From the 1967 English translation of Trésors du Monde enterrées, emmurés, engloutis by Robert Charroux published in France in 1962, containing the earliest version of The Myth involving the treasure of Blanche of Castile and the discovery of parchments in the hollow pillar of the Main Altar.
The reference to Emma Calvé suggests the early presence of Pierre Plantard and Philippe de Chérisey in Rennes-le-Château during the early 1960s.
Seventy-One Treasures In An Abbey
(Continuation of a chapter…)
Equally historically founded is the treasure of Rennes-le-Château, a little French town in the mountains of Corbières, a little under forty miles south of Carcassonne. Its church and its few surrounding houses are perched on a rocky peak reached by a steep and bumpy climb of three miles. It almost required a miracle for a treasure to get hidden in this outpost, which cars can only reach with difficulty, without any opportunity for passing or overtaking on the route.
Yet a treasure there is at Rennes-le-Château, an authentic treasure proved by the fact that it was found half a century ago by a priest called Bérenger Saunière who, after having nibbled into it – oh, but only a little, no doubt – bequeathed it to his servant-cum-mistress, pretty Marie Denarnaud who in her turn bequeathed it to Monsieur Noel Corbu. But Marie Denarnaud's bequest was incomplete for she died without having time to reveal where the hiding-place was to be found.
Since then Monsieur Corbu has been trying to detect, strike, dig and plumb, in the hope of bringing to light those gold and silver coins, those jewels and precious stones valued in the total treasure at eight hundred thousand pounds and thought by serious historians to comprise the treasury of France in the thirteenth century.
“In olden days, seven hundred years ago,” said Noel Corbu, “Rennes was a town of three thousand inhabitants, surrounded by ramparts of which the ruins may still be seen. Whilst looking for the treasure I found old coins, pottery, armour and skeletons, all of which now adorn my little museum. According to some historians of Carcassonne, the origin of the treasure dates back to February 1250, when the Peasants' Revolt, started in the Nord department of France by the mysterious ‘Master of Hungary’, was at its height, and the uprising of serfs and vagabonds was spreading southwards. Blanche of Castile, regent of France, came to Rennes-le-Château – then called Rhedae – to lay up in safety in the stronghold the treasury of France, threatened both by the peasants and by rumbling intrigues among the nobility. Note in passing that the citadel of Rhedae was regarded as impregnable and was situated on the route to Spain where Blanche of Castile knew she could find refuge in the event of danger. She had the treasure deposited in an underground room in the keep – or so it is believed. Nevertheless this ill explains why the treasure remained so long intact, especially during the year 1251 when St. Louis was in dire need of funds which his mother could not send him.”
In short, Monsieur Corbu is of the opinion that the treasure constituted a kind of reserve to be drawn on only in the event of urgent peril.
Blanche of Castile died in 1252 after having revealed the secret to St. Louis who in turn entrusted it to his son Philip the Bold. The latter died in Perpignan without having had the time to disclose the secret to Philip the Fair.
In 1645, Rhedae was rebuilt and became present-day Rennes-le-Château; the ancient fortress, slightly displaced, used to stand on the site of Monsieur Corbu's present domain. It was then that began the real story of the treasure, lost and found. Found first in the seventeenth century by a shepherd called Ignace Paris who, having lost one of his sheep, heard it bleating at the bottom of a crevasse and went down to find it. The sheep, however, scared by the shepherd's sudden bursting in, fled down a tunnel. Still hot in pursuit, Ignace Paris came into a crypt “filled with skeletons and coffers”, the former terrifying and the latter, on the contrary, full of attraction. He filled his pockets with gold coins, fled in terror at his own deed and returned home. His sudden good fortune was soon noticed by the whole village, but Ignace was unwise enough not to wish to disclose his source. He was accused of theft and killed without having been able to divulge the secret of the crypt. Was there then a landslide at the entrance to the tunnel? Nothing is known, but until 1892 no further mention is made of the treasure, the location of which cannot have been known to the shepherd's relations.
A chance happening at this time brought the priest Bérenger Saunière into the story. He had obtained the post of curate in Rennes in 1885 and was at once taken under the wing of the Denarnaud family whose daughter Marie was eighteen years old and worked as a milliner in the town of Esperaza. The Denarnauds, living in overcrowded circumstances, were not long in coming to settle in at the presbytery. In 1892, Bérenger enjoyed the certain esteem of his parishioners, both for his zeal and his good humour. It was at this time that he obtained a municipal grant of 2,400 francs to restore the Visigothic main altar and the church roof. The stonemason Babon of Couiza set to work and one morning at nine o'clock he called the priest over to show him one of the altar columns inside which were four or five wooden rolls, all hollow and sealed with wax. “I don’t know what they are,” he said.
The priest opened one of the rolls and pulled out a written parchment inscribed in a mixture of French and Latin, in which at first glance could be discerned passages from the Gospels.
“Bah,” said he to the stonemason, “they are old worthless papers left over from the Revolution. They are of no value!”
At mid-day, Babon went to lunch at the inn, but one thought worried him, so much so that he confided in those around him. The town mayor came to ask for fuller information and the priest showed him a parchment of which the good man understood nothing and the matter was shelved. Only not quite, for Bérenger Saunière took it upon himself to stop the restoration work on the church.
According to Monsieur Corbu this is what must have ensued: “The priest tried to decipher the documents and succeeded in picking out the verses from the Gospels and Blanche of Castile's signature with her royal seal, but the rest remained a complete mystery to him. In February 1892, therefore, he went to Paris to consult some linguistic experts to whom, for the sake of caution, he only imparted the documents by fragments. I cannot disclose my sources of information (for this is Noel Corbu speaking) but I can assure you that this concerned the treasury of the Crown of France: eighteen million in five hundred thousand gold pieces, jewels and objects of worship. The priest returned to Rennes without knowing exactly where the treasure was situated, but having gleaned precious and sufficient information. He looked everywhere in the church – but could find nothing. Marie, for her part, was puzzled by an old flagstone in the churchyard which bore a strange inscription; it was the tombstone of the countess Hautpoul-Blanchefort. What if the treasure were underneath? The priest locked the churchyard gate and with Marie's help gave himself up to a mysterious task which took him several days. One evening their efforts were rewarded by success in solving the puzzle of which the inscriptions on the tombstone had given them the first clues. From that moment Marie Denarnaud's position at the presbytery changed; she became his confidante and collaborator.”
“I believe I am right in thinking that there are six entrances leading to the hiding-place, including the one in the keep which had already disappeared by 1892. On one of the parchments there are lines counted in fathoms starting from the main altar. Marie and the priest measured these out with string and came to a terminal point in a place known as the `castle', now merely waste ground. They set about digging and found the treasure crypt where Paris the shepherd had penetrated so long before. The gold pieces, jewels and precious plate were all there, tarnished by a thick coat of dust, but otherwise intact.”
“They settled on a plan: the priest would go to Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany to change the gold coins and would send the money back by post to Couiza addressed to Marie Denarnaud. And so they did, though not without danger and difficulty in repatriating their capital. Be that as it may, in 1893 Saunière found himself a very, very rich man…so rich that he ordered all the restoration work and re-roofing of the church to be done at his own expense and in addition adorned it with sumptuous ornaments. He had the presbytery repaired and a wall built around the churchyard; he had a summer-house constructed in a splendid rock garden with playing fountains. Over and above this, he bought furniture and expensive clothing for Marie; he ordered rum from Jamaica and monkeys from Africa. He fattened his farmyard ducks with sponge-fingers so that their flesh would be more tender and reared lap-dogs…In short, there was high living at Rennes-le-Château where they kept an Open table – and what a table! – for all the neighbouring gentry.”
“The priest bought land and houses, all in the name of Marie Denarnaud, and the pretty brunette with the mischievous eyes and slender waist became a real lady of the manor. When the priest was away he would write to her ‘My dear little Marinette, how are our animals? Give a pat to Faust and to Pomponnet (the dogs) for me. Best of health to the rabbits. Good-bye for the present. Your own Bérenger’…”
“To tell the truth, other fair ladies also shared the new millionaire's affections. The names of Emma Calvet and the beautiful Countess de B. and many others have been suggested. For this sudden wealth turned the priest's head and pitched him into a megalomaniac craze. He began to dream of building a château. But, remaining cautious in spite of everything, he took care to destroy the clues which led him to the crypt; in the churchyard, he scraped away the inscription on the countess's tombstone and put the parchments away in the treasure room.”
“The mayor came to remonstrate with him about the defacing of the tomb and about the riches he seemed to have at his disposal, but the priest laughed at his fears, told him some story about a legacy left him by an uncle in America and gave him five thousand francs in gold. The mayor returned frequently for the same reason – and for the same price!”
“Monsignor Billard, Bishop of Carcassonne, also became worried about the behaviour of his priest, but there too, with money, good wine and a good table, all difficulties were smoothed out.”
“In 1897, Bérenger Saunière ordered building to begin on his villa Bethania, with ramparts and a tower costing a little matter of one million francs in gold. And to have flowers all the year round he had a conservatory built by the peripheral path.”
“However, Monsignor Billard's successor, Monsignor de Beauséjour, came to trouble the feast. He asked Bérenger for an explanation, had him summoned before the Court of Rome and finally pronounced his suspension from office. A new priest was nominated at Rennes-le-Château but Saunière took no heed and continued to say Mass in the chapel of his villa, gathering to himself almost all the parishioners, with the result that the newcomer, much discouraged, adopted the policy of no longer journeying over the bad road from Couiza to Rennes.”
"Saunière also drew up a further plan of improvements: he proposed to raise the tower higher, build a road to Couiza, buy a car, have water laid for the whole village. The cost was estimated at eight million francs in gold (1914 standards), i.e. about six million pounds. The priest had this money in ready cash.”
“On 5 January, 1917, he signed the order bills but cirrhosis of the liver carried him off on the 22nd before he could give substance to his plans.”
“Marie, inconsolable, set the deceased out on the terrace, seated in an armchair and covered over with a red-tasselled blanket. All the villagers came to pray, each one taking away a red tassel as a relic of the holy man.”
“Thenceforward, Marie Denarnaud was the sole mistress of Rennes-le-Château for everything was in her name, but she lived an almost cloistered life, receiving no visitors. It is more than likely that she never returned to the treasure crypt.”
Such is the story as told by Noel Corbu, the third person in the tale and heir to Marie Denarnaud. Monsieur Corbu came to know Marie towards the end of her life, from 1946 to 1953, quite by chance. He boarded with her together with his wife and was able to inspire confidence and friendship.
“Pray do not worry yourself, Monsieur Corbu,” she said to him one day. “You shall have more money than you will be able to spend!”
“Where will you get it from?” asked Noel.
“Ah, as for that, I’ll tell you when I die!”
On 18 January, 1953, she fell ill, became unconscious and died, taking her secret with her.
So once again the treasure of Blanche of Castile is lost – and lost for good this time it seems. In fact, however, nothing proves that this was the treasure of Saint Louis's mother. Some suggest that it is the treasure of Alaric whose capital was Rennes-le-Château; others, and this is the most likely theory, are inclined to think that this is the treasure of the Cathari, giving weight to the fact that Rennes was their second citadel after Montségur. Whatever may be the truth of it, the treasure nevertheless really existed and certainly still exists, as apparently implied in the following letter now in Monsieur Corbu's archives and written to the priest by one of his friends: “You can say nothing publicly, but go to confession and you will be absolved for you have done nothing with which to reproach yourself.”
Alas, however, Bérenger Saunière never wished to confess himself as regards the treasure, except to his mistress Marie Denarnaud. Yet the secret is not impenetrable. One day an inhabitant of Rennes-le-Château who may know more than he says, said to a member of the Treasure-Seekers’ Club:
"The secret of the millionaire priest lies at the bottom of a tomb. It is simply a question of finding out which…”
So one day the millions hidden by the old priest may be found by the grave digger…and it will be so much the worse for the little town perched on its rocky peak for it will have lost the greater part of its dark mystery.