Pierre Plantard was drawn to Rennes-le-Château's weirdness as if by a magnet. -- Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince
According to a document from 1959, Monsieur Corbu was already in contact with Monsieur Plantard. He did not say why he came to Rennes-le-Château nor how he knew of the story. -- Antoine Captier
Rennes-le-Château is an isolated hilltop village in the Languedoc in the south of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It gained notoriety due to the activities of its parish priest, Abbé Bérenger Saunière.
Parish priests are usually as poor as church mice, especially a lowly parish priest such as Abbé Bérenger Saunière. And yet, he suddenly became fabulously wealthy. From where did he acquire his new found riches?
The church of Rennes-le-Château is also somewhat strange: Stations of the Cross that run anti-clockwise, a small black boy, a man in a tartan kilt, a woman in a widow's veil. Outside the church is a stone with an upside cross.
Pierre Plantard, a man intimately connected with the Priory of Sion, came to Rennes-le-Château and spent some years exploring the village. How did he know of the tale? He was also later accompanied by his friend Philippe de Chérisey.
Gerard de Sède or Gerard de Sède de Lieoux as he was more formally known wrote two books, the first The Templars are Among Us (Les templiers sont parmi nous, 1962) looking at Gisor and the possibility of Templar treasure buried there, the second The Gold of Rennes (L'Or de Rennes, 1967) focusing on the mystery of Rennes-le-Château.
It is all too easy to dismiss Philippe de Chérisey as a co-conspirator of Pierre Plantard, but before we do we should not forget that he was a journalist and author of more weightier and 'serious' books, The Cathar Treasure (Le trésor cathare, 1966) and Why Prague? (Pourquoi Prague?, 1968), and that later he was to write a book Rennes-le-Château (1988) exposing Pierre Plantard as a fraud.
It was an article by Philippe de Chérisey on Gisor in 1960 in Ici-Paris (for which de Chérisey was a contributing journalist) that caught the attention of Plantard. Plantard then contacted de Chérisey warning him that he was exposing to the general public matters which were only for initiates.
The writings of Philippe de Chérisey were picked up by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln and brought to the attention of a wider audience.
Monsieur Corbu was credited with creating the myth surrounding Rennes-le-Château and its parish priest, Abbé Bérenger Saunière. Hotelier Corbu had bought the estate of Abbé Bérenger Saunière with the intention of running it as a hotel. A bit of publicity never goes amiss, especially if it brings in business. But this still begs the question, from where did Abbé Bérenger Saunière obtain his wealth to purchase the estate?
When Bérenger Saunière moved in as the parish priest both the church and the presbytery were in a poor state of repair. Neither the Church nor the villagers could afford repairs. The state of the presbytery was in such a poor state of repair that Bérenger Saunière was forced to lodge with families in the village.
From what we know from historical documents and eye-witness accounts (ie before Pierre Plantard added his Priory spin) Bérenger Saunière received a donation of 1,000 Francs for renovation, and an additional sum for a new altar. Removal of the old altar revealed hidden parchments, removal of the stone flagstones unearthed a crock of jewels and gold and a stone with strange figures. Also found was possibly a passage to the crypt beneath the church. Historical documents and recent ground radar scans indicate a crypt beneath the church, but the authorities will not permit excavation. In the churchyard, gravestones of Lords of the Manor had enigmatic inscriptions, possibly code, these Bérenger Saunière destroyed. At night, Bérenger Saunière and his loyal housemaid were digging up graves. It was during this period that Bérenger Saunière acquired his great wealth.
Money was by now pouring in. Having renovated the church, Bérenger Saunière began to splash out on himself. He began buying up land, though registered in names other than his own, often that of his housekeeper. Built a grand house, although he never lived in it. The house was used for entertaining. He ordered the latest Parisian fashions for his housekeeper.
That Bérenger Saunière had a source of unexplained wealth, and this is not a modern fabrication, he was summoned to explain to the Church the source of his wealth. He refused. Because of his refusal, he was struck-off as a priest. Whatever was the source of his wealth, it appeared to dry up during his difficulties with the Church.
In modern-day values, Bérenger Saunière spent something in the region of £2 million! On his death his estate passed to his housekeeper. She appears to have been aware of his treasure, or its source, but refused to touch it, living out her life in relative poverty. She remained loyal to Bérenger Saunière and visited his grave every day of her life.
Not far from Rennes-le-Château lies Montségur, the last mountain stronghold of the Cathars. The surrender of Montségur was negotiated by Remon d'Aniort, Lord of Rennes-le-Château.
Dan Brown does not mention Rennes-le-Château in his novel The Da Vinci Code, although intriguingly he makes use of the name of Bérenger Saunière for the curator of the Louvre Jacques Saunière, found ritually murdered in the Louvre. A man we later learn was the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion! The name of our heroine Sophie Neveu, granddaughter of the Louvre Curator, may be derived from Pierre Neveu, 16th century priest of Gisors.
As a result of this exposure, Rennes-le-Château now attracts large numbers of visitors bent on a search for hidden treasures. In September 2004, the mayor of Rennes-le-Château exhumed Saunière's corpse from the church graveyard and reburied it in a concrete sarcophagus to protect it from grave-robbers!
Although Dan Brown does not feature Rennes-le-Château, it is featured by other writers.
Die Ketzerin vom Montségur (The Heretic of Montsegur) and Die Erbin des Grals (The Grail's Heiress) by the German author Helene Luise Köppel retells the Rennes-le-Château myth. The first tells the tale the Cathars and the discovery of the Grail in Rennes-le-Château. The sequel tells the fictional tale of Bérenger Saunière's housekeeper and lover, Marie Dénarnaud, who knows the secret of the treasure he found in Rennes-le-Château,.
Labyrinth by Kate Mosse is set in Langedoc in the foothills of the Pyrenees and features the Cathars. Much of the action is in Carcassonne, not far from Rennes-le-Château.
Sepulchre by Kate Mosse weaves a tale around a set of Tarot cards and Rennes-le-Château and Bérenger Saunière and along the way takes a sideways swipe at The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. [see BCID 7076976]
Alain Féral, a protégé of Jean Cocteau (allegedly a Priory of Sion Grand Master), had his studio in Rennes-le-Château.