Before reading this Blog post, please keep in mind there were TWO ALTARS in the Church at Rennes. The first is the main altar at the back of the Church which has the design of Mary Magdalene in a grotto on its front. Saunière ordered this new Altar - a "Romanesque terracotta altar with tabernacle" from the FD Monna plant in Toulouse. The date of the invoice was the July 27th 1887 - which gives an idea of the installation date of the Altar.
The SECOND altar, however, is the Altar of the Virgin, found near the old wooden pulpit - which is the site of the finding of a tomb several years late in 1891. The discovery, jealously hidden by the Saunière, put him in an embarrassing position: he knew full well that the violation of a tomb was a crime punishable by the death penalty, nor could the excavations be easily hidden from the population, the site being in one place frequented daily by the faithful. Saunière prefers not to divulge the news of the discovery, which he merely records in his notebook: 21 Lettre de Granes, découverte d'un tombeau, le soir pluie. (21 [September] Letter from Granes, discovery of a tomb, rain in the evening.)
In order not to be forced to give embarrassing explanations to the workers, he suspends the work for a few weeks, which will only resume on 14 October with different workers (he will note: 14 [October] agreement with the new masons). These new Masons are not local to the village.
Thanks to the precise reports of the works left by Saunière we know that on 21 September, the day of the discovery, the masons were about to install the new pulpit. We can therefore conclude that the discovery took place at that point, next to the north wall of the church, in front of the site where the old Virgin of the Altar stood, which on one side was indeed fixed to the wall. This is confirmed by a small map of the interior of the church drawn by Saunière in 1891. See photos below:
Above - diary entries by Sauniere.
Small map of the interior of the church of Rennes-le-Chateau drawn by Saunière in 1891.
Created to assign seats in the church to the faithful of Rennes, it shows in the upper left and right side columns some dashed boxes, where no name appears; the points in question probably correspond to the excavation areas inside the church. The two boxes at the top left are located right at the point where the discovery of a tomb [most probably the entrance to the Tomb of the Lords] took place.
One of the most famous entries Saunière ever made in his diary, and one that gets much attention - is the 'discovery of a tomb' on the 21st September 1891.
Saunière was a priest in the French village of Rennes-le-Château officially from 1885 to 1909 (when he was transferred to another village by his bishop, that he declined and subsequently resigned) and after 1909, until his death in 1917, in the role of Free Priest (a priest working independently without a parish). When he arrived at Rennes in 1885, we know that at the time of the tomb discovery he had therefore only been at Rennes for just over 6 years [he arrived 1 June 1885 replacing Antoine Croc]
I suppose one must look at this tomb 'discovery' in the context of Bérenger Saunière's life at that particular moment in time. What had been happening before and after this event?
Was the tomb discovered or uncovered accidentally?
Was the discovery made by someone else and later communicated to Saunière? Was the discovery even made at Rennes-le-Château? We simply have to admit that we will probably never know because we do not have enough information about this tomb discovery.
The facts are that Bérenger Saunière's diary entry for 21st September 1891 reads as follows:
“letter from Granès. discovery of a tomb, rain in the evening” ('lettre de Granès. découvert d'un tombeau. Le soir pluie').
Thus, during that day, Saunière had firstly made a note regarding a letter he received from Granes - so was this letter in some way related to the tomb discovery? Saunière also made a note that there had been rain in the evening - was the tomb discovered some time during the day sequentially?
The weather had been of some concern to Saunière. In the days leading up to the famous entry Saunière had recorded the following weather observations:
9th. violent wind, it's bad
10th. the wind redoubles in strength, the harvest is damaged
11th. the wind continues the same
12th. wind the same
13th. wind, rain, thunder and lightning
15th. nice weather,
20th. in the evening, Lightning, Thunder and rain
21st. découverte d'un tombeau, rain in the evening
22nd. Rain in the night
We know the weather was extremely volatile at this time in the Aude. It culminated on the 25th & 26th October, 1891 as a life-threatening flood of the river Aude, and the department of the Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales were devastated by terrible floods. Numerous and spectacular floods of rivers in the departments occurred and the municipalities of Rennes-les-Bains and Couiza, in the Aude high valley were hit very hard, as well as the towns of Limoux, Carcassonne and Narbonne and the entire coastal plain. [see HERE].
Did this heavy rainfall help to wash away some tombstones at Rennes exposing an uncovered grave for Saunière to find? Perhaps this was possible as had happened at Rennes-les-Bains, in 1992 - there is film footage of this - ferocious floods which ruined the village cemetery. However it is debatable if the same thing could have happened at Rennes-le-Château because this village is so high up on a mountainous hill.
Other researchers have come to the conclusion that the sentence before 'discovery of a tomb' is relevant i.e. that the 'letter from Granes' suggests that the tomb discovery was made by someone else - even that it was the person who had sent the letter from Granes that made the discovery.
Others have written that as "Saunière moved his library and study into this building [that is the wooden building he erected next to the cemetery by its gates]which stood above the level of the garden and, since this was a drought area, the soil was hollowed out below the structure to allow a water-tank to be installed, providing water to the gardens surrounding the church (Saunière turned this building into a chapel in 1898, according to surviving correspondence by Tiburce Caminade)....." for this researcher then "Saunière was working on a parcel of land situated next to the cemetery from February 1891 – and the tomb referred to in his diary entry could just have been a tomb that had once belonged to the cemetery that was disturbed during the works – and nothing else".
But this means that one has to think that the work begun on this structure by the cemetery in February 1891 was somehow related 7 months later to the discovery of the tomb of 21st September.
Some French researchers assert that "It [the library by the cemetery] was first built by Berenger Saunière in 1894 with limestones that he carried up from the Brook of Couleurs himself. It was built over the cistern or water storage tank which caused the argument between himself and the mairie, and he organised pipes taking water especially to the font in the church. This building served as the priest's library before he built the Tour Magdala".
Taking this approach means the repository was built 3 years after the initial tomb discovery of 21st September 1891!
When you look at what Saunière was doing in and around the church at the time of this discovery - a theory presents itself. Why? Because on the day of the 'discovery' of the tomb the builders themselves were in the process of installing the new pulpit in the church.
Above - the Church as Saunière found it in 1885 before he began to renovate the church. You can see the old main stone altar to the right, and also the wooden pulpit near another altar in the wall of the church [From the fabulous work of architect Paul Sussez]
Above - the second altar and pulpit before being renovated by Saunière. Copyright Paul Saussez [thanks Paul].
Above - Saunière has demolished second altar and built a stone pulpit! Courtesy Paul Saussez.
Thanks to the precise reports of the works left by Saunière we know that on 21 September, the day of the discovery, the masons were about to install the new pulpit. We can therefore conclude that the discovery took place at that point, next to the north wall of the church, in front of the site where the old altar stood, which on one side was indeed fixed to the wall. This is confirmed by a small map of the interior of the church of Santa Maddalena drawn by Saunière in 1891.
We also know that Saunière dismissed the workers who were doing the work on the pulpit and altar, so we can assume he was inside the church [i.e. not outside in the cemetery, or digging under the library he built next to the cemetery etc]. If the 'discovery' was to do with the work around this new pulpit - we even know what part of the church was being dug up. It was the north wall of the church. As others have noted - Saunière left us a map of where that area was. And in the above drawings it is clear where the workers were working.
The pulpit was not far from another altar [not the famous 1887 main altar] .... Saunière even talks about medals of Lourdes being found tat this second altar so it cannot be ruled out that it was the altar of the Virgin, on the northern wall of the church that the 1891 tomb find was related to .... Paul Saussez talks about this in his investigations in to the architectural history of the Church of Rennes and is illustrated inhe diagrams above.
In June 1891 the Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and the ‘Visigothic’ Pillar were installed by Bérenger Saunière at Rennes-le-Château, in the garden he had commandeered, in the presence of a Lazarist priest from the church of Notre-Dame de Marceille. We know that earlier in the year, on 15 February 1891, Bérenger Saunière asked the village council for permission to enclose and fit out at his own expense, what he termed in his writings the “square”, located in front of the church and the cemetery. The Councillors accepted on the following conditions: that the parcel of land remain the exclusive property of the Commune; that no covered building be built there; that one of the keys allowing access to it [it presumably being the cemetery?] would be deposited in the Town Hall; and that this “square”, once enclosed, would remain open on Sundays and public holidays as well as on religious holidays, whether local or national, from sunrise to sunset.
Saunière had therefore commandeered the land around the church and cemetery and barred access to these places for 300 days of the year. Saussez has shown amply that this was a strategy cooked up by Saunière to continue to dig around the church and the cemetery.
The main altar was upended in 1887. Thanks to the donation of a lady of Coursan, Marie Cavailhé, Saunière can finally meet the requests of bishops by ordering a "Romanesque altar with terracotta tabernacle" from the manufacturers, FD Monna in Toulouse. The receipt, dated July 27, 1887, indicates a cost of 700 francs, paid for by Mrs. Cavailhé.
It would be this altar that would carry a tombeau with allegedly famous parchments found.
However the wooden pulpit removal also has associations with a discovery - it is said that in the support pillar of the wooden pulpit Antoine Captier - the bellringer - found a small glass vial with a document/parchment inside it. Saussez thinks this paper most certainly the work of Bigou. Did it reveal the Tomb of the Lords and it's entrance?
When all is said and done, perhaps in September 1891 Saunière discovered or uncovered the entrance to a tomb near the place of the old pulpit [which was near the Virgin of the Altar] - that led underground into a crypt in the church, or into the cemetery. It does fit all the circumstantial evidence shown in the activities of Saunière as relayed by Saussez viz:
1] Saunière replaces the main altar around July 1887. In this altar was found a 'tombeau' - in ecclesiastic terms a small box carrying parchment or paper which related to the bones alongside it in the box. The bones were usually related to the saint associated with the church. Whatever Saunière found - ....he certainly started looking for something. He is known to have dug up the nave and in front of the main altar [flooring].
2] Earlier, in Feb 1891 he gets access to the land in front of the church and cemetery and bars access by the villagers for 300 days of the year of that space. He continues his various work projects. Information he was working from must have been from earlier than the discovery of the tombeau in the Main altar. It is known he had access to information about buried tombs from the Parish Register.
The old parish register related to the years 1694 to 1726 (the burial crypt was also referred to as ‘the Tomb of the Lords’) – quotations from this parish register were given in Captier and Corbu’s 1985 book, L’Héritage de L’Abbé Saunière. They cited a reference found in the parish register to the death of Dame Anne Delsol, in 1705:
" ...by Maître Michel, cure of St. Just in my presence and with my consent she has been buried on the thirty first day of the said month in the church place in the Tomb of the Lords which is beside the Baluster in the presence of aid Maître Michel, cure of St. Just and of Maître Delmas, cure of the Bains (Rennes-les-Bains) in witness whereof..." .
The Baluster that is referred to is the wooden support of the old pulpit.
In the will of Henri d'Hautpoul of 24th April 1695 it states "wanting that after my death, body be buried in the parish church of Rennes, tomb of my ancestors..." (after my death, my body must be laid to rest in the parish church at Rennes, in the tomb of my ancestors). The Hautpouls inhabited the Château d'Hautpoul in the 15th century. The fact that in the 18th century there are still relatives and allies being buried there, is an indication there must be a big crypt with many tombs.
Above - Parish Register entry for the burial of Anne Delsol in 1705. Dame Anne Delsol, was husband of Marc Antoine Dupuy who was the brother in law of Henry dHautpoul
3] September 1891, his team of workers are working on replacing the old pulpit. This is on the north wall of the church, not far from the Altar of the Virgin. This was referred to by Leuillieux in 1876. Later concealed recesses are built here by Sauniere. The staircase he built here matches the exact size of the original altar of the Virgin (58cm x 200cm). These are all concealed and hidden by Saunière. Access is hidden by two false doors into a cupboard.
4] The accounts of the lifting of this Virgin altar Saussez thinks is the root of the eyewitness descriptions (‘I saw a pot with shiny glinty objects ..’) of the workers with Saunière when they raised the slab. They saw the glinting objects under the the stone slab when it was removed. Saunière says to his workers that the shiny objects are worthless medallions from Lourdes, cementing the connection with the Virgin altar. The stone slab raised at this altar marked an entrance passage. Saunière puts temporary floorboards down here. At the opposite end of the church he builds the Secret Room. Steps down from this second entry passage are later found by Cholet.
5] Saunière then leaves for a retreat, sees various other priests, returns from the retreat and after a visit from 4 unknown colleagues begins new work with new Masons. From Bérenger Saunière’s Notebook, “Saw the curé of Névian – Went to see Gélis – Went to see Carrière, Saw Cros and secret” [“secret” an abbreviation for secrétaire – “Cros” being Abbé Guillaume Cros, 1810-1898, the Vicaire général, with Pierre Pradel the Secrétaire général].
One of those Saunière consulted was Carriere (a doctor from Limoux) who’s cousin was Abbe Lassere of Alet, and who was personal doctor to the Count Chambord. There are other interpretations perhaps. Saunière said he saw ( vu ) the curate of Névian, a town not far from Narbonne, who's priest at the time was the Abbe Dumons. He also saw Antoine Gelis (1827-1897), priest of nearby Coustaussa, the priest of Bages-les-Flots, Carrière and Cros, the vicar general (1810-1898) who had accompanied him during the visit of Monsignor Billard 1889.
What catches the eye for most people in the quoted sentence is the last word, "Secret": some think this probably refers to the closely guarded secret by the parish priest of Rennes, the news of which he relayed to the four characters mentioned? On October 6th Saunière writes: Visit of 4 brothers. Are these the same four people named on September 29? This meeting has not been recorded therefore we can not say for sure; but there are those who, reading between the lines, think that these notes act as two references to a small group of local priests in on the secret (secret) of Saunière.
One researcher [Bedu] wrote "From a visit to the cemetery, i conclude that the activities of Saunière began from just adjacent to the north wall of the church. He writes: "We have seen that at that point the wall of the church is curiously plastered outside and the tombs are all present back to 1891. Why is this finding? Simply because Berenger Saunière will start from this particular excavations in the cemetery!"
Paul Saussez noted that the area which had previously housed the altar of the Virgin (and perhaps - was an entry point to the crypt) spanned the same size as the staircase of the pulpit; so Saunière would use this space for the erection of the stairs going up - thus masking what steps went further down into the crypt. Saunière ensures that the wall is reinforced, creating the architectural anomaly that one can see - the corresponding arch is not aligned with the other.
We also know that a few years later there are complaints about Saunière digging in the cemetery. Saunière described that he was 'renovating the cemetery' [in 1894] but on 12 and 14 March 1895: inhabitants of the village sent two letters of complaint to the Préfet de l’Aude about Saunière’s work in the cemetery. The two complaints were as followed:
Rennes-le-Château, 12 March 1895
We wish to inform you that, with the agreement of the Municipal Council of Rennes-le-Château, the meeting in the Town Hall at one o’clock on Sunday 10 March, we the electors wish to protest that the decision giving the curé the right to continue work makes no sense and in addition we desire to be freely responsible to tend the graves of our forebears. The curé has no right to remove, raise or relocate any ornaments, crosses or crowns from where we have placed them
Sarda, Gavignaud, Delmas, Vidal, etc
Rennes-le-Château, 14 March 1895
We are far from satisfied with prevailing conditions in the cemetery. Crosses are removed, as are tombstones, and this said work has nothing to do with repairs nor is there a good reason for it
Baumore, Rousset, Bouteille, etc
One can see here that villagers said exactly what was happening - Saunière was *not* renovating the cemetery ["and this said work has nothing to do with repairs"] but he was upending everything i.e Crosses are removed, as are tombstones - probably because he was looking for something.
I am left to conclude that Jean Luc Robin (in Rennes-le-Château, Saunière’s Secret) was right when he wrote: "After essentially ransacking the church Saunière then went on to ransack the cemetery". Why? For Robin it was a case of: “after discovering the message in the wooden pillar [this] had sent him to the Tomb of the Lords ..[then] from the tomb we presume that he reached the crypt - and this sent him to the graveyard, from whence he departed to poke around the countryside ….”
Jean Luc also had one other interesting thing to say:
‘I’ve already mentioned a writing left by the uncle of the abbé Bigou, who had been priest of Rennes-le-Château forty years before him. It says: “Beneath the altar of the church of Rennes-le-Château there is a chamber in which are tombs dating from the times of the ancient kings (sic), as well as documents which must not fall into unintended hands. For this reason, I have had access to this crypt sealed”.
In these short sentences of Robin the bare bones of the story of Saunière hang. From his position as priest, Saunière came into some information perhaps from previous priests of Rennes-le-Château, whether orally or from old notes and Registers. He quite simply began to look for something, specifically the old tomb of the Lords which allowed him to access an ancient crypt under the Church. We must assume it was something important because he spent years and years looking and searching. One must even ask if the 'trafficking in masses' was created to make the money to carry out these works. Where else was he going to get the funds to carry out all these works?
What are the graves of the 'ancient kings?' Did he believe that the tombeau with bones of a saint to which the church was consecrated were genuine? Is this why he was obsessed with all things Mary Magdalene around his domaine? Is this why he wanted to make it a pilgrimage centre? Whatever motivated him - Saunière searches in the cemetery and digs up all the graves.
Bérenger Saunière’s selling of masses activities - usually said to have financed his searches/renovations etc only started to take off on a Grand Scale around August 1896.
In the next entry we will read about further discoveries made by Saunière!