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Rennes le Chateau

Le rapport Cholet

The Cholet Report


RENNES-le-CHATEAU

Local History

1) In Gaulish times there was a temple there dedicated to the god ARA. It is from this name that the place-name Rennes-le-Château is derived. It was the Visigoths who first changed the name - they called it Radaès. Then came Rada, Rédé, Rédéa, Rèda-Castel and - finally - Rennes-le-Château. The Celts worshiped the god Ares by moving physically closer to him, i.e. by establishing themselves on a mountain side while protecting themselves from the elements. A cavern close to a mountaintop was, for them, the ideal place of worship: at Rennes-le-Château there was a cave situated very close to the summit. This religion lasted until the area was christianised. Following the customs of the time the priests, monks and preaching friars built their churches on the sites of the former pagan altars. In this way the former temple to Ares was covered by the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, a building that does not seem to have changed its location down the centuries, even though it was destroyed several times. This structure was built during the Visigothic occupation.

2) When the Saracens invaded the region from Spain the strongholds built by the Visigoths fell into their hands. The siege of Radaès lasted quite a long time, as it was the regional capital and was therefore heavily fortified. The survivors, after walling up in the former temple everything that they were unable to take away with them, escaped by an underground passageway leading towards the present-day chateau, and from there to the place known as Blanchefort. A branch of this underground passage descended towards the River Sals, opposite Coustaussa. The river was crossed at a ford (which still exists), while the exit from this underground passage has been blocked by a landslide; even so, the resumption of their escape route towards Coustaussa is still visible on the left-hand side of the road to Arques.

3) After Charlemagne put the Saracens to flight a new population took up residence there, but we do not know very much about this period. We have to wait until the Albigensian Crusade to find the name Rédé reappearing in history. It is stated that Rédé would have fallen after Montségur and that a part of the Cathars' possessions would also have been walled up in the temple before the surrender, but we do not know anything precise about this.

4) The really great historical period of this area - at least as far as those people in whom we are interested is concerned - lies during the domination of this area by the Counts of VOISIN. After the fall of the Cathars and their allies (Some Christian lords had followed the great Cathar chiefs, not out of religious conviction but out of the obedience of a vassal to his master: this was the case with the Count of Aniort and his brothers. Calm having been restored, a major trial was held at Carcassonne. There they pleaded their cause, succeeded in having the charges against them dismissed and had their possessions restored to them on condition that they change their name. Ever since then the family has borne the name of De Niort, after a small village adjoining the Sault plateau.) the survivors of the fighting parcelled out the area among themselves. The results of the fighting at The Razé fell to the Chevalier de Voisin, a minor nobleman without appanage, son of the Count of VOISIN (-le-Bretonneux, near Paris) and a vassal of Simon de Montfort (whom he had followed in his adventures) who had been lucky enough to survive the fighting. He took the title of Count Pierre I of VOISIN, lord of the Razé. Later he was appointed seneschal. His elder son succeeded him under the name Pierre II, while the younger son, Paul-Guillaume, was suspected of turning to brigandage. We have to wait until the Hundred Years War (1365) to encounter a Count of VOISIN in history again. During that time the Grandes Compagnies laid the area to waste. The seigneur of the period, Alaric I of VOISIN, decided to exterminate them. He formed his knights and vassals into a unit and advanced in front of the mercenaries. They met near St. Paul de Fenouillet. After a fierce battle the mercenaries prevailed and what remained of Alaric's troops retreated to Rèda-Castel pursued by those of the Grandes Compagnies, who besieged the town, which was soon captured and destroyed. All that remained was the castle, although a cannonball had penetrated a tower of the ramparts, the Tour Marsala (Marsala = Sainte Barbe). A tremendous explosion destroyed everything, but the keep was unharmed - the resistance continued until... After the mercenaries had razed the church of St. Pierre to the ground they found the entrance to an underground passage. They rushed into it thinking that they could seize the chateau from the inside, but they never reached it: at a turning of the underground passage there was a rocking flagstone and all those who ran onto it fell into a well. There they lie to this day. After this adventure the siege was raised. Dating from around the same period is the passage running to Rèda-Castel constructed for the wife of Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile. Blanche de Castile, the third woman to bear this name (she was actually Blanche de Bourbon) once sought refuge with the Count of VOISIN, who, by virtue of his possessions was as much a vassal of the King of France as he was of the King of Castile, but this episode does not contribute anything to our story. We need to jump forward to the Wars of Religion to open a new chapter on this area. The Calvinists overran the area and destroyed those towns whose inhabitants refused to conform to their ideas. Rèda-Castel and its town were destroyed once more: the chateau, houses, churches - everything was razed to the ground. The surrounding towns shared the same fate. It is from this period that the neighbouring town of Espéraza takes its name: it is not a distortion of the French word 'espérance' (hope) but a contraction of the Occitan expression 'Es-per-raza', which in French means ‘C'est pour raser’ (‘This is for razing to the ground’). The family of VOISIN disappeared from the region after this adventure.

5) Tired of so many misfortunes, the Razé slowly came back to life, and new families came to establish themselves there. Rennes-le-Château entered into the ownership of the family of 'Hautpoul de Blanchefort '. It seems that these new lords were rich and powerful, as other noble families sought their friendship and alliances through marriage. This was the period of the Bourbon Kings, and we have to wait for their fall before the town of Rennes-le-Château enters history again. At that time it was a staging-post on the émigré route to Spain. The curé of the time hid the émigrés and gave them food and drink. When he felt that he had gone too far and that the civil authorities were on their way to arrest him, he buried his meagre possessions in the church and wrote the history of his local area on pieces of parchment, hiding them in one of the pillars supporting the altar. Then he too departed - never to return.

6) Rennes-le-Château was still a prosperous village, despite being isolated: no road suitable for vehicles connected it to the other towns, only a rough mule track to Rennes-les-Bains. There was little money in the area. The inhabitants, who were completely self-sufficient, lived well but modestly. However, the whole range of trades and crafts was represented there.
The curé of the period, Bérenger Saunière, implored the Mayor to vote him a credit of 91 francs and 60 centimes to pay for repairs to the roof of the church, but neither the curé nor the Commune had such a sum, even though the rain leaked onto the altar. One morning the old bell-ringer, while performing his duties, was almost hit on the head by a piece of wood that had fallen from the belfry. He kicked it inside and continued ringing the Angelus. That evening he came across the piece of wood again and, out of curiosity, picked it up and found it rather light for its size. Looking at it more closely he found that it was hollow and that it contained some ferns. Inside the ferns he found a parchment wrapped around a bone. The text on this parchment was written in Latin. He took it to the Curé who said, 'This is certainly a relic and its history'. For several days the Curé tried to translate this puzzle without much success. So he went to Paris and returned with a translation. On the following Thursday, assisted by the choirboys, the curé set about lifting a slab inside the church, but it was heavy and it took the whole morning to budge it. Finally, around midday, the task was finished. Where the slab had been there was a large hole and, at the bottom of it, the beginning of a staircase. He sent the choir away, saying to them: 'Come back all of you in two hours - there'll be sweets for everyone'. Then he locked up the church. At two o'clock in the afternoon the door was still closed. It was only opened again at four o'clock when the curé, quite radiant with joy, handed out the sweets he had promised.
From this day forward he started spending a great deal of money on all manner of things: after making sure the church was repaired and decorated he had a large and beautiful house built where all were welcome to dine, and he also did a great deal for the village and its inhabitants, repairing their houses and giving their daughters dowries. But he had great problems with the Bishop. He was accused of all sorts of things: making a pact with the Devil, trafficking in Masses, espionage, acting as a letter box for clandestine messages, etc., accusations which did not, however, prevent him spending and building.

7) One day a lady, who was both pious and quite rich, said that she thought it was unseemly that people were continuing to say Mass (in this beautiful church restored to new condition) on such an old altar. With the agreement of the curé and without any regard for archaeology, she had the old altar, which dated from the Carolingian period, or perhaps even from that of the Visigoths, demolished and had it replaced with the one that is there now. Once again there was a 'find': in one of the pillars which held up the heavy altar slab the workmen found three parchments which the non-juring curé of the time of the Convention had hidden there This time the translation was an easier task. It is thanks to the first two parchments that we know what we have written above about the local history of the region. The contents of the third parchment were not divulged, but Curé Saunière's subsequent conduct is a clear indication of its content. He asked some workmen who were busy building the conservatory at that time to come into the church with their shovels and pickaxes He made them dig behind the altar and soon there appeared the neck of an earthenware jar. He wanted to continue on his own: he had just found the secret hiding-place of the curé who had fled to Spain. It was in this earthenware jar that he found the magnificent ciborium which he offered to the canon of St. Paul de Fenouillet to thank him for having pleaded his cause before the court in Rome.

8) Where did curé Saunière get all this money?

In the light of what we have said above there is no doubt that it was from a treasure: in moving the slab known as the tombstone of the Chevalier he had discovered the path to the Temple. Now let us try to trace the origins of this treasure or treasures.

A) The Visigoths: Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, twice besieged Rome. On the first occasion he obtained a ransom from it; on the second occasion he sacked it and then died the following year. To give this prestigious chief a tomb worthy of him his soldiers diverted a river, dug the tomb in the dried riverbed and then, after the burial, restored the river to its original course. According to custom his possessions should have been placed in the tomb with him, but the King's share was not perhaps the whole of the treasures of Rome. History tells us that the Visigoths, having returned to their own territory, could not agree on the election of the new king. Some of them, about 40,000 all told, refused to recognise Alaric's successor and, after helping themselves to the war booty, crossed the mountains and eventually established themselves in the region in which we are interested. The site of Radaès lent itself admirably to resistance. It is said that the pursuers long besieged the fugitives, but never once set foot on the plateau. After the dissident Visigoths had made Radaès into their capital it was only logical that they should deposit their treasure there.

B) The Cathars: we know that the Crusaders, when they penetrated Montségur, found nothing. We also know that, on the morning of the surrender, three men, on the orders of their chief, were let down from the ramparts by ropes. Were they given the task of taking the treasure somewhere else, or of being the sole survivors who would pass their beliefs on to future generations?

C) The Templars: they had a powerful presence in the region, with a commandery at Campagne-sur-Aude and an observation post on Mont du Bézu. At Blanchefort there was a castle which belonged to them. Of their own free will or by force the nobles were obliged to march with them. Proof that the Templars were mixed up in the affair of the treasures is that on the slab known as the tombstone of Blanchefort there were signs, with Latin inscriptions, which only the Templars used. There was also a certain 'taboo' on the Templar possessions, which meant that their hidden treasure has come down through the centuries without anyone being able to get their hands on it. Anything belonging to the Templars has always inspired great fear in those who had to guard it or had reason to approach it.

D) Blanche de Castile: a parchment found at the scene shows that the mother of St. Louis came to Rédé, heavily guarded and loaded down with innumerable items of baggage. According to the parchment this baggage was buried in an underground passage below the former chateau of the Counts of VOISIN and then walled in. Obviously the fact that this baggage was entrusted to such a powerful ally suggests that it must have contained something quite precious. This happened in June 1249, when the King was on Crusade and not yet a prisoner, so it could not have been his ransom but must have been what remained of the royal treasure. The Lady Regent, sensing that her end was near, insisted on putting it somewhere secure, the barons of the court having too strong a desire to appropriate it to themselves.

E) Blanche de France: daughter of St. Louis, born in Jaffa in 1252. She was Blanche de Castile (the second to bear that name) by virtue of her marriage to the Infant of Castile. She also stayed at Rédé: it was for her that the former castle of the Templars was restored and given the name Blanchefort. The story that follows took place during the reign of Philippe III the Bold. Following the assassination of the heir to the throne of Castile (the husband of Blanche de France) and the kidnapping of their two children the King of France convened the meeting of the Three Kings (France, Majorca and Aragon). When the discussions achieved no result a war ensued, which France lost. In the treaty that followed it was stipulated that the Infants of Castile would be returned to their mother on condition that both she and they renounced the throne of Castile and that the family lived in France. In return a considerable sum of money in gold would be sent to the widow every year during her lifetime. In principle she lived at Lunel but she made frequent visits to Blanchefort. It was during a visit to Blanchefort that the little caravan carrying the recipient of this gift of gold was attacked, the escorts killed and the mules and their burden stolen. Everyone in the area assumed that it was Count Paul-Guillaume who had launched the attack and that he hid his booty in the underground passages of the chateau. A short time afterwards Count Paul disappeared (revenge?, exile? - no one will ever know).

9) By what route did curé Saunière reach his treasure?

On the first occasion this was via the site of the tombstone of the Chevalier. According to the enquiry made after Saunière's death, for a long time the faithful walked on planks in the centre of the church, facing the altar. This location is incorrect, as when digging at the site indicated we had evidence that, down the centuries, no one had excavated at this place. After Curé Saunière had had the tiled floor relaid the hole underneath the tombstone was blocked up, yet he continued to go down to visit his treasure. This suggests that once he was in the underground passages he must have found other exits - and two facts prove it:

One evening when he went into the cemetery some people followed him. Suddenly he disappeared. The pursuers hid and awaited his return but he never emerged, yet the following morning he said Mass in the church. There is yet another path that leads to the former temple. He found it in the rock garden. One night a man followed the Curé and saw him go underground after he had been digging in this garden. He followed him down and surprised him rummaging in a barrel full of gold coins. The curé, furious at having been surprised, escorted the man up again and led him into the church, where he made him swear on the Gospel never to speak of what he had just seen. The man kept his word for the whole of his life, but on his deathbed he did speak, without however revealing the exact place where the curé had been digging.

10) The 'baggage' of Blanche de Castile: it is necessary to make a distinction between the treasure of the curé and the hidden treasure of the Regent. I have held in my hands the parchment which deals with this matter and I can say that the underground passages where this 'baggage' is (or was) are something quite separate and do not communicate with the former temple or, if there ever was such a communicating passage, then it has been walled up. On the parchment are two handwritings. One is lifeless and faded: this is the hand in which the main drawing and text are done. The whole document is dated and signed by Brother Dominique de Mirepoix on 29 June 1249. The signatory says that he assisted the Lady Regent in burying her baggage and drew the plan on her orders. The second handwriting is very fine, as if done with a point, and the ink is black (whereas the first is blueish). The text only provides a few complementary indications, such as 'Souterrain remblayé par SMBC' ('Underground passage filled in by SMBC') and, at the place where the baggage was hidden: 'Ici est enfoui la Puissance' ('Here there is buried Power'). This second handwriting is neither dated not signed but is undoubtedly more recent.

11) The slabs and their inscriptions.

A) On a tombstone that was found, after a landslide, caught in the roots of a holm oak were the following inscriptions:

‘Au sommet d’un angle, la croix pattée du Temple’ (‘At the apex of an angle, the cross-formy of the Temple’); ‘à l’intérieur une ligne médiane chevauchée par 'IN MEDIO'’ (‘on the inside a median line overlapped by 'IN MEDIO'’); ‘aux bouts des lignes de l'angle 'RN' et 'SIL'’ (‘at the ends of the lines of the angle 'RN' and 'SIL'’); ‘en-dessous de tout 'PRAE-CUM ou GUM'’ (‘below everything 'PRAE-CUM or GUM'’).

a) The inscription is crudely executed and, in my opinion, is the work of a fugitive or a survivor of the massacres who wanted to leave to the initiated a sign that would enable them to find something again. A person who knew the area well would know there was a Templar observation post on Mont Bézu. You can still see on a stone the Templar’s cross-formy: this would be the summit. If you stand at this point, on the right-hand side there is a place called 'Rocos Négros' (‘Black Rocks’). And here is the straight line: on the left, dominating a hillock, you can see the bell-tower of the village of Sausil. So now we have our three points of reference. It is therefore a question of finding in the extension of the median line a place where the words 'PRAE-CUM' are to be found. The extension of the median line takes us to Rennes-le-Château.
b) On the slab called the ‘tombstone of Blanchefort’ (it was used around the year 1781 to cover the tomb of a lady of this family) we find the words we are looking for, and others besides, which are translated below.

‘Rendre ou Rennes Au roi ou du Roi’ (‘Return or Rennes To the king or of the king’)
‘les coffres ou dans la cave ou’ (‘the coffers or in the cave or’)
‘l'avoir souterrain’ (‘the underground possessions’).

- Several different phrases can be constructed with these words, depending on one's state of mind and whether one tries to incorporate the following words, which can be translated as 'PRAE' = before, 'CUM' = with or 'GUM' = Goth (i.e. Visigoth). Various phrases can be constructed but what it all boils down to is that a royal treasure has been deposited in an underground passage. As for the sign at the top, according to specialists in Templar inscriptions this would mean a staircase. About the two letters PS quite a few things can be said: for some people it means PARSE, which in Low Latin means the 'share'. When incorporated into this phrase this gives an idea of sharing (the king's share). It is also possible that the letters 'PS' are the position of the staircase, and one can find quite a few other definitions besides.

- There remain the eight ‘bars’ in the inscription 'ARCIS CELLIS', where once again one can let one's imagination run free. These might refer to the eight steps of a staircase or to eight barrels of gold - other interpretations are also possible.

Now where was this slab originally? If it was located in or near the church of Saint Mary Magdalene then its inscriptions are valid for the former Celtic temple and its entrances, but if it was located at the entrance to the underground passage running to the church of Saint-Pierre then we need to re-examine everything and the word GUM can then be eliminated - only CUM will then be valid. Whatever the case, this tombstone was obviously very important, otherwise Curé Saunière would not have taken such great care to eradicate the inscriptions. As for its use to cover an ossuary this is pure fantasy - completely out of the question.

c) The figure 8 seems to play a major part at Rennes-le-Château, as we find it on the pillar of the old altar, on its lateral sides, combined in a curious way to form a double zigzag. Also on this pillar there is a square at the end of a curved stem containing 8 circles - could these be 8 barrels? There are also other inscriptions, unfortunately partly hidden by some cement.
There are also some where the second pillar of the old altar is located.

12) RESULTS OF THE RESEARCHES

A) On my own account I excavated both under and behind the altar but found nothing.
I also excavated in line with and in front of the altar - again nothing. Under the staircase of the pulpit is another staircase that runs down to the cemetery. In the small tower to the left of the sacristy it seems that the stones of the party wall with the apse are arranged in the form of a discharging arch, but this is vague. Under the floor of the sacristy I found the beginning of a staircase running southwards. Its steps were roughly hewn and it was as wide as the entry to the sacristy. In the year in question I had to abandon my researches, as both my holidays and my financial resources had come to an end.

B) Some years later, a quite wealthy person agreed to finance my work, my holiday and my staff. So I returned. We wasted a great deal of time in vain discussions and in trips to obtain an excavation permit. At the beginning I was also made to tear up the floor of the church, starting from the pulpit: my sponsor, a pendulum enthusiast, had located the entrance of the underground passageways there - but we found nothing. I persevered as far as the foundations of the church, digging as far as virgin soil. We found the outline of numerous empty vaults. We resumed the same task along the south wall, with approximately the same result, the only difference being that all the human remains, which were missing on the other side, had been placed there higgledy-piggledy. On the advice of a female clairvoyant we were urged to excavate behind the Altar - but found nothing. The winter and the snow then obliged us to stop work.

C) With Mr. Domergue and his friends we dug an approach trench about 18 metres long through solid rock, starting from his property. Mr. Domergue was convinced that the entrance to the underground passages was near the Altar, but the approach trench got as far as the area underneath the altar and we found nothing. This same researcher had already dug on his own, starting from a place that was part of the former presbytery, following the course of a bricked-up chimney which seemed to have served as a breather. He abandoned it, having lost the route of the chimney. He also dug from the path that ran alongside the cemetery at the north-west angle of the cemetery, but again without result. He used explosives to remove the cover of a well situated on his property. It was there that he found the parchment of Dominique de Mirepoix. In principle it is in this well that the underground passage should emerge. In its inner walls nothing looked as if it had been made with human hands. He also began digging in the foundations, in the tank under the old forge, but without result.

D) Long before these excavations took place researchers from Carcassonne had shut themselves up inside the church. They excavated without asking anything and without saying anything afterwards as to whether they had found anything or not.

E) Plenty of other researchers have come and dug without result.

13) They say that, down the centuries, two people have succeeded in entering the underground passages:
A shepherd pursuing an escaped goat followed it into a hole where he found human remains and where the soil was strewn with gold coins. He brought quite a large quantity of the coins out with him but was accused of theft and executed. They also say that a priest found some treasure in the time of Louis XIV. In 1959, when I was working in the church, a postman came in and said to me: 'There is an underground passageway which runs from the church to the chateau, but I wouldn’t go there for anything in the world'. He also said to me: 'The Curé Saunière used to get a lot of money orders sent to him through the post'.

14)
A) We now have to draw some sort of conclusion from the foregoing.
As regards the Celtic Temple - The best way of penetrating it would be to follow the first route of Curé Saunière, i.e. the site of the slab called the ‘tombstone of the Chevalier’. Knowledge of this location is not entirely lost: two people are in on the secret but it's a secret that they are keeping to themselves. Not very much work would be required in the rock garden to find the second path. But in both cases you would run up against the veto of the Municipality.

B) From all that has been written above we can conclude that there are two quite separate things with no connection between them:

1° The former Temple with its treasure or treasures.

2° The underground passageway of the castle containing the 'baggage' of the Lady Regent.

C) If it should ever be someone's good fortune to penetrate into the underground passages or the former Celtic Temple then the greatest caution is urged: oubliettes, fall-traps and other kinds of traps can unleash themselves in the path of the unwary. The stone mechanisms of mediaeval times were built to last, as the adventure of the mercenaries of 1365 proves.

25 April 1967

signed : J. CHOLET


Thank you to Paul Ferguson for the translation

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