The Hotel Hoax and the Wholly Fooled

Infamously ripped off wholesale by Dan Brown for The Da Vinci CodeThe Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is a comfortingly silly work of conspiracy theory. The book has its roots in the work of actor and Doctor Who screenwriter Henry Lincoln, who on holiday in France in 1969 came across Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, a book by Gérard de Sède discussing an enigma surrounding a small town in the Languedoc region of southern France.

Fascinated, Lincoln would go on to produce three documentary films for the BBC’s Chronicle strand discussing the mystery – The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? in 1972, The Painter, the Priest and the Devil in 1974, and The Shadow of the Templars in 1979 – with these films being the first time the English-speaking world was exposed to the mystery. Each time, Lincoln would revise and deepen his proposed answer to the enigma, as he perceived yet further hidden depths to the story. Joined by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, his investigations would eventually see the release of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982.


The story it tells goes like this: back in the 1890s, the tiny village of Rennes-le-Château had a new priest, a certain Bérenger Saunière. In the midst of undertaking a little renovation work on the local church, Saunière discovered some mysterious concealed documents. Various mysteries activities on the part of Saunière ensued, including the spending of an enormous amount of money to comprehensively renovate the church in a gaudily tasteless style and build various local sites, like his mansion, the Villa Bethania, and the strange folly known as the Tour Magdala.

Saunière went to his death without revealing the secret of his wealth, but following up on certain clues left in the Church renovations and other local sites, and having been guided to a set of documents anonymously deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Lincoln and his colleagues came to believe that the treasure was connected in some way to the Merovingian monarchs who ruled France between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Carolingian dynasty, and in some way to the Knights Templar and something of significance they discovered in the Holy Land.

Chasing this rabbithole further revealed the common link between the Merovingians, the Templars, and various other groups over the years connected to the enigma: a centuries-old secret society known as the Priory of Sion, the hidden power behind the Knights Templar, whose overarching goal is and always has been the restoration of the Merovingian dynasty to the throne of France, because the Merovingians were descendants of Jesus Christ (who either survived the crucifixion or never got crucified in the first place) and Mary Magdalene and therefore are considered by the Priory to have a divine right to rule.

The book is a delightful morass of sloppy research and poor logical deduction, as undertaken by people who consider themselves to be really good at both; it’s 445 pages (including index) of Dunning-Kruger effect in action. Lincoln and his co-authors are aware of the principle that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – but they keep forgetting that it isn’t evidence of presence either. Regularly, whenever they fail to find corroborating evidence for something asserted in the secret Priory of Sion documents deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale, they conclude that this is evidence of a coverup, rather than coming to the conclusion that the dossiers are making assertions which can’t be backed up.

They are also masters of inferring and implying patterns where there isn’t really one. They’ll go down rabbitholes like investigating the Templars or exploring the alleged history of the Priory of Sion or breaking down alternative theories about Jesus in order to strengthen the individual planks of their theory, but very often they’ll gloss over the connecting tissue between those planks, largely asking us to take it on faith that they are connected, though in fact many such connections are entirely spurious. (Yes, of course in principle there’s significant symbolism around Christ to be found in Templar or Merovingian contexts – because the Templars and Merovingians were Christians.)

They’re even sloppy enough researchers to imply a shred of credibility to the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, suggesting that it’s a mangled mistranslation of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Sion and that it’s actually a Priory of Sion document, not evidence of a Jewish conspiracy. Here they succumb to the same temptation as Stephen Knight before them and Bill Cooper and David Icke after them to stain themselves by giving credence to that document, rather than disowning and ignoring it as the comprehensively debunked text that it is, and kid themselves that they can get around the antisemitic implications by arguing that the document was authored by a different conspiracy and then misattributed to the Jewish community.

In fact, Lincoln, Leigh, and Baigent were either dupes of a hoax, or were willingly perpetuating a hoax. Jean-Luc Chaumeil, a French journalist who had worked extensively on the story, had in fact uncovered the hoax, exposed it prior to the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and claims to have warned Lincoln and company about the hoax before they went ahead and published their claims anyway.

The true story goes something like this: Saunière attained his absurd wealth through an entirely mundane process, the practice of “trafficking in Masses” – charging large numbers of people for the saying of Masses, when in fact he didn’t bother to say them at all (thereby allowing him to sell far more Masses than he was physically able to perform). His own journals document these masses, and he was convicted of it by the ecclesiastical authorities after repeatedly no-showing the hearings called on the matter, and his last years were lived substantially more modestly after his suspension from the clergy (presumably because nobody wants to buy a Mass from a defrocked priest).

Wind the clock forward four decades or so; in the mid-1950s, local restauranteur Noël Corbu began circulating the earliest version of the story of Saunière and his mysterious documents. Corbu was, in fact, the owner of much of Saunière’s former estate – including sites crucial to the story such as the Villa Bethania and the Tour Magdala – and had turned the Villa into a hotel. He apparently concocted the story about Sauniere from whole cloth. The only person who could really contradict him, Sauniere’s former housekeeper Marie Dénarnaud, had died – indeed, he’d bought the estate from her when she was no longer able to afford to maintain it, and then inherited Sauniere’s archives from her when she later died since she didn’t have any other successors who’d have been interested in them.

As for Dénarnaud herself? She was Saunière’s housekeeper and very close to him, and inherited all his wealth after he died. Theorists have made much of this, but the most likely explanation is that this was simply an act of generosity by Saunière, though if there is something dodgy there, it’s most likely a story about as old as clerical prohibitions against marriage: namely, that Dénarnaud and Sauniere were lovers, and may even have been secretly married, but could not openly live as man and wife due to the Church’s centuries-old rules against clerical marriage, so Dénarnaud took a role as his “housekeeper”. (Some have tried to argue against this by pointing to Saunière’s writings strongly advocating for a proper distance between employer and maidservant, though frankly this strikes me as protesting too much on his part.)

Saunière, in his will, claimed to have no significant property, with all of his money and estates being held in Marie’s name. This may have been a deft way to avoid inheritance tax, it might also have been part of a gambit by Saunière and Marie to obscure Saunière’s trafficking in masses – if Marie held the purse-strings, a cursory inspection of Saunière’s accounts wouldn’t reflect the income from the trafficking. Saunière no-showing his ecclesiastical trial when it became apparent that his account books suggests that he realised that professional accountants giving a full forensic look at his accounts would not be fooled for long, and when it became apparent that Saunière had this sort of extraordinary financial arrangement with his housekeeper the true nature of his relationship with Marie would become brutally apparent to Church authorities well-used to such clandestine arrangements.

(Perhaps the most compelling argument against clerical celibacy and in favour of permitting Catholic clergy to marry is that asking Church authorities to expend effort persecuting relationships which would be entirely appropriate, consensual, and blameless in any other context is a massive distraction, taking resources and time away from investigating genuine harm done by clergy.)

In Corbu’s original version of the story, Saunière had discovered part of the treasure horde of Blanche of Castile. but hadn’t discovered all of it – and in this feature we get a likely motive for Corbu’s hoax. What better way to attract visitors to the region year-round than the hint of a local mystery which could yield fabulous wealth to whoever discovered it? And, once they got there, what treasure hunter could resist taking a room at the Villa Bethania – one of the crucial sites in the mystery? The local tourism industry has profiteered off the story to this day – those YouTube copies of Lincoln’s films I linked to, for instance, direct viewers at the end towards plugs for Vesic Adventures’ tours of the region, and after passing through several subsequent hands the Villa Bethania became a hotel once more in the 1990s, doing brisk business off the back of the cottage industry of books and films and investigations inspired by Corbu’s original hoax, or by Plantard’s activities, or (especially with respect to Anglophone visitors) by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the cottage industry of books on Rennes-le-Château it inspired.

It’s worth remembering that Lincoln only began his investigation over a decade after Corbu and Plantard had begun their respective hoaxes, and some years after Plantard and his fellow pranksters had successfully managed to conflate them. Some of the evidence Lincoln points to in the book and in his documentary films that something funny is afoot is, in fact, the direct result of the response to those hoaxes.

Right at the start of The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem?, it’s pointed out to the viewer that archaeological digs are forbidden in the region of Rennes-le-Château by a local by-law, and it is suggested in passing that this is because someone significant wants to maintain some sort of cover-up. In fact, the by-law was a then-recent one, dating from the 1960s, and it had been enacted precisely because of Corbu‘s hoax: so many treasure-hunters had flocked to the region to undertake amateur digs that they had become a positive nuisance, and the intention of the by-law was to curtail this rather than to impede credible academic investigation.

Come the early 1960s, the treasure stories had come to the attention of one Pierre Plantard, a weird dude with a penchant for quasi-Masonic posturing. Plantard was friends with Philippe de Chérisey, a surrealist actor and dissolute aristocrat, and would around this time also befriend Gérard de Sède – also a surrealist from an aristocratic background. The trio concocted the entire Priory of Sion business – riffing on the name of a quasi-Masonic organisation Plantard had briefly set up in the mid-1950s and depositing the secret dossiers in the Bibliotheque Nationale to cook up spurious evidence for conspiracy-hunters to find – with the intention of piggybacking on the Rennes-le-Château hoax in order to tell their own narrative.

The end goal was to create the impression that Pierre Plantard, the only member of the trio without an aristocratic background, was in fact the legitimate heir of the Merovingian dynasty. The point, I suppose, was to provide a surrealist parody of the pretensions of European aristocratic lines, and in particular the various claimants to the throne of France. After all, if there can be a Bonapartist claimant and two Orleanist claimants (one to the cadet line), why not a Merovingian claimant? To borrow an analogy Henry Lincoln himself used in The Shadow of the Templars, the idea of a Merovingian claimant to the throne of France is about as absurd as someone trying to claim the British throne by dint of descent from King Cnut.

After causing a stir in France with the publication of de Sède’s book on Rennes-le-Château – in fact, a rewrite by de Sède of a manuscript originally prepared by Plantard but rejected by publishers – the hoax came onto Henry Lincoln’s radar during that fateful 1969 holiday of his. As the 1970s progressed, Lincoln’s investigations took him step by step towards the conclusion that Plantard and his confederates wanted – culminating in The Shadow of the Templars film, which includes a segment where Lincoln interviews Pierre Plantard and Plantard is able to throw his claim to be the Merovingian claimant out there.

However, at this time Plantard and company began to lose control of the hoax. Lincoln’s theorising hit the end of the rails they’d laid out for him, and rather than stopping, his train of thought smashed through the buffers and ran wild across the countryside. (Literally: by the end of The Shadow of the Templars Lincoln is suggesting that the secret hidden by the Merovingian bloodline is that the pentagram has true power and magic is real and can produce terrible effects in the world, and that this secret was hidden in the geometry of the countryside around the village.)

With Baigent and Leigh collaborating with him and yes-anding him, Lincoln ended up taking The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail to a conclusion which Plantard and company had never envisioned. The Christ connection wasn’t part of their plans; Plantard, whilst comfortable with claiming to be a Merovingian king, wasn’t cool with claiming to be the heir to Jesus with the divine right to rule.

After the publication of the book, Plantard would take to French radio to specifically deny the Jesus connection and express scepticism about it (he makes the good point that the existence of a credible genealogy linking Christ to the first Merovingian kings over a gulf of some 400 years is a bit of a stretch), and in his later years he’d revise his claims to further discount the Christ link. Philippe de Chérisey had already confessed to forging the Priory of Sion documents back in the 1970s. Gérard de Sède would, by the end of the 1980s, produce a new book about the Rennes-le-Château enigma coming up with a new theory about Saunière (namely, that he was blackmailing the Habsburgs, and that all that Merovingian stuff was a disguised way of talking about much more recent monarchs).

To his credit, Henry Lincoln seems to have accepted that the Priory of Sion was a grand scam. He still considers there to be some form of major mystery around Rennes-le-Château, but his theories have evolved yet again, just as they changed in between each of his Chronicle documentaries on the subject. He even claims that Pierre Plantard had confessed to him that the whole thing was a hoax.

Others of his co-authors continue to insist of the truth of the Priory of Sion theory and the Plantard claims. Baigent has written more books – with Richard Leigh and by himself – banging on about all of this Jesus-survived-the-crucifixion stuff, so it’s entirely possible that this was an existing bugbear of his that he was particularly keen to push; that being the case, I would not be surprised to learn that he took the lead on pushing this angle within the Holy Blood team, and even less surprised to discover that he deliberately overlooked the “this is all just a hoax built on the back of another hoax” issue because he didn’t want it to get in the way of promoting his pet theory.

And beyond the trio of Lincoln, Baigent, and Leigh, the success of the original Holy Blood and the Holy Grail has spawned a cottage industry. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon aside, the book inspired a range of successors, as well as a range of debunking attempts.

I’ve previously discussed how it inspired the third Gabriel Knight game, in which Jane Jensen managed to both make the whole mystery seem immersively plausible and added a new layer of hilarity to it: the notion that the holy blood hidden near Rennes-le-Château included an actual sample of Christ’s blood, which was being hunted by vampires who wanted to drink it to gain superpowers. In addition, the BBC’s Timewatch series marked the publication of The Tomb of God – a Holy Blood-alike from Richard Andrews and Paul Schellenberger – by issuing a deliciously comprehensive debunking of the Rennes mystery in general and the Andrews/Schellenberger theory that Jesus was buried somewhere in the region specifically.

Another documentary worth watching on the subject is The Real Da Vinci Code, in which Tony Robinson of Time Team and Blackadder fame chases down the majority of theories underlying The Da Vinci Code and discovers that most of them are utter bunk, with the only remaining kernel of potential truth being the notion that Mary Magdalene formerly had a special place in early Christian teaching which was then deliberately dialled back and toned down by the official Church as part of the process of nailing down doctrine and promulgating a misogynistic notion that women have no leadership role in the Church and are significant in the Christ story only as the means by which Christ entered into the world.

That much is pretty undeniable, since we have rejected Gospels ranging from the Gnostic to other flavours of heretical which do give her a significant place among the disciples – but as the documentary points out, none of them take this to the extent of claiming that they were married or mentioning that she had a child by him. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail argues that Christ must have been married, because otherwise that would be unusual and the Gospels would have mentioned that about him, but by the exact same logic you would expect at least one Gospel – canonical or suppressed – to mention that Mary Magdalene was Christ’s wife and the mother of his child if that were actually the case, and none of them do.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the south of France, the local council’s tourism board gently gives implied approval to these and other theories about a grand mystery around Rennes-le-Château, and as the credulous pour in and sweat their way around the hilly Languedoc countryside, the hoteliers and restauranteurs of the region count their money. And perhaps they occasionally commission a Mass for Monsieur Corbu, whose harmless little story of lost gold has brought them such fortune.

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