Rennes le Chateaux is a sleepy mountain-top village in southwest France, which has a somewhat mysterious past. The area surrounding the village is steeped in history and Visgoth and Templar ruins abound. This is the heartland also of Cathar country, whose believers were massacred by the Inquisition in one of the longest wars in all of history.

The village once housed a population of 30,000 inhabitants, but today, only 100 or so remain. The French say that Rennes le Chateaux is to them what Glastonbury is to England.

On June 1, 1885 the village received a new Parish Priest, named Francois Beringer Sauniere. Until 1891, Sauniere existed on a modest income of around £6 per year. He appears to have lived a somewhat idyllic life. He employed a young peasant girl, Marie Denarnaud as his housekeeper, who was to become his lifelong companion and confidante.

Within a few months of his arrival, Sauniere was in trouble for preaching an anti-Republican sermon. He was suspended, but reinstated the following summer. When he first arrived at Rennes, the Church, built in 1059 and dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, was in a state of disrepair. The roof leaked so much that his parishioners had to take umbrellas to worship. In 1889, Sauniere therefore embarked on a restoration programme.

Sources vary as to where the initial funds came from. Some say that they came as a result of borrowing money from village funds. According to others, he received a gift of 3000 Francs from the Countess of Chambord, widow of Henri V, who hearing of Sauniere’s anti-Republican stance, decided to pay him a visit.

During the Church restorations, bell ringer Antoine Captier, supposedly discovered four parchment scrolls hidden inside an altar pillar. Two of these were said to contain details of the bloodline of local families, dating back to 1644 and 1244 respectively (the date for the fall of Montsegur, the last Cathar stronghold). Both were also said to contain a secret code. The two remaining scrolls were said to have been written and placed there by Abbé Antoine Bigou, some time in the 1780s. Some soruces suggest that these scrolls also contained details of a hidden crypt beneath the altar, with a list of its contents.

As the restorations continued, a flagstone in front of the altar was raised. Beneath this was found an etching of a Knight on horseback holding a child, while next to him a Priest performed mass. This has since become known as the Knight’s Stone. When the Knight’s Stone was removed, something of great importance seems to have been found. Whatever it was, Sauniere dismissed the restoration workers. He then spent 10 days doing excavations of his own.

Sauniere told the Bishop of Carcassone, Felix-Arsene Billard about the parchments, and was summoned to Paris to meet with the Church officials. They advised to take the parchments to be decoded by a young man named Emile Hoffet, who at the time, was in training for the Priesthood. Hoffet is known to have had connections with several secret societies that brought him into contact with, among others, Claude Debussy, who is rumoured to have been Grand Master of the mysterious Priory of Sion, as mentioned in the Holy Blood and Holy Grail, and later, the Da Vinci Code.

During his time in Paris, Sauniere purchased copies of three paintings, one of which was Shepherds of Arcadia by Nicholas Poussin. This painting portrays a scene of three shepherds and a shepherdess gathered around a tomb, which is inscribed with the words ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. This has been translated as ‘In Arcadia I…’ In the background are a series of peaks that have been identified as being in the vicinity of Rennes le Chateaux. During the 1970s, the tomb in the painting was located near the village of Arques, six miles from Rennes le Chateaux. Unfortunately it no longer exists, as the land owner got so fed up with treasure hunters that he destroyed it.

Noting that the inscription on the tomb seemed to be lacking a verb, the authors of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail wondered whether it may be an anagram. Following the showing of a documentary based on their work, they were contacted by a viewer who had rearranged the letters to form ‘I Tego Arcana Dei’. In English this means ‘Begone! I Conceal the Secrets of God’, prompting speculation that the tomb may at one time have housed the remains of Jesus, or one of his descendants, assuming he had any.

On his return to Rennes, Sauniere resumed his restorations. He also began to spend on an unprecedented scale. He built a tower, the Tour Magdala that perches precariously on the side of a mountain, a mansion known as the Villa Bethania that he never lived in, zoological gardens and a library, as well as collecting artwork and antiques. In all he is said to have spent in excess of 250,000 Francs over and above his declared income, an extraordinary sum of money for an ordinary Parish Priest. Where this came from is a complete mystery.

He also entertained villagers and nobility alike. He is said to have opened several bank accounts, as well as trading in stocks and shares. His visitors included the French Secretary of State for Culture and the Archduke Johann von Hapsburg, a cousin of the Emperor of Austria. It is rumoured that Sauniere and the Archduke both opened bank accounts on the same day, and that the Duke made over a substantial sum to Sauniere’s account. The payments continued for several years, even after the Archduke’s disappeared.

Sauniere and Marie also took to digging in the churchyard at night. The inscription was erased on the tombstone of Marie, Marquise of Blanchefort, and the stones removed. Marie had married the last Marquis of Blanchefort in 1752. His family were descended from the Visigoth King Atulph, whose family the Merovingian monarch Dagobert II had also married into. The headstone and horizontal slab had been placed there by Abbé Antoine Bigou in 1791, ten years after Marie had died, shortly before Bigou fled to Spain, on the eve of the French Revolution.

Unbeknown to Sauniere though, the inscription on the tombstones had already been copied. The stones seem to contain a number of errors, with words deliberately misspelled and letters left out. The last few words should have read ‘Requiescat in Pace’ or ‘Rest in Peace’, but instead they appear as ‘Requies Catin Pace’. Catin is French slang for whore.

Marie’s husband’s family name of D’Hautpaul is also misspelled as Dhaupoul. Poule is also slang for prostitute, so this could be translated as saying ‘high prostitute’. Perhaps then this had something to do with Mary Magdalene, who is traditionally regarded as a fallen prostitute. Maybe this was something to do with the Priory’s claim that the Merovingians are her descendants.

According to Church records, there was a crypt beneath the Church where members of the D’Hautpaul family, including Marie, were buried. This then would mean that Marie had two graves. When Sauniere uncovered the Knight’s Stone, then he may have also discovered this crypt and its contents. If Marie though was buried beneath the Church, then what or who was buried in the Churchyard?

The Church authorities turned a blind eye to Sauniere’s antics, but when the Bishop of Carcassone died, his replacement asked Sauniere to explain his wealth. He claimed it had come in the form of donations, and refused to disclose his benefactors, stating that the money had been donated without the knowledge of their families. If true, then they must have been exceptionally wealthy individuals for such sums to have gone unnoticed by the rest of their families.

The new Bishop then transferred Sauniere to a new Parish, but he refused to move. The Bishop then accused him of simony (selling masses) and Sauniere was subsequently suspended. He appealed to the Vatican and was reinstated, suggesting that they knew the secret of his wealth and where it had come from.

On January 17, 1917, at the age of 65, Sauniere suffered a stroke. A Priest was called to administer the Last Rites and hear his final confession. He is said to have emerged shortly afterwards, visibly shaken, having refused to grant absolution. Sauniere died five days later, on January 22.

The reading of his will was eagerly anticipated, but to everyone’s surprise he was declared completely penniless, as prior to his death, all his wealth had been transferred to his housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud.

After the World War 2, as a means of catching tax evaders and wartime collaborators, the French Government issued a new currency. Citizens were obliged to account for all their funds when exchanging the old currency for new. Marie was said to have been seen in the garden of the Villa Bethania burning vast amounts of old money.

After his death, the body of Sauniere was sat upright, in the open air, while the villagers filed past, each picking tassels from his cloak. This brings to mind the belief that the Merovingian supernatural powers extended to even the tassels on their cloaks. Perhaps then Sauniere was himself of Merovingian descent? Maybe he was blackmailing others of Merovingian descent, extorting money from them so he would not reveal their whereabouts. Maybe the Church were paying him to maintain secrecy regarding the continuation of this line.

In 1946, the Villa was sold to Noel Corbu, a businessman, on the understanding that Marie could continue to live there for the rest of her life. According to the French writer, Gerard de Sede, Corbu may have been acting in collusion with the Vatican, who were desperate to get their hands on the property. Corbu suggests hat the church had made several attempts to persuade Marie to sell, but she refused.

Whatever the truth, Corbu applied to the Vatican for a grant and they took the unusual step of sending a Papal Ambassador direct to Carcassone to deal with the matter. This was none other than Cardinal Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII. The grant was initially refused, but the Vatican later changed their mind, adding to the speculation.

Marie is said to have promised Corbu that before she died she would tell him a secret that would make him a rich and powerful man. However, on January 29, 1953, at the age of 85, she suffered a stroke that rendered her incapable of speech. To everyone’s frustration, she died shortly afterwards, taking her secret with her.

As for Corbu, he sold the Villa in 1962, and bought a castle that had formally belonged to the Cathars. On May 28, 1968, a lorry flattened his car. According to witnesses, the lorry had been parked at the side of the road. As Corbu’s car drove past, it was crushed with him still inside.

Henry Lincoln, co-author of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, first became interested in this story in 1969. In February 1972, the first of three documentaries was shown, entitled The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? Lincoln subsequently received a letter from a retired Anglican Priest who claimed that what Sauniere had unearthed was proof that Jesus had not died on the cross. The Priest claimed to have received this information from fellow Anglican cleric, Canon Alfred Leslie Lilley, who during his youth, had worked in Paris with Emile Hoffet.

The authors of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail have twice had the relevant archives in the Vatican checked for information on Sauniere. On both occasions their researchers reported that nothing could be found. There were no records of his even having existed. This seems somewhat strange, and suggests that all information regarding Sauniere has for some reason been deliberately removed.

So two question remain, what did Sauniere discover? and where did his wealth come from?