Mystery and legend surround Rennes-le-Château, a medieval village in southwest France. This quaint town is a conspiracy theorist’s haven: a place teeming with wonder and intrigue and forever elusive secrets. The mysterious village is entangled in a labyrinthine web of mysteries in which the answer is almost always just out of reach as one stumbles deeper into the beckoning abyss of the esoteric rabbit hole. The village beckons thousands, those curious to see the home of ancient family codes, a secret society, hidden treasure, and religious conspiracies. Some believe it to be the resting place of the tombs of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, others propose it to be a subterranean extra-terrestrial site. Since the release of The Da Vinci Code, and Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the village has lured curious tourists and treasure hunters alike, all drawn to the area’s rich history and mythology.
The mystery sets forth in 1887 when an impoverished priest by the name of Berenger Saunière became a millionaire overnight whilst restoring the village’s quaint yet dilapidated church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Over the course of the renovations, Saunière was believed to have discovered several parchments hidden within a stone pillar. To the villagers’ astonishment, the 33-year-old priest somehow became immensely rich, spending his new-acquired wealth on redecorating the church with heretical statues and secret rooms and curating a large estate for himself, replete with luxurious villas and gardens. He is believed to have spent the modern-day equivalent of £3 million, despite an annual salary of just 900 francs. His sole trusted confidante, a beloved housekeeper Mary Denarnaud was left everything he owned shortly before his death in 1917 and she too is believed to have taken Saunèires mysterious secret to her grave.
The original parchments found by Saunière weren’t seen again. However, in the late 1960s, a clandestine society called the Priory of Sion claimed to have them in its possession. They were believed to have published two of the parchments in a book by author Gerard de Sede which caught the public eye. The mysterious group boasted an illustrious list of alleged former Grand Masters including the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo, and Claude Debussy, the incredulity of which garnered many sceptics questioning the existence of the society and the parchments themselves. One popular hypothesis, proposed by Henry Lincoln and his co-authors in The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, and later developed in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, is that Saunère was blackmailing the Vatican after having unearthed incriminating evidence that Jesus Christ survived the crucifixion and fathered a family with Mary Magdalene - a revelation so great that it could shatter the very foundations of the Roman Catholic Faith. According to the bloodline theory, the descendants of Jesus and Mary married into the Merovingian dynasty - one of France's mysterious royal families believed to possess magical powers. Local legends also believed that Mary relocated to the South of France and her tomb was hidden somewhere in Rennes le Château. The Priory of Sion claimed to be the secrets of the ancient clandestine bloodline. Some have dismissed the Priory as an elaborate hoax concocted in the 19th century but others believe the society still flourishes today, with roots nestled deep in Europe.
Another theory proposes the discovery of a cache of hidden treasure. Several theories suggest that the documents found by Saunière were coded treasure maps, there is considerable mystery surrounding who hid the treasure and what it was. A potential estimation is the Cathars - a powerful religious sect that flourished in and around the Rennes area until the 13th century when they were persecuted and all but wiped out by the Catholic Church. Legend has it that before they were cornered, four mountaineers escaped by nightfall, taking with them what records described as ‘pecuniam infinitam’, which translated means ``unlimited money”. A similar theory circulating in the 50s suggested that the parchments were linked to the treasure of Blanche de Castile, supposedly amounting to 28,500,000 gold pieces. This was the treasure of the French crown assembled by Blanche de Castile, wife of Louis VIII, to pay the ransom of her son who was captured during a crusade. The remaining amount was said to have been stashed at Rennes-le-Château.
Yet another plausible theory concerning the mysterious treasure references the lost wealth of the Knights Templar- the powerful order of warrior monks formed in 1119 to protect pilgrims heading to Jerusalem. They founded the modern banking system and consequently, accumulated a huge fortune, rendering them the primary bank and lending institution to European monarchs and nobles. They fought valiantly during the Crusades but their downfall came at the hands of King Philip IV of France, who was heavily in debt to the Templars; and he ordered his troops to attack every one of their strongholds simultaneously on Friday 13th, 1307. Rounded up, arrested, and tortured, the massacre on that fateful day marks the ominous mood created when Friday falls on the 13th day of the month. However, there is evidence that the Templar fort near Rennes had sufficient time for the Knights' to hide their treasure locally.
With the meteoric success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, curiosity around Rennes le Château and the clandestine treasure has only grown. Popularised in contemporary media, it is virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction in this complicated puzzle. Till this day, the secrets of Saunière’s fortune remain a mystery to the world. Was he a dishonest priest, blackmailing the Vatican? Did he come across the buried treasure of the Cathars of the Castille's? Unfortunately, the real story of Saunière and his fortune is undisclosed, a conundrum he most likely took to his grave.