The story of Rennes le
Chateau started at the beginning of time.
The place has always been inhabited. Some historians said that Rennes le
Chateau was founded by the Visigoths in the 5th century, but this was
proved wrong by the prehistoric, iberian, gallic, roman and gallo roman
remains that were found there. Their number and diverse origins show
that Rennes le Chateau was a big city before the time of the Visigoths.
Other historians think that Rennes le Chateau was the capital of a
gallic people, the Soclates, who resisted Cesar for quite a long time.
In his writings, Cesar describes the fall of their capital, and he
actually could be describing the surroundings of Rennes le Chateau
:Mount Bugarach in the South West, Mount Cardou in the East, Becq and
Fanges in the South, Aude in the Ouest and the valley towards Alet and
Carcassonne. Everything corresponds, so one can suppose that before
being a Visigothic town, Rennes le Chateau was a gallic capital, then a
big gallo roman city. Even before that, it had probably been a
Prehistoric living place.
Why was Rennes le Chateau such important place in the past?
1 Its location allowed the town to control teh different valleys: Sals
from Rennes le Chateau and Narbonne, Aude towards Carcassonne and
Sigean, the one towards Puivert and chalabre and the one that lead
towards Spain from Rennes le Chateau before a road that went through
Pierr-Lys was built. It was probably a roman road since it was built
with flagstones and pieces of a roman chariot were found on it (The
pieces are now in the Toulouse Museum)
2 Several springs bring water to the site and never dried up.
3 It is less cold and foggy in Rennes le Chateau than in the valley in
winter, and cooler in the summer.
These three caracteristics made of Rennes le Chateau the best place to
settle down in the valley.
In the 5th century, Rennes le Chateau, then called Rhaede, was a big
city. The Visigothic capital of Razes had more than 30 000 inhabitants.
18000 lived on the butchers' street. The bishops that came to evangelize
Septimanie (Visigoths were followers of Arianism, well before the Cathar
heresy) mention only two important towns in their report to the Emperor:
Rhaede and Narbonne. The fortress of Rhaede was at least three times
bigger than the present-day village, eight fortified walls protected the
The town spread southwards to another peg where stood another fortress,
le Castella. Another line of fortresses also defended rhaede:
Coustaussa, Blanchefort, Arc, Bézut, Caderonne and Couiza.
The decline of Rennes le Chateau started with the Albigese Crusade when
it was partly destroyed. Saint Louis started having it rebuilt and
Philippe le Hardi finished his father's work. In the 13th century, the
city had lost some of its importance, but it was still powerful.
A dispute with Spain over the possession of Rennes le Chateau led to a
Spanish invasion that destroyed the town. After having been partly
rebuilt, it is destroyed again in 1370. Rhaede never rose again from its
ruins. The inhabitants fled down to the valley, and Rhaede became Rennes
le Chateau, a tiny village.
Rennes le Chateau would have been completely forgotten if a priest
coming from Montazels (near Couiza) had not been appointed to the
village on June 1rst 1885. Bérenger Saunière led the ordinary life of
a poor country priest for 7 years. One can read on his accounting book
on February 1rst 1892 "I owe Léontine 0,40 francs, I owe
Alphonsine 1,65 francs". His savings at that time were of 80,65
Still in February 1892, he asked money to the town council in order to
restore the high altar. When they dismantled it, the workers found
wooden rolls containing scrolls in one of the pillars. The priest took
them and stopped the work immediately, something had probably caught his
attention. The next day he set off for Paris, but there are no evidences
of such a trip.
When he came back, he had the work started again to restore not only the
high altar, but the whole church. He also started working on his own in
the churchyard. He destroyed Countess Hautpoul Blanchefort's tomb and
erased the writing on the tombstone.
The town council forbade him to go on working in the churchyard, but the
evil was done, the tombstone probably gave some indications. Saunière
had walls built around the gardens outside the church. He wrote
"Mission 1891" on a splendid Visigothic pillar which he uses
as a stool for a statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes. He had the presbytery
completely restored. Then in 1897, he orders the building of the
mansion, the tower, the gardens, the covered way and the glasshouse.
The whole thing cost one million francs in 1900, which makes it
250 millions today. Saunière's life became luxurious. He had guests and
parties everyday. He ordered 70 litres of rhum a month directly from
Jamaica. He also had fine liquors and wines. His ducks were fed biscuits
to give them a finer taste. He was a real Sybarite.
He received Monseigneur Billard who was quite pleased according to the
villagers. He was surprised by his priest's life but said nothing. His
successor, Monseigneur de Beauséjour asked Saunière to come to
Carcassonne to give an explanation about his way of life. The latter
pretended to be ill and did not go. He sent certificates signed by Dr
Rocher of Couiza, but we know that the certificates were fake because a
letter from Dr Rocher says "My dear friend, here are the
certificates, I am happy to be able to help you." Saunière
couldn't go to Carcassonne, but he went abroad: to Spain, Switzerland
and Belgium. He traveled in secret and left his servant written letters
saying "Dear Madam"or"Sir, I got your letter, I apologize
not to give you a longer answer, but I was called to a sick colleague's
bed. I'll write soon. Sauniere". so Marie Dénarnaud opened the
mail and if an answer was needed, she could send one of the ready
Yet in Carcassonne, the bishop grew angry and in 1911, he accused him of
selling masses illegaly, and forbade him to say mass anymore. Now masses
were 0,50 francs each and Saunière needed more money than that to buid
Saunière appealed to the court in Rome. He sent his lawyer, Chanoine
Huguet, there. The trial lasted for two years and the case was dismissed
for lack of evidence. Yet Rome then asked Saunière for an explanation
of his luxury life. Once more, the priest refused to answer. He was once
more forbidden to say mass on April 1915, this time because he revolted
against his superiors.
The priest refused to come to an agreement with the church, and he
rented the presbytery for 99 years to annoy his bishop. He went on
saying mass in his private chapel and most of the villagers came to hear
him. The priest had to leave in Couiza and to say mass in a nearly empty
During the trial, Saunière did not have anything built, but as soon as
it was over, he made new plans: he wanted to build a road from Couiza
because he wanted to buy a car, he wanted to have running water in the
village, he also wanted to build a chapel in the churchyard, a wall
around the village, a 50m high tower so he could see who enters the
village, a new library and he wanted to raise the first tower and the
glasshouse. The whole thing would have cost 8 miilions, that is more
than 2 billions francs now. On January 5th 1917, Saunière signed his
Yet on January 22nd (17 days later), he caught a cold, had an heart
attack and died on the same day. His body was exposed a whole day
covered with a blancket with red pompoms. Villagers came and each took a
pompom as a sign of respect. Saunière was buried in the tomb he had
built in the churchyard.
The Saunière family then started equiring about the legacy, but Saunière
had bought everything under the name of his servant, so Marie owned
she was taking good care of herself before the priest died but
afterwards she led an austere life. She lived alone in the presbytery
and never went back to Couiza. She refused to sell the domain for years
but she became too old to look after it. Rare books, stamps and pieces
of art were stolen. In 1947, she finally agreed to sell the domain to Mr
and Mrs Corbu who turned the pries's house into a hotel :La Tour.
A great part of the treasure probably remains. Files in Carcassonne
explain its origin. Blanche de Castille, mother of St Louis, was ruling
France while her son was leading the crusades. She thought Paris was not
very safe to keep the royal treasure because barons and the people were
revolting against the royal authority. It was the famous révolte des
pastoureaux. So she sent the treasure to Rennes and brought the revolt
down. she died shortly afterwards. St Louis came back and left again, he
died in Tunis. His son, Philippe le Hardi probably knew about the
treasure because he was interested in Rhaede and had work done to
perfect the defence of the town. There is a gap after him. Philippe le
Bel had to make fake money because the treasure of France has
disappeared. We suppose that he did not know where it was hidden.
The treasure was found twice: 1645, a shepherd called Ignace Paris fell
in a hole and brought back golden coins. He then told he saw a room
filled with gold. He finally went mad, trying to protect his gold. The
owner of the castle searched for it but did not find it. Later came
Saunière who found the scrolls.
According to the files which give a list of the treasure, it was made of
18 millions and a half of golden coins (about 180 tons) and many jewels
and cult objects. A golden coin of this time was 472 000francs, which
makes the treasure 4 000 billions francs today.
It is in this small village with a superb lanscape and a prestigious
history that one of the most fabulous treasures of the world is hidden.