Bérenger Saunière’s Secret: The End of a Dream

Jean-Jacques Bedu,
Rennes-le-Château – Autopsie d’un mythe’ (1990)

One thing is certain: on the 22nd of January, 1917, Bérenger Saunière died at Rennes-le-Château. His had been a crowded life, filled with devotion, that would have passed unremarked had not certain authors, some ill-intentioned and all ill-inspired, grafted on to it an affair as richly embellished with mysteries, treasures, and secrets as a Punch and Judy show. But the harm was done a long time ago; the mystery of Rennes-le-Château was, unfortunately, not buried at the funeral of Bérenger Saunière.

The life of the priest was nearing its end. Like all his contemporaries, he had learnt of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, at Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914. This event would launch the First World War; he would never see its conclusion.

As a result of the proceedings that had brought him into conflict with his Bishop, Fr Bérenger Saunière was about to change the terms of his Will:

"I, the undersigned, Bérenger Saunière, priest, former Curé of Rennes-le-Château, declare that this document is my last Will and Testament and that it represents my last wishes. First of all, I hereby revoke all and any former Wills that may exist and that may be produced.

"I leave to Marie Dénarnaud, my neighbour, all my goods, movable and immovable. I leave to her all the furniture, linen, and utensils contained in the presbytery, the Villa Béthanie, and the relevant outbuildings. I leave to her all the provisions of the household, wines, wood, silver, and valuables.

"Marie Dénarnaud will replace me, in consequence, in the possession of all that shall belong to me at the time of my death.

"I give all these goods to Marie Dénarnaud without the need to produce an inventory, a necessity against which I wish absolutely to protect her as my sole legatee."

This is a revealing and very interesting document. The Will is clear: no longer would the priest leave his valuables to his family – much less to the Church. Monsignor de Beauséjour could say a definite 'Goodbye' to the estate.

On the death of Bérenger Saunière, Marie would inherit the whole of his patrimony. She would no longer be obliged by his death to pass it on to the Diocese. This sudden change was, on the whole, understandable in view of the proceedings of which the priest had been a victim.

On that day in April, 1912, one thing was certain: the Church would never become the owner of the estate constructed at Rennes-le-Château by Bérenger Saunière. The Will of Marie Dénarnaud, written by hand of the priest, is strictly identical – with one small addition. Marie Dénarnaud declares that she leaves to her parents the quarter of her property that the law specifies in their favour.

When Bérenger Saunière declares that he leaves all his immovable goods to Marie Dénarnaud, this gives rise to some reservations. How could he bequeath buildings erected against invoices made out to Marie and on land of which he was not the owner?

On the other hand, when Marie Dénarnaud makes Bérenger Saunière the heir to all the buildings that she owns at Rennes-le-Château, there is nothing to be said. Let us not forget, in particular, the Wills of 1906:

"I name and establish as my sole legatee Mlle M.D., my undernamed cook, householder at RLC."

Marie's Will:

"Wishing and intending expressly that he should succeed to the entire property, movable and immovable, of which the value shall have been acquired by me"

On reading these lines, one can no longer deny that the estate belonged to Marie Dénarnaud. All the same, there was a clear difference between Marie's two Wills dated, respectively, 1907 and 1912. In the former she stated:

"Trusting M. B.S. more than anyone else - even my parents - to carry out my last wishes, I name the said M. Bérenger Saunière, Curé of the Parish of Rennes-le-Château, as my sole beneficiary and legatee."

In the second:

"Having my mother and father close to me, I leave to them the quarter that the law prescribes in their favour."

We can here discern some change of attitude – corresponding, no doubt to a favourable development in relations between Marie Dénarnaud and her parents.

Let us consider, however, the state of mind of Bérenger Saunière, our ‘millionaire’ Curé, who is supposed to have found the treasure of Blanche de Castille, or that of the Cathars, or of the Templars – or perhaps all three at the same time! We have seen that he had been morally and physically weakened – but he had also become financially weak. Where, then, was the famous treasure? Already spent?

At the end of 1912, Bérenger Saunière had serious financial problems. He was, in fact, unable to manage his debts and had the firm intention to sell his estate.

Doctor Huguet, moreover, encouraged him in this course:

"In my part of the world, one of our great singers, Jerome, who has been living in great state, has had some bad luck - a cold has damaged his throat and he no longer has a singing voice. He has a modest business in Paris, but wants to sell his estate. From what is being said, he wants to move quickly, and we are talking about twelve thousand or so francs for an establishment worth at least sixty. If you can extract yourself from Carcassonne, I will recommend you to my local Bishop and you will be able to live peacefully in splendid style. Sell up here, and we will see what can be done."

There is no doubt that the desire to sell the estate coincided with Saunière's serious financial difficulties. As a last resort, the priest had recourse to the Petitjean Bank in Paris, but this course of action called for some preliminary expenses that were not within his means. In order to sell the property correctly it would have been necessary to advertise. At this difficult time, the priest could not do this for fear of attracting the attention of Monsignor the Bishop! One thing remains certain: Bérenger Saunière firmly intended leaving Rennes.

The Bank, meanwhile, named M. de Beauvières as managing agent for the sale. The following is the text of one of his letters:

"I do not believe that the Bank has, at the moment, a purchaser for your property. For my part, you understand, I can but help to find you one with the assistance of the Bank, unless you have been successful by your own efforts. It seems to me that, unless you are no longer in a hurry to sell, we shall need to use some publicity. If this is also your opinion, the terms I can offer you, subject to your agreement, are: commission - 3 per cent; publicity 600 francs, payable in advance, roughly n accordance, you see, with my original terms."

Bérenger Saunière tried to find another solution. Perhaps M. de Beauvière could sell the estate without involving the Bank, and so save some of the expense. Here is the bankers reply:

"I can only confirm our terms. The Petitjean Bank always imposes the same terms. It is a very old business house that knows what it is doing and never accepts a counter-proposal from its clients. You are the sole judge of what you, for your part, have to do. For myself, personally, I do not have to concern myself with what is outside the Bank's remit. No client could possibly recompense me for what I should lose if I were to engage in business behind the back of the Bank. This is simply a matter of honesty and, after all and in the long term, of my own interests. It is useless, therefore, for you to count on my help. This is regrettable, and particularly so for you..."

This is the letter of a man of honour and integrity, which seems to have brought matters to a close and severed the relationship. It would not be with the help of the Petitjean Bank that Bérenger Saunière would sell his estate. He did not have much more luck with an estate agent at Béziers: ‘Le Chanoine Grassaud’ recommended a potential buyer, but without success. So many setbacks, all of which seem to have come as a surprise to the 'millionaire priest'!

The priest eventually negotiated a loan from Crédit Foncier de France – but not without first having been refused by the Société Générale. He mortgaged the property, putting the loan in Marie's name, and on the 14 January 1913 the credit house allowed him the sum of 6000 francs – a paltry sum in relation to his hopes. It is, in fact, not even certain whether Bérenger Saunière actually received this loan. On this point there are discrepancies of view among a large number of authors. What is certain is that an inspector of Crédit Foncier de France moved to Rennes-le-Château shortly before estimating the sale value of the property at 18,000 francs. We can imagine the chagrin of Saunière on hearing this estimate. No bank or credit house would grant him a loan without guarantee. This loan (if loan there was) could not have been made except by using the name of Marie.

Fortunately, we have our hoaxers to transform tragedy into comedy. Let us begin with Jean-Luc Chaumeil, who has fallen into the trap of listening to public gossip.

"In 1916 it seems that he has the horn of plenty in his hands, for he is planning building projects even more grandiose than his earlier ones: the installation of running water throughout the village; the opening of 4km of motor road; the building of a chapel, a swimming pool, and a library tower 70m in height! These projects are by no means castles in the air; a contractor provides an estimate and, on the 5th January 1917, the priest issues a firm order by certified letter for 8 million francs worth of work."

We have already shown that Bérenger Saunière was in the grip of severe financial difficulties; to believe for one instant that our priest could seriously have involved himself in such grandiose projects would call for the most fertile of imaginations. This demonstrates the point at which any number of the books about Rennes-le-Château become unacceptable. We should like to have a sight of this ‘certified letter’ by which Bérenger Saunière placed the order for his ‘mini-Eiffel Tower’ . If Jean-Luc Chaumeil is willing to talk about such sums, he has no doubt seen the estimate for 8 million francs prepared by the contractor. Why does he not share this privilege with his readers?

The estimate is almost certainly a fantasy. Gérard de Sède tells us the following improbable tale about the adventure:

"But his most grandiose project was the erection of a new tower, 70 metres high, served by a spiral staircase and of which the internal walls would house a gigantic library. At the top, like a muezzin in his minaret, Bérenger would call the faithful to prayer.

Indeed, he asked his architect, Tiburce Caminade, to draw up plans for the tower. These plans would eventually be kept by the engineer, Ernest Cros, a friend of the priest, at his property at Bains de Gignole whence, according to the latter, they were stolen in 1930. This theft is by no means a certainty for, according to another version, Cros, before his death in 1946, gave the plans to the Rosicrucian association AMORC, which has them to this day."

Can one for a single moment imagine the priest of Rennes-le-Château, at his age, transformed into some sort of religious Mussulman, using his best voice and bawling himself hoarse to call the faithful of his parish to prayer! Bérenger Saunière would indeed have needed a powerful voice – and one hopes that he did not suffer from vertigo, in view of the tower's 70 metre height! He would have been able to call to the faithful not only of his own parish but also of the neighbouring villages, from Couiza to Arques and including Coustassa and Rennes-les-Bains. Let us pursue the joke: with strong winds in the right direction, he could probably have been heard in St Peter's Square in Rome...

We must not mix humour with religion, however. No Catholic priest has ever called his parishioners to prayer like a muezzin in a minaret; the only calls of this kind are made from the interior of the church, at the height of the pulpit!

After having confused Rose-Croix and Freemasonry, Gérard de Sède goes on to mix up Islam and Catholicism! The reader will have noticed his (de Sède's) skill in skirting round the flaws in his ‘perfect’ plot. Reading him, we are plunged deeply into the plot of an espionage novel that James Bond himself, Her Majesty's most ingenious secret agent, would have some difficulty in unravelling! The story of the stolen plan, suddenly reappearing in the Rosicrucian archives of AMORC is quite incredible.

It has, however, two effects:

1. To involve the Rosicrucians in an affair in which they are really total strangers;

2. To put the plans into their possession, locked in their secret archives, from which they will never re-emerge into daylight – a good trick indeed!

This project of the tower remains, however, a grotesque feature of public imagination on the subject; it is a tale that first made its appearance well after the death of Bérenger Saunière and has provided a great feast for the mystifiers and lovers of the sensational.

The story of Bérenger Saunière, as told by these people, is far removed from the truth. Their digressions can serve to distract us – but only for a short time. Reading some of these books of totally unfounded and erroneous assertions shows how easily the desire to appeal to an avid public overcomes a regard for clarity and truth.



Up to 1915, Bérenger Saunière was experiencing considerable financial embarrassment. As a direct consequence of the interdiction, or suspension, under which he had been placed, he no longer received requests for masses in his own diocese, and the story had spread to the neighbouring dioceses. He was, therefore, obliged to part with certain items of furniture and other household goods, which he exchanged from time to time for food. This uncomfortable situation lasted until 1915.

Why 1915? Quite simply because by then we were at war and numerous requests for masses, despite the interdiction, flowed in from neighbouring dioceses. When these demands were addressed to ‘M. le curé de Rennes-le-Château’, they were delivered to the Post Office at Couiza, and usually collected there by the senior curé, who had also been officially curé of Rennes-le-Château since the banning of Bérenger Saunière.

Undoubtedly, this situation displeased Bérenger, who tried, as often as possible, to be first at the Post Office and collect them himself. Even if the War brought disaster to France, it enabled our priest to restore his difficult finances. During the years 1913 to 1915, he had hardly enough resources to pay his bills and taxes, as is evidenced by a letter from Noubel, a furniture shop at Carcassonne. It is dated 7 January 1914:

"Monsieur Saunière,

On looking at your account, I see that you still owe me 6,037 francs, not counting interest, for furniture delivered, for the most part, in 1908. As we must bring this to an end, I have to ask you if you are in a position to settle your account. In the event that you are not able to pay me the full amount, I shall have to ask you to give me a lien on your goods. This will not cause you any inconvenience, and I shall feel much happier. In these circumstances, you will be able to gain some time by just paying the interest."

Reading this letter, among others, shows the difficult situation in which the priest found himself. At that period, Bérenger Saunière had great need to re-finance himself, for the blows of ill-fortune continued to fall. His days of prosperity had ended, his standard of life was considerably reduced, and, still worse, he felt himself humiliated and totally rejected by most of his colleagues. There was nothing left for him to do but to await death – in his case a benefactor and liberator.

Through various publications, we are invited to consider the ‘strange circumstances’ of his death. In fact, if one believes the authors of ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’, Marie Dénarnaud would, strangely, have bought Bérenger Saunière's coffin five days before the priest's death!:

"On 17th January, 1917, Saunière, then in his 65th year, suffered a sudden stroke. The date of 17th January is perhaps suspicious... But what makes Saunière's stroke on January 17th most suspicious is the fact that five days before, on January 12th, his parishioners declared that he had seemed to be in excellent health for a man of his age. Yet on January 12th, according to a receipt in our possession, Marie Dénarnaud had ordered a coffin for her master."

We must condemn these suggestions as vehemently as possible – they are totally erroneous and smack of a clumsy attempt at mystification. First, our three Englishmen find the date of 17th January suspicious – as if Bérenger Saunière had programmed it himself! Second, they boast of having in their possession a receipt bearing witness to the purchase of a coffin 5 days before the death of the priest. It is our duty to assure the reader that they have nothing of the sort, the document in question being in the hands of Claire Corbu and Antoine Captier. We invite you to study its reproduction in the pages of Claire Corbu and Antoine Captier as we have been able to study the original. You will easily spot the point on which we have been misinformed. Marie never ordered a coffin on 12th January; the fact is that the receipt is evidence of payment for a coffin an 12th June, five months later. Our English friends, perhaps not handling translation from French too well, have stumbled. They have confused ‘Juin’ and ‘Janv’, Janv being the usual abbreviation for ‘Janvier’. What imagination! But it does not stop there. They go on to say:

"As Saunière lay on his deathbed, a priest was called from a neighbouring parish to hear his final confession and administer the last rites. The priest duly arrived and retired into the sick-room. According to eye witness testimony, he emerged shortly thereafter, visibly shaken. In the words of one account, 'he never smiled again'. In the words of another, he lapsed into an acute depression that lasted for several months.

"Whether these accounts are exaggerated or not, the priest, presumably on the basis of Saumière's confession, refused to administer extreme unction.

"On January 22nd Saunière died unshriven. The following morning his body was placed upright in an armchair on the terrace of the Tour Magdala, clad in an ornate robe adorned with scarlet tassels. One by one, certain unidentified mourners filed past, many of them plucking tassels of remembrance from the dead man's garment."

The legend of the priest who came to administer the last rites to Bérenger Saunière and who left deranged, mad, or depressive, is a sop to the more lurid excesses of public imagination. Abbé Rivière, who was called to the bedside of the dying man, in fact heard his confession, lifted his suspension, and administered the last sacraments. It must be admitted that this, scrupulously true version is less seductive than the other; the idea of Bérenger Saunière revealing his secret to his confessor is the stuff of dreams!

Apart from anything else, if Abbé Rivière had refused the last sacraments to Bérenger Saunière, the latter would not have been relieved of the sentence of suspension and would have been barred from a religious funeral. In effect, the suspension, in his case, was equivalent to an excommunication! We know that Bérenger Saunière was buried on the 24th January at 10 o’clock in the morning, with a High Masss with deacon and sub-deacon.

We must also point out that his body was laid out in a room, and not on the terrace, of the Villa Béthanie. The magnificent robe adorned with scarlet tassels was a simple tablecloth embroidered with red pompoms. As for the story of the stealing of the tassels – let us give them their proper name, pompoms – it was quite possibly just an act of pious sentimentality, every woman in the village wanting one as a souvenir.

Amidst all these contradictory tales, is it possible to distinguish the true from the false? The priest died either from a stroke or from a heart attack according to different versions. It is evident that at 64 years of age, taking account of all the many tribulations that had assailed his closing years, his health is likely to have been affected. The episode of his death has been regarded in many different ways – some of them extremely curious. Jean Robin was able to write:

"On the lips of the dying man, his friend, Dr Courrent, according to some hagiographers, was able to hear a mysterious name, uttered in final appeal; John XXIII."

At the end of 22nd January 1917 began a new era: The "Post-Bérenger Saunière" Age, the making of myth after myth.