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Priory of Sion

10 Nov

The Priory of Sion (PdS, or Prieure’ de Sion) is an organization of which no record exists prior to 1956.  On June 25th of that year, it was officially registered with the sub-prefecture of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, a municipality of the French department of Haute Savoie. Its stated aims were study and mutual aid, and it published a magazine, Circuit. According to police records, the PdS ceased activity in October of the same year, but over the next several decades it would acquire a strange kind of fame. The man who had registered (and presumably founded) it, Pierre Plantard, spent the sixties and seventies elaborating a romantic history for the PdS.

pierre plantard

Pierre Plantard

  Plantard had been born in 1920, the son of a Paris concierge. In his youth, he had been active in extreme right-wing and Catholic traditionalist circles, founding several secret societies which never counted more than a handful of members. The Priory of Sion seemed another secret society along the same lines as the others, but it was destined to outlast and outshine all of them.How had it come about?

In January of 1956, the regional southern newspaper Depeche du Midi ran a multi-part expose’ on the `Treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau.’ The paper revealed that in 1891, Berenger Sauniere, the parish priest of Rennes-le-Chateau, a village in the south of France, had been restoring the village church when he found some ancient parchments hidden in the altar. Shortly thereafter, he began spending large sums of money: unusual, given that both he and the village were very poor. Where had he gotten the money? According to Noel Corbu, a local hotelier and the principal source for the Depeche du Midi story, the parchments had contained the location of a hidden treasure. This treasure had been buried in the area by Blanche of Castille, a medieval Queen of France, and found by Berenger Sauniere when he followed the directions in the parchments.

Rennes-le-Chateau

 Perhaps by telling this story Noel Corbu hoped to drum up business ( he had bought Sauniere’s old house, built with the mysteriously acquired wealth, and turned it into a hotel)and perhaps he succeeded; but one unexpected result of the story was that it encouraged amateur treasure hunters to flock to Rennes-le-Chateau to conduct their own excavations, until the town council had to pass an ordinance against the practice.

Corbu’s tall tale had a thriving career as a local legend, but it went national when a writer, Gerard de Sede, got hold of it. In 1967, he published a book titled L’Or de Rennes (The Gold of Rennes) which told the story originally published in La Depeche du Midi with some embellishments. Among these are that, when Sauniere went to Paris to have the parchments deciphered, he met several famous people and bought copies of three famous paintings.

berenger sauniere

De Sede also wrote that, after having been missing for many years, two of the parchments turned up in Paris, but did not say with whom. He also said that the parchments contained coded messages.

How had de Sede come up with this? We know that Pierre Plantard had been visiting the Rennes-le-Chateau area since 1938 and that he was acquainted with Noel Corbu. He had met de Sede when he provided the latter with material for his 1962 book Les Templiers Sont Parmi Nous (The Templars are Among us).There are credible claims that Pierre Plantard gave him information or even wrote the original manuscript for L’Or de Rennes. We can see the coming together of several strands of the Priory of Sion myth: Rennes-le-Chateau, the Templars, ancient parchments containing a secret. But what was this secret?

Plantard had begun compiling genealogies in 1956, around the same time as he officially founded the Priory of Sion. These genealogies primarily dealt with the Merovingians, a dynasty which had ruled France from 481 to 751. He began depositing these genealogies and various other documents in the Bibliotheque Nationale (National Library) in 1964. De Sede had used some of these documents for L’Or de Rennes, but he had not made any particular claims about the Merovingians, or mentioned Plantard himself. This would be left to three English writers (one actually a New Zealander), who took the local legend international.

Henry Lincoln came across de Sede’s book in 1969, and was sufficiently intrigued by it to make a television program out of it. This would be aired in three instalments, in 1972, 1974, and 1979.

The first instalment, titled The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? told the story of Sauniere’s finding of the treasure, but proposed an alternative explanation for its origin: instead of Blanche of Castille, the program hypothesized that it was Solomon’s treasure, sacked from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and taken by the Visigoths when these, in turn, sacked Rome in 410. The Visigoths brought it to their kingdom in the south of France. The program also speculated that one of the last Merovingians, Sigebert, was taken to Rennes-le-Chateau to escape assassination: a connection between the Merovingians and the treaure of Solomon is thus implied. One of the paintings of which Sauniere bought a copy, Nicolas Poussin’s Les Bergers d’Arcadie, is thought to hold a coded message for locating the treasure.

Les Bergers d'Arcadie, by Nicolas Poussin

The second episode of the program, The Priest, the Painter and the Devil, aired in 1974, was the first to introduce the public to the Priory of Sion. It began with the mysterious letters PS, which had been found on one of the parchments but whose meaning was unclear. The program claimed that they stood for Prieure’ de Sion, or Priory of Sion, an organization which was connected with the Templars. The Templars, which had been founded in 1118, were one of the possible means by which Solomon’s treasure had come to France. How the PdS fit in to this is not made clear.

The third program, Shadow of the Templars, offers a partial illumination. Now it was claimed that Sigebert, the Merovingian who had fled to Rennes-le-Chateau, was an ancestor of Godefroi de Bouillon, the leader of the First Crusade. In recognition for his success, Godefroi was offered the kingship of Jerusalem by a group of mysterious but powerful men.Henry Lincoln claimed these men were members of the Order of Our Lady of Sion, which he linked with the Templars. Almost a century later, in 1187, Jerusalem was once more lost to the Saracens, and we are given to understand that the Order of Our Lady of Sion accused the Templars of treachery in this regard and a year later severed all connections with them and renamed itself Priory of Sion- an event which came to be referred to as `the cutting of the elm.’ After some observations on the unusual geometric properties of Rennes-le-Chateau and the surrounding mountains, the program concludes that the `treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau’ is not one of gold and jewels, but `a secret.’

What that secret is is revealed in the 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Written by Henry Lincoln and two others, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, this book takes a (much) closer look at the genealogies and other documents which Pierre Plantard began depositing in the Bibliotheque Nationale in 1964. They note the obvious- that the genealogies seem to be intended to prove Plantard’s descent from Sigebert, the last Merovingian. From certain statements made in the files, the authors conclude that the aim of the Priory of Sion is to restore the Merovingian dynasty- in the person of Pierre Plantard- to the throne of France. Why anyone would want to restore a seventh century dynasty to the French throne is not immediately explained… but the authors turn their attention to legends of the Holy Grail. They interpret the medieval French term for Holy Grail, Sangreal, as a corruption of the words Sang real– `royal blood.’ The Grail is in fact a royal bloodline, one descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene had travelled to the south of France with the `treasure’, the Holy Grail, ie- the children of Jesus, whose descendants had in due course become the Merovingian Kings of France. The aim of the Priory of Sion was to protect the bloodline until such time as it could be restored- a time we are given to understand is imminent.

Holy Blood,Holy Grail was the high-water mark of the Priory of Sion legend. In 1986, Plantard had a falling-out with the book’s authors, and revised his PdS theory. It now revolved around the mysterious geometry (particularly ley lines) around Rennes-le-Chateau, and named Otto von Habsburg, MEP, president of the International Paneuropean Union, and son of the last Emperor of Austria, as the legitimate Merovingian descendant. Plantard himself would have his house searched when he publicly named a friend of then French President Francois Mitterand’s as the current Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. Investigators uncovered various documents, including ones claiming that Plantard was the legitimate King of France. Under questioning, Plantard would admit he had fabricated everything. He died in 2000.

Most of this was compiled with information from:  The Treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau: A Mystery Solved, by Bill Putnam and John Edwin Wood, Sutton Publishing,2003