Contemporary accounts say only that the tomb Bérenger Saunière found in front of the altar in the Church of St Mary Magdalene at Rennes-le-Chateau contained the skeletons of several men and that the priest got into the tomb and appeared after a short time carrying a pot full of gold coins and jewels.
It doesn’t say how large the tomb was but the reports suggest it must have been quite substantial for Saunière to actually get into it and then seem to have disappeared from the view of his two workers in the nave. This suggests that lifting the Dalle des Chevaliers may have given access to a large void beneath – perhaps even a room. Was there a staircase or ladder to descend into the room? Was it possible that the room was in fact a crypt? It is quite common for a church to have an underground crypt beneath the nave. However no further description is given.
There is also no detailed description of the skeletons. It seems very unlikely that they should just be thrown all together into the tomb, especially as the burial place chosen was right in front of the altar – the holiest place in the church. Were the skeletons wrapped in cloths or in some kind of container, or even inside coffins? If so this would have taken up more space than could be provided by a single tomb. The inevitable conclusion has to be that there was a substantial void under the altar.
There is another even more interesting possibility. Apparently the outside of the church is surrounded by what is known as a funerary band. This is a feature which is occasionally found on the outside of Roman Catholic churches and is usually taken to indicate that royalty has been buried in the church. This may seem a strange thing to find in a little village church until one remembers that Rennes-le-Chateau is all that remains of the ancient city of Rhedae, the one-time capital of the Visigoth empire. There is no evidence of any royal tombs in the church above ground, so that makes it more likely that the tombs are contained in a crypt beneath the church.
Next week I will tell you about the physical evidence of there being a crypt under the church and likely ways into it, if the authorities would allow them to be explored.
I intend to continue weekly stories of the things I found out on my researches in the region for the Languedoc Trilogy. If you would like to have these emailed to you each week you can visit my website (mikehillier.com) and follow the instructions to leave your email address. In return I would like to give you a free e-book copy of “The Mafia Emblem” which can be read on iPads, laptops or smart-phones.
While writing, I thought you might be interested to see the new cover which Stuart Bache has done for me for “The Secret of the Cathars”, the first book of my Languedoc trilogy, and I attach a print of it. The mountain in the background is Montségur seen from the north side and it shows the thousand-foot cliff down which the four parfaits escaped, carrying the Cathar treasure on their backs.