CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Beyond The Da Vinci Code: History and Myth of the Priory of Sion

Massimo Introvigne

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

In January 2005 Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, Archbishop of Genoa, phoned me asking whether I would like to speak at the Quadrivium, an historical Genoa Catholic conference center which has not been active for several years, and where I used to be a frequent speaker several years ago. I accepted, and we decided that an appropriate topic might be the current fuss about The Da Vinci Code and the Priory of Sion. My lecture was scheduled for March 16, 2005 with the Cardinal presiding and concluding. Unbeknownst to both of us, the Cardinal and I had set in motion a curious set of events. Word that “a Roman Catholic Cardinal was about to excommunicate The Da Vinci Code” quickly spread, with the result that we had at the lecture more than one hundred international TV chains, while several hundred reporters sought accreditations, including one from China and two from India. Considering only those daily newspapers and TV networks having an Internet presence, the lecture was reported by 1,308 media. We had to explain in a press conference that my lecture was more about esoteric movements than theology: but to no avail. Reporters were understandably much more interested in the fact that a Roman Catholic Cardinal – and one rumoured at that time to be a candidate for Papacy – was endorsing a criticism of Dan Brown’s novel than in any comment about the historical reality of the Priory of Sion.

In this paper, addressed to fellow scholars rather than journalists, I will not comment on whether Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, the historical accuracy of the Gnostic Gospels, or what Opus Dei is really all about. More in touch with the aim of this conference, the paper will trace the real history of the Priory of Sion, perhaps less interesting than Dan Brown’s mythology, yet an interesting if minor part in the history of France’s new religious and magical movements.

Our story starts on February 6, 1934. This is still remembered as a key and tragic date in the history of the French Monarchist movement Action Française. On January 9, 1934, controversial businessman Serge Alexandre Stavisky (1885-1934) was found dead in his mountain chalet in Chamonix, France. He had apparently committed suicide. Staviski was a con man and a counterfeiter, and its frauds had ruined several thousand French middle class investors. Stavisky was also very much everything the right-wing opposition to the government of Prime Minister Camille Chautemps (1885-1963) detested. He was Jewish, close to the French anti-religious Freemasonry (although not a Freemason himself), and a friend of several cabinet ministers of Socialist inclinations. Rumors quickly spread that Stavisky did not commit suicide at all, but had been killed by the police in order to prevent him from revealing his dealings with the Chautemps government. Protestors took to the Paris streets, and Chautemps had to resign on January 30. This, however, did not end the protest. At that time, Monarchism was a force to be reckoned with in France. It was mostly represented by the Action Française, a movement founded by Charles Maurras (1868-1952). The Action Française called for a mass rally on February 6. Republican authorities seriously feared that a Monarchist coup was being prepared. Instructions to react very strongly were given to the police. When the crowd refused to disperse, the policemen fired, leaving four Action Française activists dead and many blessed.

The event and the “martyrs” of February 6, 1934 remain to this date a mythological memory for the French Monarchist movement. At that time, however, the tragedy caused a split in the Action Française. While Maurras refused to call for a general Monarchist insurrection against the Republic, one of the movement’s leaders, Eugène Deloncle (1890-1944), created a splinter group known as CSAR (Secret Committee for Revolutionary Action), decided to go underground and to organize terrorist activities. Deloncle’s group was nicknamed “La Cagoule” by the media, which made more of it than it actually ever managed to be. Authorities were able to incriminate the CSAR for only one terrorist attack, against the offices of the French Industrialists’ Union on September 11, 1937. The target also shows that the differences between Maurras and Deloncle were not purely strategic. In fact, Deloncle combined a willingness to use violence with an anti-capitalistic populism that he did not regard as incompatible with Monarchism. At any rate, Deloncle was arrested in July 1938 and charged with plans to organize a military dictatorship under Marechal Louis Franchet d’Esperey (1856-1942), a popular World War I hero who quickly denied any knowledge of the project.

Deloncle’s splinter group met with considerable enthusiasm among the sizeable constituency the Action Française had managed to build in French high schools. One high school student who followed Deloncle and ran into trouble with the police, without being involved however in any terrorist activity, was Pierre-Athanase-Marie Plantard (1920-2000), the son of a butler and a concierge who was so much in love with the Monarchy to invent for himself imaginary aristocratic and even Royal genealogies. In 1937, Plantard dropped out of high school and established with some of his friends the Union Française (French Union), a group inspired by Deloncle’s ideas but probably without any contact with Deloncle himself, who was at that time operating underground. The seventeen-year old Plantard also started to show a penchant for mysticism and symbols. He regarded as significant that his group had been founded in 1937, because 1937 contains the same numbers of 1793, the year in which the French anti-Monarchist persecution period known as the Terror started during the Revolution. The founding of the French Union was, thus, a way of mystically “reversing” the effects of the French Revolution through numerology.

Plantard was a reasonably effective student leader. In 1938 he managed to raise enough money to publish an illegal magazine, La Rénovation Française, of which some ten thousand copies were given for free in Paris. Plantard made his living by working as a paid sexton in the Catholic Church of Saint-Louis d’Antin. Thanks to the benevolence of the local vicar, a priest called François Ducaud-Bourget (1897-1984), which many years later will became well-known as an associate of the splinter Catholic arch-conservative movement of Bishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991), he managed to became the parish leader for the Catholic youth group Groupement Catholique de la Jeunesse. In 1939, he led 75 students of this group into a camping vacation. According to police reports, some of them were eventually recruited into the French Union. With the German occupation, Plantard offered his services to the collaborationist government of Marechal Henri-Philippe Pétain (1856-1951) in a letter dated December 16, 1940. Both the German and the French police investigated, determined that the movement had at most 100 members, and did not take Plantard seriously.

In 1941, Plantard founded a new organization known as the Rénovation Nationale Française (French National Renewal) and applied for the mandatory registration with the German authorities, claiming 3.245 members. The German police determined that the members were, in fact, only four, and refused the registration. Undaunted, Plantard went on to establish in 1942 yet another and more ambitious organization, called Alpha Galates. This time, Plantard prepared very detailed by-laws which were back-dated to 1937 and revealed, in addition to the usual Monarchist and right-wing political ideas, a quasi-Masonic initiation system in twelve degrees, culminating in the degree of “Druidic Majesty”, reserved to one person only, i.e. Plantard himself. What had happened in the meantime was that Plantard’s mother, a concierge by trade, had moved from one building to another, and in the second building Plantard met new friends, including two well-known radio actors (still alive today), Jacques Thereau and Suzanne Libre, as well as Jules-Joseph-Alfred Tillier (1896-1980), a respected employee of the  Compagnie des Forges et Acièries de la Marine d’Homécourt and a friend of Paul Le Cour (1861-1954).

Although Le Cour was a quite heterodox esoteric Christian, and one anticipating several ideas later associated with the New Age movement, he was also a participant in the Masses organized in the church where Plantard continued his work as a sexton by Father Ducaud-Bourget for a circle of right-wing intellectuals, including philosopher Louis Le Fur (1870-1943) and Orientalist Count Maurice de Moncharville (1860-1943). Alpha Galates published a short-lived bulletin, Vaincre, where the signatures of both Le Fur and Moncharville appeared, although it cannot be excluded that Plantard signed some of his own articles with their names, with or without their authorization. Another signature which appeared in Vaincre and may have been apocryphal was that of Camille Savoire (1869-1951), a prominent French Freemason close to the French anti-German resistance. Since Plantard and his circle were at that time quite anti-Masonic and pro-German, the signature may in fact have been abusively used by Plantard himself. However at that time Plantard, Le Cour, Tillier and Savoire did have something in common. They were all studying with interest the monographs of the French branch of AMORC, the American Rosicrucian organization established in 1915 by Harvey Spencer Lewis (1883-1939), and were in touch with Jeanne Guesdon (1884-1955), the leading AMORC representative in France. Although Plantard himself was never a member of AMORC, he later became friend with Raymond Bernard, who will become AMORC’s leading figure in France in the 1970s before leaving the Rosicrucian organization.

All these contacts explain the esoteric structure of Alpha Galates; and the esoteric rather than the political aspects were emphasized for obvious reasons after the war. However, Alpha Galates, just as the previous organizations established by Plantard, was not successful. It never included more than fifty members, and collapsed in 1947. A subsequent “Latin Academy”, founded by Plantard in 1947, never went beyond two members: Plantard himself and his mother. In 1951, having married Anne Léa Hisler (1930-1970), Plantard moved from Paris to the cheaper town of Annemasse, near the Lake of Geneva. Here he went to jail for six months at the end of 1953, accused of selling degrees of esoteric orders for exorbitant sums.

But Plantard was by now incorrigible. On May 7, 1956 he legally incorporated in Annemasse yet another esoteric and political order known as Priory of Sion – C.I.R.C.U.I.T. (Chivalry of Catholic Rule and Institution and of Independent Traditionalist Union). The politics of the Priory of Sion  was quite modest and focused on supporting politicians determined to build low-cost houses for the working classes of Annemasse. But the esoteric aims were grandiose as usual: the stated purpose was nothing less than restoring the Medieval Chivalry, and to build an initiatory system of three “orders” whereby the third order had nine degrees (quite similar to Alpha Galates’). The reference to a “Priory of Sion” was not to Jerusalem, but to Mount Sion near Annemasse, where the order hoped to be able to purchase a home and convert it into a retreat centre.

The results were even worse than usual. Not only did the new organization fail to attract members. Plantard was involved in an unpleasant story of abuse of minors, spent another year in jail between 1956-1957, and was divorced by his wife. Released from jail, he thought it wise to move to Paris and to switch the Priory of Sion’s politics into supporting the rising star of General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970). Elected as President in 1958, the General did sent a letter of thanks to Plantard (he probably sent similar letters to thousands of individuals and organizations), but then proceeded to ignore the Priory as other politicians had done before him.

Both Plantard and the Priory lived a very difficult life in the early 1960s. Whatever income Plantard made was by offering his services as a psychic under the name of “Chyren the Seer”. By 1964, however, Plantard was ready to try again his luck with the Priory of Sion, this time through the version which eventually inspired The Da Vinci Code. Plantard had come across the curious story of the parish church of a small French village of less than one hundred inhabitants in the Aude region, at the foot of the eastern Pyrenees mountains, Rennes-le-Château, were a hidden treasury had been supposedly discovered in 1897 by the local parish priest, Berenger Saunière (1852-1917). There were those who claimed that the treasury consisted not of gold or antiques but of secret documents which enabled the parish priest to come into contact with the esoteric and political milieu of the time and become incredibly wealthy.

The story of Saunière has been debunked by several scholarly studies, and does not need to be examined in depth here. The parish priest did not become a millionaire, even though he became wealthy enough to be able to acquire property and build a villa and library tower in Rennes. His real – as opposed to fictional – wealth was explained during the course of a canonical process against Saunière started by the Bishop of Carcassonne, Paul Félix Beuvain de Beauséjour (1839-1930. Beginning in 1896, Saunière embarked upon a road – illegal from the point of view of both canon law and civil law, but not invented by him nor particularly mysterious – of “trafficking in Masses”. Between 1896 and 1915, from his meticulous notes one can deduce that he received stipends for at least one hundred thousand Masses: five or six thousand a year at the high point of the operation. The documentation exists: both in terms of letters and announcements in which a “poor priest” asks for stipends for the celebration of Masses sent to convents or other individuals; as well as in terms of publications in pious magazines throughout all of France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy -– the list goes on and includes hundreds of benefactors approached many times over and recorded in accounts on a month-by-month basis. The objection, according to which at that time -– unlike today – the Catholic Church did not tolerate that a priest could accumulate various intentions for a single Mass, it was impossible for Saunière to celebrate five or six thousand Masses a year, does not really makes the “trafficking in Masses” activity impossible, but certainly raises questions about the honesty of the priest: and it is an objection that is answered by itself. Simply put, the parish priest of Rennes-le-Château pocketed stipends for Masses that he would never celebrate.

Although Saunière’s naïve defense referred alternatively to his having found a non-existent Visigoth or Cathar treasury, after his death the story became variously embellished, particularly by Noël Corbu (1912-1968), the restaurant owner and one-time detective fiction writer who became the owner of Saunière’s properties in 1953. In the early 1960s, Plantard met Corbu and changed the Saunière legend for his own purposes. According to Plantard’s version, the legitimate heirs to the throne of France to this very day are still the Merovingians, dethroned in 751 by the Carolingians. Furthermore, contrary to public opinion, the Merovingians are not extinct but have surviving descendants still alive, the last of which in 1967 was Pierre Plantard, who was therefore the only true contender to the role of King of France (of course, under the improbable case of a restoration of the French monarchy). In order to protect the descendants of the Merovingians from the Carolingians and later from other enemies, a secret society was formed, the Priory of Sion.

Plantard, thus, started to claim that the Priory of Sion, which he had founded in 1956, was a much older organization. He discovered in a book about the history of the Crusades that an “Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion” had been founded in 1099 in Jerusalem by Godefroy de Bouillon (1060-1100), who later became King of Jerusalem after the First Crusade. The community of monks of the Abbey (and not “Priory”, as the superior was called Abbot and not Prior) in Palestine continued to exist until 1291, when it was destroyed by the advancing Muslims. The few surviving monks took refuge in Sicily, where their community was extinguished in the 14th century. This was a very normal community of Catholic monks, without any ties to esoteric secrets: the “recovery” of which by Plantard was simply the use of their name, and nothing else.

Plantard also claimed that the Priory of Sion later had as Grand Masters certain alchemists and esoteric personalities such as Nicolas Flamel (well known to Harry Potter readers, yet in reality an historical person born in 1330 and deceased in 1418), Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and the principal promoter of the Rosicrucian legend, Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654), as well as scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The last of the Grand Masters would have been the writers Charles Nodier (1780-1844) and Victor Hugo (1802-1885), the musician Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the poet and novelist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) and the same Father, later Monsignor, Francois Ducaud-Bourget for which as we have seen Plantard worked as a sexton during World War II. Ducaud-Bourget (it was claimed) had later transferred the position to Plantard. It was also claimed that, by pure chance, documents revealing the truth concerning the Priory of Sion, hidden in the parish church of Rennes-le-Château, were discovered in 1897 by the local parish priest Berenger Saunière who, thanks to the knowledge of the secret, was able to blackmail the Bourbon royal family of France and become, in fact, quite wealthy.

In order to support these claims, Plantard enlisted the help of Philippe de Chérisey (1925-1985), an impoverished French marquis who was a professional TV actor and a devotee of enigmatic riddles. Chèrisey and Plantard prepared a number of apocryphal documents (some, in fact, riddles), which they deposited between 1965-1967 into Paris’ French National Library. On the basis of these “documents” a third co-conspirator, Gérard de Sède (1921-2004), a farmer specialized in raising pigs turned esoteric author, “revealed” the Rennes – Priory of Sion story to the world in his 1967 book L’Or de Rennes.

All these three musketeers – Plantard, Chérisey and de Sède – later admitted in writing that the documents planted in the Paris National Library between 1965-67 were a “brilliant” hoax. As for the list of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion, including Leonardo, all the names except two came from some of the lists of alleged “Imperators”, i.e., supreme heads, and “distinguished members” of the AMORC which circulated in France at the time when Plantard was in touch with this Rosicrucian order.  For readers of The Da Vinci Code, it is useful to note that neither the Priory of Sion publications nor the 1965-1967 forged documents ever mentioned that the Merovingians were the carnal descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This particular was later added (based on esoteric theories by French Gnostic leader Robert Ambelain, 1907-1997) by the British actor Henry Soskin, writing as Henry Lincoln, when he rewrote with co-authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh the Rennes legend into its 1982 Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in turn so much a direct inspiration for The Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown has been sued by the authors for plagiarism.

Plantard, although initially surprised, played Lincoln’s game for a while, hinting in talk shows that yes, he may indeed have been not only the last of the Merovigians but also the last living descendants of Jesus Christ. However, Lincoln soon became afraid that Plantard’s reputation as a con man may eventually destroy his credibility, and Plantard in turn realized that Lincoln’s book was not attracting members to his Priory of Sion. The two parted company in quite bitter terms in 1986, with Lincoln claiming that his whole story about Jesus, the Magdalene and the Merovingians may have been true even if Plantard was a fraud, and Plantard dismissing both the documents of the 1960s and Holy Blood, Holy Grail as false and irrelevant, and presenting yet a new incarnation of the Priory of Sion in 1989. This time, its main secret had nothing to do with the Merovingians, let alone Jesus Christ, but focused on the alleged extraordinary energy and transformative powers of the earth and rocks of a certain mountain near Rennes-le-Château known as Rocco Negro. Coincidentally, most of the mountain had been bought by Plantard.

However, this new (and quite New Age-ish) Priory of Sion also failed, just as all the other esoteric orders founded by Plantard during his life had failed before. It never recruited more than a dozen members. At the end of his life Plantard was a broken man, living in very difficult circumstances. He realized that all the publicity about the mythical Priory of Sion by Lincoln’s book did not benefit the real Priory of Sion he had incorporated in 1956 and still controlled. He left the Priory to his son, although it is now Gino Sandri, a well-known figure in the French esoteric milieu, who keeps alive Plantard’s 1956 creation. Plantard died in 2000, and at least did not have to witness how much money an American author was making with the Priory of Sion, a creation of his which never made him rich. However, not even The Da Vinci Code seems to persuade a significant number of people to seek the real Priory established by Plantard, an organization who still owns the legal rights to the trade name despite the claims of several American imitations. The Priory of Sion remains simply a minor, if interesting, footnote in the history of the French esoteric orders of the 20th century.


Several key documents on the early Priory of Sion are posted in the Web site of Paul Smith, http://www.priory-of-sion.com/. Although my interpretation is occasionally different, no serious research on Plantard’s activities, including my own, could even start without taking advantage of this treasury cave of documents. Full references to all the texts mentioned are provided in the bibliography of my Italian book Gli Illuminati e il Priorato di Sion (Piemme, Milano 2005).