The mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau has become somewhat legendary over the years. It’s been featured in a variety of places over time as the lore has taken on a life of its own. Various researchers have spent years digging into the mystery only to walk away with more questions than answers. Others however have exhausted essentially every lead on the subject and have built a rather interesting case. It seems that the Chateau itself is a focal point in a larger narrative and from it, you are able to branch out in multiple directions. This article is by no means the complete story nor will it include every detail that is available, but instead will provide a general overview of the mystery as a whole. So without further ado, the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau.
It started with a secret. There was an aristocratic lady that was known during the first half of the 1700s by the name of Marie de Nègre d’Ables. There isn’t a lot known of her early life, but she is said to have lived in an area of southern France, south-west of Rennes-le-Chateau, called Pays de Sault. Her parents died at some point leaving her as an orphan in the care of her guardian François de Montroux. He was an interesting character and even though he was the caretaker and guardian of Marie, he was involved in a scandalous murder during his time. The details around this murder are somewhat fuzzy in that Montroux himself pled not guilty, but it ultimately didn’t matter. The man that was murdered was named Bernard Monge, he was the village priest at Niort-de-Sault.
There seems to have been some controversy about the purchase of a presbytery which led to the murder. The same year in 1732 when the murder occurred Marie would then be married at age 18 to François d’Hautpoul. The d’Hautpoul family were lords of the area of Rennes-le-Chateau and one of the oldest aristocratic families in France. When Montroux is sent to prison, d’Hautpoul then takes over all of his businesses and then eventually even buys the presbytery that caused the dispute. There is an interesting level of mystique around Marie in that she was likely of some importance to this whole story never going without some sort of guardian. She was married to d’Hautpoul for 20 years when he died in 1753. Upon his death, she and her three daughters acquire the d’Hautpoul family wealth and land, and possibly even a family secret that had been passed down. She ran into some financial issues at some point and then had to sell off most of the land and dies in 1781. But before she died she is said to have conveyed this d’Hautpoul family secret to a local priest by the name of Antoine Bigou. It was Bigou who would take this secret or secrets and encode them in various ways around Rennes-le-Chateau, most notably in her headstone, which Bérenger Saunière would allegedly later decode.
Bérenger Saunière enters the story about 100 years later. It was in 1885 when he was appointed by the Bishop of Carcassonne to take over in the town of Rennes-le-Chateau at the age of 33. Rennes-le-Chateau has always had an interesting history as it was on a pilgrimage route and had been linked to stories of the Templars and Cathars from the early days. It however took on a new level of fame after the time of Saunière.
When Saunière arrived in Rennes-le-Chateau it had certainly seen better days. The presbytery he would stay in was in disrepair and the entire town was on the decline. He was only in town for a short while though as he ruffled some feathers with pro-republican political rhetoric and ended up in Narbonne for a short period. It wasn’t long though and he was back by popular demand with money to boot from his pro-republican supporters armed and ready to do renovations in the town. One might wonder if it was in this time period that he was informed of this mystery and was given a lead on what to look for.
It was during this period of renovation that Saunière allegedly found one of his first major clues. The first piece of the puzzle was located in a stone column that had a hollow end in which he finds a couple parchments that linked back to the 1780s just before the French Revolution presumably placed there by Antoine Bigou before he had to flee France to Spain. He showed the parchments to the bishop who then gave him money to travel to Paris to see if the documents could be deciphered.
In this era of Saunière’s life, he seems to have been acquainted with some of the French occultists of the day. Among them was a close friend and female opera singer by the name of Emma Calvé who was rather well known for her time. Some might wonder what a famous opera singer is doing wandering the countryside of France with a seemingly ordinary priest from Rennes-le-Chateau. Today, we certainly don’t see too many priests hanging out with the pop stars of the day.
There also seems to be a unique link between Emma and Saunière as they seem to have both been involved with secret societies. It is said that among Saunière’s possessions he had a Masonic collar indicating he was likely involved with the Lodge of Memphis-Mizraim which was thought to have had a post at Versailles. Another clue comes from the diary entry of Rodrigo de Saenz de Castillon which described the meeting between the two during the year 1893.
18 May – After the departure of her guests and also JB her manager and eminence grise and ? – who had urgent business in Paris (Another and younger mistress Leconte whispered to me gleefully as he too left for the railway station in Millau.) La Diva declared herself to be in need of a little holiday and put it to me that as I was obviously in no hurry to return to Paris or anywhere else that I accompany her on a tour of the South with a visit to a most interesting priest with whom she had become acquainted in 1893 in Paris. They met in the Church of St. Sulpice where she often goes to hear Mass. He introduced himself saying that he was a devotee of the opera. He also gave evidence that he is an initiate of the Craft. Delighted she invited him to one of her soirees and they have kept up some sort of correspondence since. This priest Sauniere holds the benefice of some backwoods place called Rennes le Chateau deep in the Languedoc. All that part of the Languedoc is, according to La Diva steeped in history, mystery, supernatural happenings, a cradle of kings, a refuge for Cathars and Templars with hoards of hidden treasure waiting to be discovered in undiscovered caves and grottoes and powerful occult secrets too waiting to empower those who can uncover and interpret them, to those who can decipher certain clues hidden in nature and man-made structures and monuments also. She told me all this as we took our ease that warm drowsy spring afternoon on the lawn at the foot of the castle walls. It would appear that this curé is a man with a special gift for divining such things something akin perhaps to a dowser or water diviner and that he is also a man with a SECRET. I emphasize this because La Diva put plenty of emphasis on it as she told it to me. She would not explain further as to what this SECRET might be no, not even to me a fellow Martinist and Traveller in the Path. Does she know what it is?
It’s in this entry that we get some valuable information. Here Don Rodrigo is showing that he and Emma were indeed Martinists. This doesn’t seem to be something that Rodrigo took lightly as it was his great uncle that was one of the founders of Martinism and was with Martinez de Pasqually in the Caribbean along with members of the Elus Cohen when the group was formed. Although the Priory of Sion was deemed to be fake in the modern sense, it shows some interesting parallels between this group of Martinists, Elus Cohens, and the Rosicrucians who were all indeed very real and influential during their time. It is through the research of Patrice Chaplin that we learn about some links to Spain. According to the idea Saunière and Clave had gone to a retreat in Girona which seems to be a hub for a Rosicrucian-based “private society” with supposed links back to the times of the Templars.
While in Paris, he seems to have gotten some answer to these supposed parchments that were found during his renovations. He comes back armed with more money along with some paintings that he was able to purchase somehow from the Louvre’. The main painting of note is Et in Arcadia ego by Nicolas Poussin. Why or how he got this painting, or if he ever did, is a mystery.
We can wonder if this painting isn’t somehow symbolic of the journey that Saunière himself has been on. It’s at this point, when he is doing all of the renovations and additions to Rennes-le-Chateau, that we start to get these stories coming in that he was seen in cemeteries late at night. Officially, he was wandering the countryside gathering rocks for a garden that he was renovating at the church, but this led people to speculate if he was digging up bodies to see if they had further clues. Others suggested that he was looking at gravestones like the one that we see with Marie d’Hautpoul and gathering the cryptic clues and then scratching them out. This has caused people to speculate that he may have been looking for an entrance to an underground crypt. What could he have been looking for and could he have found anything?
Saunière became one of the most wealthy people in the area. He had the house pictured above built to entertain all kinds of high-profile people of the time. He didn’t live in the house however, it was mainly for use by his assistant Marie Dénarnaud. From there she would handle the finances and oversee the account balances of the various banks that were utilized by Saunière, one even linked to the Hapsburgs in Budapest.
This leads to the question as to why influential people would find their way to this small out-of-the-way village. Could they have been gathering to hear of the mysteries of Rennes-le-Chateau? Or could they have been there to curry favor with Saunière? It would likely be the latter. As it would happen, Saunière would get in trouble in 1909 for trafficking mass or put more simply, selling influence. He would die eight years later in 1917. There are some interesting things to note however about his death. It would be at this time that most of the land Saunière was over would then go into the name of his assistant, Marie Dénarnaud. And again, we would have another story of one of these death bed secrets, this time, imparting Saunière’s ‘secret knowledge’ to Marie. She would pass away in 1953, but not before she would sell the land to Noël Corbu in 1946.
With the land came the promise that Marie at some point would relay the secret message to Corbu. Although something happened to her. She succumbed to some kind of illness in her last days that left her conveniently unable to speak and she would take the secret of Rennes-le-Chateau to her grave. You could say that Corbu however was a true believer. An enterprising man. An entrepreneur. Prior to this episode in this life, Noël Corbu lived in Morocco due to his father being an attaché at the Embassy there, before obtaining the degree of Doctor of Science in Paris. There are stories of how he used connections that he had made over his life to get his son into a seminary by writing a letter to a cardinal that would eventually become Pope. This lead some people to wonder if he had close ties to the Vatican and if he was acquiring the property as some nefarious agent on behalf of the Vatican seeking to also gain some secret knowledge – admittedly that suggestion is a bit of a stretch.
Corbu would turn Villa Bethania into a hotel and opened a restaurant to attract people and for future guests to come and marvel and the weird and mysterious aspects of Rennes-le-Chateau. He would publicize the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau in local French newspapers at the time further propagating the story.
He would even make and star in a short film that dramatized Saunière’s time at Rennes-le-Chateau called La Rue Tourne.
The scene that is being depicted in the photo above from the film is a vague yet very interesting part of the story. It shows Corbu, as Saunière, during the period after his return from Paris as he is unearthing a relic called the Knight Stone. The Knight Stone, if it is real, shows a depiction of what could be interpreted as a knight ushering away a small child which may have been Sigebert IV after his father was assassinated.
According to the BBC documentary, there were two skulls that were found in front of the altar underneath the Knight Stone when digging was undertaken by Saunière. At the time this was used to make the link between Rennes-le-Chateau and Dogebert II and his son Sigebert IV. Later however there was a story that it was Corbu that found a single skull during his excavations during 1965 while looking for treasure on the property. We are to assume that the skull that Corbu found was the one pictured below and it remained in private hands until 2014.
As for the skull that was found by Saunière it’s possible that it could have been the skull of Dagobert II and if we go by the BBC account that’s who it was. But the modern retelling of the story is in contradiction with that narrative.
It’s really hard to say if Saunière ever actually found anything or if that was just something that was made up by Corbu. Dogebert II is regarded as a saint although his canonization is somewhat fuzzy, it’s said in some sources that Templars venerated his skull referring to it as “Mahomet”. Could we be looking at the very skull of the Templar tradition? Could it be what they were accused of worshipping which in turn led to their persecution? Is it the skull depicted in the Et in Arcadia ego paintings like Rennes-le-Chateau theorists suggest? Or was it just another fabrication by Corbu to draw attention to the town?
It seems that the mythic Arcadia in this legend is the southern region of France. The “promised land” for the family of Mary Magdalene and the family that descended from her. What was the original tomb at Les Pontils? Was it just a normal tomb that was being damaged by would-be treasure hunters? Could it have been the subject of the earlier paintings? It’s really hard to know for sure. Just another oddity in the story that goes unsolved.
Corbu ended up selling the property to Henry Buthion in 1965. He died in a car crash during the time that Gérard de Sède‘s book on the subject was coming out. The crash was said to have happened right in front of the Monastery of Prouilhe which was the place Saunière went after he got in trouble and had to leave Rennes-le-Chateau for a time. This has led some to speculate if there was something nefarious about this crash or if it was just a coincidence. It’s likely it was just a coincidence.
We then enter the era of fakery with regard to Rennes-le-Chateau. Corbu had stoked the flames of mystery which paved the way for a number of books written on the subject by people that were taking advantage of the whispers of treasure that might have been found over the years. The supposed parchments that we see associated with the mystery of Saunière seem to come from the book published by Gérard de Sède. They are said to have been fabricated by Philippe de Chérisey from a variety of older sources. The book itself was a failed manuscript written by Pierre Plantard but then subsequently rewritten by de Sède with the fake manuscripts made by Philippe de Chérisey. Sound convoluted? It’s because it is. It was the combined effort of these three guys that led to this modern idea of the Merovingian lineage and the Priory of Sion. Pierre Plantard himself was a Merovingian pretender and claimed to be the rightful heir to the French throne, whether or not he truly believed that or if he was just trying to sell books is hard to say.
One of the main things that kept these guys going back to the mystery was this story about the tombstone with the encrypted message that had the connection to Antoine Bigou. It was in 1964 that we get a reproduction of a book that was from 1884 that was in the library of Abbe Joseph Courtauly. The original book was from Eugene Stublein and it was a work that detailed tombstones and their inscription from around Rennes-le-Chateau. Courtauly starts off the book with a note on the history and talks about how he had one of the original copies of the book in his library and he is releasing a version of some of the plates by popular demand so people can see the original gravestones as they would appear. This is the supposed source of the photos of the tombstone. So again, another lead that isn’t how it was initially presented. He dies that same year in 1964.
It was then in 1967 that a set of documents that included this tombstone drawing and various pages about the Priory of Soin outlining the lineage of the Merovingians to Plantard was secretly placed in the Paris library, presumably by Plantard himself although we can’t be sure. These files came to be known as the Dossiers Secrets d’Henri Lobineau and supposedly were compiled by Philippe Toscan du Plantier. You can read a copy of the documents here.
All of this would be laid ripe for the picking for one Henry Lincoln. He was on vacation in France in 1969 when he happened upon a book by Gérard de Sède called The Accursed Treasure of Rennes-le-Château. He was not hip to all the forgery that was going on and bought into the mystery as a whole and started digging into it all. It was Lincoln that noticed there was a hidden message that was encoded in the forged documents.
When Lincoln discovered the code he asked Gérard de Sède why they didn’t publish the key to the cipher with the code in the book and de Sède said they thought it would be more interesting to not publish the deciphered text so someone would then find out on their own further adding to the mystery. This is one of the biggest clues to suggest that the story of the parchments was indeed completely fabricated because if de Sède actually knew of this encoded message it’s quite likely that he would have wanted to reveal it himself if it was in fact genuine. Henry Lincoln was running with the ball at this point and had three BBC documentaries made on the subject not realizing he was investigating forged material. This would be the first time the mystery was exposed to the English-speaking world and it would mark the beginning of the mystery as a global phenomenon.
It was these three documentaries that Henry Lincoln was able to make in the 70s that built up to him releasing the world-famous book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. A work that would go on to be very influential in shaping the narrative around Rennes-le-Chateau.
It’s only in the modern era that we are able to look back on all of this and piece the puzzle together in retrospect. For nearly a century treasure hunters from around the world have looked at this area in Southern France for clues to a mystery that may have never been. For many, it’s a closed case. Henry Lincoln was investigating false leads that ultimately amounted to nothing more than a conspiratorial blend of fact and fiction. For others, they still continue to look for answers, still continue to write books and articles on the subject in hopes what they find might be the missing link to the puzzle.