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We believed at first that we were dealing with a strictly local mystery — an intriguing mystery certainly, but a mystery of essentially minor significance, confined to a village in the south of France. We believed at first that the mystery, although it involved many fascinating historical strands, was primarily of academic interest. We believed that our investigation might help to illumine certain aspects of Western history, but we never dreamed that it might entail re-writing them. Still less did we dream that whatever we discovered could be of any real contemporary relevance — and explosive contemporary relevance at that.
At the start of our search we did not know precisely what we were looking for — or, for that matter, looking at. We had no theories and no hypotheses, we had set out to prove nothing. On the contrary, we were simply trying to find an explanation for a curious little enigma of the late nineteenth century. The conclusions we eventually reached were not postulated in advance. We were led to them, step by step, as if the evidence we accumulated had a mind of its own, was directing us of its own accord.
Our quest began — for it was indeed a quest — with a more or less straightforward story. At first glance this story was not markedly different from numerous other ‘treasure stories’ or ‘unsolved mysteries’ which abound in the history and folklore of almost every rural region. A version of it had been publicised in France, where it attracted considerable interest but was not — to our knowledge at the time — accorded any inordinate consequence. As we subsequently learned, there were a number of errors in this version. For the moment, however, we must recount the tale as it was published during the 1960s, and as we first came to know of it.
Rennes-le-Château and Bérenger Saunière
On June 1st, 1885 the tiny French village of Rennes-le-Château received a new parish priest. The curé’s name was Bérenger Saunière. He was a robust, handsome, energetic and, it would seem, highly intelligent man aged thirty-three. In seminary school not long before he had seemed destined for a promising clerical career. Certainly he had seemed destined for something more important than a remote village in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees. Yet at some point he seems to have incurred the displeasure of his superiors. What precisely he did, if anything, remains unclear, but it soon thwarted all prospects of advancement. And it was perhaps to rid themselves of him that his superiors sent him to the parish of Rennes-le-Château.
At the time Rennes-le-Château housed only two hundred people. It was a tiny hamlet perched on a steep mountain-top, approximately twenty-five miles from Carcassonne. To another man, the place might have constituted exile — a life sentence in a remote provincial backwater, far from the civilised amenities of the age, far from any stimulus for an eager and inquiring mind. No doubt it was a blow to Saunière’s ambition. Nevertheless there were certain compensations. Saunière was a native of the region, having been born and raised only a few miles distant, in the village of Montazels. Whatever its deficiencies, therefore, Rennes-le-Château must have been very like home, with all the comforts of childhood familiarity.
Between 1885 and 1891 Saunière’s income averaged, in francs, the equivalent of six pounds sterling per year — hardly opulence, but pretty much what one would expect for a rural curé in late nineteenth-century France. Together with gratuities provided by his parishioners, it appears to have been sufficient — for survival, if not for any extravagance. During those six years Saunière seems to have led a pleasant enough life, and a placid one. He hunted and fished in the mountains and streams of his boyhood. He read voraciously, perfected his Latin, learned Greek, embarked on the study of Hebrew. He employed, as housekeeper and servant, an eighteen-year-old peasant girl named Marie Denarnaud, who was to be his lifelong companion and confidante. He paid frequent visits to his friend, the Abbé Henri Boudet, curé of the neighbouring village of Rennes-les-Bains. And under Boudet’s tutelage he immersed himself in the turbulent history of the region — a history whose residues were constantly present around him.
A few miles to the south-east of Rennes-le-Château, for example, looms another peak, called Bézu, surmounted by the ruins of a medieval fortress, which was once a preceptory of the Knights Templar. On a third peak, a mile or so east of Rennes-le-Château, stand the ruins of the château of Blanchefort, ancestral home of Bertrand de Blanchefort, fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar, who presided over that famous order in the mid-twelfth century. Rennes-le-Château and its environs had been on the ancient pilgrim route, which ran from Northern Europe to Santiago de Compastela in Spain. And the entire region was steeped in evocative legends, in echoes of a rich, dramatic and often bloodsoaked past.
For some time Saunière had wanted to restore the village church of Rennes-le-Château. Consecrated to the Magdalene in 1059, this dilapidated edifice stood on the foundations of a still older Visigoth structure dating from the sixth century. By the late nineteenth century it was, not surprisingly, in a state of almost hopeless disrepair.
In 1891, encouraged by his friend Boudet, Saunière embarked on a modest restoration, borrowing a small sum from the village funds. In the course of his endeavours he removed the altar-stone, which rested on two archaic Visigoth columns. One of these columns proved to be hollow. Inside the curé found four parchments preserved in sealed wooden tubes. Two of these parchments are said to have comprised genealogies, one dating from 1244, the other from 1644. The two remaining documents had apparently been composed in the 1780s by one of Saunière’s predecessors as curé of Rennes-le-Château, the Abbé Antoine Bigou. Bigou had also been personal chaplain to the noble Blanchefort family — who, on the eve of the French Revolution, were still among the most prominent local landowners.
The two parchments from Bigou’s time would appear to be pious Latin texts, excerpts from the New Testament. At least ostensibly. But on one of the parchments the words are run incoherently together, with no space between them, and a number of utterly superfluous letters have been inserted. And on the second parchment lines are indiscriminately truncated — unevenly, sometimes in the middle of a word — while certain letters are conspicuously raised above the others. In reality these parchments comprise a sequence of ingenious ciphers or codes. Some of them are fantastically complex and unpredictable, defying even a computer, and insoluble without the requisite key. The following decipherment has appeared in French works devoted to Rennes-le-Château, and in two of our films on the subject made for the BBC.
bergere pas de tentation que poussin teniers gardent la clef pax dclxxxi par la croix et ce cheval de dieu j’acheve ce daemon de gardien a midi pommes bleues
(shepherdess, no temptation. that poussin, teniers, hold the key; peace 681. by the cross and this horse of god, i complete — or destroy — this daemon of the guardian at noon. blue apples.)
But if some of the ciphers are daunting in their complexity, others are patently, even flagrantly obvious. In the second parchment, for instance, the raised letters, taken in sequence, spell out a coherent message.
a dagobert ii roi et a sion est ce tresor et il est la mort.
(to dagobert ii, king, and to sion belongs this treasure and he is there dead.)
Although this particular message must have been discernible to Saunière, it is doubtful that he could have deciphered the more intricate codes. Nevertheless, he realised he had stumbled upon something of consequence and, with the consent of the village mayor, brought his discovery to his superior, the bishop of Carcassonne. How much the bishop understood is unclear, but Saunière was immediately dispatched to Paris — at the bishop’s expense — with instructions to present himself and the parchments to certain important ecclesiastic authorities. Chief among these were the Abbé Bieil, Director General of the Seminary of Saint Sulpice, and Bieil’s nephew, Émile Hoffet. At the time Hoffet was training for the priesthood. Although still in his early twenties, he had already established an impressive reputation for scholarship, especially in linguistics, cryptography and palaeography. Despite his pastoral vocation, he was known to be immersed in esoteric thought, and maintained cordial relations with the various occult-oriented groups, sects and secret societies which were proliferating in the French capital. This had brought him into contact with an illustrious cultural circle, which included such literary figures as Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Maeterlinck, as well as the composer Claude Debussy. He also knew Emma Calvé, who, at the time of Saunière’s appearance, had just returned from triumphant performances in London and Windsor. As a diva, Emma Calvé was the Maria Callas of her age. At the same time she was a high priestess of Parisian esoteric sub-culture, and sustained amorous liaisons with a number of influential occultists.