The Saunière Mystery - Deeper into Darkness

St Mary Magdalene's Church, Rennes-le-ChâteauWhatever Saunière found or discovered, it changed his life and created a mystery that has become one of the most famous in the world. Over the years many claims - some based on fact, others on rumour and sometimes blatant fabrication - have been made about the subsequent events of Saunière's life.

According to the most widely-known version of the Saunière story - thanks mainly to the success of the 1982 bestseller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln - what he actually found was not gold or jewels, but parchments containing coded messages.

Text of one of the parchments said to have been found by SaunièreAccording to this version, he took the documents to show to his bishop, Félix-Arsène Billard, at Carcassone, only to be despatched to Paris to consult an expert in codes, Émile Hoffet. This is where the story begins to take on a dark and even occult character.

It is said that while in Paris Saunière made contacts in the burgeoning occult scene, particularly with the world-renowned opera singer Emma Calvé, who was also deeply interested in the occult. They are even supposed to have become lovers. The whole Paris episode is, however, very controversial. If it happened at all, it is uncertain when - although 1891 is the date most researchers favour.

Saunière's signatureIt was in that year that Saunière's inexplicable expenditure started. Although his salary was just 900 francs a year, his accounts show that in some months he spent as much as 160,000 francs - a huge sum. The work he undertook in the church, and the building of his lavish domaine cost in the region of 200,000 francs. His surviving - but incomplete - papers and accounts record expenses of around 660,000 francs. Between 1897 and 1899, his monthly outgoings averaged almost 47,000 francs.

Emma CalvéAlthough changes in and revaluation of the French currency, as well as inflation, make it difficult to give an exact modern equivalent, his total known expenditure equates, conservatively, to around 25 million francs, or about £2.5 million.

Saunière was not afraid of splashing money around: his housekeeper Marie Dénarnaud dressed in the latest Paris fashions - for which the villagers nicknamed her 'the Madonna' - while they also spent immense sums on entertaining, eating the best and quaffing large amounts of the finest wines.

The tombstone of the Dame d'HautpoulHe and Marie got up to some very strange activities in the village. In 1895, the villagers complained to the prefecture about their nocturnal activities in the graveyard, saying that they were digging and disturbing the graves - but why, no one knew. Saunière seems to have shown a particular interest in the grave of the Dame d'Hautpoul-Blanchefort, Marie de Nègre d'Ables. Her gravestone, which bore a curious inscription, is one of many enigmatic monuments and stones that are connected with the mystery.

Inside Saunière's Domain

The legacy left by Saunière - which fuels a tourist attraction that brings some 25,000 visitors a year and from which has risen a veritable publishing industry in France - are the strange statues and images with which he decorated his church. Superficially the Saunière's churchdecor may seem like that of any Catholic church of its time and place, but a closer look reveals strangely disturbing - and perhaps even unChristian - imagery that can unsettle the soul, including a hideous grimacing plaster demon crouched just inside the door, and had the words 'This Is A Terrible Place' inscribed over the porch.

And Saunière's plans did not end there: he had an ambitious vision of how he would transform the village, making it a suitable setting for his increasingly lavish lifestyle as virtually lord of the manor.

Saunière bought up land in the village - although everything was put in Marie Dénarnaud's name - and then, in the early 1900s, built himself an The Demon of Rennes-le-Châteauextravagant and ostentatious domaine, the centrepiece of which was a grand house, the Villa Bethania (Bethany Villa). Saunière claimed that this was intended as a home for retired priests, although it was never used for such a purpose. Strangely, he chose not to live in it, preferring instead the run-down presbytery that he shared with Marie, although he did use the Villa for their lavish entertaining. His visitors included local notables and others from further afield, some say as far as Paris.

Saunière also had an ornate garden laid out, and built ramparts along the edge of the village, at one end of which is his most enigmatic creation, the Tour Magdala (Magdala Tower), in which he housed his library and which he used as his study.

It is significant that he named both the The altar of Rennes-le-Château church, with a relief of Mary Magdalenebuildings after places connected with Mary Magdalene - the Tour Magdala and the Villa Bethania, or Bethany (the home of Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, according to the New Testament). Saunière seemed to be obsessed with the Magdalene, the woman believed by Christians to have been a prostitute who was converted by Jesus.

Uncomfortable Questions

But not long after his domaine was completed Sauniere's fortunes began to change - apparently as the result of the death of his bishop, Monseigneur Billard, in December 1901. Billard had turned a blind eye to the activities of his subordinate, and perhaps had even acted as Saunière's protector. However, his successor, Paul-Félix de Beauséjour, soon began to ask questions about the source of Saunière's mysterious wealth.

The Villa BethaniaSaunière's impertinent and arrogant attitude to the bishop's questions - effectively telling de Beauséjour that it was none of his business - did not endear him to his superior, who obviously suspected that something underhand or even criminal was behind it all.

In 1909, Saunière was officially removed from his post and ordered to another parish, being replaced by Abbé Henri Marty. Astonishingly, Saunière refused to go, remaining in the Villa Bethania and even creating a small altar in order to celebrate mass for the villagers, who ignored Marty and the church. (The villagers' attitude to him seems to have changed since he came into money.)

He wrote to the bishop:

Monseigneur, I have read your letter with the most extreme respect and I have taken note of the intentions that you would impart to me. But if our religion commands us to consider above all our spiritual interests, and if these are assuredly of the highest, they do not order us to neglect our material interests, which are of this world. And mine are in Rennes and not elsewhere. I declare to you, no, Monseigneur, I will never leave.

The terrace and Tour MagdalaIn 1910 he was tried by the diocese of Carcassone, who eventually pronounced him suspens a divinis for life for 'revolt against the religious authority' and 'insubordination towards his superiors'. This meant that he was unable to administer the sacraments, a ruling that was only lifted at the moment of his death six years later. (Even then, he was not described as a priest in his obituary in the diocese newspaper.)

Saunière refused to give a detailed account of where he had got the money, producing only a short list of his expenditure on the church and his domaine which totalled 193,000 francs - a huge sum, well over £700,000 in modern terms, but plainly nowhere near the full amount.

Monseigneur Billard - Saunière's protector?Saunière suffered a severe heart attack on the terrace of his domaine in January 1917 - it is said on the significant date of 17 January, although this may be later romanticisation. After lingering for a few days, he died on 22 January. His last confession was heard by a priest from nearby Espéraza, and although what he said isn't known, the confessor was reported to have been shocked for the rest of his life.

Saunière was buried in the graveyard of Rennes-le-Château.

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