by Paul Smith
The Rennes-le-Château "mystery" was
created during the mid-1950s when Noël Corbu opened a restaurant in
the Villa Béthanie and needed a publicity gimmick to attract custom.
A lot of the allegations concerning the Abbé Bérenger Saunière (his
discovery of parchments, his 1891/92 trip to Paris, his immense
wealth, etc) are simply post-1956 accretions – there simply was no
"mystery" during the priest’s lifetime. For example, the priest’s
Estate was only valued at 18,000 Francs in 1913 by the Crédit
Foncier de France when Saunière was desperately in need of money and
had asked it for a loan.
Saunière appointed parish priest of Rennes-le-Château.
4 and 18 October 1885 - French General Elections
The Abbé Bérenger Saunière delivered a political sermon from his
pulpit by reading one of the articles from the local religious
paper, La Semaine Religieuse de Carcassonne (which ran a series
of articles about those elections in its issues, aimed at the
‘enemies of the Church’, dated 13 September, 27 September, 4
October, 11 October, and 18 October 1885).
It is not known which of the above articles Saunière read from
his pulpit, but it probably would have been the one dated 11
October that contained the following sentences:
"The victory is not yet
complete. The ballot poll, fixed at Sunday October 18, must
ensure our triumph or deliver us yet to the keen enemies of
the Religion and Fatherland. The moment is thus solemn and
it is necessary to employ all our forces against our
adversaries. That is our great concern.... Yes, let us act,
pray, amend ourselves, make penitence; and perhaps we will
obtain that this day of October 18, becomes for us a day of
Saunière would have asked his
parishioners to vote for the ‘Union of the Right’, dedicated to
the reversal of the anticlerical legislations of the Republican
Government and towards the restoration of the French Monarchy –
this Party was comprised of a coalition of the Conservatives,
the Bonapartists and the Monarchists – with the Monarchists
being the most successful part of the coalition during the 1885
elections winning the most Seats.
It was this success by the Monarchists within the ‘Union of the
Right’ coalition, by gaining so many extra Seats, that forced
the Republic into introducing the Law of Exile in 1886 banishing
all the French Royal Heads from France.
On 8th February 1884 there appeared the Papal Encyclical of
Leo XIII, ‘Nobilissima Gallorum Gens’ - ‘To the Most Noble French
Nation’, On the Religious Question in France - addressed to the
Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops of France - mentioning that
France was alienating itself from its past Catholic Traditions
and that it had to do all it could to restore those values.
30 October 1885 – Mgr Billard receives a complaint from the
Minister of Religion relating to the ‘reprehensible behaviour’
of four clerics during the electoral period of 1885 and asking
for their transfers.
15 November 1885 – Mgr Billard responded by stating that
Saunière had no intention of attacking the Government, but had
the right as the Defender of Religion to read an article from La
Semaine Religieuse de Carcassonne, "to give advice to the voters
of his parish in the presence of anti-Christian anti-Concordat
programmes of several candidates of the deputation".
2 December 1885 – René Goblet, the Minister of Religion, wrote
to Mgr Billard stating that he had suspended four priests in the
B.Saunière, curate at Rennes-le-Château; Tailhan, curate at
Roullens; Jean, curate at Bourriège and Delmas, vicar at Alet.
13 December 1885 – Article appeared in La Semaine Religieuse de
Carcassonne, criticising the suspension of the four priests by
the Minister of Religion, mentioning:
"To the long list of priests who
became victim of a systematic persecution since the last
electoral period, are to be added the names of four priests
of the diocese: Jean - Tailhan - Delmas- Saunière. M. the
Prefect of the Aude has notified them a Ministerial decision
that suppresses their salary, from 1st December 1885. Their
Bishop opposed in vain a firm and dignified justification to
the accusations carried against them; there was sorrow to
see that M. the Minister of Religion didn't take any account
of it. The blabbers triumphed. Can they understand the
gravity of their fault, seeing the consequences in their
respective dioceses of their malevolent denouncement...?"
1885 election results:
Republicans 383 seats; 'Union of Right' 201 seats (Royalists 73
seats; Bonapartists 65 seats; Conservatives 63 seats).
Abbé Bérenger Saunière
temporarily transferred to the Seminary of Narbonne for
delivering anti-Republican, right-wing sermons during the
Republican Government confirmed the Law exiling the Heads of the
Royal Houses from French soil (repealed after the Second World
The Royalist politician,
Baron de Mackau, instrumental in forming the alliance between
French Royalists and General Georges Boulanger, becoming a most
important intermediary between the two forces. Royalists hoped
to use Boulanger as a ‘battering ram’ to topple the Republic.
Boulanger was also backed by Radical politicians hoping to make
him into the standard-bearer of constitutional revision in order
to create a more democratic Republic.
Bérenger Saunière reinstated at Rennes-le-Château: began
renovating his church. New altar (with the help of a donation
from Mme. Marie Cavailhé) and stained-glass windows installed in
1889 election results:
Republicans 366 seats; Right 210 seats (Royalists 86 seats;
Boulangists 72 seats; Bonapartists 52 seats).
General Georges Boulanger elected in Paris on 27 January –
seeking to gain the Catholic vote, offering religious peace and
stability within a Republican framework.
"The clergy intervened more openly in the elections than in
previous ones, taking a stand against the Republicans, who had
just passed the law establishing 3 years military service and
obliging seminarists, like students and future members of the
teaching profession, to serve for a year. The military law and
the educational laws were from then on the Catholics' great
subject of protest."
- J-M Mayeur & M Reberioux, The Third
Republic from its Origins to the Great War, 1871-1914; Cambridge
University Press, 1977.
General Boulanger's speech in Tours on 17 March (written by
General Boulanger later fled to Belgium following threats of
arrest for plotting to overthrow the state – he was tried in
abstentia by the Senate sitting at a high court and was
condemned to life imprisonment.
On an Episcopal visit to Rennes-le-Château, Mgr Billard
congratulated Saunière on everything he had done, consoling him,
and encouraging him, in spite of all the difficulties that he
had encountered, to try and continue his pastoral ministry.
Monsignor Billard, Bishop
of Carcassonne, inherits 1,200,000 Francs from the widow Madame
Rose Denise Marguerite Victorine Sabatier of Coursan – not in
his capacity as Bishop, but in his own private person (the
Bishop was an active anti-Republican).
Pope Leo XIII sanctioned a local Feast of the apparition of Our
Lady of Lourdes, authorizing a proper office and mass.
Ceremony 21 June 1891: Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Visigothic Pillar installed by Bérenger Saunière at Rennes-le-Château,
in the presence of a Lazarist from the church of Notre-Dame de
Marceille. (Père Emmanuel d'Alzon, the founder of the
Assumptionist Order, regarded Lourdes as the symbol of the
restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy.)
Formation of ‘Union of Christian France’:
'Co-operation of Christians and all respectable people, whatever
their political opinions, to defend and demand unanimously
civil, social and religious liberties.'
In Toulouse on 19 July, Comte d'Haussonville, representative of
the Comte de Paris, expressed the view that it was,
Archbishop of Paris, on 2 March, denounced anti-Christian sects
who wanted to make 'a series of anti-religious laws the
essential constitution of the Republic'.
General Georges Boulanger died (Saunière noted in his journal
for 30 September 1891: "Mort de Boulanger").
Pope Leo XIII calls to
French Catholics to rally in support of the Republic, putting to
an end the solidarity between the Church and the Monarchists
(‘Union of Catholic France’ dissolved soon afterwards).
From 'La Croix':
'La Croix' accepted the Tricolor
but only on condition that the white part bore a picture of
the Sacred Heart, the sign of the consecration of the
Republic to Christ. – J-M Mayeur & M Reberioux, The Third
Republic from its Origins to the Great War, 1871-1914
(Cambridge University Press; 1977).
1893 election results:
Republicans 488 seats; Right 93 seats (Monarchists 58 seats; 'ralliès'
Church of Notre-Dame de Marceille purchased by Monsignor Billard,
the Bishop of Carcassonne.
Philippe VIII, becomes
the Orleanist Pretender to the French Throne.
The National Pilgrimage to Lourdes was an overtly
Sanctions imposed against
Saunière by the local Parish Council on 20 July for his refusal
to assist in putting out a fire in the village on 14 July –
selling of masses activities takes-off on a Grand Scale – with
it becoming noticed by his superiors at the Bishopric of
Carcassonne. Saunière advertised in religious magazines,
journals and papers around the world, and the requests for
masses just poured in – the priest had cashed-in on a religious
activity during the height of the conflict between Church and
State in France 1885-1905.
Bérenger Saunière made
major additions to his Church – installing the statues of the
Saints, the Stations of the Cross, the ornate Baptismal Font,
the Holy-Water Stoup, and a Bas-Relief of Jesus Christ on the
Mount above the Confessional.
The Baptismal Font depicted the Baptism of Christ,
the restoration of the French Monarchy; whilst the Holy Water
Stoup was decorated with the figure of the Devil, symbolizing
the vanquishing of the French Republic. The imagery was
obviously regarded as a preliminary to the forthcoming 1898
French General Election.
6 June 1897 – Saunière’s church re-consecrated by Monsignor
Billard, the Bishop of Carcassonne in the company of R. P.
Mercier, a Lazarist priest from the Church of Notre Dame de
The Calvary that was installed at Rennes-le-Château contained
the opening-line to the French Coronation Anthem: Christus
Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat!
Bérenger Saunière was to write to Monsieur Giscard, the supplier
of the additions to his Church:
Dear Monsieur Giscard,
Our splendid Pentecost celebrations, which were accompanied by a
temporary suspension of our mission and by the visit of our Lord
Bishop, have made it impossible for me to acknowledge sooner the
receipt of all the items – as rich as they are varied – that
your firm has kindly supplied to us, and to tell you something
of the effect they have made on the countless people who have
seen them. Before a crowd that was much too large for our little
church, His Grace cast his eye over all the beautiful items
amassed in the House of God: statues, bas-reliefs, pulpits, Ways
of the Cross, a font – nothing was overlooked. But what
especially caught his eye were the piscina, the font and the
bas-relief. He especially liked the last of these, and spent a
long time studying it in great detail. He asked me in front of
everybody who the artist was who had so beautifully rendered the
scene of 'Come ye all to me'. Of course, I told him your name.
And then, probably without even knowing you, he started praising
you in the highest possible terms in front of all my many
colleagues. The next day – Monday – we had some visitors, not
only from neighbouring parishes but also from very far afield
and, according to many people, news of all these wonderful
objects has spread all over the département. Deo gratias! I'm
delighted above all for you, Monsieur Giscard, since your name,
which is already being passed around among those many colleagues
of mine who attended the Pentecost celebrations, is certainly
destined to become famous. Thank God, and may your excellent
firm prosper even-more. This is what I ask heaven to grant to
B. SAUNIÈRES [sic], Priest.
1898 election results:
Republicans 489 seats; Right 96 seats (Monarchists 44 seats; 'ralliés'
32 seats; Nationalists 6 seats; Révisionists 4 seats; Diverse 10
Monsignor Billard, Bishop of Carcassonne, struck down with
paralysis – having also been suspended from his post for,
administered the assets of his diocese in the most irregular
fashion and for having contracted staggering debts, which were
(Simon Laborde, Biographical notice on
Monsignor Billard, late Bishop of Carcassonne, 1902).
"At the end of 1899, the
diocesan bishop had put Saunière's name forward for approval
by the préfet as a 'personnat' [a benefice in a cathedral
that took precedence over the canons]. This proposal, as was
then the custom, involved an official investigation, which
was entrusted to the sous-préfet of Limoux. On 16 October
1899 this official replied to the préfet: "Monsieur Saunière
is comfortably off. He has no family responsibilities. His
conduct is good. He professes anti-government views.
Attitude: militant reactionary. Negative recommendation"
(*Arch. Aude, series O. Rennes).
Abbé Saunière was not appointed to a personnat." – René
Descadeillas, Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes (1974), page
Pope Leo XIII consecrates
the whole human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
LAW OF ASSOCIATIONS:
promulgated by the French Government according to which no
religious congregations could be formed without authorization
from the State. Congregations had to submit an annual list of
members, property, and financial status that had to be submitted
to the Government authorities on request.
Bérenger Saunière builds
his Estate: the Villa Béthanie; the Tour Magdala, the Gardens
and Terraces, etc.
1902 election results:
Republicans 465 seats; Right 124 seats (Conservatives 89 seats;
Liberals 35 seats).
Monsignor Paul-Félix Beuvain de Beauséjour replaces Monsignor
Paul-Félix-Arséne Billard as the Bishop of Carcassonne.
Separation of the Church
from State in France. Bérenger Saunière from this moment in time
begins to live in poverty, the demise of his success in his
selling of masses activities (what little he made from this
point on was spent on his future legal fees relating to his
Court Battles with his superiors at the Carcassonne Bishopric).
Pope Pius X condemned the
separation of the Church from State in France in two
1906 election results: Republicans 441 seats; Right 174
seats (Conservatives 78 seats; Liberals 66 seats; Nationalists
Pope Pius X extends the
Feast of the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes to the whole
transferred to Coustouge: replaced by Abbé Marty at Rennes-le-Château.
The Town Mayor wrote a letter of complaint in response to the
Carcassonne Bishopric, advising the Bishop that the Presbytery
would not be made available to any replacement priest.
27 May 1910 – The Bishop’s Court of Carcassonne began an
investigation into Bérenger Saunière’s activities at Rennes-le-Château,
the bill of indictment referred to:
Trafficking in Masses
Disobedience to the Bishop (continuing to request fees for
masses outside the diocese despite being forbidden to do so by
Exaggerated and unjustified expenses (resulting from receiving
money for unsaid masses)
Bérenger Saunière refused to appear before the Bishop’s Court on
16 July 1910 – and on 23 July 1910 was suspended of his
priesthood for one month, and ordered to return the money that
he was not able to say masses for [First Judgment]. Saunière
was summoned again to appear before the Court on 23 August 1910
– but he managed to change the date to 15 October 1910 – and was
instead represented by his Lawyer Canon Huguet – resulting in
Saunière having to appear before the Court on 5 November 1910 –
on which occasion Saunière actually appeared, and was sentenced
to undertake spiritual exercises for 10 days at a monastery and
to appear before the Bishop within one month producing documents
of proof relating to his activities [Second Judgment]. It was
during the hearing of 5 November 1910 that the following
statement was made in the said Sentence:
This contradicts the claims Saunière made when he provided a
List of Donors at his Trial totalling a huge sum of 193,000
Francs that he claimed to have received (including a sum of
3,000 Francs that he had allegedly received from the Comtesse de
Chambord!) – claiming to have spent it on the renovations of his
church and on the building of his estate – the more realistic
estimate would have been in the region of 70,000 Francs, as
Saunière himself claimed in the original drafts for his defense
– and Saunière could only account for around 36,000 francs of
his expenditure at his Trial. The reason for Saunière
"inflating" his figures was simple: to divert attention away
from a sum small enough to have been gained through the selling
1910 election results: Republicans 441 seats; Right 149 seats (Conservatives 129 seats;
Liberals 20 seats).
"I don't see what could prevent
you from living in Lourdes, as we cannot go to Lourdes this
week I am dropping the idea for this year" – Part of a
letter to Bérenger Saunière from Abbé Gazel, the curé of
Floure, dated 12 September 1910.
5 December 1910 – La Semaine
Religieuse de Carcassonne announced that Bérenger Saunière no
longer had the right to say masses.
The Bishop of Carcassonne
issued a strong warning against Bérenger Saunière in February,
accusing him of selling masses without his consent and
forbidding him to administer the Sacraments.
La Semaine Religieuse De Carcassonne,
3 February 1911
COMMUNICATION OF THE BISHOPRIC
Relative advice to M. l’Abbé Saunière
Former priest of Rennes-le-Château
Following an account dated 11 December 1910, in the supplement
to Nr13 of VEILLEES DES CHAUMIERES, thus: Always as before
inform Violette de l’Aisne, that M. l’Abbé Saunière, in retreat
at Rennes-le-Château, by Couiza (Aude), France, performs masses
at 1 Franc per time and is obliged to receive money for other
religious works, literary articles, pamphlets, stamps, etc.
The Diocesan authority of Carcassonne deems it right to inform
the faithful of this diocese, and so far as is able to inform
1* That M. l’Abbé Saunière,
former priest of Rennes-le-Château, is in no way authorised
to demand beyond this diocese, or to receive from other
dioceses, money for saying masses;
2* That he has not been given
any assignment or authorisation, to undertake or conduct any
works whatever having as their objective the (Catholic)
Carcassonne, 1 February 1911
On 5 December 1911 the Carcassonne
Bishopric imposed a Third and Final Judgement on Bérenger
Saunière: after citing a list of indictments against the priest
involving disobediences against the Bishop, the following
Sentence was passed:
"We condemn the priest Abbé
Bérenger Saunière to a suspension a divinis for a period of
three months, effective from the day of the notification of
the present sentence, which suspension in any case will
continue until he has undertaken the restitution into the
hands of the rightful owner and according to canon law of
the goods misappropriated by him."
Since it was impossible for Bérenger Saunière to return the
money that he had accepted for unsaid masses, the three month
suspension turned out to be permanent, and the only hope
Saunière had was to appeal against the Sentence to the Vatican,
which proved unsuccessful (Saunière in fact began protesting to
the Vatican about his treatment from 15 October 1910 onwards).
Saunière never regained his priesthood following this Sentence.
The Crédit Foncier de
France offered Bérenger Saunière a 6,000 Francs loan, having
valued the priest’s Estate at 18,000 Francs, after he had asked
it for a loan to clear his debts.
1914 election results:
Republicans 475 seats; Right 120 seats (dont Fédération rép. 37;
Action liberté 23; divers droite 15; non inscrits 45).
Bérenger Saunière enjoyed
a second period of success at selling masses – although not as
successful as during the 1896-1905 first period – France was at
War and the priest received requests for masses from
neighbouring dioceses, despite his interdiction.
Saunière undertakes a
pilgrimage to Lourdes.
Bérenger Saunière died:
his suspension from priestly duties only being lifted in
articulo mortis ("at the moment of death"). He was not described
as a priest in the Obituary column of Semaine Religieuse de
Carcassonne dated 27th January. Marie Dénarnaud could not afford
to pay for his coffin until 12 June 1917. Claims that Bérenger
Saunière was immensely rich in 1917 and had ambitions to
undertake another building project were the inventions of Noel
Corbu during the 1950s.
The Testimony of Monsieur
Espeut from Perpignan:
"...I would like to state that
the Abbé Saunière never found any treasure. You see, I was
actually born in Espéraza. My family knew the Dénarnaud
family. In 1925, when I was 14 years old, I used to go up
regularly to Rennes-le-Château. I used to go and see Marie
Dénarnaud. She was living in rather pitiable circumstances.
I did my harmony lessons on the organs in the salon, which
have now disappeared. In the library of the Tour Magdala, I
read all the correspondence of the priest with his
ecclesiastical lawyer at the time of his trial at the court
of Rome. It was by collecting money for saying masses that
the Abbé Saunière was able to construct his estate. He
published small ads in the Catholic press throughout the
world. I was able to read their texts, and I have seen
thousands of replies. I would also like to state that,
between the ages of 15 and 20, I thoroughly searched the
area within a 500-metre radius of the Villa and the Tour
Magdala. I never found the slightest evidence of a hidden
treasure. I am telling you this out of respect for the
(Midi Libre, 13 February, 1973).
bequeathed Saunière’s Estate to Noel Corbu.
Jean Bousquet village
schoolmaster at Rennes-le-Château, and a lodger with the Corbu
family. His testimony:
"As for Mademoiselle Marie, she
has, on each and every occasion, evaded the questions that I
was able to put to her regarding, in particular, the source
of Saunière's fortune. And yet, for 5 years, we even took
our meals together at the table of Monsieur and Madame Corbu
(who had been kind enough to offer me lodgings). Since I am
mentioning Monsieur and Madame Corbu, let me say that I
cannot ever praise their generosity and their kindness
highly enough. They looked after Mademoiselle Marie with a
great deal of affection, and for me they were the most
charming of hosts. I shall always revere their memory."
(Cited by Gilbert Tappa in Les Cahiers de Rennes-le-Château,
volume 3; 1989.)
Marie Dénarnaud died aged
85 – Corbu inherits her archives relating to Bérenger Saunière.
The Beginning of the Myth
of Rennes-le-Château: Albert Salamon’s La Fabuleuse Découverte
du Curé aux Milliards de Rennes-le-Château (La Dépêche de Midi
12, 13 and 14 January) – claiming that Saunière had discovered a
treasure – using Noel Corbu as his source.
unsuccessfully scanned Rennes-le-Château for gold and jewels
using a metal-detector. The beginning of the Pilgrimages to
Rennes-le-Château by those duped into the now-quickly escalating
post-1956 myths and legends.
Jacques Cholet, a
Professor from Paris, undertook official excavations in the
church of Rennes-le-Château, yielding negative results:
"On my own account I excavated
both under and behind the altar but found nothing. I also
excavated in line with and in front of the altar – again
nothing.….I was also made to tear up the floor of the
church, starting from the pulpit: my sponsor, a pendulum
enthusiast, had located the entrance of the underground
passageways there – but we found nothing. I persevered as
far as the foundations of the church, digging as far as
virgin soil. We found the outline of numerous empty vaults.
We resumed the same task along the south wall, with
approximately the same result, the only difference being
that all the human remains, which were missing on the other
side, had been placed there higgledy-piggledy. On the advice
of a female clairvoyant we were urged to excavate behind the
altar – but found nothing."
(Cholet's Report, dated 25 April
Noel Corbu’s Essai
Historique sur Rennes-le-Château – a five paged manuscript
deposited in the ‘Archives de l’Aude’ in Carcassonne – being a
possible transcript of a 1955/1956 tape-recording made for the
guests to Corbu’s restaurant in the Villa Béthanie.
Saunière’s Estate sold by
Noel Corbu to Henri Buthion (Corbu was later killed in a car
accident in 1968).
Gérard de Sède’s L’Or de
Rennes – primary addition to the myth-making process – the
impact of which was to last for decades, despite its rebuttal by
Monsignor George Boyer, the Vicar-General of the Bishopric of
Carcassonne, who also wrote:
"That the Abbé Saunière could have
received the last sacraments two days after his death is
absolutely incredible. And that dear old Abbé Rivière, the curé
of Espéraza, who died in 1929, and who was the Dean of Coursan
(where I got to know him well) never smiled again after the
death of the Abbé Saunière, to whom he had administered extreme
unction, is another puzzling statement, as I myself saw him roar
Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes: Histoire Veritable de L'Abbé
Saunière, Curé de Rennes-Le-Château (Mémoires de la Société des
Arts et des Sciences de Carcassonne, Annees 1971-1972, 4me série,
Tome VII, 2me partie; 1974). [Reprinted in 1991 by Editions
Jacques Rivière, Le
Fabuleux Trésor de Rennes-Le-Château! Le Secret de L'Abbé
Saunière (Editions Bélisane; 1983).
Pierre Jarnac, Histoire
Du Trésor de Rennes-Le-Château (L'Association pour le
développement de la lecture; 1985).
Claire Corbu & Antoine
Captier, L'Héritage De L'Abbé Saunière (Editions Bélisane;
Pierre Jarnac, Les
Archives De Rennes-Le-Château, Tome 1 & 2. (Editions Bélisane;
Abbé Bruno de Monts,
Bérenger Saunière, Curé à Rennes-Le-Château 1885-1909 (Editions
Formation of Association
Terre de Rhedae – devoted to the history of Rennes-le-Château
with its then President, Claire Corbu-Captier, also being the
Curator of the ‘Saunière Museum’.
Jean-Jacques Bedu, Rennes-Le-Château:
Autopsie d'un mythe (Ed. Loubatières; 31120 Portet-sur-Garonne;
Vinciane Denis, Rennes-Le-Château,
Le trésor de l'abbé Saunière (Editions Marabout, Collection "les
Grands Formats"; 1996).
beneath the Tour Magdala on 20 August 2003 by Professors
Eisenman and Baratollo in search of treasure yielded negative
results – the project dated from April 2001 and was based upon
taking seriously the myths and legends about Bérenger Saunière
found in pseudo-historical books. The scholars had overlooked
titles by René Descadeillas (1974), Abbé Bruno de Monts (1989)
and Jean-Jacques Bedu (1990).