RENNES-LE-CHÂTEAU, A MASONIC TEMPLE?
The famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland has been described as ‘Freemasonry in stone’, with such features as its iconic (and rare) three pillars at the head of the church. Even in the few Masonic manuscripts that exist from the very early eighteenth century, there are references to Freemasonry being ‘supported’ by three pillars representing wisdom, strength and beauty.
As it is relatively rare to find three physical pillars at the altar end of a church (and even more rare to have each column being so particularly different in design, implying each pillar had an intentional, and additional, ‘significant’ meaning), the assumption is taken that their presence at Rosslyn is a visual representation of this classical Masonic expression.
Yet, besides this focal element, the Chapel also has other aspects to which a Masonic value has been attributed, such as images of heads that appear injured in a fashion similar to punishments found in Craft ceremonies, and other images showing characters touching areas of the body that would be laid bare when passing through various rituals found in the Fraternity. Then there is the enigmatic legend of the Apprentice Pillar and how its sculptor was slain by his Master through an act of jealousy, and the ‘King of Terrors’ engraving, a term still found in English rituals. Further, of course, the Chapel’s very existence is linked to one of the most important Scottish Masonic families, the Sinclairs. Whether we accept these links as evidence or as creative parallels, or just coincidences, the study of this building and the Craft are linked, leaving individuals to draw their own conclusions over the possibility and probability of the claims.
As some readers may know, I am a believer that Freemasonry is the focal element of the Rennes-le-Château mystery, and that its ultimate value is Masonic. I have written previously on the Masonic features I believe exist in the church of this famous remote village, of how infamous codes related to the legend also appear to highlight Masonry and even how the rogue priest could have used the structure, mystery and passion found in Freemasonry to find a method of making money, a market to sell to and a method (and reason) to keep it all secret.
Now, I sincerely appreciate that for many the probability of these elements is considered remote. For some this is because they do not fit with the general belief that the treasure of the enigma is either a royal grave, a divine legacy, a lost relic or a hoard of buried gold. For others it is the simple fact that, as the mystery relates mostly to the story of the village’s Catholic priest, it requires an acceptance that this important participant in the legend was involved with an organisation whose membership is strictly, and historically, banned by the governing authority of his own faith, the Vatican. As such, this would seem an unlikely probability. But is it?
In the story of the Abbé Saunière he is hardly presented as the model Catholic representative, let alone priest. He apparently continued to offer mass when his superiors had suspended him from office. He seemed to be more than slightly evasive when formally asked to explain his finances and apparent access to excessive funds. As such, would it really be impossible that he may also have had Masonic connections?
Indeed, this is still highly speculative, but perhaps less so when it is noted that not only are there Catholic Masons worldwide, other French Catholic priests are known to have joined the Fraternity. For example, in 2013 Father Pascal Vesin, a French Catholic priest, was announced to be a member of the Grand Orient of France, the oldest Masonic Grand Lodge in mainland Europe. He apparently became a Mason in 2001, five years AFTER he was ordained as a priest. It was not until 2013 that his membership became known to his Catholic superiors, when his bishop was then forced to suspend the 43-year-old priest from duty. So, we can see that it can happen, yet the question remains – did it?
Why would a Catholic join Freemasonry? Well, like most people who join, they join out of interest. The nature of the interest may vary, but usually they discover (through asking) that Freemasonry is simply an organisation offering a system of moral and charitable instruction, and not any alternative religious experience. In addition, a classically educated priest would quickly recognise that the system of education in Freemasonry is based on the same classical systems of the Church, such as those of St Augustine and Hugh of St Victor, and the promotion of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, together with the accepted Vatican stance on historical works such as Plato’s Timaeus. With this being both explained to an educated individual and then experienced after joining, it is understandable why Catholics, and their priests, do become Freemasons. But, again, this does not mean that Saunière was a Mason and, indeed, no evidence exists that proves he was, although, as history shows, you do not need to be a Mason to actually profit from Freemasonry. How is this possible?
Recently, I engaged in a project to review the earliest linguistic descriptions of Masonic ritual. Most modern Masons are aware that the strict rhetoric of the ceremonies performed today is only around one hundred to one hundred and fifty years old, and that the regimental structure of our present rituals is the result of the various styles and systems that existed prior to this more standardised uniformity. As it is known that the existing rituals are conjured from other older texts, many studies exist, and continue to be carried out, to gather evidence of those early ceremonies, to review their content, and to try and formulate a possible thread of development. Unfortunately, there is little surviving documentation of these early ceremonies; it is so rare that some scholars believe that no actual formal ritual rhetoric existed, but, rather, experienced Brothers knew what sort of thing had to be said, and simply performed what had been shown to them.
The other reason so little material exists is that virtually all that does exist appears to highlight the devotion to secrecy and thus it is assumed that early Brethren adhered to this concept devoutly by not writing material down or not allowing material to be written down. If a Lodge did create written learning aids, they were offered with the instruction that they be burned after having been committed to memory. This devotion to the oaths of secrecy means very little material exists, especially from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries.
Fortunately, just like today, the public (even between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) were curious about Freemasonry. Some people looked to profit from this interest, so published pamphlets that claimed to reveal the ceremonies of Freemasonry and sold them to the public. These pamphlets are known as ‘exposures’ and examples date from as early as 1723, and are now the focus of research for modern Masonic scholars. Indeed, as these pamphlets were produced purely for profit, their content could be considered dubious, as a buyer would have had only the author’s word that they were genuine. However, as modern research continues, Masonic scholars have found different ways in which to distinguish the dubious papers from those that seem to relate to genuine Masonic ceremonies. This is through scholars noting how popular certain exposures were – for instance, were they reprinted? Another method has been to cross-reference when a popular pamphlet was released in a town and/or city and to ascertain whether it would be referred to in an official Masonic Meeting Minute Book; to see if the publication made an impact and whether that impact was seen as negative or positive. The Minute Books of the Premier Lodge of London record various publications and show that, at times, Masons were so concerned about the content of some exposures that they felt forced to change some parts of the ceremony and/or to swiftly pass rulings to try and protect the Craft. Another method of authenticating these historic pamphlets was to look at surviving copies, see where they were found and if anything on them seemed to verify them.
Now, for myself, I have been studying these documents for a particular project, but in doing so I found something that could be of interest to those interested in the Rennes-le-Château mystery. In 1744 several exposures of French Freemasonry were released in France. One, in particular, was so popular that it was recorded as being in print until at least 1747 (with additional material). The author of this pamphlet is unknown, but its popularity is without question, and it was called The Perfect Mason. In Freemasonry every Mason is specifically told what the ‘secrets’ of the Craft are, and that it is only the handshakes, passwords and signs which denote how far a Brother has passed through the Craft. These are taken as prized secrets and part of the agenda of these pamphlets was to reveal those secrets, offering the opportunity to the reader to pass themselves off as a real Mason. In The Perfect Mason the author gives a word-by-word description of the ceremonies known to them, including the words they offer as being the secrets of Freemasonry. One of these words is not a word used in English Freemasonry, so to me it stood out. It stood out for another reason: I had seen the word before – Magdala, the name given to Saunière’s costly tower, the Tour Magdala.
This could be a creative coincidence, but in Masonic rituals, when a secret word is given it is attributed with a meaning and that meaning is also given in the ceremony. The text of the ritual given in The Perfect Mason continues and follows this Masonic tradition, expressing what the word Magdala is intended to mean to the Brother – this meaning is ‘tower’. Remember, this is not from a secret Masonic document, but from a public and popular document, published in France from (at least) 1744 until 1747. This coincidence could be extended when reviewing the name Saunière gave to his other costly building project, the Villa Bethania. Bethany is the village just outside Jerusalem where the tomb of Lazarus is said to be situated. This famous story of raising from death is a focal part of Masonic ritual and the very name of Freemasons, Sons of the Widow.
The only other building Saunière appeared to show a special interest in was his own church, which he had engraved with the motto terribilis est locus iste, meaning ‘this place is terrible’. The quotation is from the Bible: when Jacob had a dream he climbed a ladder to reach heaven, where he was awestruck by what he saw. Jacob’s ladder has long been a part of Freemasonry, and is still evident on the Tracing Board of an Entered Apprentice Freemason. Its relevance to Freemasonry can be traced clearly to the early eighteenth century and appears in various exposures, even in The Perfect Mason.
Saunière did not have to be a Mason to access these terms to create his own sanctuary for Freemasonry at Rennes-le-Château. Instead, he would only need a copy of this, or another French ‘exposure’. He would have been aware that these were published purely for profit and this would have given him both the idea and vehicle as to how to make money himself from those passionate about the Craft. I personally believe he knew more than that offered by these pamphlets, but I believe he used the material to set the scene in the village to encourage benefactors to believe he could pass on what all Master Masons are told to find, ‘that which was lost’, the genuine secrets of a Master Mason: a prize a devout Mason may be willing to ‘pay’ to receive.