Intrigue and mystery surround the fabled history of Rennes-le-Château. Immortalised in modern-day fiction classics, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, this small town in Southern France protects some deep secrets.
The village, just south of the River Aude on its winding journey from the Pyrénées on its winding path to the Mediterranean Sea at Narbonne, is home to just 100 people.
For its miniscule population it has sparked a disproportionate amount of international interest, largely rooted in the staggering discoveries by Berenger Saunière, the 19th century priest who undertook significant renovations on the village church, which dates back to 1059.
During the course of these renovations, Saunière – a priest of modest background, with apparently little private wealth – is alleged to have made some monumental discoveries, which not only paid for the church’s renovations, but also led this little-known village to surge in international status.
As the story goes, during the building work, Saunière discovered historical parchments that divulged the location of hidden treasure that had been stashed away by Blanche of Castile to pay the ransom of Louis IX, who was being held captive during the crusades.
The treasure is thought to have consisted of 28-and-a-half million gold pieces – a tremendous stash of treasure. Perhaps, a line of thought goes, Berenger Saunière found some of this gold and was able to use the proceeds from his haul to finance the restoration works he was carrying out on the church.
Afterall, it seems somewhat unusual that a parish priest of little personal means, and supported by a standard priest’s stipend, would have had access to the amount spent on the restoration. In today’s money, Saunière shelled out more than four-and-a-half million euros restoring the church and the adjoining Tour de Magdala (Magdelene’s Tower).
Mary Magdelene plays an important role in Rennes-le-Château’s mind-boggling history. That this modest church in the rural heart of Southern France should merit such an extensive restoration is very much down to its connections with St Mary herself.
Whilst little evidence is available to study today, it is thought that following the crucifixion of Jesus, in the year 30CE, Mary Magdelene fled Jerusalem with her son. Jesus is said to be the boy’s father.
Mary and Jesus’ son arrived in the South of France, and as such a bloodline tracing its way back to Jesus Christ is thought to have proliferated in the region of Rennes-le-Château – Mary’s adopted home.
At various points in history, those who spoke of this belief were vigorously vilified. The Cathars, especially, were persecuted out of the history books by the Catholic Church around the 1300s. This threat of persecution led those connected with the Merovingian bloodline to take refuge in secrecy.
And it is in this meeting of Christian genealogy and centuries of violent power-lust on the part of the Catholic Church, that the Prieuré de Sion interweaves with the inspiring rumours swirling around Rennes-le-Château.
The Prieuré de Sion – translated as the Priory of Sion – is an Order of Chivalry, which claims descent from the supposed marriage of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. For centuries this bloodline was traced through generations in the Rennes-le-Château environs, though it wasn’t until as recently as the 1950s that the Priory made a fleeting return to the public eye.
At the time, Pierre Plantard publicly assumed the role of Grand Master of the Priory, claiming descent from Dagobert II, of the Merovingian bloodline.
Highly controversial, even in the 20th Century, Plantard’s claims were met with suspicion and excitement in equal measure. The leading powers of the organised Church saw Plantard’s lineage as a threat, whereas for others the possibility of a direct lineage to Jesus Christ still alive, on Earth, was too great to dismiss.
Documentaries were produced by the BBC in the 1970s and a best-selling book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published in 1982 by eminent researchers Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.
The stories woven into the very stonework of the church in Rennes-le-Château have infiltrated popular culture too, with Jane Jenson’s popular adventure game, Gabriel Knight 3, set in the village, and – of course – the 2003 masterpiece, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
Publication of The Da Vinci Code and the subsequent global fever that the book inspired, led to a huge resurgence of interest in Rennes-le-Château and the secretive Prieuré de Sion. For decades, the secret society had again vanished, under cover of darkness, and the shroud of mystery had once again descended.
However, quite out-of-the-blue, the Prieuré de Sion made a surprising public re-emergence in 2015, when the society took the decision to officially register as an Order of Chivalry under the leadership of present-day Grand Master, Marco Rigamonti.
The society further surprised the public with the presentation of a monetary gift to the village, with which it is so intricately connected.
The funds were donated with the purpose of restoring a statue in the village, which had been disrespectfully attacked by vandals.
Alexandre Painco, Mayor of Rennes-le-Château, gratefully accepted the gift and welcomed the Prieuré de Sion back into the village. It is perhaps the first time in the village or the Priory’s long histories that that have been so publicly connected.
With much of the evidence to corroborate the Priory’s claims said to have been destroyed in the 1930s, during the Nazi occupation of France, it is little wonder that the puzzling history of the Prieuré de Sion and its home village of Rennes-le-Château continue to inspire so much interest, from both believers and doubters.
What can be said with some certainty, however, is that a visit to this ancient site of worship is a powerfully spiritual experience, and – for those who take the time – Priest Berenger Saunière’s exceptionally conscientious 19th Century restorations may point to further clues about the village’s undercover past.