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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: There is buried treasure in Rennes-le-Château

Legend has it that a penniless priest once stumbled upon gold hidden in the French countryside - a story that still inspires treasure-hunters.

French history myths: There is buried treasure in Rennes-le-Château
Photo taken on April 3, 2002, of the Tower built by Abbé Bérenger Saunière, priest of Rennes-le-Château at the end of the 19th century. (Photo by ERIC CABANIS / AFP)

Myth: A penniless priest in the small town of Rennes-le-Château, south west France, discovered treasure in the late 1800s. That treasure is still hidden somewhere in the countryside. 

The story begins 1885 when Father Bérenger Saunière took over the parish of a small town in the Aude département, not far from Carcassonne, called Rennes-le-Château.

But the church, l’église Saint Mary Magdalene, that Saunière inherited was practically in ruins, so he set upon refurbishing the building – which surprised those around him who knew of his strained financial situation. According to legend, Saunière implied that he had discovered treasure and was using that to pay for the renovations. When he died, the location of the treasure supposedly died with him.

Fast forward to the years following World War II – a restauranteur and entrepeneur by the name of Noël Corbu acquired an estate in Rennes-le-Château, and along with it supposed archives from Saunière about how he had discovered the treasure of a former queen of France – Blanche of Castille (though some say it was the Treasure of the Cathars or the Knights Templar).

Corbu made it his mission to spread the story near and far, with the regional press reporting about the “priest with billions.”

Visitors came from across France to learn about the legend and try to find the treasure hidden in Rennes-le-Château – and to eat in Corbu’s restaurant and stay in his newly-opened hotel. 

So how did the priest get the money for his expensive renovations? The answer, according to a 60 Minutes special by CBS News, was “good old fashioned fraud.” The priest likely stole from donations and asked for payments for hundreds of Masses that he never actually performed. 

The Da Vinci Code series is also responsible for bringing the small town back into public eye. One of Dan Brown’s main characters is named Jacques Saunière, inspired by the priest. Brown supposedly visited the village and drew inspiration, as it had also been made famous in the book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” that expanded on Corbu’s claims of having found hidden, secret documents belonging to the priest.

The book asserts that those documents contained proof that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that their child went on to become the Merovingian line (a dynasty of French kings).

Historians refute these claims too, and several excavations have been conducted at the church. Though they have never unearthed anything of substance, that has not stopped eager treasure hunters from digging holes and lugging their metal detectors to the small village, seeking the truth behind the legend.

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

You might already know that New York's Lady Liberty was a gift from France, but did you know she is far from the only Liberty figure, and not even the only one to have travelled from France to the United States?

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

Myth: The French have only sent the Americans one Statue of Liberty

It is likely common knowledge that the United States’ iconic 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty is actually French in origin, gifted to the USA to mark 100 years since American independence.

But you might not realise that the New York City monument is not the only one the French have gifted to the United States.

In 2021, another – this time smaller – Statue of Liberty travelled to New York from France.

This replica was also meant to be a symbol of French-American friendship. Having previously been on display in Paris with the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the statue travelled across the Atlantic to the United States in June of 2021. It eventually made its way from New York to Washington DC, where it went on display at the French ambassador’s residence for Bastille Day. It will remain there until 2031.

The conservatory told CNN that sending the statue to the United States was meant to “send a very simple message: Our friendship with the United States is very important, particularly at this moment. We have to conserve and defend our friendship.”

The original statue stands as the third tallest in the world, but she is not the only Lady Liberty in the world. The second-most famous Statue of Liberty was actually gifted to the French by Americans, specifically those living in Paris. Only a fourth of the height of the original, the Statue stands on the Île de Cygnes in the Seine river in Paris, facing westward toward the New York statue.

Several other replicas – at least 100 of them – exist across the world. There are several of them in France alone, and if you want to find them you can plan your Lady Liberty road trip by clicking HERE.

READ MORE: Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

The original Statue of Liberty also represents more than just the shared friendship between the United States and France.

French historian Édouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea for the statue and made the proposal for it in 1865. While the statue was intended to be a gift to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, Laboulaye was also an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

The statue was intended to mark 100 years since the American declaration of independence in 1776, but initially only the torch-bearing arm was displayed, the full statute was not finally completed for another 10 years and was dedicated in 1886.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions from French history.

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