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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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