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)
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
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.
Synopsis of the Priory of Sion Myth
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:
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.
Plantard: Fantasist, Neo-Nazi and Fraud
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.
the assessment of intelligence services at the time, still be found
in the records of the French Prefecture of Police:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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'
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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