The Saunière Story: Facts &
There are many claims made about the Saunière mystery - some considerably wilder than others...
Claim: He found parchments hidden in the church
The most popular version of the story is that Saunière's life changed as the result of finding parchments
hidden in his church. Some of the villagers did remember the finding of documents of some kind during the
restoration work of 1887-88, although Saunière explained them as papers relating to the building of the church.
What happened to them is unknown.
The text of one of the parchments allegedly found by Saunière
In the best-known version of the Saunière story, they were parchments bearing coded messages
and genealogical information relating to the survival of the Merovingian bloodline. This was the line taken
by Gérard de Sède in the first major French book on the mystery, in 1967, and in Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln's
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982. De Sède was the first to publish reproductions of the 'coded
Monseigneur Billard, Saunière's Bishop
This version of the story comes originally from the Dossiers secrets, a collection of documents placed
in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris which predated, and largely inspired, de Sède's book. Interestingly, the
Dossiers, in 1965, published the solution to the decoding two years before the complete parchments
appeared in de Sède's book. Later, an associate of Pierre Plantard's, Philippe de Chérisey, stated that he had
devised the parchments and their codes in 1961.
Claim: Saunière took the parchments to his bishop, Mgr Félix-Arsène Billard, who then
sent him to Paris
Again, this claim first appeared in the Dossiers secrets.
It has been pointed out that the scenario is unlikely; if a humble parish priest had stumbled onto
something that his superior realised was important, it is more likely that the bishop would have taken it, sent
Saunière back to his church, and despatched one of his trusted aides to Paris.
One of a set of photographs of Alfred Saunière taken in Paris
There is no independent evidence of the meeting of Saunière and Billard, which rests entirely on the
Dossiers secrets - which even include details of the conversation that the two men had while alone!
Clearly, the Dossiers were either written by someone with access to extremely detailed knowledge of the
behind-the-scenes activities, or are fabrications.
The Dossiers secrets also specifically state that the Paris trip took place in February 1891,
immediately after Saunière found the parchments, which they say were hidden inside the Visigoth pillar that
supported the altar. However, according to the villagers and other records, the work to replace the altar was
carried out during the first renovations four years earlier.
According to Claire Corbu, Marie Dénarnaud was adamant that Saunière had visited Paris. However, after he had
come into his mysterious wealth, he travelled widely, and it is unlikely that he would not have taken a trip to the
capital at some point. There is no particular evidence that it was in 1891.
Photographs taken in a Parisian studio, marked with its name and address, were for a long time taken as evidence
of the Paris connection. However, it has recently been shown that these are, in fact, photographs of Bérenger
Saunière's brother, Alfred, who was also a priest. However, it may be a mistake to dismiss Alfred out of hand: it
is possible that he was more important in this story than most people realise.
Claim: Saunière consulted Emile Hoffet in Paris
The early Dossiers secrets state that Billard specifically sent Saunière to Paris to show the parchments to a
young scholar named Emile Hoffet. Although Hoffet was then only 19 years old, and was still in training for the
priesthood, he had already distinguished himself for his intellect and learning.
Gérard de Sède, who bought part of Hoffet's papers, claims that there is a note of a meeting with a 'Saunière'
in them, although it is, unfortunately, undated. However, no first name is given, and although Saunière is not a
common surname, it is not unique to the priest of Rennes-le-Château either. It is also possible that Hoffet met
with Alfred Saunière, who is known to have visited Paris.
Claim: Saunière visited the seminary of St Sulpice in Paris
This part of the story also links Saunière with the seminary of St Sulpice - of which Hoffet's uncle was
then director, and which Saunière is said to have visited. Although a leading seminary for the training of Catholic
priests, St Sulpice had long been the focus of rumours of darker goings-on and unorthodox practices. In Saunière's
day it was one of the centres of the Catholic Modernist movement, which challenged many of the traditional
teachings of the Church, and therefore attracted the hostility of the Vatican. Much of J.K. Huysman's 1891 classic
novel of satanism and the occult in Paris, Lá-bas (Down There) is set in St Sulpice.
Sulpice in Paris
St Sulpice has other connections too. It was founded in 1645 by Jean-
Jacques Olier, a luminary of a mysterious organisation called the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrament, and is
named after a saint of the Merovingian period, whose feast day is 17 January (a date that recurs as somehow highly
significant in connection with the Rennes-le-Château mystery).
The interior of St Sulpice
It is claimed that Saunière's name appears in the visitor's book as he attended a mass there. However, no
evidence has ever been produced to prove this. It may be that the St Sulpice connection was invented to link
Saunière with an acknowledged focus of esoteric interest.
Claim: He frequented the occult salons of Paris
Paris of that period was the centre of a burgeoning revival of interest in all matters esoteric, in which many
members of high society enthusiastically participated. It is said that, through Hoffet, the humble country priest
was introduced into that world, meeting many of the leading characters in the Paris occult scene, and even that he
became the lover of Emma Calvé, the world-renowned opera singer who was also deeply interested in the occult.
This is a claim that comes entirely from the Dossiers secrets. There is no independent evidence to
place Saunière in these circles.
Claim: He had an affair with Emma Calvé
Emma Calvé (1858-1942) was one of the most famous opera singers of her day. She was deeply attracted to,
and a leading participant in, the thriving esoteric scene in Paris, taking as a lover one of the most renowned
occultists of the time, Jules Bois.
In 1894 she bought a château at Cabrières, in the Aveyron region. This was said to be the place where the book
of Abraham the Jew, used by the great medieval alchemist Nicolas Flamel (now the unseen star of the Harry Potter
movie), was hidden.
A book written in 1655 by Pierre Borel made the connection:
Now the book by which Flamel said he came to achieve the Great Work is that of Abraham the Jew. Many have
worked to recover it... but these searches have been useless. I have nevertheless been assured by a gentleman of
Rouergue called M. de Cabrières, tenant of his château of Cabrières near Millau, where I went specially to see this
Monsieur, that he had the original of this book, which M. le Cardinal de Richelieu recovered a short time before
Emma Calvé at the height of her fame
There is a persistent claim that Saunière and Emma became lovers after their meeting in Paris. There is no
specific evidence for this - or even that he went to Paris - although, if (see above) he did frequent the occult
salons of Paris salons in 1891, it is almost inevitable that he would have encountered Emma Calvé. However, there
is some circumstantial evidence that she visited the priest in Rennes-le-Château in the late 1890s or early 1900s
Claim: He bought copies of certain paintings at the Louvre
Saunière is said to have bought copies of three paintings from the Louvre during the putative Paris
episode: Nicolas Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia, David Teniers's The Temptation of St Anthony
and a portrait of the 13th century Pope Celestine V. Presumably - if he did purchase them - he did so
because they were in some way connected with his secret.
The Château of Cabrières
According to the Dossiers secrets, Hoffet made short work of decoding the parchments. The opening words
of the coded message are 'Shepherdess no temptation that Poussin, Teniers hold the key'. Although what this means
is obscure, it
does seem to be a clear reference to the painters Nicolas Poussin and David Teniers. (There were actually
two David Teniers - father and son, although the younger is the more famous of the two.)
The legendry alchemist Nicolas Flamel
The Dossiers secrets say that this prompted Saunière to visit the Louvre to research the works of these
painters, and that he focussed on two of them - apparently suggested by the rest of the sentence: Poussin's The
Shepherds of Arcadia (from the 'shepherd') and Teniers's The Tempation of St Anthony (from 'temptation'). The
significance of the portrait of Pope Celestine V is unknown.
There are, however, good reasons to doubt the scenario as presented in this theory. Not only is there
evidence that the parchments were a fabrication of the 1960s, but the decoding method is so complex and arbitrary
that it is virtually impossible to decipher. Even if the parchments are genuine, the deciphering requires knowledge
of certain other inscriptions in Rennes-le-Château, and so it is unlikely that either Saunière or Hoffet would have
made the necessary connections so quickly.
Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia
Perhaps most damning for this theory is the fact that the BBC's 1996 Timewatch programme 'The History
of a Mystery' found that according to the Louvre's records no copies of either painting were sold during the
The tomb at Les Pontils, near Rennes-le-Château
Yet the paintings themselves do seem to contain some mysteries of their own. It is Poussin's that has attracted
the most interest (mainly because Teniers painted several variations on the theme of The Temptation of St
Anthony, and it is not known which version Saunière supposedly bought). The painting has been connected with a
roadside tomb that - until it was demolished in 1988 - stood just a few miles from Rennes-le-Château, and which
closely resembled the one in the painting. This prompted the speculation that Poussin had visited the area, and had
painted something he had seen there. This in turn suggests that Poussin was an 'initiate' of the secret of
Rennes-le-Château, suggesting that it was known about well before Saunière's day.
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