I suppose one must look at this 'discovery' in the context of Bérenger Saunière's life at that moment in time. But even more so we should look at what had happened before and after this event. Was this tomb discovered or uncovered accidentally? Was the discovery made by someone else and communicated to Sauniere? Was the discovery even made at Rennes-le-Chateau?
Was Saunière 's comment 'decouverte d'un tombeau' important or just a throw-away comment? If it was throw-away why feel the need to note it in a diary? If it was significant why write it in a diary to let everyone know? One could say because his diaries were private, he probably thought no-one else would read them. But then again, did he 'manufacture' his writings to cover things up or 'throw' people off any scent as it were. We simply have to admit that we will probably never know because we do not have enough information about this tomb discovery.
The facts are that Bérenger Saunière's diary entry for 21 September 1891 reads as follows:
“letter received from Granès. discovery of a tomb, rain in the evening” ('lettre de Granès. découvert d'un tombeau. Le soir pluie').
Did the diary list events of that day sequentially. He had firstly made a note regarding a letter he received from Granes so was this letter in some way related to the tomb discovery? Saunière also made a note that there was rain in the evening [i.e the tomb was discovered some time during the day?]. The weather had been of some concern to Saunière. In the days leading up to the famous entry Saunière had recorded the following weather observations:
9. violent wind, it's bad
10. the wind redoubles in strength, the harvest is damaged
11. the wind continues the same
12. wind the same
13. wind, rain, thunder and lightning
15. nice weather,
20. in the evening, Lightning, Thunder and rain
21. découverte d'un tombeau, rain in the evening
22. Rain in the night
We know the weather was extremely volatile at this time. On the 25th, 26th October, 1891 the bad weather culminated in a flood of the river Aude, and the department of the Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales were devastated by terrible floods. Numerous and spectacular floods of rivers in the departments occurred and the municipalities of Rennes-les-Bains and Couiza, in the Aude high valley were hit very hard, as well as the towns of Limoux, Carcassonne and Narbonne and the entire coastal plain. [see HERE].
Did the rain then, wash away some tombstones exposing an uncovered grave? This would be possible at Rennes-les-Bains, and happened in 1992 - there is film footage of this - ferocious floods which ruined the cemetery. Its debatable if the same thing could have happened at Rennes-le-Chateau because it is so high up. There is a possibility that heavy rain could have dislodged recumbent tombstones.
Other researchers have come to the conclusion that the sentence before 'discovery of a tomb' is relevant i.e. that the 'letter from Granes' suggests that the discovery was made by someone else - that even the person who had sent the letter from Granes made the discovery. Others have written that as "Saunière moved his library and study into this building [that is the wooden building he erected next to the cemetery gates]which stood above the level of the garden and, since this was a drought area, the soil was hollowed out below the structure to allow a water-tank to be installed, providing water to the gardens surrounding the church (Saunière turned this building into a chapel in 1898, according to surviving correspondence by Tiburce Caminade). Therefore, Saunière was working on a parcel of land situated next to the cemetery from February 1891 – and the tomb referred to in his diary entry could just have been a tomb that had once belonged to the cemetery that was disturbed during the works – and nothing else". But this means that this researcher believes that the work begun on this structure in February, was related 7 months later, to the discovery of the tomb. However there are some French researchers who assert that "It [the library by the cemetery] was first built by Berenger Saunière in 1894 with limestones that he carried up from the Brook of Couleurs himself. It was built over the cistern or water storage tank which caused the argument between himself and the maire, and he organised pipes taking water especially to the font in the church. This building served as the priest's library before he built the Tour Magdala". This would mean the repository was built 3 years after the tomb discovery.
In his desperation's to dismiss anything out of the ordinary regarding Sauniere he settles for the scenario that while Sauniere builds the repository and other related work he dislodges a tomb. The researcher writes: "But could the discovery of this tomb have been something extraordinary, like for example a buried treasure that generated immense wealth?" He answers this as follows: "Again, the evidence from Saunière's own records discounts this possibility – because according to the testimony of his Carnets, he was living on a salary of 900 francs per year and had obtained 582.50 francs from selling masses in 1891. During the same period Saunière carried out works on various projects totalling 2,661.50 francs. He was forced to rely on donations and on borrowing money to balance his accounts. In July 1891 and 7 November 1891 Saunière borrowed two amounts of 250 francs from Madame Marre Barthélémy respectively. Saunière's accounts for the period also show he had ‘Secret Funds’ representing 80 francs for the whole year". Its a very singular way of looking at 'evidence'.
When you look at what Sauniere was doing in and around the church at the time of this discovery - a theory presents itself.
Why? Because on the day of the 'discovery' of the tomb the builders were in the process of installing the new pulpit in the church. We also know that he dismissed the workers who were doing the work, so we can assume he was inside the church [i.e. not outside in the cemetery, or digging under the library he built next to the cemetery etc]. If the 'discovery' was to do with the work around the new pulpit - we even know what part of the church was being dug up etc. It was the north wall of the church. As others have noted - Sauniere even left us a map of where that area was.
The pulpit was not far from an altar .... . Since, in fact, there were two altars associated with the church at Rennes-le-Chateau and Sauniere talks about medals of Lourdes - it cannot be ruled out that it was the altar of the Virgin, on the northern wall of the church that the 1891 find was related to .... but wait, the Altar of the Virgin did not carry a stone support that could carry a 'tombeau'. I say this because some think that the discovery of a tombeau relates to a piece of ecclesiastical furniture - an all ecclesiastical dictionary's describe the tombeau as cavity in the main altar which carries bones of a saint and parchment certifying the bones to be authentic. The tombeau is to be found only on the Main Altar.
If so then this would be related to the 1887 'find'.
In June 1891 the Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and the ‘Visigothic’ Pillar were installed by Bérenger Saunière at Rennes-le-Château, in the garden he had commandeered, in the presence of a Lazarist priest from the church of Notre-Dame de Marceille (Lourdes was considered the symbol of the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy by Père Emmanuel d’Alzon [1810-1880], the founder of the Assumptionist Order).
What else do we know about 1891? We know that earlier in the year, on 15 February 1891, Bérenger Saunière asked the village council for permission to enclose and fit out at his own expense, what he termed in his writings the “square”, located in front of the church and the cemetery. The Councillors accepted on the following conditions: the parcel of land remain the exclusive property of the Commune; that no covered building be built there; that one of the keys allowing access to it [it presumably being the cemetery?] would be deposited in the Town Hall; and that this “square”, once enclosed, would remain open on Sundays and public holidays as well as on religious holidays, whether local or national, from sunrise to sunset. Sauniere had therefore commandeered vast amounts of the land around the church and cemetery and barred access to these places for 300 days of the year.
Saussez has shown amply that this was a strategy cooked up by Sauniere to continue to dig around the church and the cemetery etc. For me then, Sauniere did discover a 'tombeau'. If the tombeau in the main altar carried information about the church, this may have led Sauniere to continue digging inside the church under the guise of 'renovations' - which was apt because the church really did need renovations. Was he looking for a burial vault, grave etc or the place where further sacred relics might be?
The main altar was upended in 1887. Thanks to the donation of a lady of Coursan, Marie Cavailhé, Sauniere can finally meet the requests of bishops by ordering a "Romanesque altar with terracotta tabernacle" at the plant FD Monna in Toulouse. Receipt, dated July 27, 1887, indicates a cost of 700 francs, supported by Mrs. Cavailhé. It would be this altar that would carry a tombeau. Not the tombeau found in 1891. It is strange because Sauniere did not write these discoveries in a diary. In fact i believe the diary - rather strangely - was only written for 1891 & 1892!
Does the Virgin altar carry a stone which would have tombeau? No.
When all is said and done, perhaps in September 1891 Sauniere discovery of a tombeau was exactly that - he uncovered the entrance to a tomb near the place of the old pulpit [which was near the Virgin of the Altar] - that led underground into a crypt in the church, or into the cemetery? It does fit all the circumstantial evidence shown in the activities of Sauniere viz:
1] He replaces the main altar 1887. In this altar was found a 'tombeau' - in ecclesiastic terms, a small box carrying a parchment or paper which related to the bones alongside it in the box. The bones were usually related to the saint associated with the church. When did the church become associated with Mary Magdalene? Medieval rendering of the church suggests also the Blessed Mary i.e the Virgin Mary? One also has to consider that this church was originally the private chapel of the Lords of Rennes. Whatever Sauniere found - ....he certainly started looking for something? He is known to have dug up the nave and in front of the main altar [flooring].
2] In Feb 1891 he gets access to the land in front of the church and cemetery and bars access by the villagers for 300 days of the year. He continues his various work projects.
3] September 1891, his team of workers are working on replacing the old pulpit. This is on the north wall of the church, not far from the Altar of the Virgin. This was referred to by Leuillieux in 1876. Later concealed recesses here are built by Sauniere. The staircase built here matches the exact size of the original altar of the Virgin (58cm x 200cm). These are all concealed and hidden by Sauniere. Access is hidden by two false doors into a cupboard.
4] The accounts of the lifting of this Virgin altar Saussez thinks is the root of the eyewitness descriptions (‘I saw a pot with shiny glinty objects ..’) of the workers with Sauniere when they raised the slab. They saw the glinting objects under the the stone slab when it was removed. Sauniere says to his workers these are worthless medallions from Lourdes, cementing the connection with the Virgin altar. The stone slab raised at this altar marked an entrance passage. Sauniere puts temporary floorboards down here. At the opposite end of the church he builds the Secret Room. Steps down from this second entry passage are later found by Cholet.
5] Sauniere then leaves for a retreat, sees various other priests, returns from the retreat and after a visit from 4 unknown colleagues begins new work with new Masons. From Bérenger Saunière’s Notebook, “Saw the curé of Névian – Went to see Gélis – Went to see Carrière, Saw Cros and secret” [“secret” an abbreviation for secrétaire – “Cros” being Abbé Guillaume Cros, 1810-1898, the Vicaire général, with Pierre Pradel the Secrétaire général].
One of those Sauniere consulted was Carriere (a doctor from Limoux) who’s cousin was Abbe Lassere of Alet, and who was personal doctor of the Count Chambord. There are other interpretations perhaps. Sauniere said he saw ( vu ) the curate of Névian, a town not far from Narbonne, who's priest at the time was the Abbe. Dumons, he also saw Antoine Gelis (1827-1897), priest of nearby Coustaussa, the priest of Bages-les-Flots, Carrière and Cros, probably the vicar general (1810-1898) who had accompanied him during the visit of Monsignor Billard 1889. What catches the eye for most people in the quoted sentence is the last word, "Secret": some think this probably refers to the closely guarded secret by the parish priest of Rennes, the news of which he relayed to the four characters mentioned?On October 6th Sauniere writes: Visit of 4 brothers. Are these the same four people named on September 29? This meeting has not been recorded therefore we can not say for sure; but there are those who, reading between the lines, think that these notes act as two references to a small group of local priests in on the secret (secret) of Sauniere.
One researcher [Bedu] wrote "From a visit to the cemetery, i conclude that the activities of Sauniere began from just adjacent to the north wall of the church. He writes: "We have seen that at that point the wall of the church is curiously plastered outside and the tombs are all present back to 1891. Why is this finding? Simply because Berenger Sauniere will start from this particular excavations in the cemetery!"
Paul Saussez noted that the area which had previously housed the altar of the Virgin (and perhaps - which is an entry point to the crypt) spanned the same size as the staircase of the pulpit; so Sauniere would use this space for the erection of the stairs going up - thus masking what steps went further down into the crypt. Sauniere ensures that the wall is reinforced, creating the architectural anomaly that one can see - the corresponding arch is not aligned with the other.
6] We also know that a few years later there are complaints about Sauniere digging in the cemetery. Sauniere described that he was 'renovating the cemetery' [in 1894] but on 12 and 14 March 1895: Inhabitants of the village sent two letters of complaint to the Préfet de l’Aude about Saunière’s work in the cemetery. The two complaints were as followed:
Rennes-le-Château, 12 March 1895
We wish to inform you that, with the agreement of the Municipal Council of Rennes-le-Château, the meeting in the Town Hall at one o’clock on Sunday 10 March, we the electors wish to protest that the decision giving the curé the right to continue work makes no sense and in addition we desire to be freely responsible to tend the graves of our forebears. The curé has no right to remove, raise or relocate any ornaments, crosses or crowns from where we have placed them
Sarda, Gavignaud, Delmas, Vidal, etc
Rennes-le-Château, 14 March 1895
We are far from satisfied with prevailing conditions in the cemetery. Crosses are removed, as are tombstones, and this said work has nothing to do with repairs nor is there a good reason for it
Baumore, Rousset, Bouteille, etc
One can see here that villagers said exactly what was happening - Sauniere was *not* renovating the cemetery ["and this said work has nothing to do with repairs"] he was upending everything because he was looking for something.
I am left to conclude that Jean Luc Robin (in Rennes-le-Château, Saunière’s Secret) was right when he wrote: "After essentially ransacking the church Saunière then went on to ransack the cemetery". Why? For Robin it was a case of: “after discovering the message in the wooden pillar [this] had sent him to the Tomb of the Lords ..[then] from the tomb we presume that he reached the crypt - and this sent him to the graveyard, from whence he departed to poke around the countryside ….”
Jean Luc also had one other interesting thing to say: ‘I’ve already mentioned a writing left by the uncle of the abbé Bigou, who had been priest of Rennes-le-Château forty years before him. It says: “Beneath the altar of the church of Rennes-le-Château there is a chamber in which are tombs dating from the times of the ancient kings (sic), as well as documents which must not fall into unintended hands. For this reason, I have had access to this crypt sealed”.
In these short sentences of Robin the bare bones of the story of Saunière hang. From his position as priest, Saunière came into some information perhaps from previous priests of Rennes-le-Château, whether orally or from old notes and Registers. He quite simply began to look for something, specifically the old tomb of the Lords which allowed him to access an ancient crypt under the Church. We must assume it was something important because he spent years and years looking and searching. One must even ask if the 'trafficking in masses' was created to make the money to carry out these works. Where else was he going to get the funds to carry out all these works?
For some it is the grave of the 'ancient kings' [whatever that means]. Perhaps for some he was searching for the bones of Mary Magdalene. Did he believe that the tombeau with bones of a saint to which the church was consecrated were genuine? Is this why he was obsessed with all things Mary Magdalene around his domaine? Is this why he wanted to make it a pilgrimage centre? Whatever motivated him - he searches in the cemetery and digs up all the graves.
I think René Descadeillas was right: "Le trésor de Rennes n'existe pas. Mais le secret du curé de Rennes subsiste.Et c'est en lui que réside le mystère". When Descadeillas dismisses the Rennes mystery - as some claim - i think what he is dismissing is all the paraphernalia associated with Plantard et al, but essentially, not the mystery of Sauniere and his enigmatic building works, searches and nocturnal activities...
Welcome to the blog of Rhedesium
My name is Sandy Hamblett, inspired and passionate researcher of the mysteries at Rennes-les-Bains.