Currently, the most fashionable Conspiracy Theory of History is that there is an international secret society, the Prieuré de Sion, that has been behind many world events over the past thousand years, that a French priest in the village of Rennes-le-Château stumbled upon their secret over a hundred years ago and that the Prieuré is protecting a family lineage that can be traced back to Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene (who were married, in case you didn’t know). It’s all there in secret documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, so it must be true!

Rennes-le-Château and the Prieuré de Sion

Cover of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail

Cover of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail

In a book published in 1982, authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln claimed to have uncovered a massive international and long-running conspiracy, involving the church, cultural and military leaders, a bloodline descended from Jesus of Nazareth and a secret society, the Prieuré de Sion, behind many of the major events of the past thousand years of European history. Their book – The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – built on three television documentaries researched by one of its authors, Henry Lincoln (real name Henry Soskin, born 1930), which were broadcast in the 1970s. These, in turn, had been based in part on L’or de Rennes (‘The Gold of Rennes’), a book published in 1967 by the French writer Gérard de Sède (1921-2004), and proved an international success.

It began with an investigation into a minor local mystery first brought to a wider public attention in France by de Sède. The mystery was how was an obscure country priest, Bérenger Saunière (1852-1917), was apparently able to spend vast sums of money in the years around 1900 refurbishing his parish church at the remote village of Rennes-le-Château in Languedoc, south-west France. De Sède developed the thesis that he had stumbled upon a secret that could rock the very foundations of western civilisation. The secret? That Jesus had fathered at least one child and that his descendants continue to operate behind the scenes, influencing the course of European history through the machinations of a secret religious order, the Prieuré de Sion, a secret society originally founded in Jerusalem during the First Crusade.

In a follow-up book, The Messianic Legacy, the authors claimed that the then Grand Master of the Prieuré, Pierre Plantard (“de Saint Clair”, 1920-2000), was aiming for a restoration of the Merovingian dynasty to rule not just France, but to take on a monarchic role in the running of the European Union. This was to be achieved by popular consent, with Pierre Plantard or some other Merovingian claimant taking the responsibility for ruling.

Le Trésor Maudit, a revised version of L’Or de Rennes

Le Trésor Maudit, a revised version of L’Or de Rennes

Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s works bear a superficially impressive critical apparatus, with extensive endnotes and bibliographies, demonstrating a huge amount of research, much of it using obscure and unpublished documents and sometimes popularising the work of serious academics, such as the biblical historian Robert Eisenmann. Their research deals with characters who were once famous but who are now little known outside specialist histories, such as Godfrey de Bouillon or René d’Anjou. Their statements are well documented, so why would any historian disagree with their conclusions?

Like so many such adventure stories, it unravels very quickly. We know the source of Saunière’s ‘wealth’: he was suspended from his priestly duties after being found guilty of selling masses and receipts exist for a short period in the 1890 that show the income generated was respectable, although not vast. Through a series of advertisements in predominantly royalist newspapers and magazines, he solicited money for the promise of saying a mass on behalf of the donor. Several of his account books have survived, showing that it would have been impossible for anyone to say even a fraction of the masses he was being paid to deliver. The failure of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln to recognise the source of money is symptomatic of the superficiality of their research and their lack of critical judgement.

Firstly, the research may have been wide ranging, but it was scarcely critical. In particular, the documentation they cite for the Prieuré de Sion is based entirely on some documents deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris between 1956 and 1969. These documents turn out to be typescripts and scrapbook collections, emanating from a small group of people who are implicated in the ‘conspiracy’ the authors believe they have uncovered. At only one point do they stop to ask themselves if they are the victims of a hoax, only to conclude that they are not, on the grounds that such a hoax would have to be carried out over many years and was too elaborate to be plausible. It is difficult to believe that many people would agree with their analysis: the sheer implausibility of the information these dubious documents are supposed to contain (for instance, that the Grand Masters of the Prieuré de Sion have included such characters as Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Debussy) is such that any careful historian would search for evidence to back up these assertions, but they have been unable to find any whatsoever. The whole thing comes down to trusting the typescript documents.

The Da Vinci Code

The story should end with the revelation that Saunière’s alleged ‘wealth’ was short-lived and easily attributed to his illegal sales of masses. However, it caught the zeitgeist of late twentieth-century conspiracy theory and was given a new lease of life it does not deserve by Dan Brown’s phenomenally successful novel The Da Vinci Code, which became the best-selling work of fiction of all time. It is clearly heavily indebted to the improbable scenario hypothesised by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, but weaves their quasi-historical musings into a suspenseful tale of murder and intrigue.

Dan Brown’s insistence in his introduction that the historical documents and events he has used to create the background to his story are all factually correct have been taken at face value by many, even most, of his readers. It may be that he believes that the Prieuré de Sion is a real and venerable, if sinister, institution. At any rate, his fiction has inspired many to look more deeply into the supposed mystery of Rennes-le-Château.

The archaeology of Rennes-le-Château

This is where the Bad Archaeology really impacts on the story. While Baigent et al. were content to make assertions about the past of the village, they seem never to have been really interested in these aspects of the story, as they became increasingly drawn into the web of fantasy maintained by Pierre Plantard. Nevertheless, it has become an unfortunate aspect of the resurgence of interest in the tale that numerous unauthorised excavations have taken place in and around the village. It is not always clear what the excavators are looking for. It may be that they believe the ‘lost treasure of Jerusalem’ is buried somewhere close to the village; they may be seeking the body of Jesus; they may be searching for clues overlooked or defaced by Saunière. Whatever their motive, they have prompted the local authority to place notices warning that les fouilles sont interdites (‘excavations are forbidden’), as graves in the village cemetery have been desecrated in these random searches.

One of the more egregious claims made – but not backed up with any data – by Baigent et al. is that Rennes-le-Château was once a populous town, known as Rhédae in Latin, the capital of the early medieval comté of Razès. Citing nineteenth-century antiquarian authors, they speculate on its origins as a Celtic stronghold and its importance during the Roman period. They fail to cite any archaeological evidence for such an important place and do not bother with any recent works of archaeology or local history to test the hypothesis. Like all Bad Archaeologists, they regard the petty details of the lack of material culture or structures as too mundane to have any impact on their grand theories. Perhaps it is all part of the conspiracy by orthodox scholars to keep the general public ignorant of the terrible secrets to which they are party…