By Putnam, Bill; Wood, John Edwin
History Today , Vol. 55, No. 1
THE GREATEST PUBLISHING SUCCESS of last year was Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, with its headline-grabbing suggestion that Jesus escaped death on the cross and travelled to the south of France, where he married Mary Magdalene and raised a family. Understandably, this has upset many Christians, but the novel's enthusiasts have flocked in such numbers to see the real sites associated with the story that visitor numbers to places such as Westminster Abbey and the Temple Church in London, the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland and the Louvre in Pads, have risen dramatically.
Readers of The Da Vinci Code are told that there is a secret society, the Priory of Sion, founded in the twelfth century and still in existence today, whose 'momentous duty' includes nurturing and protecting the bloodline of Christ, the small number of Christ's descendants who are alive in modern times. Although Dan Brown's book is a novel, he insists, right at the beginning of the book, that the Priory of Sion is a real organisation. He adds 'in 1975 Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Sandro Botticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo da Vinci'. To most readers this claim is utterly astonishing. How could such an organisation have been in existence for nearly 1,000 years without it becoming known to historians, even if not to the general public?
How indeed! The history of the Priory of Sion is quite remarkable, but not in the way portrayed in this book.
Dan Brown has in fact borrowed the Priory of Sion from an earlier work of fiction. To understand how this came about, we must unravel the extraordinary story of Rennes-le-Chateau, the small French village in the Languedoc that captured the interest of readers of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, itself an international bestseller, in the 1980s.
In 1885 Berenger Sauniere was appointed priest of the parish. One of the many connections linking The Da Vinci Code with the story of Rennes-le-Chateau is that the dead hero of the opening chapter is named Jacques Sauniere. The real Berenger Sauniere was poor, and the village was poor, but in the course of twenty years he acquired considerable wealth, which enabled him to rebuild his ruined church in a very grand manner and ultimately to acquire for himself a luxurious estate with a well-appointed house (the Villa Bethania) where he entertained on a lavish scale.
There is no doubt that this is historical fact. Thousands of visitors come to Rennes-le-Chateau every year to admire the church and the estate. Less certain is the source of Sauniere's money. Considerable sums were involved, perhaps 190,000 francs, equivalent to well over a million pounds today. Recent research, however, suggests three sources of funds. A rumour circulating at the time was that Sauniere found something valuable during his clearance of the old graves in the churchyard and there may be some truth in this. There is also documentary evidence that he generated a large income from accepting payment for saying masses for the dead in numbers that were far in excess of what the church allowed him to do. Finally he received gifts from wealthy individuals, particularly ladies, a reflection of his charm and wide connections. The church attempted, and failed, to bring him to account, and Sauniere's ecclesiastical trial was still in progress when he died. Far from being wealthy at his death, he was severely in debt.
Matters might have ended there, had it not been to events in the 1950s when the first layer of pseudo-history was added to the basic historical facts. Sauniere died in 1917, and his housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud, continued to live in the large house until her death in 1953, although the property had been bought by a businessman, Noel Corbu, in 1946. Corbu proposed to establish a hotel. However, Rennes-le-Chateau was on a steep isolated hill. …