Did Bérenger Saunière and Marie Dénarnaud have a baby?

Paul Smith

11 November 2015
Revised 14 November 2015

A hilarious claim in the article “Les Démons du Midi” by Pierre Sourbès was published in L'Indépendant of 3 December 1967:

“...when [workmen] were digging the foundations of the Tour Magdala, they said Saunière came to join them carrying, wrapped in his overcoat, a wooden box ‘about the size of a baby’. With his own hands he buried the box and waited for the cement which had been poured on top of it to set. And, more than ever, tongues wagged about Marie, the curé's ever-so-pretty maid...”

Elsewhere, Pierre Sourbès referred to “the usual gossip that one always finds in a rural parish where the priest is a handsome young man and his maid is the prettiest girl for miles around – Marie”

Marie Dénarnaud had unreasonably been described as Saunière's mistress in the early accounts of the Rennes-le-Château myth during the 1960s – and this 1967 article developed the claim to its most ridiculous level. The said article also contained references to drunken near-orgies in the Villa Bethania and to bawdy priests.

But people just didn't get it – the story about Saunière's wooden box the size of a baby was soon transformed into Saunière “depositing a treasure chest beneath the Tour Magdala”.

This story only originated in this 1967 article – Noël Corbu didn't know anything about the story during the 1950s and the early 1960s – and the story certainly doesn't date from Bérenger Saunière's lifetime.

Anyhow, things escalated about this to such a degree that moves were undertaken to officially excavate the Tour Magdala (sponsored by the John Merrill Foundation) to seriously look for “Saunière's treasure chest” – three articles were published about the proposed excavation in La Dépêche du Midi in 2001. Ground Penetrating Radar Scans then revealed a disturbance in the soil beneath the Tour Magdala. The excavation was finally undertaken on 20 August 2003 – headed by the Mayor, Professor Robert Eisenman and Professor Andrea Baratollo – and all they managed to find was a large stone – that's what was identified by the Ground Penetrating Radar Scans (DRAC later filed a complaint against the Mayor for making illegal excavations)... The excavation was filmed as it happened and it was the subject of the History Channel documentary “Investigating History: The Holy Grail” shown in April, 2004.

The bogus claim that resulted in a negative treasure-hunt sums up the whole subject matter of the myth of Rennes-le-Château. The archaeological project had been inspired by the claims of American citizen Jean-Louis Genibrel, who claimed his grandfather's uncle was a foreman of Saunière's works. But the story of Saunière burying the wooden box ‘about the size of a baby’ in the foundations of the Tour Magdala predates Genibrel's claims and the 1967 article in L'Indépendant just could have inspired Genibrel's claims. In any case, nothing was found under the Tour Magdala – thus demolishing the claims in Pierre Sourbès' article and the claims of Jean-Louis Genibrel.

The article by Pierre Sourbès was also the origin of the story of Abbé Saunière and the bishop of Carcassonne swapping hats.

However, the article by Pierre Sourbès in L'Indépendant wasn't entirely a damp squib because amongst other inaccuracies it concluded that Saunière did not discover a treasure, but that his wealth originated from the selling of masses.

Quote: “It is never much fun to debunk a legend, but without wanting to dishearten the nocturnal pickaxe-wielders we should recall that Saunière paid his suppliers in legal tender not in medieval doubloons and jewels, that he received a very large number of postal-orders, and that after his sudden death no trace could be found of his ‘treasures’ in the lavish home that he bequeathed to Marie, his maid. We also need to remember that the rich bindings in the library-tower actually enclosed collections of La Semaine de Suzette, Veillées des Chaumières and other edifying publications, which contained a block advertisement saying ‘Poor curé stuck on a mountain-top in the Corbières seeks masses to celebrate’ (Pauvre curé de campagne exile sur un piton des Corbières, demande messes à célébre). So another treasure-mystery disappears in a puff of smoke.”

Journalist Pierre Sourbès considered the whole story and concluded that the explanation for Saunière's activities lay in the trafficking in masses and nothing else.

An interesting fact – that during the 1960s in the Tour Magdala – there existed religious journals and magazines containing their advertisement supplements showing Saunière's advertisements for masses.

Rennes-le-Château Timeline