What Did Saunière Find?

The visigothic pillar that originally supported the altar.

The visigothic pillar that originally supported the altar.

Most people believe Saunière grew wealthy as a result of making a discovery - uncovering a treasure trove or even some kind of documents that led him to a valuable, perhaps historic, secret - while excavating in the village church. But what did he find, and where?

Some researchers believe that the discovery was made during the renovation work of 1887-88, which Saunière undertook thanks to funds provided by the Countess of Chambord. During the course of those works two events in particular are highlighted:

  • The replacement of the ancient altar, which was supported by an ancient carved pillar from the Visigothic period (7th or 8th century). This was found to be hollow and documents of some kind were found inside - although Saunière told the village's mayor that they were simply papers relating to the building of the church and the altar.

The find was made by Saunière's bellringer, Antoine Captier, who was helping with the work. One of his grandsons, Barthélémy Captier, who was born in 1905 and was one of Saunière's choirboys, told the story in 1985:

My grandfather rang the bells and, it's said, found a phial in a pillar in the church, when he moved it. And then he gave it to the priest. And after, it's said, the Abbé stopped the work that they were in the course of doing, and afterwards, then it happened, the thing with the money.

My father, sometimes he would say: 'Perhaps that would have been you; you could have been rich.' If he had given it to grandfather, what he had there in the parchment, perhaps, yes, of course.

They believed that he had found a tomb with money inside. It's certain that my grandfather found something in order for him to have done what he did, all that. But I don't believe that he left treasure...

  • The raising of a large flagstone on the floor of the church, which turned out to be a carved slab that had been placed face down. Although badly worn and hard to make out, the carving shows a man - or perhaps two figures - on horseback. From this carving the stone - on display in the village today - has been named the Knight's Stone (Dalle de Chévalier).

In 1966 one of the elderly villagers who had worked on the restoration of the church, Antoine Verdier, testified that something odd had happened:

Our work was already well advanced and we were proceeding with the clearing of the altar, when the priest asked us to stop the work. 'You can come back tomorrow,' he told us. At that moment we were in the presence of a stone on which was engraved a 'knight'. The next day, we noticed that the stone had been worked loose. M. Saunière had us place it in the adjacent garden and refilled the cavity in which the skeletons were found. It was only later, seeing the importance of the immense works that were undertaken, that we made a connection with the incident of the knight's stone.

Some believe that this stone covered the entrance to the crypt beneath the church, about which there is some mystery. Records of the 17th century explicitly refer to its existence, the burial vault of the lords of Rennes-le-Château. However, by Saunière's day the location of the entrance seems to have been forgotten, and even today nobody knows where it is. Recent ground scans have confirmed the existence of a crypt, and plans to excavate it are being drawn up.

 

Dark Deeds Under the Church

The wooden baluster; the removable section covering the hiding place can be seen at the top

The wooden baluster; the removable section covering the hiding place can be seen at the top

One theory is that when the Knight's Stone was removed Saunière, after dismissing the workmen, found his way down into the vault in which the bodies of the lords and ladies were (and presumably still are). Were they buried with jewels and other valuables that Saunière callously stole? Or perhaps the family had hidden its treasure there before sealing the vault during the French Revolution. There is also the possibility that it was not material goods, but documents containing some kind of secret, that the family had hidden there - there are suggestions that the last of the Hautpoul family, the lords of Rennes in the 18th century, had possessed or known something of astonishing importance. 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.'

It is clear that Saunière found something during this restoration work. One of his foster sisters, interviewed in the early 1960s, even confirmed that at that time he found a pot filled with gold pieces - perhaps left by Bigou, who was forced to flee to Spain during the Revolution. But this is not enough to explain his enormous expenditure over the next 15 years. Many similar finds of coins and other valuable objects have been found in the area over the years, and a church is one of the most likely places of finding them.

'Letter from Granès, discovery of a tomb, the evening: rain.'

'Letter from Granès, discovery of a tomb, the evening: rain.'

Others believe that Saunière made his discovery during further restoration work in 1891 - which is more plausible, as it was only from that year that he began spending freely. The priest himself left an enigmatic collage, made up of pictures taken from a religious journal and bearing the words: 'The year 1891 reaches into eternity with the fruit of which they speak below'. Below is a drawing of the Three Wise Men with the legend 'Receive, O King, gold, symbol of royalty.'

In this version, something was found hidden in a concealed compartment within a wooden baluster. Still displayed in the museum in the village, it can be seen that there was a hollow hiding place - although it is far too small to have held much.

Perhaps neither of these events is the key to Saunière's wealth. On 21 September 1891, he made the simple but enigmatic statement in his diary: 'Discovery of a tomb'. What tomb?

Any of these events could be the clue to the priest's mysterious wealth.

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History of Rennes Le Chateau

Inside Saunière's Church

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