The Mystery of Rennes-le-Château

The town of Rennes-le-Château is worth a visit to see the ornate Church together with the Saunière museum in the Villa Bethania, and the gardens. There are also spectacular views of the surrounding countryside from the walls and from the Tour Magdala.

The altar in the church

The hill-top town has fascinated people for the best part of 60 years and has spawned many books and even BBC TV programmes. The story starts in 1885 when Bérenger Saunière (1852-1917) became village priest. The facts are that he spent large amounts of money renovating the church, building a new presbytery and gardens and on lavish entertaining. Rumours started that he had discovered an unknown treasure during his renovations of the church and that the Catholic Church had paid him to keep his discovery secret.

There were a few individuals who expanded on and publicised these rumours for their own profit, not least Noel Corbu the man who bought Villa Bethany, the old presbytery, in the 1950s and turned it into a hotel and restaurant. Another was Pierre Plantard who appears to have created the Priory of Sion at about the same time .Those who have read Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci code will remember that this secret organisation plays a prominent role in the book. Plantard claimed to have in his possession documents discovered by Saunière. (He also says that he is a descendant of the Meringovian Kings and hence has a claim to the French throne). Henry Lincoln, a script-writer, became interested during a visit to the area and was instrumental in the production of three BBC2 documentaries on the Rennes-le-Château mystery which were broadcast in the 1970s (he appears to have gained a lot of his information from a book by a French writer, Gerard de Sede).

Abbe Saunière during construction of Tour Magdala and gardens

Lincoln also co-wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a pseudo-historical work in which it was suggested that after Jesus Christ’s death, his wife Mary Magdalene came to the Languedoc bringing with her their child and founding a blood-line which persists to this day. Lincoln’s co-authors, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh later sued Dan Brown for plagiarism, claiming that many of the ideas in the Da Vinci code were theirs.  Amazingly the controversy persists and in May 2008 a new documentary film, Bloodlines, was released in which it is claimed, the tomb of Mary Magdalene has been discovered close to Rennes-le-Château.

Saunière had a difficult relationship with his superiors in the church and was eventually removed from the Priesthood accused of selling indulgences (masses). He died a relatively poor man but the priest who took his death bed confession is said to have been so shocked that he refused to give Saunière absolution.

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