Rennes-le-Château (Rènnas del Castèl in Occitan) is a small medieval castle village and a commune in the Aude département in Languedoc in south-western France. It is known internationally, and receives tens of thousands of visitors per year, for being at the center of various conspiracy theories.
Starting in the 1950s, a local restaurant owner, in order to increase business, had spread rumours of a hidden treasure found by a 19th century priest. The story achieved national fame in France, and was then enhanced and expanded by various hoaxsters, who claimed that the priest, Father Bérenger Saunière, had found proof of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion. The story became the origin for hypotheses in documentaries, bestselling books, and computer games such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), the fiction thriller The Da Vinci Code (2003), and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the damned (1999).
The story began when Noël Corbu wanted to attract visitors to his local hotel in Rennes-le-Château in the 1950s, by spreading the claim that Bérenger Saunière had become rich by finding a royal treasure inside one of the pillars in his church in the late 1800s. The first newspapers started printing Corbu’s story in 1956. This ignited a flame: visitors with shovels flooded the town, and Corbu got what he wanted.
However, this also attracted a number of persons such as Pierre Plantard. His childhood dream was to play a vital role in the history of France, so he and some friends concocted an elaborate hoax. It involved planting fabricated documents in France’s Bibliothèque nationale de France, to imply that Plantard was a descendant of a French royal dynasty, which would somehow mean that he was supposed to be declared King of France. The fabricated documents also mention the ancient Priory of Sion, which was supposedly a thousand years old, but was in fact the name of an organisation that Plantard founded himself in 1956 with three of his friends.
No serious journalists who investigated the story found it plausible enough to write about, so Plantard asked his friend, Gérard de Sède, to write a book to give more credence to the story. They chose the already rumour-rich area of Rennes-le-Chateau as their setting, and L’Or de Rennes (The Gold of Rennes, later published as Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château) came out in 1967 and was an instant success. The book presented Latin documents forged by Plantard’s group, alleging that these were medieval documents that had been found by Saunière in the 19th century. One of the documents had multiple encrypted references to the Priory of Sion, thereby attempting to prove that the society was older than its actual creation date of 1956.
In 1969, a British actor and science-fiction writer by the name of Henry Lincoln read the book, dug deeper, and wrote his own books on the subject, pointing out his discovery of hidden codes in the parchments. One of the codes involved a series of raised letters in the Latin message, which when read off separately, spelled out in French: a dagobert ii roi et a sion est ce tresor et il est la mort. (translation: This treasure belongs to King Dagobert II and to Sion, and it is death.).
Lincoln created a series of BBC Two documentaries about his theories in the 1970s, and then in 1982, co-wrote The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail with Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Their book expanded upon the Rennes-le-Château story to further imply that the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdelane were connected to the French royalty as perpetuated through a secret society named the Priory of Sion. This torch was then picked up and carried further in 2003 in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. Brown’s book never specifically mentioned Rennes-le-Château, but some key characters in the book had related names, such as Sauniere, named after the priest, and “Leigh Teabing”, whose first name was derived from Richard Leigh, and last name, Teabing, was an anagram of Baigent.
The extraordinary popularity of The Da Vinci Code reignited the interest of tourists, who come to the village to see sites associated with Saunière and Rennes-le-Château. The “Visigothic pillar” where Sauniere was said to have found the documents is on display in the village’s Saunière Museum. The pillar was set up by Saunière in 1891 as part of his shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, though there is some dispute as to whether the pillar actually originated from Saunière’s church. A Church report drawn up by the diocesan architect Guiraud Cals in 1853 failed to mention the existence of any altar pillar.
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