Rennes-le-Château (or Rennes le Château) is a village
and commune in the Aude
department in the
Languedoc in southern France. It overlook the valey of the River
Salz, opposite a Cathar
Castle called Coustaussa.
The population of Rennes is around 100.
This tiny village is at the centre of various conspiracy theories,
and receives tens of thousands of visitors per year. There is a
privately owned chateau at Rennes-le-Chateau, but this chateau has
little connection with the theories, except that it was home to
the Hautpoul family who were allegedly involved in these conspiracies
in earlier centuries.
Rennes le Chateau is so named to distinguish it from its sister
les Bains. In Occitan
Rennes-le-Chaeau is called Rènnas del Castèl. In Roman
times it was known as Rheada.
in the 1950s, a local restaurant owner, in order to increase business,
had spread rumours of a hidden treasure found by a 19th century
priest. The story achieved national fame in France, and was expanded
by others who claimed that the priest, Abbé
Bérenger Saunière, had found proof of a secret
society known as the. Priory
of Sion. The story became the origin for hypotheses in documentaries
and bestselling books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail
(1982) and the fiction thriller The
Da Vinci Code (2003).
The area is known for beautiful scenery, with jagged ridges, deep
river canyons and rocky limestone plateaus, with large caves underneath.
Mountains frame the region, les Montaines Noires to the north, the
Corbieres to the west, the Plateau de Sault to the east, and the
Pyrenees to the south.
Rennes-le-Château has a complex history. It is the site of
a prehistoric encampment, and later a Roman colony called Rheada.
Rennes-le-Château was a Visigoth site during the 6th and
7th centuries, during the trying period when the Visigoths had been
defeated by the Frankish King Clovis I and had been reduced to Septimania.
It was the administrative centre of the County of Razès,
a fief of the Counts
(later viscounts) of Carcassonne and Beziers. The village was
the site of a medieval castle around 1002, though nothing remains
above ground of this medieval structure (the present chateau dates
from later in the Middle Ages).
Several castles situated in the surrounding region in the Languedoc
were central to the Catholic Church's Crusade against and extirpation
of the Cathars
at the beginning of the 13th century. Thousands were killed during
the campaigns of the Catholic authorities to rid the area of the
Cathar heretics during the Albigensian
Crusade (aka Cathar Wars) and again when Huguenots (French Protestants)
fought for religious freedom against the French monarchy.
A church in the town also has a complex history, having been rebuilt
several times. The earliest church of which there is any evidence
on the site may date to the 8th century. This original church was
almost certainly already in ruins during the 10th or 11th century,
when another church was built on the site - remnants of which can
be seen in Romanesque pillared arcades on the north side of the
apse. This second church building survived in poor repair until
the 19th century, when it was renovated by the village priest, Abbé
Despite the village's tiny size over 100,000 tourists each year.
Much of the modern reputation of Rennes-le-Château rises from
rumours dating from the mid-1950s concerning the local 19th-century
Bérenger Saunière had arrived in the village in
1885, and had acquired and spent large sums of money during his
tenure from selling masses and receiving donations. He funded several
building projects, including an extensive renovation of the Church
of Mary Magdalene. The source of the wealth had long been a topic
of conversation, with village rumours ranging from the idea that
the priest had found a treasure (possibly by grave robbing) to the
possibility that he had been spying for the Germans during World
During the 1950s, these rumours were given wide local circulation
by Noël Corbu, a local man who had opened a restaurant in Saunière's
former estate (L'Hotel de la Tour). Corbu hoped to use the stories
to attract business.
Corbu also claimed that Rennes-le-Château was the capital
of the Visigoths, but this was an exaggeration, though Rennes had
certainly declined in importance over a millenium. His claim can
be traced back to an anonymous document - actually written by Nöel
Corbu himself - entitled L'histoire de Rennes-le-Château,
which was deposited at the Departmental Archives at Carcassonne
on 14 June 1962. His assertion of the Visigothic importance of Rennes-le-Château
was drawn from one source: A monograph by Louis Fédié,
entitled Rhedae, La Cité des Chariots, published in
1876 (still in print). Fédié's assertions concerning
the population and importance of Rennes-le-Château have since
been contradicted by archaeology and the work of more recent historians.
Because of the claims by Corbu, Rennes-le-Château became
the centre of conspiracy theories about Saunière's mysterious
wealth. The story grew in the telling, from the initial rumours
that perhaps he had uncovered hidden treasure, to speculation that
he had discovered secrets about the history of the Church, which
could threaten the foundations of the Catholic Church. The entire
area around Rennes-le-Chateau has become the focus of increasingly
sensational claims involving the Knights Templar, the Priory
of Sion, the Rex Deus, the
Holy Grail, the
Knights Templar and the treasures of the Temple of Solomon,
of the Covenant, ley lines, Cathars,
Castle), Druids, Jesus, Mary Magdelene, space aliens and sacred
Noël Corbu's claim, designed to attract visitors to his local
hotel in the 1950s, was that Abbe Saunière had become rich
by finding a royal treasure inside one of the pillars in his church
in the late 19th century. Newspapers started printing Corbu's story
in 1956. This ignited a flame and visitors with shovels flooded
the town. Corbu's restaurant flourished.
The story attracted large numbers, including one Pierre Plantard.
Plantard's childhood dream had been to play a vital role in the
history of France, so he and some friends concocted an elaborate
hoax. It involved planting fabricated documents in France's Bibliothèque
nationale de France to imply that Plantard was a descendant of a
French royal dynasty, and indeed heir to the crown of France. Fabricated
documents mentioned the ancient Priory of Sion, supposedly a thousand
years old, but in fact founded by Plantard himself in 1956 with
three of his friends.
No serious journalists who investigated the story found it plausible
enough to write about, so Plantard asked his friend, Gérard
de Sède, to write a book to give more credence to the
story. They chose the already rumour-rich area of Rennes-le-Chateau
as their setting, and L'Or de Rennes (The Gold of Rennes,
later published as Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château)
came out in 1967 and was an instant success. Already a special by-law,
passed in 1965, prohibbited digging in the village, treasure hunters
having been stimulated into action even before the book's publication.
The book presented Latin documents forged by Plantard's group,
alleging that these were medieval documents that had been found
by Saunière in the 19th century. One of the documents contained
encrypted references to the Priory
of Sion, thereby attempting to prove that the society was older
than its actual creation date of 1956.
In 1969, a British actor and writer by the name of Henry Lincoln
read the book, dug deeper, and wrote his own books on the subject,
pointing out his discovery of hidden codes in the parchments. One
of the codes involved a series of raised letters in the Latin message,
which when read off separately, spelled out in French: a dagobert
ii roi et a sion est ce tresor et il est la mort. (This treasure
belongs to King Dagobert II and to Sion, and it [or he] is death.).
Lincoln created a series of BBC Two documentaries about his theories
in the 1970s, and then in 1982, co-wrote The Holy Blood and the
Holy Grail with Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Their book
expanded upon the Rennes-le-Château story to further imply
that the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdelane were connected
to the French royalty, as perpetuated through a secret society named
the Priory of Sion. This torch was picked up and carried further
in 2003 in Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code.
Brown's book never specifically mentioned Rennes-le-Château,
but some key characters in the book had related names, such as Sauniere,
named after the priest, a man called Le Bezu (taken from a nearby
Castle also called Le
Bézu) and "Leigh Teabing", whose first name
was derived from Richard Leigh, and last name, Teabing, was an anagram
popularity of The Da Vinci Code reignited the interest of
tourists, who come to the village to see sites associated with Saunière
and Rennes-le-Château. Some are tempted to dig for buried
The "Visigothic pillar" where Sauniere was said to have
found the documents is on display in the village's Saunière
Museum. The pillar was set up by Saunière in 1891 as part
of his shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, though there is some dispute
as to whether the pillar actually originated from Saunière's
church. A Church report drawn up by the diocesan architect Guiraud
Cals in 1853 failed to mention the existence of any altar pillar.
When investigated more rigorously, the stories of Abbé
Bérenger Saunière's mysteries were based on a
scandal involving the sale of masses, which eventually led to the
disgrace of both Saunière and his bishop. Saunière's
wealth was short-lived, and he died relatively poor. Official records
of a trial against Saunière on August 23, 1910 revealed his
fortune at the time to have been 193,150 francs, which he claimed
to be spending on parish works. Yet, in order to have gained this
wealth through the selling of masses, the priest would have had
to sell over 20 masses per day for the 25 years prior to the trial,
more than he could have performed. Sauniere claimed that he performed
masses for which he was paid and that other funds came from local
This evidence was published by French Editions Belisane from the
early 1980s onwards, with evidence from the archives in the possession
of Antoine Captier, including Saunière's correspondence and
notebooks. Minutes of the ecumenical trial between Saunière
and his bishop between 1910-1911 are located in the Carcassonne
Bishopric. The source of Saunière's wealth was not ancient
treasure, but fraud.
hilippe de Chérisey - who helped Plantard with his fraud
- admitted having fabricated the historical documents. The decoded
messages embedded within the forged documents were shown to have
been written in modern French. Gérard de Sède, another
of the conspirators who had written the book Le Tresor Maudit,
also wrote a book denouncing the fraud.
The Church of May Magdelene at Rennes-le-Chateau
The origin of Abbé
funds at the time was controversial and some of the additions
to the church appear unusual to the modern eye. One of the new features
was an inscription above the front door of the church: Terribilis
est locus iste (This is a place of awe). Inside the church,
one of the added figures was of a demon holding up the holy water
stoup, a rare feature in a French church. Figures and statues are
sometimes claimed to contain various strange and significant features,
but it is known that they were chosen by Saunière from a
catalogue published by Giscard, sculptor and painter in Toulouse
who - among other things - offered statues and sculptural features
for church refurbishment.
Bérenger Saunière also funded the construction
of another structure dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Named after his
church, he built a nearby tower which he used as his library. The
tower has a promenade linking it to the Villa Bethanie.
The inscription above the entrance of the church is taken from
the Common Dedication of a Church, which in full reads "This
is a place of awe; this is God's house, the gate of heaven, and
it shall be called the royal court of God." [Cf. Gen 28:17]:
The first part of the passage is situated in the entrance of the
church - the rest of the passage is actually inscribed over the
arches on the two doors of the church.
renovations and redecoratations, the church was re-dedicated in
1897 by his bishop, Monsignor Billard.