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. No one was likely to pass by casually, and customers would have been few and far between.
Corbu, who had heard all about Berenger Sauniere from Marie Denarnaud, solved this difficulty by giving a series of interviews to the local newspaper, La Depeche du Midi. They can be read in the issues of January 12th, 13th and 14th, 1956.
Over the years since Sauniere's death, rumours had grown locally about the ways he had gathered his money. Thus it was that the paper carried a vivid account of the priest discovering the treasure of Blanche de Castile (1185-1252), wife of Louis VIII and regent of their son, the future St Louis. The reports suggested that this treasure amounted to 18 million francs. No such treasure ever existed, but Sauniere's building work was taken as evidence that it did, and that Sauniere had found it. What is more, the paper hinted that much of the treasure was still there, and that Noel Corbu knew where it was. Not surprisingly the hotel became extremely popular!
The national press quickly picked up the newspaper articles, and soon all France knew about Rennes-le-Chateau and the treasure story. French television made a film with Noel Corbu dressed as a priest, acting the part of Sauniere. Treasure hunters descended on the village and started to dig holes everywhere, until the council put a stop to it.
The second layer of false historical accretions was added in the 1960s, when the story came to the attention of two men from Paris who saw opportunities for turning it to their advantage. One was Pierre Plantard, a very unusual man who believed himself to be descended from the Merovingian kings of France. He created a whole series of documents including elaborate genealogical tables that purported to trace his ancestry back to the Merovingian king Dagobert II (r. 676-79). Hearing a story that Sauniere had found some parchments during the renovation of the church, Plantard now claimed that these parchments substantiated the genealogies. He enlisted the aid of his friend, Philippe de Cherisey, a writer and humorist, who embellished the story for his own amusement by creating some fake parchments containing coded messages that Berenger Sauniere was supposed to have found in a hollow pillar during his restoration of the church. It was these that led him to discover the hidden treasure. For Plantard it was a deadly serious fantasy; for de Cherisey it was a splendid joke.
About fifteen fictional documents were introduced into the Bibliotheque Nationale (BN) from 1960s, all written by Plantard under pseudonyms. They included the Genealogy of the Merovingian Kings by Henri Lobineau containing eight genealogical tables and various other documents. The purpose of the tables is clear: to trace the line of the Merovingian kings to a family called Plantard. The text accompanying Table 8 includes a detailed description of the treasure story of Rennes-le-Chateau. This alone makes it clear that the whole document is suspect. Much of the genealogy is true, but crucial alterations and additions have been made to validate the claim of the Plantard family to the throne of France.
A Merovingian Treasure at Rennes-le-Chateau in the same collection is a slight booklet of ten pages. It is supposedly written by a certain Antoine the Hermit, and tells the treasure story in what are said to be the words of Noel Corbu, who is supposed to have sold Antoine a painting in Paris. The booklet is revealing, for it shows how, from telling to telling, the story develops. Each little bit that has been added to make the story more entertaining becomes part of the accepted history, and from a few dimly remembered facts grows an account full of persuasive detail.
The third volume in the BN collection Engraved Stones of the Languedoc, edited by one Joseph Courtauly, has a very specific purpose. Among the parchments that Berenger Sauniere was supposed to have found in the hollow pillar was a message in code. De Cherisey clearly had much fun in creating this, and the decipherment involved a key word from a tombstone that Sauniere had found in his churchyard. There were not enough letters for the coding method involved, so a fake second tombstone was invented containing the extra nine letters needed. The Engraved Stones of the Languedoc included a drawing of this stone among other genuine stones, to give it a false validity.
Finally we come to The Secret Files of Henri Lobineau. This file is a bizarre collection of scraps--letters (including one from Noel Corbu), maps, newspaper cuttings, genealogies, coats of arms and drawings. The title page is hand drawn and dated 1967. The name Henri Lobineau is demonstrably fictitious. The first page has a curious dedication, signed by someone called Philippe Toscan du Plantier:
To Monsignor the Count of Rhedae, Duke of Razes, the legitimate descendant of Clovis I, King of France, most serene child of the 'King and Saint' Dagobert II, your humble servant presents this collection which make up the 'Secret Files' of Henri Lobineau.
If this dedication is taken seriously, it means that the author believes there is someone, unnamed and unrecognised as such, who is the rightful king of France through his descent from Dagobert II. Now we are getting a little closer to the real purpose of this extraordinary collection of documents.
Among the papers in the file, one in particular merits the attention of readers of The Da Vinci Code. This is a table, drawn up by Henri Lobinean, about a curious organisation, the Priory of Sion, also known as the Order of the Rose-Cross. According to this document, the Priory of Sion was founded in 1188 by Jean de Gisors, who called himself Jean II, and had had twenty-six grand masters up to 1918, twenty-two male (each calling himself Jean) and tour female (all taking the name Jeanne). These grand masters were known as nautonnniers (helmsmen).
In 1982, Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh published The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. This book, which contained the story of Mary Magdalene's flight to France and the supposed line of descent of the kings of France from Christ, first introduced the story of Rennes-le-Chateau to English-language readers. The authors did a considerable amount of research to verify the account of the origins of the Priory of Sion (Prieure de Sion). They came across some charters confirming the existence of an Order of Sion in the twelfth century. But the Order of Sion is not necessarily the same thing as the Priory of Sion, and they have not been able to cite any medieval document that includes the words Prieure de Sion.
Nevertheless they found in the Lobineau paper several things that they could verify--the names of early Grand Masters of the Templars, for example--and in spite of a few misgivings about the authenticity of the papers, Baigent, Lincoln, and Leigh ultimately concluded that the Priory had been founded in the twelfth century. Moreover, it had continued to exist to the present day--an influential organisation so secret that even its name was never revealed to the general public.
Satisfied that there really was, and is, an organization called the Priory of Sion, the three authors now sought evidence of its involvement in various episodes of French history. They linked it to other secret societies, to the Freights Templar, to Rosicrucianism and to Freemasonry. In particular, they equated it with the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement of the seventeenth century, which according to them was the Priory of Sion operating under another name.
Perhaps the most astounding feature of the Lobineau papers is the list of the nautonniers, or grand masters, of the Priory of Sion. Whilst the first seven were members of French noble houses, and appear on Tables 2 and 3 of Lobineau's Genealogy of the Merovingian Kings, the later nautonniers include some of the most eminent persons of all time, among them Leonardo da Vinci (lean IX), the scientist Robert Boyle (Jean XV), Isaac Newton (Jean XVI), Victor Hugo (Jean XXI), Claude Debussy (Jean XXII) and Jean Cocteau (Jean XXIII).
But the lives of people as famous as these have been examined in great detail by biographers. If they really were members of an organisation with links that spanned countries and a history of nearly a thousand years, then something about it would surely have come to light before now. One can argue that because the Prior), of Sion was a secret society, care would have been taken to limit the writing of documents that might fall into the wrong hands. But if the organisation were anything other than a meaningless title, there surely would have been some activity that left its record--at the very least, there must have been some contact between members, either in person or by correspondence, to arrange for the continuity of the grand mastership. Yet nothing relating to the Priory of Sion has ever been found in any of these great men's papers.
Nevertheless, we have discovered that an institution called the Priory of Sion did actually exist for a brief lime in the twentieth century. It is a requirement of the French government that all groups and societies must be recorded in a weekly publication, Le Journal Officiel. The notice of registration of the Priory of Sion at the Sub-prefecture of St Julien-en-Genevois, a town about eight kilometres southwest of Geneva, was published in Le Journal Officiel, no. 167, on July 20th, 1956. The location of the head office of the Priory of Sion was given as Annemasse, a town just to the east of Geneva, but the complete address was not included, so the office is untraceable.
Taking the evidence--or lack of it--into account, we are driven to the conclusion that the Priory is a Plantard invention. As with all the Lobineau files, the work that has gone into the deception is staggering. Plantard must have done a considerable amount of research before he could have produced documents as superficially convincing as these. His knowledge of the Middle Ages must have been comprehensive and his choice of grand masters is impressive.
The purpose of this astonishing invention was clearly to give his claim to the throne of France the support of a supposed organisation with a history going back a thousand years. The skill with which he did this has led many readers to believe in the myth. In the context of the fictional story of Rennes-le-Chateau it is one more element in what is in our view the most extraordinary hoax ever created. Its appearance in The Da Vinci Code is one more tribute to its success.…