foundations of which lie beneath one of the houses in the village.)

A Will of 'Great Consequence'

In the 15th century the Hautpoul family became lords of Rennes-le-Château, remaining in power until the French Revolution of 1789. In 1732 François d'Hautpoul married Marie de Nègre d'Ables, who as his widow became the last of the family to live in the château in Rennes-le-Château, dying on 17 January 1781. François had been granted the title of the Marquis de Blanchefort. (Blanchefort is a small château - from the size of the ruins probably no more than a watchtower - to the east of the village. Why François wanted to carry its name in his title is unknown.) At her death Marie's full name and title was Marie de Nègre d'Ables, Dame d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort.

Interestingly, in 1780 the notary to whom the Hautpoul family will had been entrusted refused to show it to the head of the family, saying that 'it would be imprudent to give up a will of such great consequence.' What could have been in their will that was of such 'great consequence'?

Many believe that Dame Marie, as the last of the line to live in the village, and her loyal priest, Abbé Antoine Bigou - one of Saunière's predecessors - hold the key to the mystery. Certainly, Saunière seems to have shown a great interest in her grave and the headstone that Bigou erected. Bigou was named as a 'recalcitrant priest' after the Revolution, and went into exile in Spain in 1792, where he died the following year.

After the Revolution the story of Rennes-le-Château continued to be one of decline - many villages in the region have been completely abandoned as the population moved away in search of a better life. The same fate might have befallen Rennes-le-Château, had a young priest named Saunière not arrived there in 1885.

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