Ancient treasures have always captured the interest of numerous enthusiasts. Many have dedicated their whole lives finding these treasures and some have even lost their lives. Perhaps of all treasure hunts, the alleged buried treasure discovered by Bérenger Saunière is the most famous. Housing many conspiracy theories, this small French village of Rennes-le-Château attracts thousands of visitors each year.
The legend of Rennes-le-Château is one of the most complicated treasure hunting stories of all time. It is steeped in the movements of pre-medieval European dynasties and encompasses a whole host of historical unsolved mysteries.
Enthusiasts believe the secret of Rennes-le-Château could reveal the whereabouts of the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant, or indeed almost any other lost treasure.
The story involves mysterious societies like the Knights Templar, the Freemasons and the Priory of Sion. Researchers say that many of those who have been told any of the real details have died in suspicious circumstances. Their fate, and the village’s enigmatic story, all revolved around the arrival of one man.
On 1st June 1885, a recently ordained priest entered the hot, dusty, hilltop village of Rennes-le-Château in the French Pyrenees. Bérenger Saunière was an ambitious young cleric, and was very unimpressed by the dilapidated ninth century church and the uninhabitable presbytery, although he stayed.
In October of that year Saunière was banished from the region for a short time for committing a public order offence when he campaigned against the ruling Republican Party. During this exile from his parish he formed a friendship with the wealthy and respected Countess of Chambord, who loaned him a large sum to rebuild the village church. He began the restoration work five years later, starting with the altar.
As he removed the heavy stone lintel, the ancient pillar on which it stood cracked, and inside it Saunière found three wooden tubes containing parchments. After finding another scrap of paper in a pillar supporting the pulpit, Saunière immediately began digging up parts of the church and its yard. Helped in this by his housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud, Saunière recorded in his personal diary on 21st September 1891, ‘Excavated a grave. Found a tomb.’
What was found in the tomb is unknown, but over the following years Saunière led a very odd life. He built an elaborate estate, which had gardens full of exotic flora and fauna. The whole structure was said to be a recreation of Mary Magdalene’s walk from Magdala to Bethania. Saunière lived in splendour and was said to hold accounts in various major banks. He was known to visit Paris and mix with famous people, but regional church authorities grew tired of his strange behaviour and tried to discipline him.
Saunière said he needed to answer to nobody but the Pontiff and resigned his seat. The villagers of Rennes-le-Château chose to attend Mass at Saunière’s private chapel rather than attend the one provided by the officially installed new priest. On 17th January 1917 Saunière had a serious seizure, and shortly before his death explained how he had come to find his wealth. The priest who heard the details was so disgusted he denied Saunière absolution and last rites.
But Denarnaud also knew the secret and promised to reveal it on her deathbed. Unfortunately she suffered a debilitating stroke and could not talk when she died in 1953. Others who may have understood some aspects of the mysteries suffered horrific fates. Many people believe Denarnaud’s carer, Noel Corbu, may have learnt something from her before her death, but he was killed in a car accident in the same year.
Another local priest, Jean- Antoine-Maurice Gelis, was said to know details during Saunière’s time, but he grew so paranoid that he would let only his niece into his presbytery. On All Saints’ Eve 1897, he was found killed by four blows from an axe. During an investigation in 1956 the corpses of three men who had been shot were found in Saunière’s garden, and in 1967 Fakhur el Islam, a courier carrying Saunière’s secret documents, was found dead on train tracks near Melun in Germany.
It is believed that a secretive society called the Priory of Sion is behind much of the strange history of Rennes-le-Château. The group is said to have strong connections with Freemasons and legends of the Holy Grail. It has been a registered organisation in France since 1956 and has over a thousand members, some of whom are extremely high profile.
The Grand Master until 1963 was Jean Cocteau, and past leaders have included Claude Debussy, Leonardo de Vinci and Isaac Newton. Yet, despite this air of respectability, the organisation is still said to be untraceable. Saunière himself was not so secretive about the treasure though, and it is believed he left many clues in the buildings he erected and the monuments he left.
The design of the church in Rennes-le-Château itself is supposed to be a clue about the treasure. One theory is that Saunière’s wealth came about by his discovery of details relating to an old Christian secret, which he then used to blackmail the Roman Catholic Church. One of the stained glass windows he had commissioned after rebuilding the church depicts both Mary and Joseph holding babies, which has lead some to suspect Saunière had proof that Christ had a twin.
Similarly, it has been considered that perhaps the priest found evidence that Jesus did not die on the cross, but moved to Europe and had a family with Mary Magdalene. Many of the blackmail ideas seem to revolve around elaborate conspiracy theories, but there are also legends of real, sparkling, mystical treasure.
Rennes-le-Château is believed to have been the third largest town in the Visigoth kingdom, when it was known as Rheddae. Visgoths were said to have looted Rome of all its riches in 410 AD and were also believed to have stolen great wealth from Greece and Jerusalem. It was never disclosed exactly where the Visigoths finally buried their treasure, although the fortress of Rheddae was always considered a strong possibility.
Another theory combines aspects of both treasure and religious secrecy. It is suggested that the Cathars, a Christian group who were considered a threat by the Roman Catholic Church, buried something of immense religious importance near Rennes-le-Château before they were destroyed. Some have suggested that this great spiritual treasure may have been the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant.
The great French classical artist, Nicolas Poussin, is also said to have known of the secrets of Rennes-le-Château. He apparently included clues in a number of his paintings; particularly one called Les Bergers d’Arcadie which features a tomb that closely resembles one found near to Rennes-le-Château.
Many factors pointing to the truth behind Saunière’s wealth are still available for study. But despite the best efforts of countless experts, these mysteries remain hidden. Did Saunière find a legendary religious artefact, a horde of ancient treasure, or some terrible Christian secret?
The answers may, one day, be revealed, but for now, Saunière and his money continue to be a curious puzzle.