For more than 50 years, tales of buried gold have sent the curious, conspiracy theorists and treasure hunters to the tiny hilltop village of Rennes-le-Château near Carcassonne in south-east France. Many have dug or dynamited holes around and under the church of Saint Mary Magdalene, where the mysterious former priest Abbé Bérenger Saunière, who went from rags to riches, is rumoured to have interred a trove of gold coins and jewels before taking the secret of their whereabouts to his grave.
Over the decades, nothing much apart from skulls and bones has ever emerged, but still the gold-diggers with pickaxes and explosives come to Rennes-Le-Château, flouting a 1960s ban on unauthorised digging after complaints the village was fast becoming a “Swiss cheese”. Last week, police were called to investigate the latest bout of vandalism: a large hole under the church wall.
The myth of mysterious hidden treasure at Rennes-le-Château emerged in the 1950s, boosted by this part of the Languedoc region’s colourful history and centuries-old rumours that it conceals not just pots of gold but also religious relics including the body of Jesus Christ, the holy grail and the ark of the covenant.
The modern treasure hunt has its roots in the 1880s, when Saunière, an impoverished Catholic priest, appears to have come into a fortune that enabled him to throw money around to renovate the church. The clergyman refused to say how he came into his sudden wealth before he died in 1917.
In the 1970s, Rennes-le-Château mania reached its height with treasure hunters using explosives to smash through stone walls, digging into burial areas and sewers and tunnelling into the church before going away empty-handed. Such was the damage done by gravediggers, the then local mayor Jean-François L’Huillier was forced to have Saunièr’s body dug up and reburied. “He’s at peace at last under a three-tonne sarcophagus surourounded by five cubic metres of concrete,” L’Huillier told me in 2004.
Then, just as a kind of peace also descended on Rennes-le-Château, the mystery was resurrected with Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, whose plot included the claim that Jesus did not die on the cross but survived, married Mary Magdalene and fled to France. One of the thriller’s main characters is named Jacques Saunière.
Rennes-le-Château’s deputy mayor, Marcel Captier, said the latest hole-digging had awakened bad memories of previous attacks by vandals. “Above all, this kind of thing mustn’t start happening again. We don’t want to find ourselves with another wave of treasure hunters,” Captier told Le Parisien.
Most historians have concluded the treasure never existed and Saunière raised money through criminal means, including stealing donations and charging for mass services. Another theory is even more prosaic: a local hotelier, lamenting a lack of guests and his own failure to find any treasure, made the story up.