The Saunière Story: Facts & Fables

There are many claims made about the Saunière mystery - some considerably wilder than others...

  • Claim: He found parchments hidden in the church

The text of one of the parchments allegedly found by Saunière

The text of one of the parchments allegedly found by Saunière

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.

In the best-known version of the Saunière story, they were parchments bearing coded messages

Monseigneur Billard, Saunière's Bishop

Monseigneur Billard, Saunière's Bishop

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 parchments'.

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.

One of a set of photographs of Alfred Saunière taken in Paris

One of a set of photographs of Alfred Saunière taken in Paris

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.

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

St Sulpice in Paris

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.

St Sulpice has other connections too. It was founded in 1645 by Jean-

The interior of St Sulpice

The interior of St Sulpice

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).

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

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:

Emma Calvé at the height of her fame

Emma Calvé at the height of her fame

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 his death.

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 (see below).

  • Claim: He bought copies of certain paintings at the Louvre

The Château of Cabrières

The Château of Cabrières

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.

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

The legendry alchemist Nicolas Flamel

The legendry alchemist Nicolas Flamel

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 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.

Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia

Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia

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.

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 relevant period...

The tomb at Les Pontils, near Rennes-le-Château

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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