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This is an index of the chapters in the novel which contain substantial claims about history. Those chapters which contain only action scenes or plot elements have been ommited.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

The Priory of Sion

A Synopsis of the Priory of Sion Myth

The Real Priory of Sion

Pierre Plantard: Fantasist, Neo-Nazi and Fraud

The Priory of Sion Rises Again - Holy Blood Holy Grail

Enter Dan Brown and 'Teabing'

Exit Pierre Plantard

The Priory of Sion

"I've written about this group," he said, his voice tremulous with excitement. "Researching the symbols of secret societies is a specialty of mine. They call themselves the Prieuré de Sion - the Priory of Sion. They're based here, in France and attract powerful members from all over Europe. In fact, they are one of the oldest surviving secret societies on earth."
(Chapter Twenty-three, p. 113)

The Priory of Sion forms a central part of the story of The Da Vinci Code; a centrality which has added impact because, in the 'FACT' page at the beginning of the novel, Dan Brown states categorically that this secret society actually exists:

The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization. In 1975 Paris' 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.
('FACT', p. 1)

Despite its alleged existence since 1099, the 'Priory' was not 'revealed' to the general public until 1967, with the publication in French of L'Or de Rennes ('The Gold of Rennes-le-Chateau') by Gérard de Sède. De Sède linked the Priory with the 'mystery' of the French church of Rennes-le-Château and established the popular occultist conception of the 'Priory' as the ultimate secret society.

This story did not become popularised in the English-speaking world until the publication of the bestseller historical conspiracy Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in 1982. Since then, the 'Priory' and its many and various supposed connections have become a mainstay of esoteric and occultist speculation, with various wild theories linking it to the Freemasons, the Shroud of Turin, the European Union, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, the Cathars, the 'bloodline of Jesus', UFOs, alien invaders and many other organisations and entities, both real and imagined.

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A Synopsis of the Priory of Sion Myth

The supposed history and significance of the Priory varies widely from writer to writer, but the basic story which has evolved over the last 30 years is roughly as follows:

  • Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and intended her to lead the Church after his death.
  • After the crucifixion, Mary fled to what is now southern France with their child or children where they found refuge in the local Jewish community.
  • A Fifth Century descendant of their sacred 'bloodline' became connected by marriage or sexual union with one of the earliest kings of the Frankish Merovingian line - the first royal house of France - who were themselves descended from ancient Israel.
  • When the Merovingian line was usurped by the Carolingians, the 'bloodline' was preserved in secret and became the French noble House of Lorraine.
  • The lord of this house, Godfrey of Bouillon, joined the First Crusade and, through the intervention of secret preservers of his lineage, became the first King of Jerusalem.
  • These secret backers of Godfrey were established in an abbey or priory on Mount Zion and were later known as the Priory of Sion. They went on to engineer the Order of Knights Templar.
  • The Priory had the Knights Templar excavate under the old Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, supposedly to find lost documents regarding Mary Magdalene, or perhaps the bones of Jesus or even the Ark of the Covenant.
  • In 1188, the Priory and the Knights Templar split - the Knights were later brutally suppressed and many executed in 1307.
  • For the next 600 years the Priory of Sion went underground, working through fronts and other secret societies to preserve the secret of the 'Bloodline' which was the real 'Holy Grail'.
  • In the late Twentieth Century, the Grand Master of the Priory, true heir to the throne of France and direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Pierre de Plantard, began to bring the Priory out of the shadows and initiate some form of political move of vast significance. Here the story breaks down, because Plantard died in 2000 without achieving anything or doing anything remarkable.

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The Real Priory of Sion

Far from being a 1000 year old secret society of vast influence and significance, the real, original 'Priory of Sion' was founded in 1956 as a local government pressure group concerned with public housing. On May 7th 1956, Pierre Plantard, then a resident of the town of Annemasse, went to the provincial sub-prefecture at Saint-Julien-en-Genevois to register a non-profit organisation called the 'Priory of Sion'. It was named, not after Mount Zion in Jerusalem, but after a local mountain near Annemasse and its stated aims were the support of opposition candidates in local elections with a view to the improvement of public housing.

For its brief existence, the 'Priory' published a few editions of a journal called Circuit - some stenciled A4 pages stapled by hand - which aimed to 'defend the rights and freedom of council house tenants' and dealt with such burning issues as water meters and the paving of footpaths. Plantard quickly fell out with the handful of compatriots with whom he had formed this group and the 'Priory' rapidly dissolved having achieved little or nothing.

So how did this tiny, non-descript and short-lived local government group give rise to the myth of 'one of the oldest surviving secret societies on earth'? The answer lies in the nature of its founder, Pierre Plantard.

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Pierre Plantard: Fantasist, Neo-Nazi and Fraud

Pierre Plantard was born in 1920, the son of a butler and descendant of a Sixteenth Century walnut gatherer. At an early age, Plantard became obsessed with convincing people he was more important than he really was. He was a traditionalist, French royalist and a vehement anti-Semite. In 1940, living in Nazi-occupied Paris, Plantard came to the attention of the Vichy French authorities when he wrote an agitated letter to Marshal Pétain 'begging him to put a stop to a war started by the Jews'. He claimed to have a hundred men at his disposal devoted to this cause.

According to the assessment of intelligence services at the time, still be found in the records of the French Prefecture of Police:

Plantard seemed to be one of these strange pretentious young people who set up and run more or less fictitious groups in an effort to give themselves a feeling of importance… so as to get the government to take them seriously.

In the 1940s he founded two small, anti-Semitic, anti-Masonic groups - the Rénovation Nationale Française and the Alpha Galates - and published a short-lived anti-Jewish newsletter called Vaincre. Around this time Plantard began calling himself 'Pierre Plantard de France' and started to try to convince people that he was the true heir to the French throne.

In the post-War years Plantard quickly reinvented himself as a Resistance hero rather than an anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator. Sometime in the mid-50s Plantard met Noël Corbu, who had created his own fantasy about one of his forebears, the priest of the tiny village of Rennes-le-Chateau. According to Corbu, the priest, Abbé Bérenger Saunière, had become fabulously wealthy thanks to treasure he had discovered via some 'parchments' hidden in a hollow pillar in his church. This was pure fiction, as the priest's wealth had actually come from money paid to say fake masses for the dead that Saunière never performed - a fraud that led to his dismissal by the Church authorities. But the legend of Rennes-les-Chateau took on a life of its own and continues to be believed by esoterics to this day.

Inspired by this story, Plantard teamed up with an eccentric aristocrat with a taste for surrealism, Phillipe de Cherisey, and faked the parchments supposedly found by Saunière. Linking these to a genealogy which purported to support his claim to the French throne and which detailed a secret society called (not coincidentally) the 'Priory of Sion', Plantard and De Cherisey lodged the fakes - the so-called Dossiers Secrets - in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as a way of bolstering Plantard's increasingly elaborate fraud.

Plantard and De Cherisey then teamed up with author, Gérard de Sède, to give the Priory of Sion/Rennes-le-Chateau hoax greater publicity. De Sède published a book based on the Dossiers Secrets detailing the whole fantasy in 1967. But Plantard and De Cherisey soon fell out with De Sède over royalty payments from the book, L'Or de Rennes. As a result of the disagreement, De Cherisey publicly revealed that the Dossiers Secrets were actually fakes and the whole story was a fraud. Plantard then admitted the same thing to French investigative researcher, Jean-Luc Chaumeil; though he later changed his story and said that the documents were fakes, but they were based on genuine originals. Largely thanks to Chaumeil's exposes and Plantard's increasingly erratic, ever-changing and patently silly stories, interest in the whole affair had faded in France by the late 1970s.

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The Priory of Sion Rises Again - Holy Blood Holy Grail

The whole bizarre story could easily have ended there, but these weird frauds and fantasies have a tendency to take on a life of their own. Attracted by the various versions of the Rennes-le-Chateau story, two British amateur occult researchers, Michael Baigent and Henry Lincoln, teamed up with a fiction author, Richard Leigh, to produce a highly speculative BBC documentary on the tale of the Rennes treasure. Intrigued by what they found, and driven by an approach to history which could be best described as 'credulous and weird', the trio went on to publish Holy Blood Holy Grail in 1982.

Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln's book became a sudden bestseller. Just as the whole Priory of Sion hoax was dying in France, the two Englishmen and their New Zealand collaborator gave it a new lease of life in the English-speaking world. Unaware, unconcerned by or simply ignoring the clear French evidence that the whole business was a series of hoaxes and fantasies, Holy Blood Holy Grail took the story to heights of fancy that even Plantard had not claimed.

Not content with perpetuating Plantard's fraud regarding the fictional Priory of Sion and the faked Dossiers Secrets, Baigent et al added a whole new layer of speculation, tenuously linking the Priory and its supposed Merovingian ancestors to a 'bloodline' of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The authors used a 'historical technique' they called synthesis. Essentially, this meant that if one element in the story could be imagined to be connected to another, then it was worth assuming that there was a genuine connection. Working on that (speculative) assumption, they would then move on to another possible connection, to see if that led to a third and so on. Using this hopelessly flawed 'technique', Baigent et al were able to construct a vast, elaborate and detailed alternative hidden 'history', were each layer of speculation and wild hypothesis supported the next. In the end they had managed to link Jesus to Plantard, the Templars to the Cathars, the Masons to the European Union, Leonardo to the Essenes and a great deal more besides.

Critics and historians regarded Holy Blood Holy Grail as a ridiculous joke, but the book sold rapidly and soon spawned a string of sequels and a host of spin-offs and imitators. Soon a whole popular genre of paperback speculative pseudo-history arose, each new book vying with the next to reveal new 'ancient secrets' and 'amazing hidden truths' obscured by centuries of 'secret societies' and 'high level cover ups'. Genuine academic historians regarded the whole genre as a something of a joke - much as scientists regard the genre of UFO books. The Italian academic and novelist Umberto Eco wrote a witty and erudite parody of the whole phenomenon, Foucault's Pendulum, where a group of editors construct a 'Priory of Sion' hoax as a joke, only to find occult believers taking them seriously, with deadly results.

Less credulous readers regarded Holy Blood Holy Grail as a piece of silly entertainment, and many commented at the time that, if it had been written as a novel rather than 'non-fiction' it would have made a good story. Little did they know that someone was about to do just that.

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Enter Dan Brown and 'Teabing'

By the 1990s Holy Blood Holy Grail and its sequels and imitators had taken their place on the bookshelf beside books on UFOs, ancient astronauts and yetis. While it had been briefly popular in its heyday, the book was never more than a brief cult hit with a certain type of reader.

But one of those readers was Dan Brown. He says he first became 'aware' of the Priory of Sion and its supposed connections with Leonardo da Vinci when 'studying art in Seville'. Holy Blood Holy Grail was to become the backbone of The Da Vinci Code, and Brown has made it perfectly clear in interviews that he takes its claims and 'evidence' absolutely seriously.

There is some evidence, however, that Brown realises that the book is far from wholly reliable and that Plantard was even less reliable still. There are few references to the 'mystery' of Rennes-le-Chateau in the novel, though the fact that he names Sophie's grandfather 'Saunière' - an obvious reference to the priest Abbé Bérenger Saunière - indicates that he is aware of this part of the legend. Pierre Plantard, the unsavoury anti-Semite and convicted fraud, also gets barely a mention; just a fleeting reference to the 'fact' that the Plantards are descendants of the Merovingian kings.

But the bulk of what Baigent et al promulgated in Holy Blood Holy Grail is to be found in the 'secret' that The Da Vinci Code 'reveals' and Brown is on the record as insisting that it is not fiction, but fact. Much of the 'Priory of Sion' myth is presented to the novel's reader by the character Leigh Teabing, who refers directly to Holy Blood Holy Grail in his discourses with Sophie. As many have noted, even his name 'Leigh Teabing' is a none-too-subtle reference to Richard Leigh while his surname is a highly unlikely anagram of 'Baigent'. Brown has Teabing distance himself slightly from Holy Blood Holy Grail - "To my taste the authors made some dubious leaps of faith in their analysis," he tells Sophie, "but their fundamental premise is sound, and to their credit they finally brought the idea of Christ's bloodline into the mainstream." (Chapter Sixty, p. 254).

Despite this, Holy Blood Holy Grail is the main foundation of The Da Vinci Code. Brown follows it so exactly that in October 2004 Baigent and Leigh issued a writ against Brown's publishers claiming that 'the whole jigsaw puzzle' in their book had been lifted and used in Brown's novel. In 2006 they lost their case, which attracted intense media scrutiny, though the judge made it clear that, while Brown's novel was not technically plagiarism, it was firmly based on Baigent et al's book.

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Exit Pierre Plantard

After Baigent and Co gave his fantasy a new lease of life, indeed, a life of its own, Pierre Plantard continued with his outrageous claims. But not for long - in 1983-84 Jean-Luc Chaumeil made new revelations about Plantard's sordid past, including his conviction for fraud and the six months prison time he served between 1953 and 1954 and, worse still, allegations of child abuse.

Plantard attempted a comeback in 1989, launching a new series of claims about the Priory of Sion; this time saying that it had been founded in 1681, with a new list of Grand Masters. But this new fantasy proved the old fraud's undoing.

The new list included Roger-Patrice Pelat, a war-time friend of French President Francois Mitterand. In 1993 Pelat was murdered and the subsequent investigation uncovered financial irregularities which caused a political scandal. Because Plantard had repeatedly insisted that Pelat was a Grand Master of (the newer version of) the Priory of Sion, Plantard himself suddenly found himself under the scrutiny of a high-powered legal and political investigation.

Judge Thierry Jean-Pierre decided not to take any chances with Plantard's claims, as bizarre as they seemed, and he ordered a search of Plantard's apartment. Documents regarding the supposed Priory of Sion were seized and Plantard was ordered to testify before the investigation. With his decades of fraud and fantasy finally dragged into the cold light of day, Plantard meekly admitted that the whole 'Priory of Sion' was a fraud and that all the 'genuine' parchments and documents were either fakes or figments of his imagination. Plantard was regarded as a harmless crank - 'an idiot' in the words of one investigator at the time - and let off with a severe warning.

Despite all his wild claims and Holy Blood Holy Grail's dark mutterings about his vast political ambitions, Pierre Plantard died alone in 2000 having achieved nothing at all.

Little was he to know that Dan Brown was about to give his nonsense the biggest boost he could ever imagine. The Priory of Sion myth has now grown well beyond anything Plantard - fraud, embezzler and fantasist - could ever have dreamed of thanks to Dan Brown. Now millions of readers believe the Priory of Sion is 'FACT' and a few may even have noticed the surname 'Plantard' in one passage of the book. It is now estimated that there are at least twelve organisations claiming to be the 'real' Priory of Sion. This is a remarkable fate for a local government pressure group founded by an anti-Jewish butler's son prone to elaborate lies.


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History vs The Da Vinci Code is copyright Tim O'Neill 2006. All rights reserved.