One of the most intricate treasure hunting stories of all time is the legend of Rennes le Chateau. It surrounds an extensive assortment of historical unsolved mysteries, while believers suggest the secret of Rennes le Chateau could uncover the locations of the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant or any other lost treasure unknown to Man. The legend includes secret societies like the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and the Priory of Sion. Researchers note that a great deal of those who have been told any real details about the story have perished under suspicious circumstances. Their unfortunate timely death, and the mystery surrounding the village all center around the coming of one priest.
In mid-year 1885, Bérenger Saunière, a priest was appointed to the hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau which resides in the French Pyrenees. He was replacing Abbé Croc who died only after a year of service. At the time, the impoverished priest was unimpressed with the broken-down church which was in desperate need of expensive restoration, but he decided to stay anyway. Several months later, he attracted the attention of his superiors by making an aggressive speech against the ruling Republican party. This act of defiance resulted in Saunière being banished from the village for a short period of time. During his exile from the hilltop parish, he formed a bond with the wealthy and the revered Countess of Chambord, who lent him a vast sum to restore the church. He initiated the restoration several years later in 1891, to which he started with the altar. As he was dismantling the altar, he found documents, genealogical charts and complex Latin texts hidden inside one of the hollow pillars. With his maid, Marie Dénarnaud, he then began digging up parts of the churchyard and the sections of the church itself.
In September of 1891, Saunière wrote in his journal:
“découverte d’un Tombeau, le Soir pluie” which roughly translates into, “I discovered a tomb in the evening rain”. After his find, he traveled to Paris to meet with the specialists in St. Sulpice to show them the coded messages. When he returned, he brought back with his reproductions of three paintings, one which was Nicolas Poussin’s Les Bergers d’Arcadie which was a painting resembling a spot within a valley nearby Rennes-le-Chateau. Not too long after, Saunière began spending an immense amount of money. So what exactly was found is not known, but as the years went by Saunière lived a very peculiar life. He constructed a detailed estate, consisting of gardens full of plants and wildlife. It is said to have been the recreation of Mary Magdalene’s walk from Magdala to Bethania. Saunière lived in abundance, just like a nobleman, spending his time lavishly entertaining endless amounts of guests with the best food and wines in his villa. By this time, the church authorities grew tired of his strange behavior and attempted to discipline him by initiating an investigation into his sources of income. Saunière said he didn’t have to answer to anyone but the Pontiff and stubbornly resigned his seat as curé of the village. While the villagers of Rennes-le-Chateau grew fond of him, they chose to attend Mass at Saunière’s private chapel instead of the one provided by the new priest.
On 17th January 1917, Marie Dénarnaud found Saunière lying on the floor outside his villa for he had suffered a seizure. Before he died several days later, he confessed on how he came across his wealth to another priest, Abbé Jean Rivière of Espéraza. It’s said that the priest who heard the details was so disgusted that he never smiled again, and denied Saunière’s absolution and last rites. Dénarnaud also knew the secret and promised to reveal it on her deathbed. Although, when she died in 1953, she had suffered a debilitating stroke and could not speak. Other people who understood some of the details of the secrets also suffered terrible fates. Many believe Dénarnaud’s caretaker, Noel Corbu, possibly learned something from her before she died, but he was killed the same year in a car accident. Jean Antoine-Maurice Gelis, was another local priest who claimed to know details of the secrets, but he grew paranoid and would only let his niece into the rectory. In 1897 on All Saints’ Eve, Jean Gelis was found dead with four ax blows to the head. Also, in 1967 Fakhur el Islam, who was a courier carrying Saunière’s secret documents was found dead on train tracks in Germany.
It is strongly suggested that a secret society referred to as the Priory of Sion is behind much of the odd history of Rennes-le-Chateau. This mysterious group is believed to have strong connections with the Freemasons, and the Holy Grail. Having been registered as an organization in France since 1956, with over a thousand members, most of whom are high profile, the group remains entirely a secret. However, Saunière wasn’t as secretive about the treasure he found, as it is believed he left many clues embedded within the buildings he constructed. The church’s design in Rennes-le-Chateau is supposed to be a hint about the treasure. Many speculations have come about as to how Saunière acquired his wealth. One theory suggests he found an old Christian secret, to white he used to blackmail the Roman Catholic Church.
A stained glass window which Saunière initially replaced upon restoration of the church portrays Joseph and Mary cradling two babies, which has lead some to believe Saunière had proof that Christ had a twin. Possibly, the priest found credible evidence to suggest that Jesus did not perish on the cross, but ended up moving to Europe with Mary Magdalene and started a family. Most of the blackmail notions center around conspiracy theories, but there are legends of real, mystical treasure. In the Visigoth kingdom, Rennes-le-Chateau was known as the third largest town, where it was then referred to as Rheddae. The Visigoths were known to have looted Rome, Greece, and Jerusalem of all its riches around 5th century AD. The exact location to where the Visigoths buried their treasure was never revealed, but it was always assumed that it may have been Rheddae.
Many details of Saunière’s wealth is widely available for study, however, even with the best efforts of numerous experts, the mysteries surrounding Rennes-le-Chateau remain hidden. The answers may come to light one day, but for now, Saunière and his vast sum of wealth remain shrouded in secrecy.