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Rennes le Chateau

Noel Corbu's text

This text was diffused by a tape recorder in the restaurant of the Béthanie villa

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 city.

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 francs.

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 letters.

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 his domain.

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 church.

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 command.

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 everything.
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.