There are many conspiracy theories about Rennes-le-Chateau and the fact is without these conspiracy theories fewer visitors, including myself, would come to this fairly non-descript, though still pretty, village. Most people come because there are so many fascinating questions remaining to be answered and presumably some questions will stay unanswered unless the Roman Catholic Church provides help in these matters. Part of the fascination about coming to Rennes-le-Chateau is the belief you may find something or see something or have a theory all other visitors have missed.

Rennes-le-Chateau stands on a plateau above the River Aude. Most visitors head first to the church of Mary Magdalene or Eglise Ste-Marie-Madeleine. On the left-hand side, just inside the entrance, the Devil Asmodeus is supporting a font. The stations of the cross are prominently displayed. On the tableau for the 8th station where Jesus is meeting the women of Jerusalem, one of the women is veiled and a child appears to be wearing tartan.

Other prominent features in the town are a tower with wonderful views over the Pyrenees called the Tour Magdala, a house where the priest and his maidservant lived called Villa Betania, and a greenhouse. All these places were apparently built by the parish priest, Father Beranger Sauniere. He was priest here from 1885 until his death in 1917. He began restorations of the ruined Eglise Ste-Marie-Madeleine almost immediately upon arrival, but the pace of this work changed from 1891 onwards when he started to build Villa Betania and Tour Magdala on a parish priest’s pay. That Beranger Sauniere found something worth selling during his restorations in the church is almost certainly true, but no one knows to this day what he found and to whom he sold it.

The most believable theory is that when he was restoring the church Sauniere found part of the Visigoth treasure these people brought from their sack of Rome. Sauniere  sold the gold coins and other items to fund his building plans. The intrigue though derives from the fact the Visigoth treasure might have included Solomon’s temple treasure, which the Emperor Titus had brought back to Rome after he conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Visigoths were renowned for having the richest hoard of gold and their chapels possessed much more precious cultic vessels than other churches. Rennes-le-Chateau was also one of their last strongholds as the Visigoth Empire shrank.

A more mundane explanation is Sauniere simply acquired his wealth from donations and for performing, and being paid for, more masses than he was supposed to. According to Canon law, priests are allowed to say up to three Masses per day and to accept a fee for requested prayers for the dead. It’s alleged Sauniere had been soliciting and accepting money to say thousands of Masses, charging one franc per Mass. Some clients would send payment for hundreds of Masses, which were never performed.

The problem with this idea is it doesn’t explain why Marie Dénarnaud, his maidservant, would say: “The people round here walk on gold without knowing it”. Mysterious.

The Museum next to the church has some important pieces including the hollow Visigoth column that once supported the altar in the church. This pillar might have held the secret to Sauniere’s wealth as some conspiracy theories maintain he found something in this column when he started to renovate the church. The information is presented in such a plausible way it’s difficult not to believe the priest found something hugely significant here in this small village.

On the other hand, the problem I had when looking at all the exhibits was, if Sauniere had found something in the church, how come no one else had discovered it in the 1300 years between the Visigoths bringing the treasure and Sauniere finding it? The chances are the Visigoths wouldn’t have left their treasure just in one pillar, but in a large hoard somewhere. I wondered what would fit into a pillar of that size – perhaps some documents showing the lineage of the Merovingian Kings of France?

Unusually, the Cathars are rarely mentioned in connection with Rennes-le-Chateau and yet they were supposed to have had a rare treasure, which was smuggled out of Montsegur in 1244. This treasure fascinated Adolf Hitler so much that during WWII he sent search parties to Montsegur to see whether there was any trace of this treasure in the caves beneath the castle. Some people believe the famous commando, Otto Skorzeny, found the treasure in a walled-up cave near Montsegur although who walled up the cave and why was never explained. Skorzeny didn’t search near Rennes-le-Chateau although his fellow Nazi Otto Rahn did during the 1930s.

This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker