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The mysterious French organization known as the Priory of Zion may be a nine-hundred-year-old secret society possessing proof that Jesus Christ survived the crucifixion. What’s more, it may also be the repository of Europe’s secret history, and indeed the underground annals of all Christendom. Then again, maybe it’s just an extremely elaborate hoax. Whichever, it launched a best-selling book, 1982’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by BBC documentary filmmaker Henry Lincoln and historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.

Lincoln and company set out to write about one of France’s most enduring riddles, the legend of Rennes-le-Chateau, an antique village ensconsed in the Pyrenees mountains. Legend has it that somehwhere beneath its cobblestone streets, Rennes-le-Chateau harbors a fabulous treasure. Locals are partial to the theory that the stash belonged to the Cathars, Christian heretics stamped out by the Catholic church in the thirteenth century. New Age pilgrims and occultists trek there to partake of the town’s supposed spiritual energy; treasure hunters prowl its windswept perimeters in search of more worldly goods; others tie the source of the town’s mustical fascination to UFOs.

Whatever the theory, Rennes-le-Chateau owes its renaissance as a mystical landmark to a nineteenth-century cleric named Berenger Sauniere, and that is where Lincoln, Baigent, and Leigh began their quest.

The story opens in 1885, when the Catholic church assigned Sauniere, thirty-three years old, handsome, well-educated – if provincial – to the parish at Rennes-le-Chateau. Sauniere set about restoring the town’s tiny church, which sat atop a sacred site dating back to the sixth-century Visigoths. Under the altar stone, inside a hollow Visigothic pillar, the young cure discovers a series of parchments. There were two genealogies dating from 1244a.d. and 1644a.d., as well as more recent documents created by a former parish priest during the 1780s. according to Lincoln and his coauthors, these more recent papers contained a series of ciphers and codes, some of them “fantastically complex, defying even a computer” to unlock their secrets.

Sauniere took his discovery to the bishop in a nearby Carcassonne, who dispatched the priest to Paris, where clerical scholars studied the parchments. One of the simpler ciphers, when translated, read: TO DAGOBERT II KIND AND TO SION BELONGS THIS TREASURE AND HE IS THERE DEAD.

Whatever it all meant, apparently it became Sauiere’s entrée into a new world, with the accent on worldly. For during his short stay in Paris, Sauniere began to mix with the city’s cultural elite, many of whom dabbled in the occult arts. Contemporary gossip had it that the country priest had an affair with Emma Calve, the famous opera diva who was also a high priestess of the Parisian esoteric underground. She would later visit him frequently in Rennes-le-Chateau.

When Sauniere returned to his parish, he resumed restoration of the church and discovered an underground crypt, supposedly containing skeletons. At this point, his taste in interior design seems to have taken a turn for the, well, peuliare; among the eccentric fixtures he installed were a holy water basin surmounted by a statue of a sneering red demon and an equally garish wall relief depicting Jesus atop a hill at the base of which is an object resembling a sack of money. The stations of the cross had their oddities too: One, set at night, depicted Jesus being carried into the tomb – or smuggled out of it? Sauniere also installed a series of cipher messages in the fixtures of the church. He spent a fortune refurbishing the town and developed extravagant tastes for rare china, antiques, and other pricey artifacts. Yet how Sauniere acquired this apparent windfall remained a mystery – he stubbornly refused to explain the secret of his success to the church authorities. When he died in 1917, he was supposedly penniless, yet his former housekeeper later spoke of a “secret” that would make its owner not only rich but also “powerful.” Unfortunately, she never spilled the beans.

Lincoln and his coauthors found no treasure, though they speculated the Sauniere might have exhumed somebody’s loot: Maybe it was the legendary Cathar hoard, or the nest egg of the Visigoths, or perhaps the treasure of the Merovingian kings who ruled the region between the fifth and eighth centuries – the Dagobert II mentioned in the coded parchment was one of them. Maybe it was a combination of all three treasures. Or, if not treasure in the conventional sense, then perhaps Sauniere had discovered some form of forbidden knowledge and had used it to blackmail someone, say, for instance, the church.

At any rate, during their investigation into the legend of Sauniere, what Lincoln and company did discover was less cashable, yet just as mysterious: an unseen hand “discreetly, tantalizingly” directing a low-key publicity effort on behalf of the legend.

At the center of the underground PR campaign they found an enigmatic and very real figure named Pierre Plantard de Saint Clair, apparently the source behind much of the recent literature devoted to the hilltown and its enigmatic priest. Shepherded to Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale, our trio of historical investigators discovered there a provocative genealogy purporting to link Pierre Plantard to King Dagobert II and the Merovingian dynasty. Hardly your tun-of-the-mill blue blood, that Monsieur Plantard, for the Merovingians were considered in their day to be quasi-mystical warrior-kings vested with supernatural powers. Ah, but that was only one item on Plantard’s impressive family resume. More on that in a moment.

Throughout these dossiers secrets at Paris’s national library were tantalizing historical references to a mysterious and ancient secret society called Prieure de Sion, or Priory of Zion. The word Zion, of course, appeared in various ciphers connected with Rennes-le-Chateau. It also seemed to refer to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, site of the ancient Temple of Solomon.

According to the secret dossiers, the spectral Priory was linked to the famous Knights Templar, an order of warrior monks who defended the European occupation of the Holy Land during the twelfth century. The Templars took their name from the source of their authority and the site of their quarters, built on the ruins of the Temple of Solomon. Of course, this wasn’t the first conspiracy theory to cast the Templars as cabalistic bugaboos, yet their supposed connection to the (possibly fictional) Priory of Zion was a new one. Taking a cue from the dossiers, Lincoln and company speculated that the clandestine Priory had hidden behind the Knights Templar, which served as the Priory’s armed entourage and public face.

And if these secret dossiers were to be believed, the Priory of Zion was a covert force to be reckoned with. References to well-known historical events suggested that the Priory had been a secret power in Europe ever since the Crusades, a gray eminence manipulating kings and popes in the furtherance of some obscure mission.

According to the musty pamphlets and microfiche in France’s national library, throught he ages the Priory’s leaders had included such luminaries as Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Radclyffe, Victor Hugo, and the most recent entry on the list, Jean Cocteau, the twentieth-century artist and author. In all, the list named twenty-sex such “grand masters” spanning some seven hundred years!

Could the group have survived into the late twentieth century? Lincoln and company checked with the French authorities and discovered that there was indeed a contemporary organization calling itself Priory of Zion. And who do you think was registered as the group’s secretary-general but Pierre Plantard.

When Lincoln finally tracked him down, Plantard turned out to be a wily old aristocrat who had played a small part in the French Resistance. But his deliberate obfuscation seemed intended as much to conceal something as to lure the authors further into the mystery.

Just what was Plantard trying to hide – or reveal in his consciously elipitical way? What was the possible sinister purpose behind the Priory of Zion?

The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail proposed a theory, as tangled and complicated as the dossier secrets, yet entertainingly mounted and surprisingly well argued. Was there a connection, they wondered, between the heretical Cathars of thirteenth-century France, Sauniere” Rennes-le-Chateau, the Templars, and the omnipresent Priory of Zion?

But of courseand the Templars’ treasure of King Solomon. At some point, according to Lincoln et al., the treasure had passed from the Merovingians to the Priory of Zion, whose Templar operative later hustled the precious hoard from the Holy Land to the French Cathars, who, on the eve of their destruction by the church, squirreled the lucre away in the Pyrenees.

But what if the “treasure” was something other than gold? After all, legend had it that the Cathar heretics possessed a valuable, even sacred relic, “which according to a number of legends, was the Holy Grail,” itself. During World War II, the Nazis supposedly excavated various sites in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Chareau in their futile search for the Grail (which was dramatized in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Was the lost Cathar/Templar/Merovingian/Sauniere treasure, then, the fabled Holy Grail, itself? By suggesting that it was, our trailblazing authors were not suggesting that the ominous Priory revolved around a mere religious relic – and a rusty old goblet at that. Lincoln and company had something more ambitious in mine. Boldly reinterpreting centuries of folklore, they proposed that the Grail of medieval romance might have been a coded reference to something much more controversial: the literal bloodline of Christ.

Here’s where Lincoln and company shifted into conspiratorial overdrive. Borrowing the thesis of Hugh J. Schonfield’s book, The Passover Plot, and grafting it onto the enigmatic Plantard clues, Lincoln and his coauthors fashioned a, well, daring theory. Stripped of syllogistic elegance, it goes something like this: Christ survived the crucifixion by “faking” his death or otherwise being “fruitful” before Good Friday, either way leaving behind the wife and kids. The “Christs” subsequently legged it to the south of France where they intermarried with the royal Franks to found what eventually became the mystical Merovingian Dynasty. Ergo, the real mission of the Templars and Priory of Zion: to safeguard not just the treasure of the Crusades, but to preserve the Grail, which appeared in medieval texts as “Sangrall” or “Sangreal,” and which Lincoln et al. translated to mean sang real, or “royal blood.” In other words: the dynastic legacy of Christ, literally.

This, then, might be the stunning secret – and the secret society that evolved through the ages to protect it – that Abbe Sauniere stumbled upon in Rennes-le-Chateau: TO DAGOBERT II KING AND TO SION BELONGS THIS TREASURE AND HE IS THERE DEAD. Who he? J.C.

Suddenly, the meandering history of Europe develops a dramatic, cohesive plot line: The persecution of the Cathars by the church, the collusion of Rome in the assassination of King Dagobert, the successful conspiracy of the Pope Clement V and Phillipe IV of France to suppress the powerful Templars – all were efforts to “eradicate it, Jesus’ bloodline.” For “it” constituted nothing less than a rival church with a more direct link to J.C.’s legacy than the Vatican could ever claim.

Whew. Fast forward to the twentieth century, and Plantard’s Merovingian pedigree has obvious implications.

Of course, Plantard’s response to all this virtuoso theorizing was that enigmatic Mona Lisa smile of his. He wasn’t about to walk on water, at least not at the behest of three future best-selling authors.

Curiously, in their followup book, The Messianic Legacy, Lincoln, Baigent, and Leigh wounded at times almost as if they were proselytizing. Advocating the concept of the lost “priest-king,” they argued that a dose of spiritual leadership might not necessarily be a bad thing for rudderless Europe, especially since the historically bickering nations were attempting to unify as an Economic Community anyway. A “theocratic United Sates of Europe” might be just what the doctor ordered, Lincoln and his associated suggested.

Yet their sequel ended on a decidedly down note, for their subsequent research raised doubts about the true nature of the Priory.

In piercing the confounding veil surrounding Plantard and his mysterious organization, Lincoln and company opened a sordid vault of modern conspiracies. Key Priory documents purporting to trace the royal lineage back to J.C., Himself, were said to have been smuggles out of France by British intelligence agents, possibly at the behest of American spooks. Why were these venal forces sullying the uplifting vision of the Lost King? There were other troubling elements lurking in the background, including Italy’s crypto-fascist P2 Masonic lodge, which during the 1980s seemed to have reserved seating at every major conspiracy event.

Could Lincoln, Baigent, and Leigh have stumbled upon an elaborate, tangles ruse set up for some abstruse objective of spycraft, or perhaps in the service of right-wing European politics? Was Plantard just a clever self-promoter with too much ancien regime leisure time on his hands? Or, if it wasn’t a hoax from the get-go, did the Priory of Zion’s ancient charter devolve at some point into a club for tweedy intelligence operatives? Was the Grail just a dirty cup filled with slippery spy dust?

During the 1980s, the books struck a ringing chord just about everywhere. The American clergy went ballistic at the suggestion that centuries of Christian dogma amounted to centuries of false dogma. Despite the fact the Holy Blood, Holy Grail restored the underappreciated French to the center of the cosmos (after all, the Messiah doesn’t have an English or American accent, does He?), modern Gallic folk tend to be unimpressed with the trio’s revisionist scholarship. And some even resent having their cherished national mysteries paraded on the international marketplace, by profiteering foreigners, no less. Of course, American and British book buyers have been much more generous.

By the 1990s, though, even Lincoln had soured on speculating about the Priory of Zion and its maddeningly hermetic chief executive, Pierre Plantard. “In my old age, I’ve decided to stick to that which can be verified,” Lincoln groused when asked for an update on the secret society.

Though disillusioned, he hadn’t finished with the mysterious hill town that launched his modern quest for the Holy Grail – not to mention his book-writing career. In his solo 1991 coffee-table book, The Holy Place, Lincoln announced that whatever else it may or may not be, the town called Rennes-le-Chateau is most certainly the “eighth Wonder of the Ancient World,” an “immense geometric temple, stretching for miles across the landscape.” But sounding like the reformed heretic stung once too often by the critical flail, Lincoln offered a rather modest closing caveat: “This book does not claim to have solved the riddle.”