(Fully, Francois Berenger Sauniere, but his first name is almost never used)

Figure at the centre of many of the various Conspiracy Theories concerning the whereabouts of the Holy Grail

In 1886, Sauniere was appointed to be the curate of the village of Rennes-le-Chateau in the Languedoc, about halfway between the city of Carcassonne and the Spanish border. The standard version of the story states that the church of Mary Magdalene in the village was falling into a state of disrepair, and Sauniere immediately started a campaign to restore it.

For the first six years of his incumbency Sauniere lived austerely - his official income was never more than the equivalent of about $10 per year - but he nevertheless hired a housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud, and struck up a friendship with the Abbe Henri Boudet, curate of the neighbouring village of Rennes-les-Bains.

In 1891, a modest donation of money by a local family of aristocrats enabled Sauniere to start his restoration project. He began by dismantling the altar, which at the time rested on a pair of ancient Visigothic pillars that had been part of the church since it was built. One of these pillars proved to be hollow, and inside it Sauniere found a number of parchments, normally described as two geneaologies of the Merovingian dynasty of French kings, one dating from 1244 and the second from 1644; the testament of a 16th-century landowner named Henri d'Haupoul; and either one double-sided parchment or two separate ones that had been "composed" in the 1780's by the Abbe Antoine Bigou, Sauniere's predecessor at Rennes.

On Boudet's advice, Sauniere took the parchments to Paris, where he showed them to senior churchmen at the Seminary of Saint Sulpice. (Sauniere's presence at Saint Sulpice in late 1891 is confirmed by his name in the register of masses there, but no official records of the purpose of his visit remain). While in Paris he is reputed to have moved widely in occult circles, and to have ordered copies of three paintings from the Louvre - an anonymous portrait of Pope Celestine V, who reigned briefly at the end of the 13th century, a portrait of St. Anthony by David Teniers (whether father or son is not recorded, although St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Desert by Teniers the Younger is believed by many to be the most likely candidate), and most famously, The Shepherds of Arcadia by Nicholas Poussin - supposedly based on a tomb that was until recently to be found in the Rennes vicinity.

Sauniere returned to Rennes in early 1892 and immediatly began spending money in earnest. The church was completely restored in a bizzarre and garish style - the font was carved into the shape of a crouching demon, the Stations of the Cross contain strange details (e.g. station VIII shows a child wearing what is clearly a Scottish tartan), and the words "Terribilis Est Locus Iste" (This place is terrible) were inscribed over the door. A large house, the Villa Bethania, was built for Marie Denarnaud (Sauniere himself never occupied it, preferring to remain in the official priest-house), and the Magdala library-tower was built on a precipice overlooking the valley. All in all, Sauniere's expenditure over the decade 1892-1902 was many millions of francs - and yet his official income was still no more than $10 per year.

In 1903, the Bishop of Carcassonne died, and his successor began an investigation into Sauniere's spending. The fact that he had been living above his means was plain for all to see, but the Bishop could find no proof of where the money had come from. Lacking any real evidence, Sauniere was charged with simony - the practise of illegally selling masses - and supended from duty. He took the unusual (for a country priest) step of appealing straight to the Vatican, who immediatly re-instated him, and wrote a stern letter to the new Bishop, saying basically, "Do not bother Sauniere again". The experience left Sauniere chastened, however, and his spending for the rest of his life was toned down - yet still far above what would be expected for a turn-of-the-century priest in rural France. Indeed, evidence suggests that at the height of WWI, a cousin of the Austrian Emperor travelled behind enemy lines with the apparent sole intention of giving more money to Sauniere.

On January 17, 1917, Sauniere suffered a massive stroke which left him bed-ridden. The stroke had come very suddenly - five days earlier on January 12, the Mayor of Rennes had been heard to declare that Sauniere had been a picture of health, yet on that day, according to a reciept in the Rennes museum, Marie Denarnaud ordered a coffin for her master.

Boudet had died a few years earlier, so a priest from the nearby village of Couiza was brought in to hear Sauniere's confession. What passed between them is unknown, but the priest left Sauniere's bedchamber white-faced and ashen, and according to one observer, never smiled again. He had refused to grant absolution, and Sauniere died unshriven in the early hours of Jan. 22. He was buried in the curchyard at Rennes. When Sauniere's will was opened, it declared him penniless. At some point prior to his death, all his wealth and property had been transfered into the name of his housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud.

Since the mid-60's many authors (most notably in the book The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail) have attempted to link Sauniere's unexplained wealth with the Priory of Sion, and the supposed Bloodline of Christ. All these theories, however, rest on two parchments that surfaced around that time, supposedly facsimilies of the two Bigou documents found by Sauniere. A recent BBC documentary, however, showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that these documents were forgeries made in the mid-50's by Pierre Plantard and Phillipe de Cherisey, the archiects of the Priory's recent resurgence. Sauniere's wealth, therefore, remains unexplained.

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