IF ALL FAMILIES HAVE SECRETS, THEN SOME SECRETS ARE more common than others. Surely among the most familiar of family secrets is a clandestine marriage (or no marriage at all) that produces a child whose existence is never acknowledged. That's the basis for the Priory of Sion, whose members are legion, whose adherents are fanatic and whose history, according to serious researchers, is either mundane or absurd.
Mind you, the tale has its understandable appeal. Who could resist a story involving a fake death, a reformed prostitute and a bloodline traced through individuals as eminent and gifted as Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Claude Debussy, Jules Verne and Victor Hugo? Toss in the Templars, the Nazis, a vast hidden treasure and the promise of retrieving an artifact of Christ's crucifixion (the grail), and the epic grows more enticing than anything a Hollywood scriptwriter could create. For this reason alone, the Priory of Sion boasts thousands of adherents who allege proof of its existence and contend that it has influenced world events for 2000 years.
In spite of many celebrated names associated with the Priory, reality suggests that the tale revolves around three primary characters: a poor parish priest who needed an explanation for his accumulation of personal wealth; an anti-Semitic Frenchman searching for a way to fulfill his wartime dreams; and a charming medieval princess. Not to mention Jesus Christ and his wife and child.
The basis of the tale, which has more variations than the works of Mozart, is this:
Despite certainty among Christians, Mary Magdalene was no Jerusalem strumpet but the middle-class Jewish wife of Jesus, their union either never divulged or conducted in a manner described today as common-law. Depending on the source, Christ's crucifixion was faked and he and his wife fled Jerusalem to escape death, or Mary Magdalene escaped alone from Palestine following Christ's death. Either way, she arrived on the Mediterranean coast of France, suggesting she traveled by boat, and she was pregnant. Moreover, her pregnancy resulted in the birth of a healthy baby whose offspring, traced through two millennia of history, have influenced world development to an enormous degree even while their existence has been hidden from the general populace.4
It is difficult to imagine a story more capable of tilting virtually every tenet of Christianity into a cocked hat than the suggestion that Mary Magdalene gave birth to a descendant of God through Christ. That premise alone has spawned dozens of explanations for historical events, including those for which no “explanation” would otherwise be deemed necessary. The creation and initial success of the Templars, for example, is traced by some to the French-based line of Christ's descendants. Proponents of this theory point to France as the acknowledged root of the Templars’ strength and to the fact that their destruction was organized by a French monarch, who perhaps had learned the truth of their blood heritage. In partnership with a newly elected pope aware of the dangers to the Church if the truth were revealed, the French king grew determined to eliminate the Templars. He was motivated not by fear of the Templars’ power and his avarice for their wealth, but by the need to purify Christianity.
4 According to proponents of the priory's existence, the term “holy grail” refers not to a chalice or other utensil used at The Last Supper, but to the bloodline traced from Christ through descendants.
Indeed, a lengthy list of descendants of Jesus may be found on “secret dossiers” written on ancient parchment and placed in the care of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Many names in the dossiers are obscure. Some are recognized by scholars for being associated with the occult, especially during medieval times. A few qualify as first-rank historical celebrities: Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, Jean Cocteau and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci.
Why maintain records of such a distinctive lineage and keep it secret for twenty centuries, only to make it public at the end of the second millennium? Perhaps to restore the dynasty established by Mary Magdalene, a bloodline that extends not only to the throne of France but to thrones of other European nations, creating an international cabal tied by common lineage and devoted to controlling world events. This family line, known as the Merovingian dynasty, took control of France about ad 475, filling the power gap created when the Roman empire collapsed and extending its influence across history ever since.
“Merovingian” is derived from Meroveus, father of Childeric i, who became the first non-Roman ruler of Gaul, the region now known as France. Meroveus, so the legend goes, could trace his ancestry back through Joseph of Arimathea to Christ. Or maybe not. While some monastic records identify Meroveus in this manner, the historian Priscus claims he was sired by a mysterious sea creature, explaining the source of his esoteric knowledge and skills in the occult. This relationship with a sea-beast is seen as evidence that (a) Mary Magdalene stepped out of a sailing vessel onto the shores of France, where she gave birth to the son of Jesus; (b) an effort has been made to obscure this same historical fact by immersing it in fable; (c) an attempt has been made in the opposite direction, identifying Meroveus's ancestor with Christ, because the fish is a symbol of Christianity.5
5 Or, if you prefer, (d) the Merovingians were descendants of extraterrestrial beings who bred with chosen Israelites, creating a true superrace.
The tale remains murky until 671, when the Merovingian prince Dagobert ii marries Giselle de Razes, daughter of the Count of Razes and niece of the Visigoth High King, thus uniting two powerful forces that had long struggled against each other for control of France.
Dagobert appears to be an erudite man for his time. Educated in an Irish monastery, he married Mathilde of York, a Celtic princess, and settled in England, where he became friends with Saint Wilfrid, the Bishop of York. Upon the death of Mathilde, the bishop guided him into the marriage with Giselle. Based on a description of Giselle as a ravishing beauty skilled in the arts and educated beyond the level of women of her day, it sounds like a marriage made in heaven, or at least in Languedoc, the area of France bordering the Mediterranean between Marseilles and the Spanish border. Here, in an old Visigoth chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, near the city of Rhaede, they were wed.
Thanks to several geographic advantages, Rhaede boasted a population at the time of more than 30,000 inhabitants. Situated at the intersection of roads extending across adjoining valleys, with several fresh-water springs nearby, the town dated back to pre-Roman times. It was a natural location for celebrating the union of two powerful families.
Things went reasonably well at first, especially for a Dark Ages warrior. Dagobert managed to wrest what is now modern-day France away from the clutches of three brothers who had claimed the land after the death of their father, and Giselle rewarded him with a son and heir, an important achievement in those times. Meanwhile, Dagobert began to consolidate his power, which angered both the Church and his old friend Wilfrid. Like most rulers of his time, Dagobert created enemies, so many that few of his subjects were surprised when he was murdered while on a hunting expedition, and it was only through luck, perception or divine intervention that Giselle and their son Sigisbert, accompanied by a small group of faithful knights, escaped a similar fate. From that point on, Sigisbert and his descendants kept their lineage a secret from others, even while recording it among themselves so that members could recognize the holiness of their ancestry and employ it to achieve greatness of one kind or another.
Soon after, Rhaede began a long decline from its status as a major center. After being devastated during battles with Spain, its inhabitants suffered terribly during the plague years. Repeated sacking and burning by Catalan bandits persuaded the remaining residents to abandon the city entirely. Most fled inland, while a hardy few remained, rebuilding their community as a village named Rennes-le-Chateau.
Meanwhile, a monastic order was founded in Jerusalem. Known as Our Lady of Mount Zion, the order later transferred its headquarters to St. Leonard d'Acre in Palestine, and later still relocated in Sicily. It operated there for some time before being absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617, its history easily confirmed through authentic Church records. Everything we know about it appears to verify that this Priory of Sion functioned like dozens of similar facilities of its time. As a center for meditation and salvation, it interacted with the community around it, playing the usual feudal/medieval role of social hub, inspirational retreat and cultural resource. Nothing suggests that it seethed with conspirators, harbored Templars plotting revenge against the Church, or served as a genealogical resource for latter-day Merovingians. Its only role in history has been to provide a name for a society that claims 2000 years of threatened yet influential existence.
The next chapter of the tale begins in 1885 when a Catholic priest named Francois Berenger Saunière is dispatched to the parish surrounding the village of Rennes-le-Chateau. Over 1000 years had passed since the wedding of Dagobert and Giselle that bound the Visigoth kingdom and the Merovingian blood line. The old strategic city of Rhaede that had been the site of that marriage was now a backwater village housing barely 200 residents.
6 Alert readers of The Da Vinci Code will recognize that the book's author employed this name to identify the mysterious individual whose death, at the beginning of the book, sets the novel's plot in motion.
Saunière6 is an interesting historical figure, made more interesting by his involvement in perhaps the most compelling secret society legend of our time. Well educated and ambitious, the handsome Saunière could only have been disappointed, if not crushed, upon arriving at his new posting. Located about forty kilometers from Carcassonne in the shadows of the Pyrenees, Rennes-le-Chateau might as well have been on the moon as far as a priest with high aspirations was concerned. At thirty-three years of age, Saunière probably saw the assignment as the end of the road, if not the end of his dreams.
Francois Berenger Saunière. Keeper of the Holy Grail or ecclesiastical swindler?
To make things worse, Saunière inherited not a parish church but a pitiful ruin. Much of the chapel roof was missing, permitting rain to pour directly onto the altar. The windows were covered not with stained glass but with rough boards, the presbytery was virtually uninhabitable, no housekeeper had been assigned to him, and his monthly salary of 75 francs was barely enough to buy bread for his table. The only thing more surprising than the state of Saunière's church was his decision to remain.
At least part of this decision may have been inspired by carnal rather than ecclesiastical notions. While priests were permitted to recruit women as housekeepers, the Church suggested that thirty years or more separate their ages, indicating that Saunière's live-in housekeeper should be in her sixties. But Saunière swung the age compass in the other direction, and soon sixteen-year-old Marie Denarnaud began sharing the rundown presbytery with him. Over time, it became accepted that the couple shared both the building and its bed, a situation that the community and Saunière's superior, the lenient and amiable Bishop of Carcassonne, appear to have tolerated.
Marie Denarnaud may have been attracted to the priest for reasons other than his handsome appearance. Perhaps it was Saunière's passionate nature, which he demonstrated within a few months of arriving at his new posting. During state elections held in October 1885, Father Saunière became a rabid opponent of the ruling Republican party, haranguing and practically ordering his parishioners to vote against it. His scolding sermons made little difference to the outcome; the Republicans won, and when stories of Saunière's rabid sermons against them became known, they pressed for revenge and got it. As punishment for his political indiscretion, Saunière's small salary was suspended. He appealed to the bishop who, having forgiven the priest's unapproved living arrangements with his nubile housekeeper, extended his charity by appointing Saunière to a professor's post at the nearby Petit Seminaire de Narbonne, where the fiery priest stalked the halls and classrooms for six months until his suspension was lifted.
Marie Denarnaud. As housekeeper/mistress to the mysterious Father Saunière, how many secrets did she keep?
If Church leaders believed they had slapped Saunière down, they were mistaken. In fact, Saunière returned to the village and his dilapidated structures, this time with the backing of a wealthy supporter and plans to improve the fortunes of his parish and himself.
Perhaps in admiration for his political stand, which may have coincided with her own, the influential Countess of Chambord bestowed 3000 francs on Saunière upon his return to his parish. The figure is significant, because Saunière had reportedly obtained an estimate of 2800 francs to make repairs to the church. To his credit, he appears to have dedicated all of the countess's largesse towards rebuilding and restoring it.
Somewhere along the way, Saunière grew fascinated by the legend surrounding his church's supposed historical significance. A few sources claim the tale of the church was already well known among the local citizens; others say no one was aware of its historical importance until the restoration work was well advanced. As things turned out, neither explanation is significant.
Saunière's church, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, had been constructed on the site of the marriage between Dagobert ii and Giselle de Razes, the story went, and Saunière made an amazing discovery while assisting in its reconstruction. A heavy stone that had served as an altar in the original edifice was mounted on four pillars. Saunière himself moved the slab to discover that one of the pillars was hollow. From within that space he gently removed four ancient parchments, keeping them hidden from the eyes of others working around him. Two of the parchments traced a genealogical line, while the other two were written in a mysterious code that took experts in Paris some time to decipher. When they did, the words were electrifying. A Dagobert II Roi et à Sion est ce tresor et il est là mort, the message came back. To King Dagobert ii and to Sion belongs this treasure, and he is dead there.
Treasure? What treasure? The answer appeared when a second stone slab was unearthed. Something was concealed behind it, something only Father Saunière saw. One glance told him his dreams of being assigned to Bordeaux or Paris or even Rome were nothing compared with the wealth that lay before him. Soon Saunière and two trusted helpers were busy as gophers, unearthing sites all around the church and on the outskirts of the village.
Father Saunière may have had to beg for funds to repair his old church in the beginning, but from that point forward the building activity at Saunière's church was intense and extravagant enough to generate envy in every prelate from the Bishop of Paris down. The little church was rebuilt to magnificence, decorated with paintings and sculptures purchased by Saunière on expeditions to Paris. Some were traditional, like The Shepherds of Arcadia, illustrating a group of people gathered around a sarcophagus in a landscape eerily similar to Rennes-le-Chateau. Others were obscure in style and meaning, including a statue near the church entrance that bore the Latin inscription Terribilis est locus iste—This place is terrible.
The priest accumulated enough riches to purchase more than artifacts for his church. He bought several acres of land adjacent to the property, and began construction of the Tower of Magdala in honor of Mary Magdalene, and a multi-roomed mansion named Villa Bethania for himself and Marie. The expenditure was enormous—40,000 francs for the tower, 90,000 francs for the mansion and 20,000 francs for an adjoining garden. In total, Saunière spent an estimated 200,000 francs, paid out by a man who a few years earlier had received a pitiful monthly salary of 75 francs. In contemporary terms, 200,000 francs in 1900 would equal almost 7 million francs or about 1.25 million U.S. dollars.7
Saunière may have been dispatched to a backwater location in an uninspiring corner of France, but he was living like a combination of Vatican cardinal and eastern potentate, a man whose every desire—material, spiritual, cultural and carnal—appeared satisfied thanks to an apparently endless source of funds. He fed special biscuits to his flock of ducks to produce a milder flavor when they were roasted, boasted a well-stocked wine cellar, and had seventy liters of rum brought in each month from Jamaica. In June 1891 Saunière staged a procession through the village to display a newly acquired statue of the Virgin of Lourdes, which he installed on a pillar in the elegant new church gardens. The following year, he added a new confessional and pulpit, and mysteriously designed Stations of the Cross set in an unusual circular pattern that was believed to represent a coded message. The water stoup soon boasted an elaborate guardian devil, a commissioned statue of Mary Magdalene and numerous other items that elevated his tiny church far above the expected level of taste and culture for such an otherwise insipid community.
7 Other estimates of the value of Saunière's expenses range up to 250 million francs (over $50 million), a figure that strains credulity to the extreme.
The ambitious priest began decorating more than his beloved church. The villagers delighted in his plans to construct a grotto near a life-sized image of Christ on the cross in the town square. Marie Denarnaud took equal delight in wearing the latest Paris fashions in her strolls through the marketplace, sometimes carrying a purse containing deeds to property that Saunière had purchased in her name.
In addition to an elaborate restoration of its dilapidated church, Rennes-le-Chateau soon boasted an impressive tower dedicated to Mary Magdalene.
Local citizens were curious about the source of Saunière's riches, but not especially so. After all, he was providing employment for local artisans, and adding a measure of distinction that the community had been sorely lacking. Besides, their interest was sufficiently satisfied with a tale that explained things reasonably while appealing to their somewhat rebellious nature. Here is what the local folk believed:
Saunière had unearthed something more valuable than gold and jewels during his excavations. The treasure of Dagobert, and the identity of the buried man (“… and he is dead there”) was not the long-deceased Merovingian king himself but the body of Christ, its location pinpointed by a coded parchment hidden in the pillar beneath the altar.
Consider the import of that discovery. The existence of Christ's body in an insignificant French village would destroy every tenet of Christianity, scatter every foundation of its faith, and demolish every institution from the Vatican down. Either Christ had not died on the cross, or he had not arisen from the dead and been elevated to heaven three days later. Each theological principle of Christianity would have to be rethought and rewritten or discarded entirely, along with 2000 years of piety and sacrifice.
What was Saunière to do? A deeply religious man might have kept the secret forever, clinging to the faith he had lived by and refusing to shatter the spirituality of millions. A rationalist would have made his discovery public, challenging old ideologies and assisting to replace them, and the faith they represented, with a new order.
Saunière was neither of these. He was a materialist who, quietly disclosing his discovery to a small group of selected Church leaders, promised to conceal the facts in exchange for a generous stipend, paid by the Church while they plotted their next move. In effect, Christianity was being blackmailed by an obscure French priest living openly with his young house-keeper/mistress.
If this were the case, the Church's ultimate response after several years of meeting his demands might be first to discredit Saunière, and later slap him down and be done with it. Which is what happened, but not before various mysterious events occurred, the kind that set small-town tongues wagging and conspiracy fans salivating.
The process began dramatically with the strange deaths of two local church officials. On the eve of All Saint's Day 1897 Abbé Gelis, a reclusive priest in the nearby village of Coustaussa, was found brutally murdered in the kitchen of his presbytery. Beaten with a pair of fire tongs and an ax, the priest had been reverently positioned on the floor with his hands neatly placed on his chest. While the residence had been ransacked, robbery appeared not to be the motive because 800 francs were found in an easily accessible drawer. The murder was never solved.
Five years later, the placid Bishop Billard of Carcassonne was also murdered. Billard, who not only failed to question Saunière regarding his wealth and extravagant lifestyle but appears to have encouraged it, suffered a fate as brutal as Abbé Gelis. His murder also remains unsolved.
Bishop Billard's successor, Abbé de Beauséjour, was not as forgiving to Saunière as Billard had been, especially after delving into the priest's background. Accusing Saunière of unspecified outrageous acts, the new bishop demanded explanations for Saunière's actions and an audit of the parish's income and expenses, demands Saunière ignored before attempting to placate his superior with faked and incomplete records.
By 1909, the bishop had had enough. He ordered Saunière to leave his post at Rennes-le-Chateau. When Saunière refused, he was promptly defrocked. For eight years, the disgraced priest remained in the village, cared for by the faithful Marie Denarnaud to whom he willed all of his earthly possessions when he died in 1917. Saunière's estate consisted of a few books and a handful of worthless trinkets, but Marie was assured of a reasonably comfortable existence because Saunière had transferred Villa Bethania to her. She survived for the next thirty years by renting rooms within the mansion, finally passing ownership of the property her lover priest had acquired in her name to a local businessman in exchange for a lifetime annuity. This income source supported her for the rest of her uneventful life until her passing in January 1953. The man who purchased the land and provided the annuity was Noel Corbu, a local entrepreneur. Mark that name.
Through the period between the two world wars, while Marie Denarnaud lived quietly with her memories and secrets, France was jostled by two competing political factions. Royalists, who supported a return to a monarchist government and enjoyed open support from the Catholic Church, were opposed by republicans, who favored democratically elected governments. Many leaders of the republican movement were Masons, who had dominated French politics since the 1880s.
The conflict remained relatively benign until France encountered the upheaval of the late 1920s that brought Hitler to power in neighboring Germany. Assuming many of the postures that characterized the Nazis, groups composing the French far right grew more racist. Along with the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Europe, French right-wing extremists added Masons to their list of likely traitors and subversives. Given the turmoil of Europe and the global economic crisis produced by the Great Depression, scapegoats were found everywhere, and coalitions congealed whenever a common enemy was identified. Extreme monarchists joined forces, presenting themselves as knightly orders assigned to redeem a lost society now dominated by Jews and Masons. The election of Leon Blum, a Jew, as the country's first socialist prime minister, drove monarchists and the far right into a coalition that paved the way for the Vichy regime and France's collaboration with occupying Nazis during World War ii.
By 1900, Rennes-le-Chateau and the Bethania Mansion shown on this postcard had begun to grow in fame and notoriety.
Among the monarchist/fascist groups shaped during this swirl of political commotion was Alpha Galates (The First Gauls). The organization generated little interest and made even less impact until its members elected, as its titular head, a teenager named Pierre Plantard. Either very precocious or well connected, Plantard achieved fame and notoriety exceeding both his working-class origins and his mediocre intellect.
Plantard sometimes assumed the clichéd manner and appearance of French underworld characters: gaunt and dark, with a perpetual sneer and a Gauloise hanging from his lips. At other times, he posed as an intellectual, an existentialist comfortable in the company of a Malraux or Sartre. The best depiction of Plantard, who identified himself variously as Pierre de France and Plantard de St. Clair, is chameleon-like; he altered whatever aspect of his life and values necessary to achieve whatever goal happened to fall within his vision at the time. Other descriptions of the man are less neutral, including charlatan, fraud artist and convicted criminal. The latter is easily confirmed via French police archives revealing he had been found guilty of extortion and embezzlement, and sentenced to six months in prison.
Pierre Plantard (with his son Thomas in 1979) was a convicted con man whose most successful hoax spawned a best-selling novel.
During the Vichy regime that ruled Nazi-occupied France from 1940 to 1944, Plantard and his Alpha Galates group published Vaincre (To Conquer), a magazine dedicated to French nationalism and restoration of the monarchy. Many of the publication's articles were openly anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic, an accusation that Plantard later justified by claiming it avoided censure by the Gestapo. If that were indeed the strategy, it failed miserably; Vaincre was shut down and Plantard imprisoned in 1943 because, according to Nazi records, he was too openly supportive of French fascist views over those of Germany. Plantard, in later years, had a more flattering explanation: The Nazis discovered that his articles in Vaincre contained secret codes for French Resistance fighters.
Whichever side Plantard was on, he was clearly a firebrand when it came to French nationalism, a role he pursued with even greater vigor after hostilities ended in 1945. Two years later, Plantard created The Latin Academy, whose avowed purpose was to conduct historical research but whose more apparent goal was to continue the right-wing activities of Alpha Galates. As a mark of the group's questionable success, documents incorporating the “academy” listed Plantard's mother as its titular head.
Plantard became a familiar figure among certain Catholic leaders in Paris, particularly the seminary of St. Sulpice, and it was there in the mid-1950s that he began claiming to be the Merovingian pretender to the French throne. Later, in 1956,he extended that identity by proclaiming himself leader of a divinely guided organization founded by Godfrey de Bouillon during the time of the Crusades, and whose members had been influencing world events since the days of Christ. It was called The Priory of Sion.
The organization's title may have changed, borrowed from the medieval monastery that began as Our Lady of Mount Zion, but in most ways it remained Alpha Galates attached to a new face and a new magazine, this one titled Circuit. Plantard's publication soon began carrying stories of Father Saunière, hinting at secrets the priest uncovered in the remote Pyrenees village. The articles eventually formed the basis of a book by Plantard detailing Saunière's discoveries, implications that Christ's body had been buried near the little church dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the uniting of Christ's descendants and French gothic blood with the marriage of Dagobert and Giselle, and the astounding secret that had been maintained through the lives of great men of history.
It was an intriguing story, but Plantard's writing style was less than gripping because no one appeared interested in publishing his book. In an effort to generate support for his literary work, Plantard announced that he had obtained two of the parchments discovered by Saunière in the hollow pillar supporting the altar, and with some fanfare he bestowed them on the Bibliothèque Nationale, the French National Library. The existence of these parchments represented a vital link between Saunière's strange behavior and the existence of the Priory of Sion. Suddenly there were a few believers where only skeptics had stood smiling and shaking their heads.
Both parchments provided by Plantard contained hidden messages, one honoring Dagobert's marriage to Giselle and the other, more cryptic, referring to the Priory of Sion. Once their contents, if not their authenticity, were confirmed, Plantard stunned scholars and historians by announcing that the documents proved he was a direct descendant of Dagobert and Giselle, thus explaining his role as Grand Master of the Priory of Sion.
The clue to the truth behind the Priory of Sion lies within this complex code on parchment, but not in the manner you might expect.
The parchments were followed by a revised version of the book, now made publishable thanks to the parchments and some serious rewriting by co-author Gerard de Sède. Titled L'Or de Rennes and published in 1967, the book detailed the story of the Priory's beginnings with Mary Magdalene and Christ's children, accompanied either by Christ or his corpse, escaping across the Mediterranean to Gaul. From there it traced the bloodline through Giselle de Razes, tracked her descendants across 1300 years of world history, and ended with the discovery of the parchments and other paraphernalia by Saunière.
The book's revelations generated two distinct and equally fervent points of view. One found the story indisputable, relying on various sources for its authenticity including the mysterious wealth accumulated by Saunière, the existence of the parchments, historical references to Dagobert and the Merovingian line, and Plantard's own convincing accounts. The imaginations of these believers galloped towards conviction that a secret society had carried one of mankind's greatest mysteries through generations of descendants whose intellectual superiority and creativity could be explained through a direct connection with the Creator. These adherents scurried to locate historical references that supported Plantard's claims. Inevitably they found some, and with each apparent confirmation, momentum grew among the believers.
The other side remained skeptical, and over time they discovered a few realities of their own.
The first speed bump on the Priory road occurred when two of Plantard's associates, Gerard de Sède and Philippe de Chérisy, sued Plantard to recover royalties promised them from the book's sale. De Sède's role as co-author was acknowledged, but who was de Chérisy? He was revealed as a well-educated academic with a reputation as something of a prankster. By the time L'Or de Rennes was published, he had acquired a drinking habit that would later kill him. More important, de Chérisy claimed that the parchments submitted to the Bibliothèque Nationale were forgeries. He knew they were, because he had produced them as a means of generating publicity and authenticity for Plantard's book.
Plantard, by now riding a wave of publicity and sales from L'Or de Rennes, quickly agreed with de Chérisy. The parchments were not authentic, he admitted, but they were not forgeries either. They were meticulous copies of the original parchments which, due to their value, Plantard was storing in a safe place whose location he refused to reveal. He also announced that his family had suppressed the fact that their origins were not entirely French. Plantard's ancestors, he declared, included a distinct lineage with the St. Clairs, anglicized as Sinclair, who had founded Scottish Rite Freemasonry. This alleged link explained the means of maintaining the secrecy of the Priory of Sion's existence down through the centuries. The revelation satisfied believers, but prompted skeptics to dig deeper into the tale, with remarkable results.
The first discovery involved a close examination of the pillars that had supported the altar in Saunière's church, easily located in Rennes-le-Chateau, where they were displayed as part of the town's heritage. None of the pillars was hollow. In fact, all three were quite solid, with the exception of a crack in one that may have concealed a postcard or two but nothing more. An even more disturbing revelation was to follow.
Remember Noel Corbu? He purchased Villa Bethania, the mansion Saunière had built with money earned from his supposed discovery of either bones or treasure. Following Saunière's death, Marie Denarnaud converted the mansion into a rooming house before exchanging it for the lifetime annuity from Corbu. After Marie died in 1953, Corbu transformed Villa Bethania into a small hotel and restaurant. With nothing to attract tourists to Rennes-le-Chateau beyond tales of Saunière's eccentricities and his mysterious wealth, Corbu's investment in his operation would never amount to much. He solved the problem with nothing less than a marketing tool, a device that owed everything to entrepreneurial strategy and almost nothing to the truth.
Corbu concocted a dramatic tale of the legend behind Saunière's mysterious accumulation of riches, populated with characters who would be quite at home in a Harry Potter novel and delivered with the flair of a campfire ghost story. Recording the narrative in his own voice, he played it in his restaurant as a diversion for diners, later publishing it in pamphlet form as a souvenir of their visit.
The story of Saunière and Rennes-le-Chateau was hardly Joseph Conrad quality, but it amused visitors dining on their pol au pot and cassoulet. They absorbed facts about the town's Roman and gothic roots, its destruction during various battles with Spain, the arrival of Berenger Saunière in 1885, his poverty-stricken early years and his sudden, unexplained accumulation of wealth.
To this point Corbu, who never denied being the author, remained reasonably close to confirmable facts. When he began to explain the source of Saunière's fortune, however, fiction trampled fact into obscurity.
According to Corbu, files in Carcassonne confirmed that Saunière had stumbled upon a fortune buried beneath his church in 1249 by Blanche de Castille, mother of Louis ix, the last great Crusader and the only French king declared a saint. A mini-revolt led by power-seeking barons and oppressed vassals began soon after the king departed for Palestine. His mother, sensing that Paris was not the safest place for the royal treasury, secretly shipped the monarch's gold and jewels to Rennes-le-Chateau. When Louis returned from the east he subdued the revolts and left Paris again several years later, this time to lead the Eighth Crusade. He never returned, dying in Tunis and leaving his son Philippe le Hardi as his successor. Philippe, deciding that the country's treasury was safer in this remote village than in the capital, improved the town's defenses. Perhaps he forgot to tell his son, Philippe le Bel, destroyer of the Templars, about the country's mobile riches, because from that point forward, according to Corbu, the treasure was forgotten.
Forgotten? How does even a French king from the Middle Ages forget 180 tons of gold plus jewels and art objects worth, according to Corbu's 1956 estimate, “4000 billion francs”? Even more basic, how did the king's servants transport 180-plus tons of gold and other goodies more than 650 kilometers (400 miles) in the first place? And why, of all places, to Rennes-le-Chateau, one of the furthest locations from Paris, on the border with one of France's enemies?
No one appears to have questioned this feat, distracted perhaps by Corbu's next revelation:
The treasure was found twice. In 1645 a shepherd named Ignace Paris fell in a hole and brought back golden coins. He then claimed he saw a room filled with gold. He finally went mad, trying to protect his gold. The owner of the castle searched for it but could not find [the gold]. Later came Saunière, who found the gold….
It is in this small village with a superb landscape and a prestigious history that one of the most fabulous treasures in the world is hidden!
This kind of fable was probably more effective than a rave review in Paris Match at drawing patrons to Corbu's hotel and restaurant. Corbu knew it, and he took advantage of contacts in the media to spread his tale among newspapers and magazines. Rennes-le-Chateau did not become a new Monaco overnight, but it seems to have drawn its share of intrigued visitors, and among them was Pierre Plantard, perhaps in search of a scam. The meeting between Corbu and Plantard is not speculation; photographs confirm that the two men met around 1960, shortly before Plantard wrote his first draft of the book eventually published as L'Or de Rennes.
The most notable absence in Corbu's fable is any mention of the lovely Giselle, whose marriage to Dagobert joined the power of the Visigoths with the bloodline of Christ. How could Corbu overlook such a vital episode in the historical legend? The answer is startlingly simple and revealing: Giselle de Razes never existed. She is as fictional as Snow White. She did not exist in either flesh or spirit in the seventh century, and exists in the twenty-first century only in the minds of deluded followers, conspiracy buffs and gullible readers of a recent best-selling novel. Despite claimed records tracing a family lineage before and after Giselle, in the opinion of Aviad Kleinberg, noted medieval scholar and professor of history at Tel Aviv University, the beautiful, intelligent and charming Giselle remains “an invention of the 20th century.”
Without the existence of Giselle, Plantard's entire fabrication collapsed beneath him like a paper porch, so he simply created her as the Visigoth connection with the Merovingian bloodline. Plantard admitted as much from time to time—consistency was not one of the Frenchman's notable virtues—and launched a new version of the Priory tale in 1989. At that time, he claimed a man named Roger-Patrice Pelat, an acquaintance of then Prime Minister Mitterrand, was the current Priory Grand Master of the Priory of Sion and not Plantard himself, as he had been claiming for thirty years. Pelat's status was never confirmed, but he had at least one thing in common with Plantard: both had been convicted of fraud and embezzlement, Plantard's trial taking place soon after his apparent elevation to Grand Master status.
In September 1993, during an official investigation into Pelat's activities Plantard, who never encountered a media moment he didn't like, came forward in his friend's defense. It was a move he regretted after the presiding judge ordered a search of Plantard's dwelling. The search uncovered reams of documents, many proclaiming Plantard as king of France, which was enough for the judge to order Plantard to answer questions under oath. Whatever Inquisition techniques might have been used, Plantard quickly admitted that the entire undertaking was a hoax, that he had made up all the details regarding the bloodline, including the marriage of Giselle and Dagobert, the discovery by Saunière of either a treasure or a corpse beneath or near his church, and his own identity as a Priory of Sion Grand Master. The judge, lenient perhaps due to Plantard's age and broken spirit, called Plantard a harmless crank and released him with a warning not to play games with the French judicial system. Plantard left the courtroom and wandered into relative obscurity until his death in February 2000.
These events—the investigation of Pelat, the claims of Plantard about Pelat's Grand Master position in the Priory of Sion, the phony documents and Plantard's admission of fraud—were widely reported in the French media at the time. No one has disputed them; they are as authentic and confirmable as the fable of Giselle is imaginary.
Of course, there is just enough truth to the story of Saunière and the supposed holy bloodline to suggest that Plantard lied not when he told his often-altered tale but when he claimed the Priory was a fabrication. Perhaps his original tale was true after all. Perhaps his claim under oath that it had all been a fabrication was a brave man's effort at concealing a sacred truth. How, for example, could this somewhat simple-minded man create such a complex structure as the Merovingian bloodline, supported by documents from the past?
8 For more on the Protocols, see Chapter 11 herein.
The answer lies in the maelstrom of political upheaval that swept Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, when Plantard was first building his reputation as an imaginative sycophant of fascist principles. During those years, an Italian fanatic named Julius Evola attracted the interest of far-right proponents, including Heinrich Himmler and Oswald Mosley, when he published an Italian version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,8 claiming that Jewish leaders had met in the nineteenth century to frame their strategy for ruling the world. Evola supported a philosophy similar to the Divine Right of Kings, promoting the old system of power based on the acceptance of a true monarch as a sacred being from whom divine virtues and powers flow to his subjects. He especially admired Godfrey de Bouillon, the first European ruler of Palestine and, supposedly, the founder of the Priory of Sion.
Around the same time, a German scholar named Walter Johannes Stein published The Ninth Century: World History in the Light of the Holy Grail, a doctoral dissertation that included a genealogical chart Stein labeled “The Grail Bloodline.” Although the bloodline was a symbolic representation of historical figures who had demonstrated a high spiritual nature and paranormal capacities, someone skimming the surface of Stein's premise could easily mistake the symbols for real people—especially when Stein's lineage chart included Godfrey de Bouillon and the French royal family.
These and other esoteric documents accessible in libraries across France could easily have stimulated Plantard's imagination. Spiced with his confirmed penchant for fraud and his hunger for public recognition, Plantard shaped a core of history, with a cover of esoterica wrapped around a substantial amount of fiction, into a ball of a fairy tale that he rolled down a mountain, the ball growing in weight and stature until it swept up three British writers, who molded it into a best-seller titled The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.9
One mystery remained. Where did Father Saunière find the money for his extravagant construction and lifestyle? Unlike other aspects of the tale, this was no myth; Saunière's Magdalena Tower, extravagant church interior and Villa Bethania mansion exist to this day. How could he amass so much money without finding Louis ix's treasure or blackmailing the Church with Christ's bones? The confirmed answer is common and familiar: simple fraud.
9 For more on this book and its shaky premise, see Chapter 11 herein.
Until the practice was outlawed by Vatican ii, Catholic priests could claim a stipend for celebrating a Mass to heal an illness suffered by a living person, or to hasten the passage through purgatory to heaven for a departed soul. Income from these Masses was an acceptable and even encouraged form of financial support for the priest and his parish.
In time, however, unscrupulous priests saw these commissioned Masses as a source of substantial income from Catholics beyond their community, and even beyond their country. Soon Masses were being marketed like any mail order item, advertised in newspapers and Catholic journals. The faithful could have a Mass said on behalf of whomever they desired by forwarding money and details to the priest whose name appeared in the advertisement.
No one, except God and the priest himself, could confirm that the Mass actually occurred. A priest might receive literally thousands of mailed requests, each accompanied by a few francs in cash, to celebrate Masses in the same week or even on the same day. The practice was called “trafficking in Masses,” and it appears that Saunière mastered the process. Advertisements appearing in various publications throughout Europe were traced back to the priest in the Pyrenees, and an examination of his books, recording the responses to his marketing campaign, revealed that Saunière could not possibly celebrate all the Masses that he had been paid to conduct, even if he were employed at the task twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The volume of Mass requests and the money enclosed over the years between 1895 and 1904 easily exceeded the 200,000 francs needed to achieve all the construction Saunière directed, as well as goodies such as the rum shipments from the Caribbean.
Correspondence seized from Saunière's church when he was defrocked revealed the enormous extent of his industry. One family sent 250 francs to pay for 125 Masses celebrated for each of their two departed sisters. A widow forwarded 45 francs to pay for 30 Masses for her dead soldier husband, and members of a convent paid 16 francs for Masses for their recently deceased abbess, who herself had paid Saunière for several Masses.
Saunière may have had a silent mentor for his Mass marketing scheme. Investigations revealed that Monsignor Billard, Bishop of Carcassonne, had been under investigation at the time of his death for acting in a similar manner, which may explain Billard's tolerance for Saunière's own indiscretions.
They are all long dead now—Berenger Saunière, Marie Denarnaud, Pierre Plantard, Gerard de Sède, Philippe de Chérisy and Noel Corbu who, having built his La Tour hotel and restaurant into a thriving little business thanks to the myth of the buried treasure, sold it for a pretty price in 1964 and retired. But not for long; he was killed in a motor accident in 1968.
The myth lives on because people want it to survive and even grow, if only to satisfy their love of deep mystery and colorful intrigue. Someone will doubtless claim to see the ghost of Giselle de Razes, beautiful and radiant, strolling the grounds near the Magdalena Tower in her wedding finery, sighing for her lost Dagobert and searching for the buried treasure. If so, only the tower will be real.