I’ve been delving into mysteries, myths and legends this week in search of new material for a second book of spooky stories. It appears I’m surrounded by them (mystery, myths et al, that is) and they all centre on one tiny village atop a 1500ft hill not many miles from here in the Languedoc – the village of Rennes-le-Chateau. You would think that nothing much ever happened in this ancient hilltop village hidden in the clouds from the valley below but you would be mistaken.
Treasure – Secret Geometry – Coded Documents – The Merovingians – Knights Templar – Cathars – The Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah – maybe even the secret of my lost waistline – they all find a place in the history of the village depending on your own favourite theory.
Perhaps the most well-know of these mysteries concerns Berenger Sauniere the priest of the village who, in a strange turn of fate soared from rags to riches almost overnight at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
He bought land, built himself an estate including the Tour Magdala which he used as a library and the Villa Bethania, restored the church and filled it with ecclesiastic artifacts, stained-glass windows and the perplexing “benetier” (water basin) held up by a remarkable devil.
All these works were carried out in the name of his housekeeper Marie Denarnaud.
When called to account for his increased wealth and other actions, he havered somewhat claiming the money came from donations. He was charged with simony (taking money for masses that were never given) and suspended from duty. Nevertheless he continued to live in Rennes as a free-lance priest. The village council complained about other un-priestly activities such as, along with his housekeeper, digging up graves at dead of night. It is claimed that he found coded documents which, when decoded, showed X marking the spot of a lot of lovely loot and this was the source of his wealth.
After his death, his housekeeper sold the estate to a wily hotelier, Noel Corbu, promising him that when she was about to breathe her last she would reveal a secret to him that would make him both rich and powerful. Alas the workings of fate. A few weeks before her death Marie had a stroke or seizure leaving her bereft of both voice and the ability to put pen to paper. The secret died with her. The hotelier, nothing daunted – well perhaps just a little – used the story of hidden treasure in a remarkable PR coup. His new restaurant – the renovated Villa Bethania – was in need of customers so he used the story to draw in the punters – even going so far as to record the tale (with suitable dramatic embellishments) for his new customers to hear. He took the line that the hidden treasure was that belonging to Blanche of Castille – the Spanish wife of Louis VIII. From these beginnings the Treasure story snowballed bringing treasure hunters from all over the world to the little hilltop village.
Whose treasure? Theories abound. Was it the Visigoths loot (Rennes-le-Chateau was the centre of the Visigoth kingdom);how about Cathar treasure smuggled here after the fall of the last Cathar bastion Montsegur; could it be the booty of the Knights Templar brought to the village before they were all killed off? Who knows?
However what I do know is that local history provides rich pickings for a writer whether presented as fact or fiction. Since Sauniere’s time a catalogue of popular books have fallen from the presses, fact and fiction, culminating in Dan Brown’s best seller “The Da Vinci Code” with around 80 million copies sold.
Oh why, oh why didn’t I get there first?