The real meaning of Easter – and how best to see it than a visit to the church of Bom Jesus in northern Portugal. I was there in August last year to look at the life-sized depictions of the Passion of Christ. Each station of the cross has its own little chapel up a steep hillside just beyond the city of Braga. And it’s well worth the trip!
The church of Bom Jesus covers a hillside and more than likely was the site of a pagan temple – especially as Braga was the Roman city of Bracara Augusta. A Christian church was there in the Middle Ages but the baroque pile that confronts you today dates back to around 1722. Last year, UNESCO listed it as a world heritage site – and about time too!
It’s incredible and you’ll be glad to know that I got my iPhone out and filmed this for you. Here is the Easter message in beautiful 18th century sculpture. Visiting it now will be difficult with the wretched Coronavirus restricting all our movements around the world.
So, enjoy the Passion of Christ this Easter with my little video.
Eight years ago I was at the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem and queued to see the site where Jesus was crucified. This huge medieval place of worship encompasses both Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. Or so it’s been claimed since the time of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century after Christ.
The Holy Sepulchre is divided between different Christian faiths – Catholic, Orthodox, Syriac, Ethiopians, etc. And they’re not beyond fighting each other in turf wars within the church walls. Anyway, back to the place where Christ was crucified. As I queued in 2012, some Russian nuns in front of me where in quite an ecstatic state as my video shows. Apologies for the quality of digital cameras in those days!
In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were herding their flock on the rocky and steep slopes near Qumran by the shores of the Dead Sea in modern Israel. The area is pockmarked by caves and a goat disappeared inside one of these black holes. One of the shepherds threw a stone after it to tease the animal out but instead heard a sound like breaking pottery.
The shepherd had made one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. In several large stone jars, hidden away two thousand years ago, were sacred scrolls that included a version of the Old Testament written down a thousand years before the oldest version in existence in 1947.
A mysterious community had taken root at Qumran building a town on the mountain face with purification baths, a library, aqueduct and houses. It had fled what it saw as the decadence and evil of Jerusalem around 150 BC.
Initially, its hatred was directed at the High Priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and their Greek overlords – the Seleucid Empire. These people, the community believed, were already damned. God had decided who to save and who to throw into hell fire. The community at Qumran didn’t need salvation through church sacraments or goodly deeds in life – they already knew they were part of God’s elect.
Jerusalem priests – doing well under Roman rule
The Seleucids gave way to the Roman Empire and the priests of the Temple shamefully collaborated with the Romans for their own personal gain, power and prestige. The High Priest and Roman governor worked in hand in glove. Puppet Jewish kings like Herod Antipas were more than happy to be cyphers for Roman imperial rule in return for a glittering lifestyle.
Many Jews yearned for the return to the self-government they briefly enjoyed between the collapse of Seleucid rule and the arrival of the Romans – the period of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty. And in 66 CE, the Jews rebelled against imperial control in a bloody insurgency that took over five years for the Romans to crush.
Roman vengeance was cruel and without mercy. The Temple in Jerusalem, the very place that Jesus was said to have expelled the money lenders, was ransacked for all its treasures. And then the building was torched and demolished. It would never rise again. The glory of the Jews – the most holy place to them – was reduced to rubble and ashes.
The Romans even celebrated their theft of the Temple treasury on an arch in Rome – the Arch of Titus. You can still see soldiers proudly carting off their booty that some conjecture included the Ark of the Covenant.
Back in Qumran, the community of ascetic Jews that had lived there for over two hundred years would have been very aware of events in the big city. They had been looking forward to an apocalyptic end of days that would end the rule of darkness and bring forth the rule of light. Those who were evil – Romans and Temple priests – would be damned. But the community of Qumran would be saved and resurrected.
Fast forward to 1952 and archaeologists were finding more and more scrolls in the caves. They came to believe that the community, realising the Romans and fleeing Jewish refugees were coming in their direction, began to secrete their sacred knowledge into dark and unseen places.
Hastily, they hid their precious scrolls. Possibly, they were also helping to spirit away treasure from the temple in Jerusalem as Roman forces swarmed over it. Could it be that the ascetic community of Qumran helped the priests they hated in Jerusalem to hide the sacred vessels?
In 1952, archaeologists discovered a copper scroll. All the other scrolls had been made of papyrus or animal skin but this scroll was etched into metal. It was clearly intended not to rot or be chewed away by insects. The information on it was vitally important.
The copper scroll detailed the hiding place of a vast treasure in gold and silver. Look under the third step at such-and-such building and you will find a strong box with this amount of talents in gold…the scroll read. One hiding place after another was listed.
Many scholars believed it was referring to treasures taken out of the Temple before the Romans arrived and placed in over sixty locations. This raised the tantalising prospect that all over modern Israel and Jordan are the most spectacular finds waiting to be discovered.
The Romans celebrated looting the Temple on the Arch of Titus in Rome – you can still see it!
Others argued that the community was leading people of the future on a wild goose chase for objects that did not exist at all. And certainly, treasure hunters have been consistently disappointed ever since. But it’s hard to imagine a community facing the arrival of Roman legions set on decimating them in an act of bloody imperial vengeance would waste their last moments on earth etching a hoax into a copper scroll.
A Templar related theory posits that there was a second copper scroll. This one was hidden under the Temple in Jerusalem for future generations to discover. And, the theory goes, when the Knights Templar began digging under what they believed to be the Temple of Solomon, they discovered this scroll. The wealth they were then able to unearth at multiple locations formed the basis of their fabulous wealth.
For many Israelis today, the thrilling prospect of finding the sacred items of the destroyed Temple would herald the prospect of rebuilding it. However, one can imagine the political storm that would create.
One of the great mysteries and contentious discussion points about the Knights Templar is whether the order was established by an already existing secret society called the Priory of Sion. This, as you will know, forms the basis of the story behind Dan Brown’s TheDa Vinci Code. The story goes that the priory was formed to protect the sacred bloodline of Jesus Christ from the Catholic church, which feared the threat to its power and the terrible truth that would fatally undermine the papacy’s authority and fabulous wealth.
The Messiah had conceived at least one child with Mary Magdalene, who had fled to France after the crucifixion. Her descendants were the Merovingian kings overthrown in the eighth century CE who ruled over a large part of modern France, Germany and Switzerland.
The priory’s aim was to reinstate the dynasty and establish a Christian theocracy over Europe ruled by the descendants of Jesus. The Knights Templar had been formed by the priory to achieve this objective, whatever the official reasons given for their creation.
Subsequent centuries had seen a secret battle played out between different forces including the priory, the Templars, the church and Freemasons. They were fighting and scheming for control of the Holy Grail. But what exactly was the Grail? A physical object like a cup used at the Last Supper or the bloodline of Jesus Christ? The so-called Sang Real?
This is all of course discounted by mainstream medieval historians as hokum. The history of the Knights Templar, in their view, does not require additional layers of fantasy to be fascinating. The Priory of Sion is utter nonsense invented by con artists and spread by the credulous. Well, below, we’re going to examine the case for the existence of the Priory of Sion and the case for the prosecution.
First – let’s hear from the defence – those who believe the Priory of Sion was very real.
Case for the Defence
The Priory of Sion was founded in Jerusalem after the First Crusade resulted in the capture of the city by Christian forces in 1099. It was based on the site of the Byzantine Hagia Sion, which subsequently housed a monastic order called the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. The Priory and Abbey were one and the same thing. This church was the site of the bodily and spiritual “assumption” of the Virgin Mary into heaven (in Catholic dogma). It’s now under the control of the Benedictines.
The Priory of Sion founded the Knights Templar to achieve its hidden objectives. This was to protect the bloodline of Jesus – the real Holy Grail. The term Holy Grail means “Sang Real” or Royal Blood. The Templars were the Grail Knights spoken of in legend. It was their role and destiny to defend the Grail, the bloodline, at all costs. This they would do until the time came to make the bloodline known to humanity.
A 19th century French priest François-Bérenger Saunière discovered the truth about the Priory of Sion after being sent to run a church in the French village of Rennes-le-Château. The church was dedicated to Mary Magdalene, wife of Jesus Christ, who had fled to France after the crucifixion. While in this role, Saunière installed the statue of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, the hugely popular pilgrimage site. He was a pious cleric who believed he had stumbled on a great truth.
Saunière seemed to become very rich, very quickly. He built a large estate between 1898 and 1905 that included the Rococo-style edifice, Villa Bethania and the Tour Magdala with an orangery. The 1998 novel Menorah conjectures that Saunière had found the seven-branched candelabra of the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed and sacked by the Romans.
In the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail it was pointed out that Rennes-le-Chateau was located close to the ancestral home of Bertrand de Blanchefort, fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar. The three authors of the book wondered if Blanchefort had buried Templar treasure in the vicinity. They believed that during the second world war, German soldiers had very likely excavated the area. Why? Because the Nazis, obsessed with the occult, were aware that their favourite composer Richard Wagner had visited Rennes-le-Château and shortly afterwards written his opera Parsifal, based on a medieval Grail quest story of the same name. Wagner knew that Rennes-le-Château was concealing a Grail mystery.
The book detailed how in 1891, Saunière had the altar stone removed in his church and inside one of two Visigothic pillars supporting it, discovered four parchments in sealed wooden tubes dating from between 1244 to the 1780s.
The 1780s parchments were the most interesting authored by a priest called Antoine Bigou who was the chaplain to the Blanchefort family just before the 1789 French Revolution. They appeared to be texts from the New Testament in Latin but were written rather oddly and clearly contained coded messages. They became the subject of three documentaries made for the BBC in the 1970s by one of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Henry Lincoln. It referred to the last Merovingian king, Dagobert II, as follows once decoded: “To Dagobert II, king, and to Sion belongs this treasure and he is there dead.”
Another parchment contained the enigmatic message: “Shepherdess, no temptation. That Poussin, Teniers hold the key. Peace 681. By the cross and this horse of God. I complete this daemon of the guardian at noon. Blue apples.”
Saunière made the discovery of the parchments known to the bishop of Carcassonne who, realising their importance, sent him to Paris straight away. While there, visiting clerics and mixing with society people, he went to the Louvre to acquaint himself with the Poussin painting The Shepherds of Arcadia, long believed to include a Templar related secret message.
Saunière returned to Rennes-le-Château and embarked on a bizarre redecoration of his church that included a representation of the demon Asmodeus who, in Talmudic legends, built the Temple of Solomon. In Kabbalistic circles, Asmodeus was the offspring of King David and the queen of the demons, Agrat bat Mahlat.
On 22 January, 1917, Saunière suffered a stroke and died. The huge estate he had built was passed to his long serving housekeeper Marie Denarnaud. Gradually sliding in to genteel poverty after the second world war, Denarnaud sold the estate to a businessman called Noël Corbu (1912-1968). She promised to confide a secret to Corbu that would make him rich and powerful but tantalisingly died before she could impart this knowledge.
The author Dan Brown took the story of these hidden parchments and brought the story of the Priory of Sion back to public prominence with his book The Da Vinci Code. The adventure starts with the murder of a curator at the Louvre called Jacques Saunière (same name as the priest who served at Rennes-le-Château) , who also happens to be the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. His killer is a Catholic monk under the direction of a “teacher” who wants to use the secret of the Holy Grail to destroy the Vatican. The real meaning of the Holy Grail is the bloodline of Christ and it leads the book’s hero to the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene, located under the Louvre.
Dan Brown has asserted strongly that the Priory of Sion is fact and not fiction.
Case for the Prosecution
The Prioriy of Sion was an invention of a French convicted fraudster called Pierre Athanase Marie Plantard (1920-2000). In 1953, he served a six-month prison sentence for fraud. This was revealed in a BBC2 programme called The History of a Mystery, part of the “Timewatch” documentary series. Timewatch was the successor to an earlier documentary strand called “Chronicles”, which in the 1970s had promoted the whole Priory of Sion thesis.
Three years after his prison sentence, with an accomplice called André Bonhomme, Plantard created an organisation called The Priory of Sion in 1956. Bonhomme was president and Plantard was secretary general. Initially, it was not intended to be viewed as an ancient sect pre-dating the Templars, but just a pressure group campaigning for better local housing. It also took a traditionalist Catholic line and wanted to work with the local church on things like running a school bus service. Sion refers to a hill near the town of Annemasse where Plantard lived in the Auvergne region of France. The priory folded later the same year.
Enter Robert Charroux, a man who believed that aliens had visited humanity in ancient history and imparted wondrous knowledge. A very similar theory was popularised in the 60s and 70s by the Swiss author Erich Von Däniken with his book Chariot of the Gods. In 1962, Charroux wrote a book Trésors du monde. It gave details of hidden treasures all over the world. Charroux had come across the aforementioned Noël Corbu who had bought the estate built by the priest Saunière. Corbu had serialised a story in the local paper claiming that the priest Saunière had discovered all or part of a 28.5 million gold pieces fortune gathered by Blanche of Castile to pay the ransom on King Louis of France during the Crusades, when he was being held prisoner by the Saracens in Egypt. This was detailed, he claimed, in the parchments found in the pillar of the altar in his church by Saunière. Cynics countered that Corbu was just trying to drum up business at his restaurant.
A great deal is made of the sudden wealth acquired by Saunière as proof that he had indeed found part of the wealth of Blanche of Castile and possibly other treasure. The reality, as evidenced by several church disciplinary hearings and the stripping of his priesthood, is that he was utterly corrupt, selling masses which was against church law. This view was corroborated by a local historian, René Descadeillas, in 1974 as well as a Channel 4 documentary in the UK called The Real Da Vinci Codebroadcast in 2005 and a CBS 60 Minutes investigation, Priory of Sion, aired the following year. All came to the conclusion that Saunière’s wealth did not derive from discovering secret treasure but by exploiting his gullible parishioners.
CBS also questioned the veracity of the discovered parchments and revealed that Plantard had been investigated by the French secret services during the second world war and described as a “fantasist”. He had come to their attention as an extreme right-wing activist.
Plantard seems to have latched on to the Corbu story and developed it. In fact, all the protagonists in this conspiracy theory grabbed the Priory of Sion story baton and ran with it awhile – developing new angles before handing it on to another author.
Plantard and others then developed a lineage for the Priory of Sion transporting it back way beyond 1956 into the mists of history. It was linked by Plantard to an abbey in Jerusalem, the Hagia Sion or Church of Zion. This was originally built in the early 5th century, then destroyed by invading Persians and later occupied by a monastic order called the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. As Plantard rightly pointed out, they were absorbed into the Jesuits in 1617. But experts say that order had nothing to do with Plantard’s Priory of Sion.
Plantard hooked up with an author called Gérard de Sède (1921-2004) who was the Baron de Lieoux and a man heavily influenced by surrealism. The result was a tome calledL’Or de Rennes, the gold of Rennes, published in 1967. The two of them concocted the yarn that the last Merovingian king was buried at Rennes-le-Château in the eighth century and that the Priory of Sion had been working clandestinely ever since to bring the Merovingians back to power.
Plantard had taken his Priory of Sion organisation from a defunct housing pressure group to an ancient brotherhood protecting the Merovingian line of which he now decided he was a descendant. The central proposition was that a Merovingian monarch would rule France, and possible Europe, fulfilling a prophecy of Nostradamus. Plantard styled himself “Chyren”, a pseudonym referring to “Chren Selin”, an anagram used by Nostradamus to refer to this future king.
Enter Philippe de Chérisey, another aristocrat influenced by surrealism, who became buddies with Plantard in the early 1960s. He undoubtedly forged medieval parchments, allegedly found by Saunière, to back up the idea of the Priory of Sion being an ancient organisation. With Plantard, he created a load of allegedly secret documents, which they placed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (bit like the Library of Congress or the British Library) De Cherisey seems to have viewed these forgeries as a bit of a hoot. In later confessions, he conceded that he enjoyed setting false trails.
Henry Lincoln, author of Holy Blood Holy Grail, admitted that Plantard had told him De Cherisey had created the documents on which the whole Priory of Sion hoax rests.
The Italian author and academic Umberto Eco was fascinated by the Knights Templar and the fantasy that surrounds them. He satirised people like Plantard in his book Foucault’s Pendulum where three publishers develop a fraudulent conspiracy theory only to be sucked in to a real one. This is surely a post-modern chuckle at the fantasists and hucksters.
What we have with the Priory of Sion is a total fabrication half-believed by all those involved.
It sounds pretty damning for Plantard and his Priory of Sion. But then there’s another hypothesis put forward by Templar historian Graeme Davis in his book Knights Templar A Secret History. Should mention that he also co-designed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Davis argues that the whole point of the Plantard hoax was to throw people off the scent of the real location of the Holy Grail.
In 2007 Davis met an academic who had taught at the University of Toulouse called Dr Émile Fouchet. They were at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Fouchet shared his notes on the foundation of the Knights Templar with Davis three days before he was killed in a car accident in 2012 just outside Troyes, a town in France with strong Templar connections. Accident? Suicide? Murder? Who knows.
Fouchet developed a complicated account of the Holy Grail being fought over down the centuries by Freemasons, the Inquisition and a secret continuation of the Knights Templar in various guises. One of the Templar tools was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte who they allowed to demolish the Paris Temple to cover his tracks.
The Holy Grail was hidden by the Templars at Rennes-le-Château where Saunière, an Inquisition agent, set about trying to find it. The Templars created false trails to confuse both the Inquisition and Freemasons who desperately tried to locate the Grail in Rennes-le-Château even though it had already gone. The Templars had whisked it out of the country. Eventually, the Inquisition realised Saunière’s efforts had come to nothing and they hung him out to dry with charges of corruption.
Fast forward to the Second World War and the Templars had got an ultra-right-wing nationalist called Plantard to start writing a load of baloney about secret documents and his connection to the Merovingian dynasty and Mary Magdalene. All of which, Fouchet asserted, was another false trail created by the Templars. They wanted the Inquisition and Freemasons to believe the Grail was still in Rennes-le-Château when it had left in around 1897. Where was it now? A town called Sion in Switzerland is one possibility.
One nagging problem I have with this hypothesis is that I can’t find anything about Emile Fouchet except in this book. My journalistic curiosity demands that I know who this guy was and his background and qualifications. Can anybody shed any light here?
I hope you have enjoyed this investigation of the Priory of Sion!
Tune in to Yesterday TV and watch me in conversation with Jamie Theakston talking about the dark truths of the Templars. More details on the Templar Knight blog. This is season four, episode four of Forbidden History, presented by Jamie Theakston. I pop up about seven times in the programme talking about buried treasure, pagan rituals and the trial of the Knights Templar.
Jamie Theakston in my study with the Forbidden History team!
From mid-June, Jamie Theakston will be presenting the fourth series of Forbidden History on UKTV’s Yesterday Channel and on Discovery AHC in the autumn. The fourth programme in this series will be The Dark Truths of the Templars and yours truly – the Bearded Historian – will be appearing as a contributor.
Jamie and the team landed in my study a few months back and we discussed all things Templar for a couple of hours. It’s been in post-production ever since but excitingly is now ready to broadcast.
I haven’t seen the finished programme but issues we covered included:
How did an order of monastic knights pledged to vow of poverty become so hugely rich?
What could have been the real reasons for the formation of the Knights Templar in 1118?
The connections between the order’s founders and some very wealth and influential people
Why did the Templars base themselves on the Temple mount in Jerusalem and what were they doing there?
The salacious charges brought against the Knights Templar during their trial
Did the secular powers, kings and pope, manage to seize all their treasure or did they escape with some of it?
What do we make of persistent accusations that the Templars were influenced in their rites by pre-Christian and non-Christian ideas?
Do feed back to me what you think. There will be other TV appearances later in the year and I’ll keep you posted. Make sure all your Templar fans and friends are watching!