About four miles north-west of the castle of le Bézu lies the little village of Rennes-le-Château, occupying a prominent position at the corner of an agricultural and forested plateau. This village of only a couple of hundred occupants didn’t even have a road reaching it until late in the nineteenth century. However it has a fascinating history.
Rennes-le-Château claims to be all that is left of the ancient city of Rhedae which had a population of more than 50,000. The city was supposed to have been founded by the Romans and was later developed by the Visigoths as one of their major cities in about the year AD 410. Local legends claim that the treasures which they pillaged during the sack of Rome was brought here and, from time to time, Roman coins and other items of value are dug up in the surrounding country.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Rhedae was destroyed by wars, the Albigensian Crusade and the plague and the small remaining township, now called Rennes-le-Château, lay almost forgotten for more than six hundred years. The Blanchefort family, whose ancestors included prominent Cathars and Templars, rebuilt the castle. To one side was a run-down church with a stumpy tower and a number of houses were clustered round it.
Then, in 1885, a remarkable 33 year-old man was appointed priest to the tiny community. Bérenger Saunière was a clever, well-educated man who seems to have incurred the displeasure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and his appointment to the lowly living of Rennes-le-Château was almost equivalent to being exiled. He received a very small annual stipend, found himself with a church in an almost ruinous state and seemed to be looking at a future with very poor prospects.
Then a remarkable thing happened. A mysterious gentleman arrived at the village who claimed to be an envoy from monarchist sympathisers. (France by then was a republic and the Bourbon kings had been permanently deposed.) He gave Curé Saunière a huge sum of money equivalent to about five hundred years annual salary for the purpose of restoring the church. In return the priest was asked to give any documents he found to his benefactor.
The gentleman often returned to visit the cure and view the restoration and continued the visits until Saunière’s death. It is claimed that he was actually an archduke of Austro-Hungary (known as the Holy Roman Empire) and was named Johann von Habsburg.
The photo shows a general view of Rennes-le-Château. Next week I will tell you what Bérenger Saunière discovered when he began the restoration of the church.