...family, Marie de Nègre d’Ables, the widow of the last Lord of Hautpoul, whose grave has been identified as “key” in the mystery of Saunière. It would seem, then, that we have come almost full-circle.
Historically, the area which was the native land of the Hautpoul family was situated under the Cathar bishopric of Carcassonne. This feudal territory was under Cathar domination and recognised its religious leadership. We have evidence that supports this, from the enumeration of castles, strongholds and fiefdoms that was listed at the time of the Council of Saint Félix en Lauragais (27). This Council was held in 1167, in Saint Félix en Lauragais, situated between Carcassonne and Toulouse and very close to the home grounds of the Hautpoul family. We should add that Noël Corbu, the man who bought Saunière’s villa from Marie Denarnaud, sold this estate later in life and then bought the castle of Saint Félix en Lauragais, where the Council had been held. Intriguingly, Noël Corbu died shortly afterwards in a car accident in front of the monastery of Prouilhe.
Dignitaries from the Manichean Churches of Lombardy, Bulgaria, even Anatolia, appeared at this Cathar Council, the first of its kind in France. It shows the level of cross-border organisation that existed within the Cathar community. Amongst the members who attended was the Bogomil Pope Niceta, Robert d’Epernon (the Cathar Bishop of France), Siccard Cellerier (the representative of the Cathar church of Albi), Giraud Mercier (the Cathar bishop of Carcassonne), Bernard Raimond (Cathar bishop of Toulouse), Raimond de Casals (Cathar bishop of Agen), and finally Marc of Lombardy (the bishop of the Cathar church of Italy). In short, the “crème de la crème”, the elite of the Manichean religion.
The Council had but one mission, namely, to organise the local Church and to make it into a European power. The Bogomil Pope thus used the Council to consecrate certain bishops and assign them to certain dioceses. The Council had previously defined the borders and territories of each diocese and it is here that we see that the territory of the Hautpouls is of primary strategic importance for the Cathars (28). The document states that “the territory of the [Cathar] bishopric of Carcassonne extends […] starting from Saint Pons, [...] between the castle of Cabaret, and that of Hautpoul, [...] between Montréal d'Aude and Fanjeaux”.
As such, the castle of the lords of Hautpoul became a stronghold for the Cathar bishopric of Carcassonne. Other sources intimate that ancestors of this family were previously directly implicated in militant Catharism, and were considered to be dangerous activists. A certain Isarn Bonzhom d’Hautpoul had been listed as a heretic in the register of the Inquisition of Toulouse. Jean Duvernoy (29), commenting on this source material, states that in the period 1273-1280, amongst the Cathars of this region, “one finds the Roqueville, the Hunaud de Lanta, the Roquefort, the Puylaurens-Montesquieu, the Saissax, Isarn Bonzhom d’Hautpoul, the Corneilles, the Palajac.” In fact, when we leaf through the history of this heresy, it is clear that there are repeated references to the Hautpoul family, several members of which were identified as apostates and sectarians.
(27) Also called “Cathar Council of Saint Félix Da Caraman”.
(28) Guillaume Besse, « Histoire des Ducs de Narbonne » (“History of the Counts of Narbonne”), 1660.
(29) « Registre de l'Inquisition de Toulouse (1273-1280) » (“Records of the Inquisition in Toulouse: 1273-1280”), Ranulphe de Plassac, Pons de Parnac, Pierre Arsieu, Hugues Amiel, Hugues de Bouniols. Ms Fonds Doat, T. XXV et XXVI, Bibliothèque nationale de Paris. A text published, translated and commented upon by Jean Duvernoy, 1993.
At the same time, we note that not all branches of the Hautpoul family were descended from these Cathar ancestors. As René Descadeillas (30) noted: “at the beginning of the 18th century, [the Hautpoul family] was divided in three branches:
1. the Rennes-le-Château branch descended directly from the adversaries of Simon de Montfort [the leader of the Cathar Crusade], Isarn d’Hautpoul, via Pierre Raymond, who married in 1422 with Blanche de Marquefaves de Rennes.
2. the Félines branch founded by Auger d’Hautpoul, second son of Guillaume Pierre and of Hermeninde de Poudens, born circa 1380.
3. the Salettes branch born of the principal branch by Pierre, second son of Georges and Izalguier de Clermont, born circa 1525.”
From these three branches, that of the Hautpoul of Rennes-le-Château is generally considered to be the most direct line of descent… and also the most heretical in nature. And it is therefore to be expected that, in Limoux, they would want to receive the Mortuary Rite, whether it was administered by the Dominicans or the Franciscans.
As Anne Brenon writes in Historia (31), the Cathars often presented themselves “in the heart of the villages as penitent communities and guarantors of a good death, very often counting among them members of the local aristocracy, which did not go unnoticed, and specifically the local ladies – in Laurac, in Fanjeaux, or in Mas-Saintes-Puelles, in Lanta, Tarabel, Ségreville or Caraman, in Hautpoul, Puylaurens, Lautrec or Rabastens.” Here we have, before us, the ingredients that will be thrown into the “soup” that will become the “mystery” of Rennes-le-Château.
Just before the Cathar Crusade and the fall of the Cathar bishoprics in the region, the Hautpoul family, like so many other noble families with similar allegiances, or those who were just afraid of what the Crusade would do even to the innocent, moved. The Barons of the North had not only plotted the repression of the heresy, but had already drawn up new maps of the Languedoc, in which the former estates were “realigned” and “reassigned” conform to their desires.
Of course, these Cathar-supporting families were not unaware that their strongholds were the prizes that these northern lords were really after. Let us explain: the Cathar nobles anticipated the crusade that would soon be waged against them. They preferred the shadows rather than become Icarus-like victims. Thus they stopped voicing their Cathar opinions and changed their appearance into that of “Penitent Catholics”. According to the Dominican Richard Weber (32), these “Penitent Catholics”, “women first”, should not be considered any less heretical than the Cathars – and we should wonder whether this “move” was exactly the trick that Dominic performed with the foundation of Prouilhe, as its founding members were nine “converted” Cathar women, including several nobles, who adopted a penitent lifestyle. And amongst these nobles that “evolved” were the Hautpoul family, specifically the female members.
(30) René Descadeillas was a journalist for the “Dépêche du Midi” newspaper, the president of the Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude (SESA), as well as the author of the book « Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes » (“A Mythology of the Treasure of Rennes-le-Château”) (1972).
(31) Anne Brenon, “Le Nord royal contre le Sud cathare”, (“Royal North versus Cathar South”), an article published in the 2006 issue of the Revue Historia Thématique (Historia Thematic Magazine) entitled « Les hérétiques » (“The Heretics”), under the section “Les ingérences politiques” (« Political Meddling”).
(32) Fr. Richard Weber, O.P., “History of the Dominican Laity, Part 1”. An eye-opening confession on the true origins of the Dominicans by the Dominicans themselves, published on the official website of the Dominican Order for the Province of St. Albert the Great (Chicago): http://www.domcentral.org/oplaity/layhistory.htm
The mystery of Rennes-le-Château
French researcher Franck Daffos, in his book Le Secret Dérobé (33), highlighted that various financial transfers were made by Mgr. Billard, bishop of Carcassonne, in the days leading up to his death. Similar events can be seen with certain members of the Hautpoul family, where it is clearly known that the receivers of the money were the Franciscans of Limoux, as well as the clergy of the church of Saint Martin. For Daffos, the conclusion was straightforward: the Hautpoul family had discovered the treasure of Rennes-le-Château and Mgr. Billard had taken over this discovery, using Saunière to launder the money discreetly. Saunière was, therefore, a money launderer and received, in that capacity, “commissions” from Billard, even as late as a few days before the bishop’s death.
From our perspective, things are not quite that simple. Furthermore, the types of transfers, in the days leading up to an individual’s death, and - specifically - to the Franciscans and Dominicans, have all the signs of being payment for the Mortuary Rite. On the surface, it may seem like money laundering, but when one is familiar with the religious background, it becomes clear that this was not the case: rather than purely financial transactions, Billard was involved with the Cult of the Dead, thus adding further substance to the allegations that he was running a “church within a church”, the allegation levelled against him shortly after his death (34).
From Gérard de Sède, the author who started it all, via Henry Lincoln and Noël Corbu to Franck Daffos, even René Descadeillas, all agree unanimously that, at its bottom-line, the mystery of Saunière is linked to a secret. For some, it was Saunière’s accidental discovery of one or more parchments in the altar column of his church, for others it was a secret that involved the tomb of Marie de Nègre d’Ables de Blanchefort, located in his cemetery. Gérard de Sède stated that from the moment he was assigned to his posting, the priest of Rennes-le-Château suffered tremendous “destitution”, he as well as his maid, Marie Denarnaud. In Corbu’s manuscript, we can read how Saunière spent the first seven years of his posting “living the life of a completely impoverished rural priest”. In his archives and in his accounting books, we read, on the date of 1st February 1892: “I need to give Léontine 0 Franc 40” and “I need to give Alphonsine 1 Franc 65” and the money at his disposal, to which he refers to as his “secret funds”, consists of no more than 80.65 Francs.
His church was in a dilapidated state and the altar, so old it almost beggared belief, was dressed with a stone which was more than likely ruined and could, so to speak, collapse each time he rested the chalice on it. In 1888, the priest received a donation of 600 francs, from the legacy of his predecessor abbé Pons, with which he was able to carry out the most urgent repairs. In 1891, the municipal council lent him about 1,400 francs. Saunière hired some help in order to commence work on the altar. The verdict: it was considered impossible to restore. Gérard de Sède says that on this occasion, he “removed the heavy flagstone”, and was surprised to discover that one of the pillars of the altar “was hollow”, “stuffed with dried ferns”. Amongst this dusty vegetation, they (Saunière and his helpers) found “three sealed wooden tubes”, which, upon opening, the priest realised that they contained parchments. In Holy Blood, Holy Grail (35), by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, the authors stipulate that these documents are three legal documents: genealogies, one dated 1244, a second dated 1644 by François-Pierre d’Hautpoul and the third dated 24th April 1694, by Henri d’Hautpoul. Gérard de Sède, himself, never offered any suggestion as to the nature of...
(33) Franck Daffos, “Le Secret Dérobé” (The Robbed Secret), published by Editions Oeil du Sphinx, collection Le Serpent Rouge no. 3.
(34) In the “Notice Laporte”, named after a representative of the Bishopric who after Billard’s death, denounced the former bishop’s actions during his episcopate as related to simony and payment for burials.
(35) Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, first published by Bantam Dell, New York, in 1982.
...the parchments and, instead, decided to concentrate on one document, which should henceforth be called the “fourth document”, as this document was a series of passages from the Bible, apparently containing a code, at least, that is the opinion of some authors.
Entering the territory of cyphers is as dangerous as entering a swamp, so we will not tread there. Instead, let us focus on the opinions of René Descadeillas (36), one of the most competent observers of the mystery, who wrote that “the Hautpouls of Rennes, who represented the elder branch, were favoured when it came to the division of the family possessions. Their archives have disappeared, probably in the fire of 1212 which devastated their residence. However, one can still, at the end of the 18th century, retrace far enough back into time to substantiate their ownership of various tracts of land since the 11th century. At the time, there was a vital document that established the genealogy of the Hautpouls: the will of François-Pierre, baron of Hautpoul and Rennes, husband of Marguerite de Saint-Jean de Pontis, daughter of François and Catherine de Voisins.”
For Descadeillas, the entire mystery is quite simple: the parchments do not mention a treasure at all: the genealogy of the Hautpouls of Rennes had partially disappeared, as a result of the fire of 1212. Under a monarchic system, ownership of land was linked with genealogical records, or at least acceptance by the monarch of one’s claims of certain territories, if no hard evidence could be produced. Logic dictates, as the researcher and journalist Philip Coppens noted, that the “parchments” are therefore not mysterious documents, but three genealogical titles, i.e. documents that are extremely important in order to identify a family’s possession. The first, dated 1244 and ratified by the monarch, thus validated their possessions up to that date. The second established the continuation of the first document, up to 1644 and Francois-Pierre d’Hautpoul, and also contained his will. Finally, the third, dated 24th April 1695, was the will of Henri d’Hautpoul.
The documents were indeed extremely important to the Hautpoul family. Placing them inside a hollow pillar in the church that was once the chapel of their castle may have been an excellent method of safeguarding them, – or at least guaranteeing their survival - more than in any other hiding place. But for anyone else, the value of the three parchments is limited in scope, especially for a man like Saunière. Indeed, the documents may establish the chain of possession of certain properties by the Hautpoul family, but the French Revolution of 1789 abolished the privileges of the nobility and it is hard to see how the priest could have derived any profit from them. As such, the genealogies had lost all of their financial value, even for the Hautpouls, for which they were nothing more than a souvenir, a memory of better days. In short, they could not be used to cash in on anything, nor be used to blackmail anyone. Perhaps Saunière could sell them to the Hautpoul family, as a memorabilia of more fortunate days now gone. It might help him in restoring a church window if he could sell it, but it would definitely not explain the source of his wealth.
We need therefore to put some question marks next to the statement of de Sède, who states that Saunière carefully preserved the parchments and, “in early 1893”, showed them to his bishop, Mgr. Billard. According to the author, the bishop “examined the documents...
(36) René Descadeillas, « Notice sur Rennes-le-Château et l'abbé Saunière » (« Notice on Rennes-le-Château and abbé Saunière ») (1962). This famous writing was subjected to several modifications before being finally included in « Mythologie du trésor de Rennes »: René Descadeillas, « Mythologie du Trésor de Rennes: Histoire Véritable de l’abbé Saunière, Curé de Rennes-le-Château » (“Mythology of the Treasure of Rennes-le-Château: the Real Story of Abbé Saunière, priest of Rennes-le-Château”), in « Mémoires de la Société des Arts et des Sciences de Carcassonne » (Research Bulletin of the Arts and Science Society of Carcassonne), 1971-1972 years, 4th series, volume VII, 2nd part; published in 1974.
...carefully”, after which “as soon as he returned home, our priest recommenced the works, helped by several people” and destroyed numerous tombs.
If the above sequence is largely correct, how do we explain the strange interest of Mgr. Billard in these papers and the strange effect they will have on the life of Saunière? The solution may be, once again, more simple than most have made it. We note that, apart from genealogies, the documents also contained two wills: that of François-Pierre d’Hautpoul, dated 23rd November 1644 and Henri d’Hautpoul, dated 24th April 1695. These two documents themselves should be more than enough to excite our curiosity, since they were both said to be secret in their time and hence seem to have contained some secret that was important within the ranks of the Hautpoul, and one that they tried to maintain.
De Sède wrote that in “1644, François-Pierre d’Hautpoul, Baron of Rennes, made his will. […] The document was registered on 23rd November with Captier, notary at Esperaza”. Everything so far seems normal, but once the Baron dies, the document disappears. No-one shows it to the heirs and they are therefore ignorant of its contents. We do not know who has the document, though it seems that something in it is classified as “dangerous knowledge”.
Whatever the will stipulated, Rennes-le-Château was given to Blaise I d’Hautpoul, the son of François-Pierre. He maintained his noble title and possession of the stronghold by “sovereign judgment” of M. de Bezons. Apparently, he married Marie-Lucrèce du Vivier de Lansac on 10th July 1644, and had, according to René Descadeillas, ten children, two daughters and eight sons. Whether the result of a bad education or conceited minds, five of his offspring would only receive portions of the domain, at the time of the “wars of Louis XIV”.
The wills, consequently, are numerous but they are, nevertheless, shown discreetly. We make a particular note of that of Antoine d’Hautpoul, concerning which some strange remarks have been made, and that of the elder son, Henri d’Hautpoul, Baron of Rennes, written down in 1695. The son of Henri, François, lived in Rennes-le-Château. Following the strange custom that seemed to run in his family, he too refused to show copies of his father’s will and we should add he was very obstinate about this. Finally, in December 1780, the entire batch of archives and testaments were given to the notary Siau and, according to de Sède, to Marie de Nègre d’Ables, widow of Francois d’Hautpoul de Blanchefort. She apparently transferred the documents secretly to her confessor, Antoine Bigou, the then resident priest of Rennes. And it was a century later that one of his successors, Bérenger Saunière, discovered the parchments that Bigou had hidden in one of the pillars of the altar… or so the story goes.
In the end, as remarked by Gérard de Sède, “as well as retracted wills, mysteries and litigations, one can also ponder as to whether there was indeed some secret within the Hautpoul family”. De Sède added that this secret could be of “great consequence”. “In any case, if such a secret existed, its last legitimate agents could only be Marie de Nègre d’Ables, her husband François d’Hautpoul de Blanchefort and their chaplain Antoine Bigou.” Which of course begs the question: what was in these documents – in these wills – that was of such importance that it could not be divulged?
A family secret
We directed our research towards trying to find answers to the questions as to what the subject matter of these testaments was, who their authors were and what secrets they could potentially contain.
The testament of Henri d’Hautpoul was reputedly “lost”, which is not of much help to us. That of his brother Antoine could be of some interest or help. First, we needed to make sure that he was indeed related to the Hautpoul family, for this man is hardly known to historians and only rarely makes an appearance in their genealogical records. Still, we assumed that he was indeed Henri’s brother. We also relied on Paul Saussez, a specialist on the Hautpoul and...
...their tombs. After he had consulted his archives, he confirmed to us that Antoine d’Hautpoul had indeed existed, but did not appear in the genealogy of the Hautpoul family under that name. The man we were looking for was, more than likely “Jean Antoine”, who died in 1676 and was the son Blaise and Marie-Lucrèce du Vivier de Lansac, and therefore a brother to Henri and the uncle of François d’Hautpoul. Saussez thus confirmed our initial impressions, namely that Antoine – or Jean Antoine – was indeed relevant to this story. We had also found references to him in the work Histoire du Pèlerinage de Notre-Dame de Marceille. According to its author, Lasserre, (Jean-)Antoine had rewritten his will in 1674, or two years before his death. Again according to Lasserre, Antoine’s testament insisted that he had to be buried in the church of the Franciscans in Limoux, yet his heart had to be placed in the basilica of Notre-Dame de Marceille, on the outskirts of Limoux. So that this would be accomplished, Antoine donated 2,000 pounds to the Franciscans and the basilica – a large sum of money for only two masses per week. In fact, it is a curious will, with various secret clauses. And we will eventually understand why it was felt prudent that not too many people got sight of it!
For one, let us not forget the various judiciary pronouncements, like the one from the Parliament of Toulouse, dated 15th February 1482, which forbade the Franciscans to bury corpses in their cemetery. The judgment spoke in favour of the Monastery of Prouilhe and its annex, the church of Saint Martin de Limoux. As a result, lay people were buried – or should be buried – in the Dominican cemetery, as well as “offering” the money to them. But Jean-Antoine d’Hautpoul’s testament makes it clear that he “demands” to be buried with the Franciscans, which goes against the judgment. And it is immediately clear that there have to be profound reasons why Antoine insists on this. What could he seek there that he is so forceful about this request? What un-avowable reason pushes him into the arms of the Franciscans and their subsidiary in Notre-Dame de Limoux? Why willingly tell your children and executors that they need to break the law?
There is one simple answer: could it be that Antoine d’Hautpoul had doubts that, should he be buried with the Dominicans, he would not receive a proper Mortuary Rite? That he, therefore, demanded that his heirs break the law, for his spiritual welfare, and ensure that he was buried with the Franciscans, so that a proper rite would be his? Let us note that if this were the case, he was definitely not the only person who preferred the Franciscans over the Dominicans, as we have already seen in the case of Pierre de Calmon, who became a penitent so that he would receive a burial within the Franciscan cemetery.
The episode underlines the lengths to which adherents of the Cult of the Dead would go, so that their soul would be saved. After all, in their eyes, there was nothing more important in life than a proper death and people like Antoine d’Hautpoul did not seem willing to take any chances. After all, if the Mortuary Rite was not properly administered, the cycle of incarnations would be repeated and one would have to do it all over again. No wonder therefore that Antoine “demanded” to be buried with the Franciscans in his will.
Antoine’s secretiveness about his will is now explained. What about his brother Henri? If Antoine was an adherent of the Cult of the Dead, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to find that his brother was too. But as his testament has disappeared, it is impossible to know what he wanted. Still, we note that one researcher, Alain Féral, was able to recover an extract from this will which, even though it is not the complete text, could at least resolve part of the puzzle. In the excerpt, we read how “in the year 1695, the 24th of April, before noon, in the castle of Rennes, in the diocese of Alet”, “Henry d’Hautpoul”, the local lord, ill for a very long time, but still with a clear memory, decided to write down his final wishes, for he says that “he needs to die” and “as the hour is uncertain”… As such, as death often creeps...