In 1885 a new priest was appointed to the parish of Rennes le Chateau to serve the 298 people living there at that time. He began a renovation of the 11th century church of May Magdalene and somehow managed to accumulate a great wealth enabling him to build a luxurious villa and gardens where he entertained many rich and famous people, including the opera singer Emma Calve. The local bishop and the Vatican demanded he account for this sudden windfall and assumed he was taking money for masses. But there are many who believe his fortunate wealth came from a more ancient source and could be linked to more incredible mysteries. Now thousands of tourists visit Rennes le Chateau each year in search of clues which could lead them to a hidden treasure.
I first visited Rennes le Chateau 7 years ago to guide a walking tour of the Cathar region and had already done a lot of research into the mystery surrounding the priest, Berenger Sauniere, and his supposed treasure trail. Possible theories relating to the treasure were:
- Artefacts stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem by Titus in 70AD and 5 centuries later taken from Rome by the Visigoths.
- Wealth donated by noble families to the Knights Templer or the Ark of the Covenant, taken by them from the Treasure of Solomon.
- The Holy Grail – either the cup used in the last supper or a bigger secret relating to the bloodline of Christ.
- The body of Mary Magdalene, and proof that she had a child by Jesus and spawned the lineage of the Merovingian Kings.
It’s true that there is something mystical about the village. It is one of five hills in the area which, when linked by straight lines, form a pentagon. However, much of the present treasure hunter attraction was fuelled by Noel Corbu, a local hotel owner who wanted to increase business. People soon flocked to the area, armed with shovels, and began digging up the graves in the cemetery. Books on the subject soon followed, including Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Henry Lincoln and the fictional spin off, the DaVinci Code.
During my research, I became intrigued by a website by Ben Hammott, otherwise known as the Tombman. He claimed to have discovered an ancient tomb, not far from Rennes le Chateau, which contained a shrouded body and chests filled with coins and other ancient objects. Images from his video camera accompanied his tale of discovery and like many others who wanted to believe, I was hooked. So was Bruce Burgess, a film director who decided to make a documentary about the tomb on the basis that the body is that of Mary Magdalene and that Hammott had followed clues left by Sauniere in order to locate it.
“Bloodline” was released in 2008 with footage of the tomb, but at that point it had not been fully excavated. So, 7 years later, while revisiting Rennes le Chateau, I was keen to catch up with the results of this excavation. Imagine my surprise to discover that it had all been a hoax which Hammott admitted to in 2012. He had filmed a model of a tomb and even managed to dupe the documentary team into believing his tall tale by taking them on a nocturnal visit of the supposed site and replacing their interior footage with his own pre-recorded film. He claims that he just wanted to keep the mystery alive, but for me the enthusiasm for following clues to find long lost treasure has now expired.