Rennes-le-Château: A Tiny Town, a Problematic Priest, and a Massive Mystery

Most of us are familiar with Dan Brown’s 2003 best seller, The Da Vinci Code. It’s filled with conspiracy theories and secret societies. But did you know that it all started with a poor priest in a little village in the south of France?

Father Saunière – The priest with a secret

 François-Bérenger Saunière

In 1885, in the Languedoc region of southern France, there lived a charismatic thirty-three-year-old priest called François-Bérenger Saunière. He was newly-ordained and had been teaching at a seminary in Narbonne. Then because of being “too independent” he was sent to Rennes-le-Château, a small village of about 300 inhabitants and a dilapidated church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. 

It wasn’t a promotion. The church had a leaky roof, the broken windows were boarded up, and the bell was cracked all the way around. The presbytery was uninhabitable, and he had to lodge with one of the parishioners for a while. I guess they figured he couldn’t make it any worse. 

The charismatic young priest persuaded the villagers to pitch in, and he convinced business owners to help fund the necessary repairs. Soon they were holding services in the church and he was able to move into the presbytery. But Father Saunière didn’t stop there. He embarked upon a major refurbishment project for his little church. He turned on the charm and continued to bring in donations and to get workmen to volunteer their time on weekends.

The church at Rennes-le-Château

 Buried Treasure?

During the church renovation, something happened. One legend says that ancient parchments were found inside one of the pillars. Another story says that gold coins were found. The only thing we know for sure that was found was the Knights Stone, a medieval carving depicting a knight or a hunting scene. 

Whatever was found, Father Saunière began to behave oddly. He was seen at night rummaging around the church with his young housekeeper, Marie Dénarnaud, holding the lantern for him. Then the two of them were seen digging in the cemetery at night. The city council finally had to file a complaint to stop them disturbing the graves. What was going on? Could one of the parchments have been a treasure map?

The Magdala Tower built by Father Saunière

 Fortune Found?

After about five years of digging and searching, something else happened. It seemed that the minimum-wage-earning priest had come into some money, and lots of it. He started spending lavishly on church decorations. Then he bought several plots of land and built himself quite an estate. He built a grand home called Villa Bethania, a large tower (the Magdala Tower) where he studied, an orangery, a garden with a pool, and a cage of monkeys. His housekeeper, Marie Dénarnaud, her father, and her brother moved into the villa with him. They entertained rich and important people, and Marie wore the latest fashions from Paris.

Of course, this sudden increase in wealth didn’t go unnoticed. The humble priest must have credited it to God’s blessings, but some folks thought there might be another explanation. There were rumors that he had found a treasure somewhere. How else could all the digging and then the sudden increase of fortune be explained? No one ever found the answer.

In 1917 François-Bérenger Saunière died. To everyone’s amazement, he didn’t have a penny to his name. The whole estate and all its contents had been put into Marie Dénarnaud’s name. Marie, however, didn’t have the priest’s knack for finding funds. She struggled along for nearly thirty years, selling off bits of the estate to survive. 

Villa Bethania – built by Father Saunière

 Corbu and Blanche of Castille: A Story to Bring in Customers

In 1946 Noël Corbu came into the picture. He bought the estate from Marie and opened a restaurant. He searched the property for clues to the mystery but found nothing. That didn’t faze him. He just made up a story to attract customers to his restaurant. He said Father Saunière had found a horde of gold coins that had been hidden by Blanche of Castille during the Middle Ages. He claimed that only a portion of it had been found and the rest was still hidden.

The diners at his restaurant loved the story which got better with each telling. In 1956 a local paper published an interview with Corbu. It brought more visitors to Rennes-le-Château and to Corbu’s restaurant. The village became a treasure-hunter’s paradise.

Plantard and the Priory of Sion: Another Version of the Story

In the early 1960s, the story caught the attention of Pierre Plantard who had founded the Priory of Sion just a few years earlier. He claimed it was a secret society which had actually begun in 1099 to reinstate the Merovingian Kings. The Merovingians had ruled France until the 7th century when it was believed that the last heir to the throne died. According to Plantard, however, there was one son who had escaped death. He fled to Rennes-le-Château and, believe it or not, he was Plantard great, great grandaddy.

Plantard went to Rennes-le-Château and he and Corbu swapped treasure theories. They decided that maybe it wasn’t Blanche’s treasure that the priest had found. Maybe it was something else. Something like parchments proving that the Merovingian bloodline still existed. 

Soon after their meeting, Corbu did anothe interview. This time he left Blanche completely out of the picture. Now he claimed that the priest had found ancient parchments containing a dangerous secret.

Priory of Sion symbol

 The Gold of Rennes: The Story Becomes a Book

This story reached the ears of Gérard de Sède, a French author. He met with Plantard to get more details and the result was a book published in 1967 called L’Or de Rennes (Gold of Rennes). Plantard’s story was told as historical fact. The book even contained copies of two of the parchments as proof. The only problem? They were fakes. Philippe de Chérisey confessed that he had forged the documents and they had planted them in in the National Library of France.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail: Another Book Adds Jesus to the Mix

In the 1970s the BBC picked up on the mystery at Rennes-le-Châteaur and did a series of documentaries about it. These inspired another book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a best-seller published in 1982. 

This book expanded upon the original story. It suggested that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and had at least one child with her. After the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and their offspring went to southern France where Jesus’ descendants married into what would become the line of Merovingian Kings. This made the secret lineage not only heirs to the throne of France, but also descendants of Jesus. And Plantard’s secret society, the Priory of Sion, had been protecting them ever since. 

Two books inspired by Father Saunière’s mystery

 The Da Vinci Code

Holy Blood, Holy Grail inspired Dan Brown to pick up the story again in his bestseller, The Da Vinci Code in 2003. He even gave one of his characters, Jacques Saunière, the same last name as the priest. 

The Real Story

Father Saunière’s story makes for a good mystery novel and leaves lots of room for the imagination, but what is the truth behind it? Did the good Father find a hidden treasure? Did he discover a dangerous secret? Or was he simply an ambitious man who found a way to get people to give him money?

There’s no evidence that Father Saunière ever found any valuable treasure. We do know, however, that he was charismatic and able to convince wealthy people to help fund his church decorations. We also know that he collected lots of money for saying prayers and masses. 

In 1899 he bought a clergymen’s directory which he used to contact priests, monasteries, and convents all over Europe. In exchange for a donation, he would say a special mass for whatever need they had. From 1901-1908 he was investigated by Bishop Beauséjour for selling masses. The Bishop found that Saunière had placed ads in Catholic magazines all over France and Europe, and that he couldn’t possibly have said all the masses people had paid him for.

Could it be that Father Saunière never found a treasure at all? Could it be that, instead, he embarked upon a massive prayer-selling scheme that made him wealthy? We may never know, but the mystery has, at least, led to a few good books and movies…

Image Sources: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4, Image 5, Image 6: Amazon images, Image 7

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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

24 comments

  1. I love this article. Shows how often people, like Noel Corbu, just enhance story details to increase business. Well, not a lot has changed in that regard. Thank you, Margo.

  2. Fascinating Margo. Being I’m afraid to admit, a ‘non conspiracy theory’ sort of person, I lean towards the ‘canny’, charming, businessman aspect, selling masses of Masses. But that doesn’t explain the digging! So maybe the gold coins too!! A super mystery though and the real story is more compelling to me than the blockbuster followers.

    1. I’m with you, Lisa. Maybe he found a few coins or even a map which led him to believe that there was treasure somewhere in the region – hence the digging. However, it seems that most of his wealth came from his very profitable prayers… 🙂

  3. Wonderful research Margo. And I think your idea of the reason for Father Saunière’s Wealth is much better than all the others – having researched a little deeper and discovered Father Saunièr’s money making scheme (which could not be replicated by his housekeeper after his death). Having read both ‘Holy Blood and Holy Grail’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’, I think your theory is much more likely. Thank you. Paula

    1. Thanks, Paula. I think Father Saunière is an intriguing character on his own, and I find it really interesting how the story grew after his death. From one man wanting to bring business to his restaurant, to another man wanting to prove that he was of royal lineage, then to religious pseudo-history. It’s fascinating how it evolved.

  4. Great to pick up this story again, Margo. I remember reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail when it was published. An interesting exercise in how ‘forgetting’ to include words like ‘assumption’ and ‘theory’ completely changes the context. Having said that, its is certainly encyclopedic in its European and Middle Eastern history. J

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you found it interesting. Praying for cash was a common practice, but I think he may have taken it to new heights. I guess we’ll never know if he ever really found anything – but it sure makes a good story. 🙂

  5. What an intriguing tale. So great to have your curious ramblings back at #AllAboutFrance. How’s life in London? Do you miss Nice?

    1. Hi Phoebe, It’s nice to have #AllAboutFrance back in action. It has been missed.
      All is well in London, but I’ll be back in Nice a bit this summer… Can’t stay away. 🙂

  6. The treasure that Berenguer Sauniere the Priest of Rennes-le-Chateau discovered did not come about from ‘prayer-selling’, it actually existed and is properly known as King Dagobert’s Gold. When he found the Parchments in his Altar Pillar he realised the symbol on Parchment 2 was a monogram and read ‘N Povsin’ (Nicolas Poussin) – He also saw the symbol on P1, the ‘triangle with tails’, could be drawn through the heads of the Shepherds on Poussin’s 1638 ‘Arcadian’ Shepherds painting. He noted the second shepherd was pointing at the letter ‘R’ on the tomb inscription (followed by the ‘C’) in the word ARCADIA …. R-le-C – the first Shepherd. The heads of the Shepherds are hills, the painting is a map (see French map 2347 Quillan Alet-les-Bains). The second shepherd is the low hill Bois du Lauzet, the 3rd is the hill Auriol and the tall shepherdess is the high hill Cardou (end of upper tail). A line drawn from R-le-C through Auriol heads straight for Rennes les Bains (the lower tail). The symbol on P2 also names the place of the Treasure. Check the map on Google Earth.
    Geoffrey

    1. Hi Geoffrey, Thanks for bringing another version of the story to light.
      All the best,
      Margo

  7. I visited Rennes a few years ago with my wife. We had the place to ourselves. I’ll bet you can’t move there now for tourists.

    1. I’m sure it is much busier after all the publicity. Like any good city government would, they have taken advantage of the conspiracy theories to bring in tourist cash. 🙂

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