|• Mayor (2008–2014)||Alexandre Painco|
|• Land1||14.68 km2 (5.67 sq mi)|
|• Population2 density||6.2/km2 (16/sq mi)|
|INSEE/Postal code||11309 / 11190|
|Elevation||272–568 m (892–1,864 ft)
(avg. 435 m or 1,427 ft)
1 French Land Register data, which excludes lakes, ponds, glaciers > 1 km² (0.386 sq mi or 247 acres) and river estuaries.2 Population without double counting: residents of multiple communes (e.g., students and military personnel) only counted once.
This small French hilltop village is known internationally, and receives tens of thousands of visitors per year, for being at the center of various conspiracy theories, and for being the location of an alleged buried treasure discovered by its 19th-century priest Bérenger Saunière, the precise nature of which is disputed by those who believe in its existence, because of the sheer diversity of conflicting theories.
Mountains frame both ends of the region—the Cevennes to the northeast and the Pyrenees to the south. The area is known for beautiful scenery, with jagged ridges, deep river canyons and rocky limestone plateaus, with large caves underneath.
Like many European villages, Rennes-le-Château has a complex history. It is the site of a prehistoric encampment, and later a Roman colony (or at least Roman villa or temple, such as is confirmed to have been built at Fa, 5 km (3.1 mi) west of Couiza); being part of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, the wealthiest part of Roman Gaul.
Rennes-le-Château was part of Septimania during the 6th and 7th centuries. In Visigothic times the city had some 30,000 people living in the city in around 500-600 AD. during the trying period when the Visigoths had been defeated by the Frankish King Clovis I, and during the 19th century was popularly considered to be the center of the county of Razès.
By 1050 the Counts of Toulouse held control over the area, involving a rapid increase of castles in the area, including the existence of a castle in Rennes-le-Château by around 1002, though nothing remains above ground of this medieval structure—the present ruin is from the 17th or 18th century.
Several castles situated in the surrounding region in the Languedoc were central to the battle between the Catholic church and the Cathars at the beginning of the 13th century. Other castles guarded the volatile border with Spain. Whole communities were wiped out during the campaigns of the Catholic authorities to rid the area of the Cathar heretics during the Albigensian Crusades and again when Protestants fought against the French monarchy two centuries before the French Revolution.
Church of Saint Mary Magdalene
The village church dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene has an extremely 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. However, this original church was almost certainly in ruins during the 10th or 11th century, when another church was built upon the site—remnants of which can be seen in Romanesque pillared arcades on the north side of the apse. This survived in poor repair until the 19th century, when it was renovated by the local priest, Bérenger Saunière. Surviving receipts and existing account books belonging to Saunière reveal that the renovation of the church, including works on the presbytery and cemetery, cost 11,605 Francs over a ten-year period between 1887 and 1897.
One of the new features was the Latin inscription Terribilis est locus iste above the front doors, taken from the Common Dedication of a Church, which translates as: "This is a place of awe"; the rest of the dedication reads "this is God's house, the gate of heaven, and it shall be called the royal court of God."  The first part of the dedication is above the front doors—the rest inscribed on the arches over the two front doors of the church.
Inside the church, one of the added figures was of a devil holding up the holy water stoup, a rare, though not unheard of addition found in French churches in this particular style. Its original head was stolen by persons unknown in 1996 and has never been recovered.
The new figures and statues in the church were not specially made, but 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.
Saunière also funded the construction of another structure dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Named after his church, he built the Tour Magdala on the edge of the village which he used as his library, situated on a belvedere that connected it to an orangery. The tower has a promenade linking it to the Villa Bethania, which was not actually used by the priest. He stated during his trial that it was intended as a home for retired priests. Surviving receipts and existing account books belonging to Saunière reveal that the construction of his estate including the Tour Magdala and Villa Bethania (including the purchases of land) between 1898 and 1905 cost 26,417 Francs.
In 1910–1911 Bérenger Saunière was summoned by the bishopric to appear before an ecclesiastical trial to face charges of trafficking in masses, was found guilty and suspended of the priesthood. When asked to produce his account books he refused to attend his trial.
The village received up to around 100,000 tourists each year during the height of popularity of Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. The modern reputation of Rennes-le-Château rises mainly from claims and stories dating from the mid-1950s concerning the local 19th-century priest Father Bérenger Saunière. These stories influenced the authors of the worldwide bestseller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982, and that work in turn influenced Dan Brown when he wrote The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003.
The first known popular article about Father Bérenger Saunière was written by Roger Crouquet in the Belgian magazine Le Soir illustré, published in 1948. The author was visiting the Aude to meet his friend Monsieur Jean Mauhin, who originated from Belgium and had moved to Quillan to open a factory making bells and hats, and at his suggestion decided it would be a good idea to visit Rennes-le-Château. There Crouquet collected the testimonies of the villagers about Saunière, one person told how the priest "preferred wine and women to practising the priesthood. At the end of the last century he had a rather original idea. He placed in foreign newspapers, especially in the United States, an advertisement announcing that the poor priest of Rennes-le-Château lived among heretics and had only the most meagre of resources. He moved the Christians of the whole world to such pity by announcing that the old church, an architectural gem, was heading for unavoidable destruction if urgent restoration work was not undertaken as soon as possible." Crouquet also added: "The stoup which decorates the entrance to the chapel is carried by a horned devil with cloven hooves. An old woman remarked to us: 'It's the old priest, changed into a devil'."
Crouquet's article faded into obscurity and it was left to Noël Corbu, a local man who had opened a restaurant in Saunière's former estate (called L'Hotel de la Tour) during the mid-1950s, to turn the village into a household name. Corbu began circulating stories that Father Saunière had discovered "parchments" while renovating his church in 1892 that were to do with the treasure of Blanche of Castile, and which "according to the archives" consisted of 28,500,000 gold pieces. This was the treasure of the French crown assembled by Blanche de Castile to pay the ransom of Saint Louis, a prisoner of the infidels, the surplus of which she had hidden at Rennes-le-Château. Saunière had only found one part of it, so it was necessary to continue his investigations.
Corbu also claimed that Rennes-le-Château was the capital of the Visigoths called Rhedae, but this was another exaggeration: it was Narbonne that held that position. His claim can be traced back to a book by Louis Fédié entitled Le comté de Razès et le diocèse d'Alet (1880), that contained a chapter on the history of Rennes-le-Château; published as a booklet in 1994. Noël Corbu incorporated this story into his essay L'histoire de Rennes-le-Château that was deposited at the Departmental Archives at Carcassonne on 14 June 1962. 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.
Corbu's story inspired author Robert Charroux to develop an active interest, and in 1958 with his wife Yvette and other members of The Treasure Seekers' Club (that he founded in 1951), scanned the village and its church looking for treasure using a metal detector.
Corbu's story was published in the book by Robert Charroux Trésors du monde in 1962, that caught the attention of Pierre Plantard, who decided to use and adapt Corbu's story for his own gain involving the mythological history of the Priory of Sion, that inspired the 1967 book L'Or de Rennes by author Gérard de Sède. De Sède's book contained reproductions of "parchments" allegedly discovered by the priest Bérenger Saunière alluding to the survival of the line of Dagobert II and Plantard claimed to be directly descended from that monarch. Plantard and de Sède fell out over book royalties and Philippe de Chérisey, Plantard's friend, claimed to have forged the parchments as part of the plot. At the same time, Plantard and de Chérisey were also involved in planting fabricated documents in France's Bibliothèque Nationale that dealt with the secret history of the Priory of Sion.
In 1969, a British supporting actor and screenwriter for the BBC by the name of Henry Lincoln read de Sède's book while on holiday in the Cévennes in 1969 that led him to inspire three BBC Two Chronicle documentaries between 1972-1979, working some of its material into the 1982 non-fictional bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that he co-wrote with Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. The book claimed Bérenger Saunière discovered proof (possibly the Marriage Certificate) that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants became the Merovingian dynasty. Among the book's hypotheses are the possibilities that this was the secret of the Priory of Sion; that Pierre Plantard could have been the descendant of Jesus Christ; that the source of Saunière's wealth could have involved the blackmailing of the Vatican.
The hypotheses of Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh were later picked up in 2003 by Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. Brown's novel never specifically mentioned Rennes-le-Château, but some key characters in the book had related names, such as Saunière, named after the priest, and "Leigh Teabing", whose first name was derived from Richard Leigh, and last name, Teabing, was an anagram of Baigent. Leigh and Baigent brought (and lost) a plagiarism suit against Brown in 2006.
The extraordinary 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.
Rennes-le-Château and Saunière both appear in best-selling author Steve Berry's 2006 novel, The Templar Legacy. The novel directly refers to the history, site, and people associated with the town and its surrounding regions. He correctly describes in detail the locales and buildings located there. Berry includes explanations in his Writer's Notes as to what is fact and what is fiction.
The sudden interest in Saunière's church generated by the stories circulated by Noël Corbu during the 1950s inspired two excavations of the church of St Mary Magdalene. The first was conducted by Dr André Malacan in May 1956, who, after excavating the subsoil of the church at the depth of approximately one metre, discovered some bones that included a skull bearing an incision, but they failed to discover "anything of any interest". Dr Malacan died in 1997, and the skull is currently in the possession of his family. Between 1959-1963 Jacques Cholet, an engineer from Paris, also conducted several digs in the church, and also failed to discover anything of interest.
In November 1956 Monsieur Cotte of the Société des arts et des sciences de Carcassonne asked the membership during its monthly session about the treasure of Rennes-le-Château, which led to an investigation of the subject matter. Two members conducted on-the-spot research in March 1957 that lasted for one year. Local historian René Descadeillas commented: "They found no evidence anywhere to support the assertion that, down the ages, any individual, family, group or clan could have accumulated a precious treasure-hoard at Rennes and then concealed it in the locality or its environs. What is more, the activities of the Abbé Saunière were undoubtedly eloquent of the sort of stratagems that he was accustomed to using in order to enrich himself."
In more recent times, a much-publicised 2003 excavation of the floor of the Tour Magdala by the Mayor of the village produced a stone, and not any anticipated treasure, following-up claims made by a Canadian who said he was related to one of the foremen who supervised Saunière's works. Another request, at the same time, was also made to excavate the church, but permission was refused by the Directions Régionales des Affaires Culturelles (or DRAC), the archaeological body of France.
Center of conspiracy theories
The entire area around Rennes-le-Château became the focus of sensational claims during the 1950s and 1960s involving Blanche of Castile, the Merovingians, the Knights Templar, the Cathars, the treasures of the Temple of Solomon that was the booty of the Visigoths that included the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah (the seven-branched candlestick from the Temple of Jerusalem). From the 1970s onwards claims have extended to the Priory of Sion, the Rex Deus, the Holy Grail, ley lines, sacred geometry alignments, the remains of Jesus Christ, alleged references to Mary Magdalene settling in the south of France, and even flying saucers. Well-known French authors like Jules Verne and Maurice Leblanc are suspected of leaving clues in their novels about their knowledge of the "mystery" of Rennes-le-Château.
Christiane Amiel has commented:
No new theory has ever succeeded in entirely replacing any of the previous ones and, as the researches have intensified, so the various lines of investigation have accumulated and crossed in a system of ramifications in which criticism of one line of approach simply gives rise to others
Today the vogue is for analysing and checking the most minute details, for comparing and contrasting rival theories, for reviving old and unexplored lines of enquiry in a new guise, and for an unbridled pluralism which mixes together erudition and extrapolation, and makes recourse to geology, history, prehistory, esotericism, religious history, mysticism, the paranormal, ufology and other fields.
Rennes-le-Château conspiracy theories continue to be a popular ingredient in a publishing industry that is growing exponentially, and is the subject of press articles, radio and Television programmes and films. Websites and Blogs devoted to the alleged 'mysteries' exist in many different countries and authors' interviews can be accessed on podcasts.
Archaeologist Dr. Paul Bahn considered the various claims surrounding the village of Rennes-le-Château as pure myth "so beloved of occultists and 'aficionados' of the Unexplained". He ranks the stories among those of the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis and ancient astronauts as a source of "ill-informed and lunatic books". Likewise another archaeologist Bill Putnam, co-author with John Edwin Wood of The Treasure of Rennes-le-Château, A Mystery Solved (2003, 2005) has dismissed all of the popular allegations as pseudo-history.
Laura Miller, contributor to The New York Times books section, commented how the village of Rennes-le-Château had become "a town that had become the French equivalent of Roswell or Loch Ness as a result of popular books by Gérard de Sède".
Christiane Amiel commented in 2008 that the treasure of Rennes-le-Château "seems to elude all the investigations that people make into it. Like the fairy gold which, in the popular fables, turns into manure as soon as a human being touches it, it remains impalpable. It can only exist as long as it remains on the distinctive level of the dream, between the real and the imaginary."
Mont Cardou, or Pech-le-Cardou, is a mountain nearby.
- Beale ciphers, for a somewhat similar lost treasure story in Virginia
- Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, 1999 computer game which takes place in the town
- Revelation (2001 film)
- Article by Christiane Amiel entitled "L’abîme au trésor, ou l’or fantôme de Rennes-le-Château" in, Claudie Voisenat (editor), Imaginaires archéologiques, pages 61-86 (Ethnologie de la France, Number 22, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2008). ISBN 978-2-7351-1210-4
- Louis Fédié, Le Comté de Razès et le diocèse d'Alet, notices historiques (Carcassonne: Lajaux Frères, 1880). Facsimile reprint, Nîmes: Les Éditions Lacour-Ollé, 2002. ISBN 2-84149-235-4
- Abbé Sabarthès, Dictionnaire topographique du Département de l'Aude, comprenant les noms de lieux anciens et modernes (1912).
- Bill Putnam, John Edwin Wood. The Treasure of Rennes-le-Château: A Mystery Solved, page 88 (Sutton Publishing Limited, revised paperback edition, 2005). ISBN 0-7509-4216-9
- An architectural report of 1845 reporting that it required extensive repairs.
- Jacques Rivière, Le Fabuleux trésor de Rennes-le-Château, page 130 (Editions Belisane, 1983).
- http://www.ballyroanparish.ie/parish-information/parish-history Ballyroan Parish History, reference to the Entrance Antiphon from the Common of a Dedication of a Church
- Midi Libre, 23 April 1996.
- Bill Putnam & John Edwin Wood, The Treasure of Rennes-le-Château, a Mystery Solved, page 167, new revised paperback edition 2005 ISBN 0-7509-4216-9
- Marie de Saint-Gély, Bérenger Saunière, prêtre Rennes-le-Château 1885–1917 (Bélisane, 1989; 2005), p. XLII, XLIV and XLV, which has reproduced pages from the Giscard catalogue.
- Downloadable Giscard & Co catalogue from 1914
- Jacques Rivière, Le Fabuleux trésor de Rennes-le-Château, Editions Belisane (1983)
- Jacques Rivière, Le Fabuleux trésor de Rennes-le-Château, page 175 (Editions Belisane, 1983).
- Jacques Rivière, Le Fabuleux trésor de Rennes-le-Château, Editions Belisane (1983)
- Les Cahiers de Rennes-le-Château N°11, Abbé Bruno De Monts, "Le Vrai Trésor" (Editions Bélisane, 1996 ISBN 2-910730-12-3), p. 14; 45–46.
- Roger Crouquet, Visite a une ville morte: Rennes-le-Château, autrefois Capitale du Comte de Razès, Aujourd'hui bourgade abandonne ("Visit to a dead village: Rennes-le-Château, former capital of the county of Razès, now an abandoned village"), in Le Soir illustré, pages 16-22 (number 819; March, 1948).
- Albert Salamon, D'un coup de pioche dans un pilier du maître-autel, l'abbé Saunière met à jour le trésor de Blanche de Castille ("With one blow of the pick-axe in a pillar of the main altar Abbé Saunière uncovered the treasure of Blanche de Castile"), in La Dépêche du Midi dated 12, 13, 14 January 1956.
- Louis Fédié, Rhedae, la Cité des Chariots (Rennes-le-Château: Terre de Rhedae, 1994). ISBN 2-9506938-0-6
- Bill Putnam & John Edwin Wood, The Treasure of Rennes-le-Château, a Mystery Solved, page 88, new revised paperback edition 2005 ISBN 0-7509-4216-9
- Jean Fourié, Rennes-le-Château: L’Histoire de Rennes-le-Château antérieure à 1789, Notes Historiques, Editions Jean Bardou, Esperaza, 1984.
- Robert Charroux described his activities in Rennes-le-Château in his 1962 book Trésors du Monde enterrées, emmurés, engloutis (Fayard), that was published in English in 1966.
- Robert Charroux, Trésors du monde: enterrés, emmurés, engloutis (Paris: Fayard, 1962).
- Gérard de Sède, L'Or de Rennes, ou La Vie insolite de Bérenger Saunière, curé de Rennes-le-Château (René Julliard, 1967).
- Descadeillas, Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes, 1974.
- A translation of his Report dated 25 April 1967
- René Descadeillas, Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes, pages 57-58 (Éditions Collot, 1991 reprint of the 1974 edition).
- La Dépêche 21 August 2003
- Michel Lamy, Jules Verne, initié et initiateur: la clé du secret de Rennes-le-Château et le trésor des rois de France (Paris: Payot, 1984). ISBN 2-228-85020-9.
- Patrick Ferté, Arsène Lupin, supérieur inconnu: arcanes, filigranes et cryptogrammes, la clé de l'oeuvre codée de Maurice Leblanc (Paris: Éditions Guy Trédaniel, 1992). ISBN 2-85707-463-8
- Christiane Amiel, "L’abîme au trésor, ou l’or fantôme de Rennes-le-Château" in, Claudie Voisenat (editor), Imaginaires archéologiques (Ethnologie de la France, Number 22, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2008). ISBN 978-2-7351-1210-4.
- http://www.artandmind.org/pages/Biog/BahnPaul.htm Biography of Paul Bahn.
- Dr. Paul G Bahn, "The ruins of a mystery" (Times Literary Supplement, 29 March 1991).
- Laura Miller, "The Last Word: The Da Vinci Con" (The New York Times, 22 February 2004). Online http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/22/books/the-last-word-the-da-vinci-con.html
- Article by Christiane Amiel entitled "L’abîme au trésor, ou l’or fantôme de Rennes-le-Château" in, Claudie Voisenat (editor), Imaginaires archéologiques, page 84 (Ethnologie de la France, Number 22, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2008). ISBN 978-2-7351-1210-4.
- Henry Lincoln (2004) p. 40 "A mile or so from Rennes-le-Chateau and towering on the eastern skyline is the Mountain of Cardou, which is composed of china clay, or 'kaolin'. Thus vers haut nid kaolin means 'towards the high china clay peak'—Cardou. Simon regarde is..."
- Christiane Amiel, "L’abîme au trésor, ou l’or fantôme de Rennes-le-Château" in, Claudie Voisenat (editor), Imaginaires archéologiques, pages 61–86 (Ethnologie de la France, Number 22, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2008). ISBN 978-2-7351-1210-4.
- Jean-Jacques Bedu, Rennes-Le-Château: Autopsie d'un mythe (Portet-sur-Garonne: Ed. Loubatières, 1990). ISBN 2-86266-142-2 Reprinted in 2003, ISBN 2-86266-372-7
- Claude Boumendil, Gilbert Tappa (editors), Les Cahiers de Rennes-le-Château, Archives – Documents – Études, Number 11 (Éditions Bélisane, 1996). ISBN 2-910730-12-3. 
- René Descadeillas, Mythologie du trésor de Rennes: histoire véritable de l'abbé Saunière, curé de Rennes-le-Château (Mémoires de la Société des Arts et des Sciences de Carcassonne, Annees 1971–1972, 4me série, Tome VII, 2me partie; 1974). Reprinted by Savary, Carcassonne in 1988, then by Editions Collot, Carcassonne, in 1991.
- Christian Doumergue, L'Affaire de Rennes-le-Château, 2 volumes (Marseille: Ed. Arqa, 2006). ISBN 2-7551-0013-3 (volume 1). ISBN 2-7551-0014-1 (volume 2).
- Jean Fourié, L'Histoire de Rennes-le-Château, antérieure à 1789 (Esperaza: Éditions Jean Bardoux, 1984).
- Abbé Bruno de Monts, Bérenger Sauniére curé à Rennes-le-Château 1885–1909, Editions Belisane (Collection les amis de Bérenger Sauniére, 1989, 2000). ISBN 2-902296-85-1
- Bill Putnam, John Edwin Wood. The Treasure of Rennes-le-Château: A Mystery Solved (Sutton Publishing Limited, 2003) ISBN 0-7509-3081-0. Reprinted and revised paperback edition published in 2005. ISBN 0-7509-4216-9.
- Jacques Rivière, Le Fabuleux trésor de Rennes-le-Château, Editions Belisane (1983). ISBN 2-902296-42-8.
- David Rossoni, L'histoire rêvée de Rennes-le-Château: Eclairages sur un récit collectif contemporain (Books on Demand Editions, 2010). ISBN 2-8106-1152-1.
- Gérard de Sède, L'or de Rennes ou la Vie insolite de Bérenger Saunière, curé de Rennes-le-Château, Paris: Julliard, 1967. Reprinted in paperback with the collaboration of Sophie de Sède entitled Le Trésor maudit de Rennes-le-Château, J'ai Lu (L'Aventure mystérieuse series), 1968.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rennes-le-Château.|
- Village's official website
- Photos of Rennes-Le-Chateau
- The Secret of the Priory of Sion, CBS News '60 Minutes' (CBS Worldwide Inc.), 30 April 2006, presented by CBS correspondent Ed Bradley, produced by Jeanne Langley