It was 21st September 1891. Beneath the Knight’s Stone which the two local labourers had just lifted there was a tomb. The local story is that the priest climbed down among the bones, ferreted around and emerged a few minutes later carrying a pot filled with jewels and gold coins. Although the story has no doubt gained much in the retelling over the years, it is probably based at least partly on the truth.
At the time of the French Revolution the village priest was called Antoine Bigou. He made the mistake of voicing royalist sympathies and was therefore labelled a “recalcitrant priest”. In August 1792 the Assembly of the Republic in Paris passed a law proscribing such churchmen. Presumably the Abbé Bigou heard shortly after that his life was now in danger because within a month he had gathered his belongings together and hidden the church valuables and some other objects trusted to his care by the Marchioness of Hautpoul de Blanchefort when she died in 1881(I will discuss this in a later blog). Then he locked up the church and the presbytery and fled to Spain where he died three years later.
So, where better to hide valuables that were too heavy to carry than in a tomb in front of the altar covered by a large stone? Even though the Roman Catholic Church was no longer the power in the republic that it had been when France was a monarchy, the local people were still sufficiently traditional not to look with favour on the desecration of the church and opening up a tomb situated right in front of the altar.
As soon as he climbed out of the tomb Saunière sent the workmen off for an early lunch. When they returned after having eaten they found the church was locked and they were prevented from entering. The priest stayed inside and continued his excavations on his own. After that only his faithful housekeeper, Marie Dénarnaud, was ever let in on the secrets he had found and she took the information to her grave. There is a single brief entry in his diary for that day which says “Discovery of a tomb”.
It has been speculated that the Abbé, prompted by the clue left in the glass phial that was hidden in the column supporting the pulpit, discovered that the tomb had been constructed to hide an entrance to the crypt. All that is known for sure is that when the church was reopened for Mass the following Sunday the evidence of his excavations was hidden behind screens and boarding so that nothing could be seen by the parishioners.
This state of affairs continued for some weeks. Saunière let it be known that he was carrying out repairs to the church on his own to save money. However soon after this he started spending extravagant sums on the restoration of the church and elsewhere around the village. It was clear that he was spending far more than he had obtained from a pot of gold. Not surprisingly tongues started wagging about the possible source of his new-found wealth.
The photo shows the altar in front of which the tomb was located.
Next week I will discuss other possible entrances to the crypt.