11 April 1852|
Montazels, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
|Died||22 January 1917
Rennes-le-Château, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
François-Bérenger Saunière (11 April 1852 – 22 January 1917) was a Roman Catholic priest in the French village of Rennes-le-Château, in the Aude region, officially from 1885 until he was transferred to another village in 1909 by his bishop, a nomination he declined and subsequently resigned. From 1909 until his death in 1917 he was a non-stipendiary Free Priest (an independent priest without a parish, who did not receive any salary from the church because of suspension), and who from 1910 celebrated Mass in an altar constructed in a special conservatory by his Villa Bethania. Saunière's refusal to leave Rennes-le-Château to continue his priesthood in another parish incurred permanent suspension. The epitaph on Saunière's original 1917 gravestone read "priest of Rennes-le-Château 1885-1917".
He would be largely unknown today if not for the fact that he is a central figure in many of the conspiracy theories surrounding Rennes-le-Château. These speculations form the basis of several documentaries and books such as the 1982 Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Many elements of these theories were later used by Dan Brown in his best-selling 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, in which the fictional character Jacques Saunière is named after the priest.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Ministry
- 3 Ecclesiastical trials, punishment and suspension
- 4 Later years
- 5 Controversy
- 6 Details of expenditure
- 7 In popular culture
- 8 Notes
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
François Bérenger Saunière was born on 11 April 1852 in Montazels, in the Arrondissement of Limoux of the Aude region. He was the eldest of seven children, having three brothers (Alfred, Martial, and Joseph) and three sisters (Mathilde, Adeline, and Marie-Louise). He was the son of Marguerite Hugues and Joseph Saunière (1823–1906), also called "cubié", who was the mayor of Montazels (Aude), managed the local flour mill, and was the steward of Marquis de Cazermajou's castle. Alfred became a priest; Joseph wanted to be a physician but died at 25. Saunière went to school at St. Louis in Limoux, entered the seminary in Carcassonne in 1874, and was ordained as a priest in June, 1879.
From 16 July 1879 until 1882, Saunière was the vicar of Alet. From June 1882 to 1885, he was a priest in the deanery of the small village of Clat. He was a teacher in the seminary in Narbonne but, because he was undisciplined, he was appointed to another small village of approximately 300 inhabitants, to Rennes-le-Château on 1 June 1885 with its church dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene.
Because of preaching anti-republican sermons from his pulpit during the elections of October 1885, Saunière was suspended by the French Minister of Religion and between 1 December 1885 to July 1886 gave lessons once more in the seminary of Narbonne. As the villagers wanted him back, the prefect of the Aude reinstated Saunière. Between 1890-1891 he also said mass on Sundays in Antugnac. Marie Dénarnaud, his maidservant, moved into the Presbytery at Rennes-le-Château with her family in 1890.
Claims that Bérenger Saunière had an ambiguous relationship with his maidservant, Marie Dénarnaud, are without foundation. Saunière himself outlined the following principles for dealing with a maidservant:
Respect, but not familiarity. Not to permit her to talk about matters of his ministry. What you say to a servant should not be able to be said to other women. She must avoid excesses of language, and he must not trust in her age or her piety too easily. She is not to enter the bedroom when he is in bed, except in case of illnesses.
An important part of Saunière's ministry at Rennes-le-Château was the installation and Blessing of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes on 21 June 1891, commemorating the First Holy Communion of 24 children of the parish and "to bring to a close the spiritual exercises of the retreat that had been preached by the Reverend Father Ferrafiat, diocesan missionary, of the Family of Saint Vincent de Paul, residing at Notre Dame de Marceille" (the church, based at Limoux, is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary).
A 'Visigothic pillar' acted as a plinth for the statue bearing the inscriptions Mission 1891 and Penitence! Penitence!. Its authenticity is the subject of much debate. Saunière claimed it was one of two pillars that supported the original church altar. A genuine Visigothic pillar resembling the one installed by Saunière is displayed in the museum of Narbonne. The pillar that originally supported the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was transferred into the Saunière museum in 1993 because of erosion and decay and was replaced by a resin replica.
The presbytery was one of several building projects Saunière launched around the village. He renovated the interior and exterior of the local church, as recommended by the architect Guiraud Cals in his Report dated 1853. A receipt dated 5 June 1887 shows the first renovations involved the re-flooring of the church. A new altar to the value of 700 Francs was donated by a wealthy benefactress of monarchist persuasion, Mme Marie Cavailhé in July 1887. New stained-glass windows were fitted that cost 1,350 Francs - that Saunière settled in three installments - April 1897, April 1899 and January 1900.
In November 1896 Saunière commissioned prestigious sculptor and painter Giscard of Toulouse (established in 1855) to decorate his church with new statues of the saints, Stations of the Cross, Baptismal font with statues of John baptising Jesus (bearing Ecce Agnus Dei), a bas-relief of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount above the Confessional, and a figure of a Devil supporting a Holy Water Stoup surmounted by Angels making the Sign of the Cross, bearing the inscriptions BS and Par Ce Signe Tu Le Vaincras ("By this sign you will conquer him"). All these items were chosen by Saunière from Giscard's catalogue. Although the 1896 edition of Giscard's catalogue has not survived, and later catalogues omit the statue of the Devil, its head bears a resemblance to the one found on the statue of the dragon being vanquished by Saint Michael that was also made by Giscard. The total sum involved was 2,500 Francs paid in annual installments of 500 Francs by Saunière beginning from the end of December 1897.
Following Sauniere's renovations and redecoratations, the church was re-dedicated on the feast of Pentecost 1897 by his bishop, Monsignor Billard.
Construction of the estate
Saunière built a grand estate between the years 1898-1905 that also involved buying several plots of land - this included the Renaissance-style Villa Bethania, the Tour Magdala (that he used as his personal library) connected to an orangery by a belvedere with rooms underneath, a garden with a pool and a cage for monkeys - all in the name of his maidservant, Marie Dénarnaud.
Ecclesiastical trials, punishment and suspension
Saunière's renovation of his church and ostentatious construction programmes in a small hilltop village could not go unnoticed, and this attracted hostile reactions, with various complaints passed on by various sources to the Bishopric of Carcassonne. The Bishopric had warned Saunière about his selling of masses, and had sent him two written warnings in May 1901. These written warnings were repeated in June 1903 and August 1904. In 1899 Saunière purchased a clergymen's directory (Annuaire du clergé français) through which he contacted both priests and religious communities across France to solicit Mass requests.
Monsignor Paul-Félix Beuvain de Beauséjour was appointed the new Bishop of Carcassonne in 1902 - initially transferring Saunière to the village of Coustouge in January 1909 (Saunière refused the nomination and resigned on 28 January 1909, becoming a free priest), then on 27 May 1910 Monsignor Beauséjour decided to conduct an ecclesiastical investigation and drawing up an official Bill of Indictment referring to:
- Trafficking in Masses,
- Disobedience to the Bishop,
- Exaggerated and unjustified expenditure to which fees from Masses that have not been said seem to have been devoted.
Saunière had to attend an ecclesiastical trial to answer these charges.
First two hearings
Saunière did not attend the first hearing on 16 July 1910 nor on the re-scheduled date 23 July, when he was sentenced in his absence: incurring a one month suspension and ordered to refund the money he obtained from selling Masses. He also did not attend the second hearing on 23 August, but managed to attend on the re-scheduled date 5 November 1910, when he was sentenced "to withdraw to a house of priestly retreat or into a monastery of his choice, there to undertake spiritual exercises for a period of ten days" for trafficking in Masses, and for accepting more money than he was able to say Masses for. He served his penance in the monastery of Prouille.
On 17 December 1910 Saunière unsuccessfully appealed to The Sacred Congregation of The Council in Rome for his reinstatement as parish priest of Rennes-le-Château; with the The Sacred Congregation passing this information on to the Carcassonne Bishopric. The Bishop issued a strong warning against Saunière in 1911 forbidding him to administer the sacraments, published in La Semaine religieuse de Carcassonne dated 3 February 1911 and in La Croix dated 9 February 1911.
The Bishopric was not satisfied and by formal command asked Saunière to produce his account books by 2 March the latest in a letter dated 18 February 1911. A Commission of Enquiry was established to further scrutinize Saunière's financial activities.
On 13 March 1911 Saunière submitted 61 invoices relating to the renovation of his church and the building of his estate that came to the total of 36,250 Francs. On 25 March 1911 he submitted a letter of explanation to the Bishopric outlining the source of his finances, with a List of Donors giving details of his entire income since becoming priest of Rennes-le-Château, producing an exaggerated amount totaling 193,150 Francs. In a letter dated 14 July 1911 Saunière provided a statement of expenditure on the renovation of his church and building of his estate, producing an exaggerated amount totaling 193,050 Francs (claiming the Villa Bethania cost 90,000 Francs, and the Tour Magdala 40,000 Francs).
On 4 October the Commission of Enquiry submitted its report: only about 36,000 Francs could be accounted for out of the 193,150 Francs that Saunière claimed to have spent, and commented that Saunière refused to cooperate with the enquiry. Another hearing had to be arranged where Saunière had to produce his account books for inspection by the Bishopric.
Saunière did not attend the third hearing on 21 November 1911 and was sentenced in his absence on 5 December 1911 to three months suspension. Although Saunière's suspension was only provisionally temporary—for three months—the priest's reinstatment depended on the ecclesiastical judgment that he had to "undertake the restitution into the hands of the rightful owner and according to canon law of the goods misappropriated by him", which the priest was unable to do.
Following the ecclesiastical trial, Saunière lived the rest of his life in poverty, selling religious medals and rosaries to wounded soldiers who were stationed in Campagne-les-Bains.
Whatever money Saunière was still raising from selling Masses was used on his appeal to Rome that his lawyer, Abbé Jean-Eugène Huguet (doctor of canon law), was working on. In May 1914 Saunière planned to build a summer house, but abandoned the project because he could not afford the 2,500 Francs required.
François Bérenger Saunière died on 22 January 1917, his suspension lifted at the moment of death (in articulo mortis) by Abbé Jean Rivière, who performed the last rites. His death certificate dated 23 January 1917 was signed by Victor Rivière, the mayor of Rennes-le-Château. Saunière was buried on 24 January 1917. Marie Dénarnaud paid for Saunière's coffin on 12 June 1917.
In September 2004, the mayor of Rennes-le-Château exhumed Saunière's corpse from the cemetery and reburied it in a concrete sarcophagus to protect it from grave-robbers. Since then, the cemetery of Rennes-le-Château has been closed to the general public.
The controversy around Saunière originally centered on parchments that he is said to have found hidden in the old altar of his church, that related to the treasure of Blanche of Castile, and that this was the theoretical source of his income.
The popular story of Saunière's wealth
Noël Corbu circulated the story from the mid-1950s when he opened his restaurant that Saunière discovered parchments in the hollow pillar of his Altar in 1891, and these related to 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 of 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's story attracted custom and later achieved national fame through articles in the press, eventually catching the attention of Pierre Plantard and inspiring the 1967 book L'Or de Rennes by Gérard de Sède.
The book L'Or de Rennes by Gérard de Sède (with the unpublicised collaboration of Pierre Plantard) contained elements relating to the fictitious secret society the Priory of Sion, reproducing "parchments" that alluded to the survival of the Merovingian line of Frankish kings from Dagobert II, and Pierre Plantard claimed to be descended from that monarch. Pierre Plantard and Gérard de Sède fell out over book royalties when L'Or de Rennes was published in 1967 and Plantard's friend Philippe de Chérisey revealed that he fabricated the parchments.
Holy Blood, Holy Grail
In 1969, the English scriptwriter Henry Lincoln read the paperback version of L'Or de Rennes and then between 1972–1979 produced three BBC Two Chronicle documentaries on the subject matter. Lincoln was also directed to one of Plantard's planted documents, "Les Dossiers Secrets" in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Later, Lincoln teamed up with two other authors, and co-wrote the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Unaware they were relying on forged documents as a source, they stated as a "fact" that the Priory of Sion had existed. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail claimed that Saunière possibly found evidence that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married, and produced offspring that eventually became the Merovingian Dynasty. The authors speculated that Saunière engaged in financial transactions with a man whom they claimed was Archduke Johann Salvator of Austria, and Saunière could have been the representative of the Priory of Sion, and his income could have originated from the Vatican "which might have been subjected to high-level political blackmail by both Sion and the Habsburgs". The book was an international bestseller, inspiring Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code.
The claims and conspiracy theories have substantially increased and have become more and more varied over the last few decades with more and more authors adding more and more myths to the story. The current favourite conspiracy theory involves what Saunière allegedly discovered in the crypt of his church during his 1887 renovations.
However historians have refuted the theories claimed by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail since most of them completely lack any historical proof or even contradict historical documents and findings.
The actual source of Saunière's wealth
The first scholarly book on Saunière's activities was by local historian and chief librarian of Carcassonne René Descadeillas, who sifted through the priest's account books and personal correspondence, as well as the records of Saunière's ecclesiastical trial lodged in the Carcassonne Bishopric - and concluded in his 1974 Mythologie du trésor de Rennes: histoire véritable de l'abbé Saunière, curé de Rennes-le-Château that there never was any treasure or mystery; all of the priest's wealth was generated from selling Masses and accepting donations. This conclusion was shared by the local priest and author Abbé Bruno de Monts, who himself contributed essential information during the 1980s and 1990s, as well as by other French authors like Jean-Jacques Bedu and more recently David Rossoni.
The 2005 Channel 4 documentary The Real Da Vinci Code presented by Tony Robinson arrived at the same conclusion, followed by the 2006 CBS News 60 Minutes documentary Priory of Sion, presented by Ed Bradley: "The source of the wealth of the priest of Rennes-le-Château was not some ancient mysterious treasure, but good old fashioned fraud."
According to Canon law, priests are allowed to say up to three Masses per day and to accept a fee for requested prayers for the dead. Saunière, however, had been soliciting and accepting money via the post to say thousands of Masses, charging one franc per Mass. Some clients would send payment for hundreds of Masses, which he never actually performed.
Reviewing Descadeillas' Mythologie du trésor de Rennes in 1976, church historian Raymond Darricau commented "To begin with there was nothing: Saunière was just a schemer. Today however we find ourselves confronted with a genuine esoteric construction: Rennes-le-Château has been promoted to the rank of ‘mystical capital’ of the Languedoc" and, "The manner in which the myth of Rennes-le-Château has grown to its present status is certainly worthy of reflection and could perhaps provide someone with material for a dissertation on precisely how stories of this kind come into existence."
Details of expenditure
Surviving receipts and existing account books belonging to Saunière, preserved by his servant Marie Dénarnaud and inherited by Noël Corbu, 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. The construction of Saunière's estate that included the Tour Magdala and Villa Bethania (and the purchases of land) between 1898 and 1905 cost 26,417 Francs.
In popular culture
- The French Television Channel France 3 made a 6-part miniseries L'Or du diable in 1989 about Bérenger Saunière directed by Jean-Louis Fournier, casting Jean-François Balmer as the priest, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Michel Thibaux published in 1987.
- Bérenger Saunière's wealth and supposed secret findings (unnamed this time) inspired the plot of Tim Powers' 1997 novel Earthquake Weather and Marco Buticchi's 1998 novel Menorah, in which Saunière is supposed to have found the seven-branched candelabra of the Temple of Jerusalem.
- The life and mysteries of Saunière were also used as basis for the plot of the 1999 video-game Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, a 3D adventure written by Jane Jensen and developed by Sierra On-Line. The plot also revolves around the history of the Knights Templar, the supposed conspiracies relating to the Freemasons and the Priory of Sion as well as Jesus.
- In Season 2 episode 10 of the HBO Cable-television series Carnivàle, a "Saunière Manuscript" (located in Rennes-le-Château) is mentioned by the character Henry 'Hack' Scudder (played by John Savage) in the episode "Cheyenne, WY" (first aired 13 March 2005).
- Letter from Canon Huguet to Bérenger Saunière dated 22 January 1917, reproduced in contributions by Abbé Bruno de Monts published in Les Cahiers de Rennes-le-Château, Archives – Documents – Études, Number 11 (Éditions Bélisane, 1996). ISBN 2-910730-12-3 
- Ain, Marissa (2004). "Hidden in Plain Sight: A new novel reworks the history of creative genius". Vol 7 No 2 Spring 2004. Yale Review of Books. Retrieved 2008-05-22.
- Cited in Corbu & Captier, L'Héritage de l'Abbé Saunière, 1985, p. 71.
- Bruno de Monts, Bérenger Saunière, curé à Rennes-le-Château 1885-1909 (Nice: Bélisane, 1989). ISBN 2-902296-85-1
- "Berenger Saunière". www.renneslechateau.com. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- "'Da Vinci Code' Fans Besiege French Village in Quest (Update3)". Bloomberg. 27 October 2004.
- 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 12, 13, 14 January 1956.
- Baigent, Lincoln, Leigh, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, pages 364-365, and page 15 (Jonathan Cape, 1982).
- 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
- Raymond Darricau, in Notes bibliographiques de la Revue de l’Histoire de l’Église de France, page 439 (1976 edition).
- Jacques Rivière, Le Fabuleux trésor de Rennes-le-Château, page 130 (Editions Belisane, 1983). ISBN 2-902296-42-8
- Jacques Rivière, Le Fabuleux trésor de Rennes-le-Château, page 175 (Editions Belisane, 1983). ISBN 2-902296-42-8
- Jean Michel Thibaux, L'Or du diable (Paris: Olivier Orban, 1987). ISBN 2-85565-369-X
- 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 
- Claire Corbu, Antoine Captier, L'héritage de l'Abbé Saunière (Nice: Editions Bélisane, 1985). ISBN 2-902296-56-8.
- 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). Facsimile reprint by Savary, Carcassonne, 1988. ISBN 2-9500971-6-2. Facsimile reprint by Éditions Collot, Carcassonne,1991. ISBN 2-903518-08-4
- 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)
- 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-Chateau: 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
- Bérenger Saunière, Mon enseignement à Antugnac, 1890 (edited by Abbé Bruno de Monts; Éditions Bélisane, 1984). ISBN 2-902296-50-9
- 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.
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