Saunière’s Trial

Probably one of the most controversial aspects of the mystery of Rennes-le-Château is the legal battle that its chief protagonist, Bérenger Saunière played with Bishop de Beauséjour, for the better part of a decade. For sceptics, it has been used as the “deus ex machina”, which allegedly is able to explain everything. For believers, it is a period of Saunière’s life that postdates most of what is to them of most interest, namely the enigmatic building works in the village. In truth, it is neither.

The Cause of the Problem

Monseigneur de Beauséjour

Monseigneur de Beauséjour

The problem with his bishop probably dates back to November 19, 1906, when de Beauséjour visited Rennes-le-Château and found that Saunière’s parishioners complained about their priest. The villager’s disgruntlement with the priest went back to his appointment twenty years earlier. Almost as soon as he rose to the pulpit, he spoke out against the Republic; some of his parishioners reported him to the bishop, then Mgr. Billard, and Saunière was reprimanded. The parishioners then found him rummaging about in the cemetery and another complaint was lodged. When a part of the town went up in fire, Saunière got his own back, and refused to allow water from one of his cisterns to be used for extinguishing the fire.

A priest who is not liked by his parishioners is a serious problem; but that was not all. De Beauséjour reported that an underage girl was present in the presbytery. She had no place there. He also found that Saunière was the object of suspicion by his colleagues, because of the presence of “suspect people” in the presbytery, possibly referring to the same or other underage women’s presence.

But what could de Beauséjour do to remedy the situation? He listed that Saunière’s buildings had been excessively expensive, without the existence of a paper trail. Furthermore, there had been numerous demands for masses in the diocese and throughout France, but there seemed to be no guarantee that actual masses had been said.

To any manager, the situation is transparent: four years into his job, the new bishop made the acquaintance of one of his subordinates, and stumbled upon what he felt was a dangerous situation. It is like the employee who has been hiding in a corner – or in Saunière’s case, on top of a hill – apparently without the previous manager never bothering to “manage” that employee. Still, that was not the situation. De Beauséjour’s predecessor was perfectly aware of Saunière, and of his amazing building works; he had been there when Saunière reopened the restored church. He had apparently not questioned where Saunière got his money from; perhaps he knew.

The Accusation

The situation lingered, until early 1909, when de Beauséjour and/or his team decided that the easiest solution would be to reassign Saunière to a different parish. Though this was not uncommon, it was somewhat out of the ordinary for a man, like Saunière, who had been the shepherd of his flock for more than twenty years. That the sheep did not really appreciate him, was another point.

The order was received on January 15 and Saunière was given one week, until January 22, to move to Coustouges, his new appoint. In his diary, Saunière wrote: “This exceptionally strong measure, without any warning, has hit me in the beginning of the year, and has troubled me greatly. I am taken aback, a broken man.

Saunière's nomination as priest of Coustouges

Saunière’s nomination as priest of Coustouges

He is hardly given any time – a week, a pathetically small amount of time for a man who has lived in a village for more than twenty years. Could anyone really move that quickly, after such a long time? Yet, de Beauséjour seems intent on forcing the issue. Saunière does visit to Coustouges, but his new parish is not to his liking. He does not move out by January 22, and on January 28, Saunière has obviously made his decision: he resigns from his post as priest of Rennes-le-Château.

You would think that for de Beauséjour, that would be the end of the matter: Saunière had resigned and the issue was resolved. But the bishop did not feel that was the case. The sequence of events would take up the latter years of Saunière’s life, and would be brought to the attention of the pope. The file of the case, both at the Vatican and with the bishop, commences with a letter from the Bishop’s office, dated January 19, 1909, that re-affirms the Bishop’s instruction that Saunière must take up his new appointment at Coustouges. The next letter is dated January 29, in which Saunière is informed that the bishop does not accept his resignation. He urges Saunière to meet him in Carcassonne, to provide further detail as to why he does not want Saunière to remain in Rennes-le-Château. Even though his resignation is not accepted, the bishop says the resignation will be accepted if Saunière refuses to go to Coustouges. It is a bizarre twist of reasoning, not uncommon in such dire situations.

That de Beauséjour would not let this one go became clear, even though it took him more than 18 months to have Saunière officially answer for what de Beauséjour saw were transgressions.

The Rouanet Letter

Saunière had moral support from one of his closest friends, the Abbé Rouanet of Bagès-sur-Flots (under Narbonne) wrote him a letter in 1910. No other letter to or from Saunière is clearer aboout their being a secret and money involved. Rouanet writes:

“My dear Berenger,

I do not need to tell you that I’m stunned! What you are telling me sseems very strange. I thought they would have been done with you by now. But no matter, whatever happens always counts on me, I will always be a faithful friend.

And now, as a friend, let me tell you that you will do well not to present yourself there. Why? Here are the reasons.

1. The things which are reproached are not within the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical tribunal, since no civil action is brought against you for fraud or theft. If, for example, any civilian accused you of having made constructions or anything else with money extorted or by any other abusive means, the ecclesiastical authority would have the right and the duty to ask you for your conduct because what you would have done would be immoral. But the case before us is not that one. You have had money, it is not up to anyone to break through the secret you keep, you spent it as you liked, it concerns only you. No one who claims, no one accuses you of robbery or fraud, since your conduct in this matter is not reprehensible, no one has the right to incriminate you, especially third parties, Bishopric.

2. If someone has given you money under natural secrecy, you are obliged to keep it and nothing can untie you from this secret except the one person who gave it to you and even then you have to see if the revelation you were allowed to do would not bring you moral prejudice and in that case you should even be silent.

3. You must not show your accounts. You have spent money which is neither stolen nor extorted, you have spent it as you have judged it proper, no one has anything to do with it.

And then know that I am your faithful friend who shares your anxieties. Say hello to Marie. Consolation.”

Draw your own conlcusions. This letter is 100% authentic.

The Charges

There were 3 charges. 1. Saunière had trafficked in masses. 2. Saunière had to produce details of his accounts. 3. Saunière had continued to solicit masses, even though the bishop had instructed him to desist.

G. Cantegril, Vicar General and M. Charpentier, Clerk of the Court, ordered him to appear before the Court on July 16, 1910, to answer these charges. Saunière had not wanted to appear before the bishop 18 months before, and now, Saunière did not turn up in court, so summons were issued ordering an appearance on July 23. He missed this session too, and was declared to be in contempt of court. He was thus given a default sentence, namely a suspension of one month. He should also restore the fees for the solicitation of masses, but the court was unable to determine that sum. This could have been the end of it, but it was not. Saunière must have realised this was a beneficial verdict, but rather than accept, he petitioned the bishop and was reinstated.

Going for a default conviction is very much like getting a speeding ticket: you pay and it does not go to court. By going to court, you risk the chance of a higher punishment, even though you may be found innocent. Saunière, it seems, felt he was innocent, or perhaps he was so adverse to de Beauséjour that he felt he would not be defeated by this “man” whom he truly seems to have hated. Still, if Saunière wanted to challenge the court, why did he not begin his defence earlier? Did he really want to show his contempt for the bishop? Or was he perhaps not at home when the letters arrived, and did he therefore miss the appointments?

Canon Eugène Huguet

Canon Eugène Huguet

Whatever the situation, Saunière was asked to appear on August 23, 1910. He had retained Maitre Mis of Limoux as his defence. The date was then changed to October 15, and Saunière had a new council, Dr. Eugène Huguet. Though Saunière did not attend the hearing, Huguet did defend his client. Huguet claimed that there was no evidence that Saunière solicited for masses, but that he merely received requests for paid masses, tasks which he fulfilled between December 31, 1899 and June 29, 1909. Huguet claims that even though this amount seemed to have alarmed the bishop, it was not excessive and that furthermore Saunière officiated these masses. 280 masses per year, he felt, was not an excessive amount.


On the second “charge”, Huguet reported that Saunière had an income of 193,150 francs, which Saunière invested in good works: the restoration of the presbytery and the church were evidence of this, as well as the Villa Bethania. As to the third charge, that Saunière had continued to say masses despite the bishops’ interdiction, Huguet argued that Saunière had stopped as soon as the bishop had ordered him to. Interestingly, Huguet adds that Saunière’s income had come from donations, and that the bishop could not prove otherwise. Bold language for a lawyer. Still, the boldness underlined a basic problem, which is that the donations did not match the total amount of money.

Roughly ten years of 280 masses per year makes 2800 masses. These cost between, in the early days, 1 franc, and in the later days, 1.5 franc. The total sum would therefore be roughly 3000 francs. With 1 franc equalling 15 Euros (or ten pounds or 15 dollars), we are talking about 45,000 Euro – or an income of 4500 Euro per year from masses. But that is not the problem – nor is it excessive. The problem is that 3000 francs is a long way short of the 193,150 francs that Saunière declared: roughly 2.9 million Euros in today’s money.

The court heard the defence and deferred judgment to November 5, when Saunière was asked to appear at his verdict. It was the only time he would attend. The sentence was not particularly harsh. The court felt it strange that faced with the large numbers of masses that Saunière received, that Saunière should give so many of the fees to other priests and still plead poverty when making requests. What the court was saying was that Saunière did, in their opinion, nothing wrong by soliciting masses. He asked for masses, pleading he needed the money, but he received so many requests, that he was unable to officiate these masses properly, and hence enlisted the help of other priests, to whom he gave the money he had received. What the court was saying was that if he did solicit these masses because he was poor, he should have said a few more masses than the 280 masses he did per year, so that he was less poor. But instead, the court was suggesting, Saunière preferred to remain poor, and thus gave the commission to his colleagues. Of course, the court knew that Saunière was not poor at all, but a legal sentence has got nothing to do with a search for truth… Not on this count at least.

The court noted that he could not provide any proof that he had said these masses, not even a list of any kind. Even though they could excuse a priest for failing to retain a register if he was the only party involved, it was inadmissible that Saunière did not keep a record of the money and masses that he had given to his colleagues. In short, the court stated that Saunière could not have worked out who was what due without some forms of record, and that if Saunière did not keep such records, that was negligence.

Notre Dame de l'Abbaye, Carcassonne around 1900

Notre Dame de l’Abbaye, Carcassonne around 1900

Still, Saunière was given the benefit of the doubt. Even if he had retained some money for masses that his colleagues had said, and which was therefore not his to keep, he had indeed, as Huguet had argued, given the money over for good works. As to count three, the court did side with the bishop: Saunière had continued to say masses, despite the bishop’s interdiction.

The Verdict

On count 1 and 3, though Saunière was not convicted of trafficking, the court had found him guilty of culpable negligence in his accountancy procedures and disobedient for continuing to solicit masses in spite of the bishop’s ban. He was sentenced to withdraw to a house of retreat, to undertake spiritual exercises for a 10 day period, to occur during the following 2 months. The sentence was less harsh than the original one month suspension, which must have pleased Saunière.

The bigger problem was count 2: Saunière had not been able to prove his income and the court would not put the issue aside. Saunière was told that within the month he was to present to the bishop details of his account. Though the court acknowledged that the roughly 200,000 francs that Saunière spent on his building works was mostly not from trafficking in masses, but from the faithful of other parishes, the court wanted further detail. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the court argued that the money had been given to the parish priest, and not to Saunière as an individual. This statement was in essence a ploy of the court to argue that it had an important role in the case, as it involved Saunière as a priest in his function as a priest, not Saunière as an individual. Finally, the court stated that it was strange that Saunière had only now revealed the size of the sums he had spent, still they felt it was not the time or the place to examine his motives or the execution of his works.

The court had deferred count two: the source of Saunière’s income. Largely cleared of trafficking in masses – with a slap on the wrist for not keeping proper records when involving colleague priests in assisting him – Saunière now faced the formidable task of explaining his income… his income of roughly – and at least- 200,000 francs, or almost three million Euros in today’s money.
It is clear that anyone would be stupefied when they hear that a small parish priest was able to spend three million Euros on some building works. How did he get the money?

Some sceptics have argued that the total amount of money must have originated from the selling of masses. This would mean that 200,000 people sent him money. If he started in 1885 and continued until 1910, he would have received 8000 commissions per year. This is twenty requests per day, every day. The court did not believe that.

The Fight Renewed

The ball was back in the court of de Beauséjour. On November 17, was advised of the sentence in writing by S. Bonnades, the dean of Couiza, indicating that he had 10 days to appeal. He did appeal, on November 30. Why he waited is another small mystery. In short, he was informed that his appeal was too late, that the sentence had gone into force on November 28.

With the sentence now in effect, a ping pong match of letters ensued. On December 5, Saunière was informed that he was no longer allowed to say mass. December 17 was the deadline to produce his accounts He failed. The following day, Saunière’s lawyer, sent a letter to Rome, to appeal against the judgment. The Congregation of the Sacrament judged the case obscure, and on February 14 1911 returned a “lectum recursum”, which in essence meant that Rome had not resolved the situation; the ball was once again in the court of Carcassonne.

A period of delays and restatements followed. On March 9, 1911, G. Cantegril of the court of Carcassonne, noted that Saunière had a certificate from Doctor D. Roche, declaring that Saunière’s health did not permit him to undertake the retreat he had been instructed to perform as sentence for his culpability on count 1 and 3. He seems to have been well enough to write a letter on March 13 1911, to argue about count two. Saunière stated that the only documents he could offer were the breakdown of receipts, already accepted by the court during the proceedings and the certificate from the mortgage registry. As to invoices that would show that the total expense was close to 200,000 francs, he would try to support what expenses he could, but he had not bothered to keep invoices that were more than two years old. In total, he sent 61 documents and asked for their return as they were essential to his personal security. It is a most enigmatic statement! He stated that he hoped to carry out his retreat ten days before Easter at the Grand Seminary in Carcassonne.

In short, Saunière was saying that he could not really prove that he had spent 200,000 francs on repairs work, as Huguet had alleged in court. There were some documents, but not everything had been retained. But that was not Saunière’s only problem – or major problem. Saunière could have lied, saying he had spent 200,000 francs, whereas he had only spent 50,000 francs. The question is why Saunière would have lied about it, and bring himself into trouble. In court, one tends to minimise the amount of trouble, not inflate it. So it seems logical to suggest Saunière at least spent roughly 200,000 francs on repairs work. Again, that was not Saunière’s major problem; the question was where he got the money from.

Saunière explained that problem in a letter on March 25, to Cantegril. He argued that the money originated from diverse incomes, including funds from the collecting box, including from visitors from Rennes-les-Bains; a 1887 lottery; his brother’s generosity; the sales of a set of 33 postcards; his collection of 100,000 postage stamps; the occasional sale of furniture and related items and some income from his lectures on the history of Rennes-le-Château. Even from Saunière’s reply, it is clear that he is clutching at straws. What he is describing is the type of inventory you get from bailsmen.

It did not take the court long to reach a conclusion. On April 4, 1911, canon Charpentier stated that Saunière’s reply was very incomplete. He wanted to know what documents he had used to calculate the annual income of 1200 francs from the collecting box (this meant that Saunière stated that he roughly got 23 francs per week in this manner). Charpentier also wanted to know the dates of his brother’s largest donations. Charpentier stated that Saunière’s “expenditure account” was a series of documents showing a total sum of 36,000 francs, not 100,000 francs as he claims – and short of the total of almost 200,000 francs that the paper trail had to reveal. But before tackling the missing 100,000 francs, the court wanted to find out about the missing 64,000 francs, which would mean that half of Saunière’s income would be accounted for. At that moment, about one fifth of the 200,000 francs was accounted for. The equivalent of 2.5 million Euros today was so far not accounted.

On April 8, 1911, Saunière expressed his disappointment about the court’s disappointment relating to the information he had provided. He had not kept ledgers from the income from the collecting boxes. He stated that his brother’s donations came between 1895 and 1903. It was a good answer – whether true or not – for if Saunière had said that the donations came in eg. 1906, they would postdate the building works and the court would continue to fish even harder. Finally, he asks why he, as a priest, needs to submit to such detailed demands, which are normally only required when there is a commercial bankruptcy.

A Change of Tactics

Monastery of Prouille in 1905

Monastery of Prouille in 1905

The bishop must have realised that he had to change tack. Therefore, the following day, April 9, a Commission of Enquiry was created to resolve the tricky “count two”: Saunière’s source of income. Saunière was now finally on his retreat, in the monastery of Prouille. The commission informed him that they would like to interview him in person in Carcassonne, on his departure from his retreat at Prouille. Saunière, of course, refused, but we do have a letter from Saunière, sent to Marie Denarnaud back home. Dated April 25, the letter talks about his daily routine, the food he is served, and specifically the presence of what seems to be a rather beautiful woman, who seems to liven up his stay. But what is of interest is not his fancies of this particular woman, but two paragraphs.

They have told me that the bishop of Carcassonne needs to come to Prouille. Luckily, I will have left the previous day and therefore I do not need to think of meeting this person who is only beautiful in his name.” It is a play on words on “Beauséjour”, with “beau” meaning beautiful in French. Later, he tells Marie that he will be in Limoux at 4 pm, when they will go shopping. These are preparations for their trip to Espiens in late May. Saunière had time to go shopping in Limoux with Marie, but he had no time to appear in front of the commission in Carcassonne. To underline the point, on April 27, he sent the commission a letter, from Prouilhe, declining to attend in person; “the entire sequence had already put too much stress on a man who suffered from a heart condition.” he responded to their questions in writing.

The commission did not take it to heart. They asked Saunière to justify the 52,000 francs that Saunière said he had been paid by his lodgers. They wanted to know how many, from when and how could they have paid so much. Earning almost 800,000 Euros from people staying in your house was indeed a lot of money.

On May 9, Saglio, president of the commission, did not accept Saunière’s explanations, specifically not on the invoices that had to account for 150,000 francs of his expenses. Saglio could simply not believe that Saunière would not retain these invoices. On May 14, Saunière replied, saying he was not prepared to submit to further interrogation. On May 27, there is a new attempt of the commission. On June 2, Saunière replies. He feels he is being treated like a prospective bankrupt and is at pains to assure the commission that he is fully solvent and not about to embarrass the diocese with an imminent financial scandal. What Saunière is saying is: “look, I am solvent; I know I have spent a lot of money on my building works, but I can and have paid for it all. I won’t leave the bishop to pick up the tab.” But the underlining point of the commission as to why they want to know, is that they claim it is their money: Saunière received this money as a priest, one of their employees. Not as a private person. Saunière obviously feels he is not – or ever was – one of the bishop’s subordinates. He feels that it was his right – if not his right only – to dispense of the money he received.

Another attempt for further detail is sent off on June 14. Saunière replies on June 20. He repeats his previous assurances about his financial soundness as confirmed by the certificate of the mortgage registry, which is all they need to know. Yet another request for details occurs on July 7, and Saunière provides some of these on July 14. Saunière declares the total cost of the building of the Villa Bethania to be 90,000 francs. He argues that the work began in 1901, completed 1903, but that the entire estate was in the name of Denarnaud. This, it seems, was a stick the commission could use to beat Saunière with. There were no further requests for more detail; the commission began to write its report.

The Final Verdict

On October 4, the report of the commission goes to the bishop. It states that they have been unable to obtain the information Saunière was asked to provide. Only 36,000 out of 193,000 francs is accounted for. The remaining 150,000 francs is accounted for only by a list of 7 items, with the corresponding figures unsupported by any documents. They feel this is inadequate. They do argue that Saunière seems to think that he only had to establish that he was not in debt, not understanding that it was his method of accounting that was being examined. Finally, the commission states that it did not go to Rennes-le-Château, to confront Saunière, as they felt this would be a waste of time.

With the commission’s report finalised, a new summons is prepared on October 30, 1911. Saunière is asked to appear in front of the bishop on November 21, to finalise the avoided sentence of November 5, 1910, count 2, i.e. further information on his accounts. The verdict is that Saunière decided the use of the funds he received personally, rather than through the bishop’s office. Furthermore, Saunière used some of the money for the Villa Bethania. This land was in the ownership of Denarnaud. As a consequence, he built on land that does not belong to him, and hence the buildings do not belong to him. This was deemed to be a serious problem, for the money had come from the diocese, yet had gone to enrich a private individual, with no apparent benefit to the larger community.

On December 5, the court held its session, with neither Saunière of his representative showing up. Saunière was declared contumacious (stubbornly disobedient; persistently, wilfully, or overtly defiant of authority) and judged as such. It is stated that 36,000 out of 200,000 francs had been spent on the church and Calvary; the rest had been spent on costly constructions with no useful purpose, on land that did not belong to him or were not even built in his name. He was found guilty of wastefulness and misuse of funds in his care. He was sentenced to a three month’s suspension a divinis, but indefinitely until he returned the goods to the Church. The sentence was without appeal. It was a harsh judgment, which according to some interpreters is what finally cracked Saunière. But Saunière must have seen this coming. And if his health declined, there could only have been one reason: the enormous amount of fine foods he ate and the enormous qualities of wine and liqueurs he took every day. That he had to walk with a cane because of gout and may have lost the use of one eye had nothing to do with this verdict, but with his lifestyle. And though he may have drunk to forget, he was not out for the count.

The bishop’s sentence was only valid for six months. Then Saunière made an appeal to Rome via Huguet. The Congregation at Rome delivered their judgment in October 1915; the bishop lifted his suspension, but Saunière was never reinstated. He died 15 months later, on January 22, the day in 1909 he was supposed to become the new parish priest of Coustouges.

A Perspective

Saunière in front of his church at Rennes-le-Château

Saunière in front of his church at Rennes-le-Château

In conclusion, Saunière was found guilty of negligence and contempt, but cleared by the latter by the intervention of Rome. For the first, he did do his retreat, as ordered by the bishop. He was not, as some argue, found guilty of trafficking in masses and no-one at the time believed that his source of income came from trafficking in masses. What everyone did want to know and Saunière wanted to tell no-one was where the money did come from. Was it merely because our priest was so obstinate and hated de Beauséjour that he wished to defy him at all cost? Perhaps and it should not ruled out. Still, it is clear, as we now know, that Saunière had detailed accounts, both of his income and his expenses. His so-called “carnets” have been the subject of detailed analysis since they were discovered some decades ago. Though they do not list every single item of his income and expenses, they were exactly the type of information the commission was interested in. So why did Saunière not want to surrender these documents to the commission? Was it obstinacy, or was there something in the booklets that he did not want to reveal? Or did he realise that if he was to show the booklets, the commission would only take it one step further, and begin to question why those people gave him money?

The latter seems to be the most logical conclusion: Saunière protected his sponsors; he did not want to reveal why they were offering him large amounts of money. It is clear that it was not for officiating masses; the sums far exceed what Saunière asked for those. But why were they giving Saunière money? What was it that he did for them in return? That is a question that may have been at the origin of the trial and the interest of de Beauséjour.

Though de Beauséjour had a case that his bishopric had been left out of 2.5 million Euros in today’s money because Saunière did with the money what he pleased, de Beauséjour equally realised that Saunière got the money for a reason that the bishop could not figure out. And if the bishop had figured it out, it is most likely because someone had been telling him of people giving large amounts of money to Saunière. Perhaps they even told him what it was that Saunière was doing for his sponsors. If so, then the bishop may have known the truth, rather than try to fish for the truth by bringing Saunière to court. As any lawyer will tell you, the court is not for establishing the truth… and in the case of Saunière’s trials, the final verdict hinged on what may very well be a false premise: that Saunière received the money in his capacity as a priest, not as an individual. The central question remains: what did Saunière do for his sponsors? That is something the trial never uncovered, and neither will this article.

Revision of an article originally by André Douzet, displayed with kind permission.
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