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6.2 The Facts

François Bérenger Saunière was born on 11 April 1852 in Montazel near Espéraza in the Aude department. He did not come from a rich family although it was not a poor one either. His father worked for the local noble, the “Marquis” de Cazemajou and after for Mr. de Bourzès. He has also been the Maire of Montazels. The family had 7 children and Bérenger was the oldest. It was soon noticed that he was intelligent and his parents thought that he should go in a career that would bring him material security. The choice was between the state administration and the church. They decided for the church because it was more prestigious at that time. He became a priest in June 1879 and his career looked very promising. He was first a curate in Alet and then a parish priest in Clat. He was then nominated professor to the Narbonne seminary. But he did not stay more that a few months there as he was not liked by the hierarchy. He was then sent to Rennes-le-Chateau to become the priest of this small village. This was a retrogression. He arrived there on the 1 June 1885 when he was 33 years old. The village has 300 inhabitants all small farmers. The church, Sainte-Marie Madeleine was old and in urgent need of repair. It was built in the VIII or IXth century but it was consecrated in 1059. The estimated cost for the more urgent works amounted to 6.000 Francs (Gold). The presbytery was even in worse shape and he went to live in Mrs Antoinette Marre’s house as a lodger. He was not only poor but also for some time without state salary. This was due to the fact that soon after his arrival, just before the elections, he made a speech (on 4 October 1885) on behalf of the Royalists that did not please the Authorities and so they cut his salary for a few months. He was fishing trout and hunting during his spare time. Soon a young girl of Espéraza, Marie Denarnaud, 18 years old, left her job in a hat factory to come and work for him as a servant She will stay close to him all his life. After her death she was buried near him. Physically he appears as a very determined and strong man. However the letters to the bishop that he left show that he was perhaps a good country priest but nothing more. The writing is from a little educated person who is overtaken by the events. Obviously he was not leading the plot but he benefited a lot from it. According to Mr. Pierre Plantard it is the priest from Rennes-les-Bains Boudet who led Saunière. According to this new story Saunière did not find any treasure but was financed by Boudet who was responsible for everything including the church decoration. Mr. Plantard is not easy to believe. However he found the account book from Boudet and this seems convincing. Between 1885 and 1901, but no data are available for 1891 to 1894, the priest Boudet paid around 3.7 million gold-francs to Marie Denarnaud. That is even more that Gérard de Sède thought and about the double of what Saunière admitted to have spent. (n)(o)

In 1886 although he still had no salary he advanced personally 518 gold-francs (18130 FF – 1988) to start the repair work of the church. Nobody knows where the money came from even if he said that it was a gift from the Countess of Chambord, Austrian wife to the pretender to the French throne. This seems difficult to believe as she died that same year. More probably it came from one of his predecessor, the priest Pons, who was asking money to perform “miracles” on incurable illnesses. The work started on the most sacred part of the church, that is the original altar. It was a stone slab supported by a Visigoth pillar. It is still in front of the presbytery but installed upside down with a strange inscription: “Mission 1891”. Inside the pillar they found the bone remains from some saints. A new altar was installed and it is still there to day. He decided to change also the nave and the chancel pavement. He was helped by six people including Marie Denarnaud. They found some old parchments in a hollow pillar. It is not clear where they were found. Some say that Bérenger found them himself in the Visigoth pillar in a wooden roll. According to another source they were found in a wooden baluster in a kind of bottle. This discrepancy can be explained with the time that elapsed since the discovery. Unfortunately they have disappeared. If they were discovered in the pillar they could not be posterior to the date of the beginning of the church construction (8th century) or the date of the consecration (1059). If it was in the baluster then their age is unknown since this kind of Italian workmanship date from the renaissance. Moreover it was easily accessible and so the papers could be of any date. This baluster still exists and tends to show that the papers were hidden inside it. The restoration works went on afterwards. A slab stone in front of the altar was removed with the help of two workmen. It was noticed that it was installed face down. After it was removed Bérenger sent back the workers after having noticed a pot full of old coins. The slab known as the “Knight slab” is exposed in the small museum in Rennes-le-Chateau. The discovery of the parchments became known and the Maire wanted them. Saunière refused to hand them back before they were deciphered, translated and examined by the Church. The Maire wanted copies of the papers and Saunière agreed. Of course one do not know if he gave a copy of everything. Bérenger could not decipher them and, according to Marie Denarnaud, he talked to his bishop, Félix-Arsène Billard from Carcassonne who sent him to Paris to his own expenses with a letter of introduction to the Abbot Bieil, director of Saint Sulpice. In Paris Bérenger Saunière met a young lay monk called Emile Hoffet, specialist in Occultism and Esoterism. What really happened between the two men is not known. What is certain is that in this summer of 1891 Bérenger Saunière was introduced to the high level Parisian Society. Among others he met Claude Debussy and the great opera singer Emma Calvé with whom he was very close. She even visited him in Rennes-le-Chateau later on. She was also a member of the Occult societies of the time and very close to members of the Rose Croix. The specialists in cryptography kept one of the four documents, the genealogy tree. Knowing Saunière, we can be certain that he got something in exchange. Was it the key to a treasure? (n)(o)

Bérenger Saunière does not seem to have told the people of the village where he went. Once back and with the help of Marie, he first built a rock grotto that is still there and a small house above a well that he described as his working office. He prohibited anybody to enter in it. He also, always with the precious help of Marie, moved the tomb stone of Marie de Nègre d’Albes, wife of François de Hautpoul, Marquis de Blanchefort and Lord of Rennes-le-Chateau. This Lady died in 1781. He also rubbed off the inscription on the slab and hid it. The slab has been dated to the Merovingian time by experts. But the inscription had been noticed and recorded before by a priest called Bigou. This slab first went to the Carcassonne museum but now it is back in Rennes-le-Chateau in the small building near villa Bethania. In fact Bérenger was looking for a crypt where many of the local Lords had been buried. According to what is known this crypt was near the baluster in the church. Bérenger found a tomb on 21 September 1891 but did not reveal it to anybody with the usual exception of Marie who kept quiet as usual. After the discovery of the tomb Bérenger and Marie started again digging tombs in the cemetery. The local people complained to the authorities about it and he was told to stop. What they found is unknown. However he is known to have given old coins, a chalice and some Visigoth jewels to some of his friends. All this does not seem to indicate the possession of a great treasure. (n)

After he had discovered the Merovingian slab, under which there were two skeletons and some gold coins, Bérenger started to run over the country. He was filling a back-basket with what apparently were stones. He built a small grotto with some much care that it must be the reproduction of something. It still exists near the cemetery although much damaged. Nobody knows what was below the stones. Was he bringing home his treasure or were they stones for some alchemy reactions? (o)

From 1896, Bérenger started to spend a lot of money. The church was restored and decorated with sculptures and stained glass windows, a secret room was added to the vestry and a strange “chemin de croix” was installed. He also bought six pieces of land in the name of Marie on which he built different constructions with the help of up to 17 workmen. First of all there is the two stories neogothic Magdala square tower. It will be his library and office. The tower has a full view on the country below. There is then the three story villa Bethania in which his guests were staying. In the park he has a small zoological garden. In addition Marie Denarnaud bought her dresses in Paris and wore them to go to church on Sunday. The guests are received and treated without any expense limit. In addition to some local priests we notice among the Emma Calvé, the writer Andrée Brugière, the mason Henry-Charles-Etienne Dujardin-Beaumetz, the “Marquise” du Bourg de Bozas known for her links with the occult societies, … The best known name is the Archduke Austrian-Hungarian Jean de Habsbourg. With the exception of the local priests all the guests were rich and from the high society. They were certainly not attracted by the food. So why did they come to visit Bérenger Saunière? There is no answer to this question, only suppositions. What is known is the amount he spent in those years. Between 1896 and 1917, the year of his death, Bérenger spent 659.413 gold francs or the equivalent of 23.000.000 FF of 1988. Where did it come from? (n)

The priest of Rennes-les-Bains enters also in this story. Henri Boudet was born on the 16 of November 1837 in Quillan (Aude). He became priest the 25 of December 1861 and arrived in Rennes-les-Bains in 1872. He is an intelligent and modest person interested in Archaeology. For no apparent reason he modified the inscriptions on some tombs in the cemetery. He displaced some crosses in the neighbourhood of its town, crosses that served as landmark to the travellers and he moved a menhir. He also cut the menhir’s head and moved it to his presbytery where it is still now with the inscription “statue détachée d’un menhir”. He published a strange book called “La Vraie langue celtique et le cromleck of Rennes-les-Bains”. It looks like the work of a fool but it could be the literary key to the mystery. Among other statements he says in it that English is the original language from which all others originate including the older ones. The Academy of Science, Inscriptions and Literature of Toulouse to which he presented his work rejected it. Some other of his works were well received and this led some people to think that something was hidden in this strange book. The front page for example is full of errors: the book does not deal with the real Celtic language but an imaginary one; there is no cromleck near Rennes-les-Bains; the date of publication (1886) and the name of the publisher (François Pomiès) are incompatible between them as this printing firm closed in 1880. There was only one edition but the map of the region has been edited twice in different format. Moreover the map is signed Edmond Boudet and not Jean-Jacques-Henri Boudet, the author name. Mr Plantard, again, gave some explanations. According to him the book was to be printed in 1880 by François Pomiès but many changes were needed and this required time. Finally it was published and put on sale in 1886 by Victor Bonnafous without changing the design of the front page or the name of Mr. Pomiès. According to the same source Edmond Boudet was the priest’s brother and he designed the map. The book was difficult to find but it has been reedited three times lately. The obvious conclusion is that the book is crypted. Boudet has used a code created by the English writer Jonathan Swift 200 years before. The best explanation up to now is that it deals with local geography. The story of François Boudet has been mentioned here to show that the region where he lived was full of people interested in strange subjects like cryptography, esotherism, alchemy and others. Another possibility is that Boudet was not sound of mind or that he wrote on purpose a senseless book. (n)(o)

If Mgr Billard, Saunière’s first Bishop, did not bother to know where Bérenger found his money his successor nominated in 1901, Mgr Paul-Félix Beurain de Beauséjour wanted to know. Bérenger, on the other hand, wanted to hide that he was giving money to other unknown people. For this reason he overestimated the cost of his constructions. It is also a fact that he travelled a lot in and outside France without informing anybody but Marie. He had also many bank accounts. In 1909 Mgr de Beauséjour lost patience and removed him to Coustouge replacing him in Rennes-le-Chateau by the priest Marty. Bérenger refused to move. The inhabitants of Rennes-le-Chateau were also opposed to the change as Bérenger spent a part of his money on the village. Marty told his mass before empty chairs while the people went to listen to Bérenger at the villa Bethania. Loosing patience the bishop accused -falsely Bérenger of asking money for saying mass. This was not proved and Bérenger was condemned to do a 10 day retreat in a convent. Bérenger refused to accept this compromise and made a recourse to the Vatican with the help of the cannon-layer Huget from Agen. Huget went many times to Rome at Bérenger’s expenses. In December 1910 Bérenger was suspended “a divinis” by his bishop. He was also asked to reimburse the money he got unlegally. But no illegal action has ever been proved. Bérenger had nothing in his name and he threatened the bishop of a civil suit for defamation. In this period Bérenger has some financial problems but he hit them very well. Due to the visit of the Archduke of Hasbourg he was also thought by the local people to be a spy during the first world war. In October 1915 the Vatican said that Bérenger was right and all charges and punishments against him were cancelled. The text of the judgement has disappeared so we do not know the motivation of the Vatican’s decision: unjustified accusations or special knowledge in Bérenger’s hands? (n)

Bérenger can come back to his domain. His financial difficulties have also disappeared and he thinks about buying a car and to build a road for it. However he does not invite so many people and live a more secluded life that ever before. He also planned to build a 70 meter high tower whose cost is estimated at eight million gold-francs (5/1/1917).

He was hit by a cerebral haemorrhage on the 17 January 1917 and he died on the 22 of the same month and was buried in the local cemetery on the 24. According to his will he did not possess anything. All the properties were in the name of Marie Denarnaud. Marie went on living in the domain without any financial problem. The bishop of Carcassonne still hoped to recuperate the properties. In 1945 Marie is 77 year old and is thinking of selling the domain. The bishop uses an intermediary to buy it but the sale did not materialise. In 1946 Marie sold it to Noël Corbu in “rente Viagère”. Corbu opened a hotel-restaurant in the domain but the business did not do too well. Corbu tried also to discover the local secrets but Marie did not help much and limited herself to supply general information like that according to her there was a lot of gold in Rennes-le-Chateau. She died on the 29 January 1953 when she was 85 year old without revealing her secrets. The treasure hunt started in 1956 but without much success. Corbu sold the domain to Henri Buthion, an oculist from Lyon. Corbu died in a car accident, Buthion was shot at and some treasure hunters were threatened of death. Accident, coincidence or else? (n)

It is not possible to even try to understand how such a story could have attracted so much attention without remembering that this is a special region. It has always been inhabited and conquered by many races. Among them the Romans and the Visigoths are probably the more important. For instance it the Visigoths founded Rennes-le-Chateau, then a big town called Rhaedae. The decline of the town began in the eight or ninth century. There was a certain revival after the Cathar crusades but it was destroyed definitely in 1362 by Henri de Trastamare from Aragon. We must also keep in mind that gold, silver and other metals were mined there practically until the beginning of the 19th century. (n)