Dec 192011

The priest of Rennes-le-Château. Bérenger Saunière, having made some startling discoveries during the restoration of the village church in 1891, was sent by the Bishop of Carcassonne to talk to the Catholic Chuirch authorities at Saint Sulpice in Paris. There he was fêted by some of the most famous French personalities of the day and started friendships which resulted in these people continuing to make visits to him in Rennes-le-Chateau for many years afterwards.

On his return to the village Saunière started spending money on a vast scale for an individual. He personally paid for a three kilometre-long road to be engineered up into the hills to link Rennes to the main road system of France. He also installed a running water and sewage system for the village which was still an unusual advantage in the nineteenth century. He had a large house built called the Villa Bethania where he could entertain his important international guests. An attractive tower called the Tour Magdala (the Magdalen Tower – see photograph) was constructed in a spectacular location with far-reaching views where he housed the library he had acquired.

But the most strange way in which he spent his money was in the restoration of the church which can be seen by present-day visitors to the area. Instead of simple reconstruction and redecoration, the church has been crammed full of the most bizarre statues and paintings which the simple exterior would not suggest. Above the entrance porch the tympanum is decorated with roses and crosses (Rosicrucian connections?). Just inside the door the holy water stoup is carried on the shoulders of a hideously grimacing devil which seems out of place in a holy building.

At the west end of the church the fine semi-circular fresco has various odd details. Around the walls are painted the Stations of the Cross, again with curious inconsistencies. And the magnificent altar carries a complex story. Just beside the Sacristy there is apparently a secret room approached through the back of some cupboards but to which the public are not allowed access.

The church is dedicated to St Mary Magdalen whom the Catholic Church regarded as a sinner but who was forgiven and converted by Jesus. In this connection it is claimed that the Cathars had proof that this Mary had become the actual wife of Christ and had borne him a daughter whose descendants, through the Merovingian royal line, were the forbears of the Cathars.


Next week I will tell you about some of the other mysteries linked to Rennes-le-Chateau.


Dec 112011

In 1891, a few years after his arrival in Rennes-le-Château. Bérenger Saunière, the village priest, began restoration of the little church which was in a dilapidated state. He was able to do this because of the gift he had received from Johann von Habsburg. In the course of this restoration he removed the altar which consisted of a large slab of dressed stone supported on two ancient pillars with Visigoth carvings on them. One of these stones was found to have a hollowed out space in it and in this void were sealed tubes containing parchments, one dating from AD 1244 – the year of the destruction of the Cathars at Montségur.

Much discussion has taken place about the deciphering of the writing on these documents with various authorities giving different views of the purpose and information which they give. There are coded references to an ancient Merovingian King Dagobert II who ruled from AD 656 to 679 (who was murdered and later canonised) and a treasure which belonged to him. There is also mention of Sion, thought by some to be referring to the Order of Our Lady of Sion, believed to be the original Order which founded the Templars.  In addition there were references to works by famous painters Poussin and Teniers which are supposed to hold the key to a secret. I will come back to this in later blogs.

Soon after this Saunière noted in his diary that he had discovered a tomb under an unmarked slab of stone in the church floor. No further information was written in his journal but it is believed that this ‘tomb’ was in fact found to be the entrance to a flight of steps leading to the crypt under the church which had previously been unknown. The crypt (if it was such a place) has never since been rediscovered but it was soon after the priest’s discoveries that he seemed to become inordinately wealthy. Later his house-keeper apparently told people in the village that they were ‘walking on gold’ without realising it. Why is this underground room still a secret?

The photo shows a view of the little church at Rennes-le-Château. Next week I will tell you what Bérenger Saunière did with some of the wealth which he had discovered.


Dec 042011

About four miles north-west of the castle of le Bézu lies the little village of Rennes-le-Château, occupying a prominent position at the corner of an agricultural and forested plateau. This village of only a couple of hundred occupants didn’t even have a road reaching it until late in the nineteenth century. However it has a fascinating history.

Rennes-le-Château claims to be all that is left of the ancient city of Rhedae which had a population of more than 50,000. The city was supposed to have been founded by the Romans and was later developed by the Visigoths as one of their major cities in about the year AD 410. Local legends claim that the treasures which they pillaged during the sack of Rome was brought here and, from time to time, Roman coins and other items of value are dug up in  the surrounding country.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Rhedae was destroyed by wars, the Albigensian Crusade and the plague and the small remaining township, now called Rennes-le-Château, lay almost forgotten for more than six hundred years. The Blanchefort family, whose ancestors included prominent Cathars and Templars, rebuilt the castle. To one side was a run-down church with a stumpy tower and a number of houses were clustered round it.

Then, in 1885, a remarkable 33 year-old man was appointed priest to the tiny community. Bérenger Saunière was a clever, well-educated man  who seems to have incurred the displeasure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and his appointment to the lowly living of Rennes-le-Château was almost equivalent to being exiled. He received a very small annual stipend, found himself with a church in an almost ruinous state and seemed to be looking at a future with very poor prospects.

Then a remarkable thing happened. A mysterious gentleman arrived at the village who claimed to be an envoy from monarchist sympathisers. (France by then was a republic and the Bourbon kings had been permanently deposed.) He gave Curé Saunière a huge sum of money equivalent to about five hundred years annual salary for the purpose of restoring the church. In return the priest was asked to give any documents he found to his benefactor.

The gentleman often returned to visit the cure and view the restoration and continued the visits until Saunière’s death. It is claimed that he was actually an archduke of Austro-Hungary (known as the Holy Roman Empire) and was named Johann von Habsburg.

The photo shows a general view of Rennes-le-Château. Next week I will tell you what Bérenger Saunière discovered when he began the restoration of the church.