Mystery - Deeper into Darkness
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.
According 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
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.
It 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
Although 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.
He 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.
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 decor 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
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 extravagant 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 buildings
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
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
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.
In 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.
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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