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The Prieuré de Sion, translated from French as Priory of Sion, is a name given to multiple groups, both real and fictitious. The most controversial is a fringe fraternal organisation, founded and dissolved in France in 1956 (abiding by the 1901 French Law of Associations) by Pierre Plantard. In the 1960s, Plantard created a fictitious history for that organization, describing it as a secret society founded by Godfrey of Bouillon on Mount Zion in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, conflating it with a genuine historical monastic order, the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. In Plantard's version, the priory was devoted to installing a secret bloodline of the Merovingian dynasty on the thrones of France and the rest of Europe. This myth was expanded upon and popularised by the 1982 pseudohistorical book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and later claimed as factual in the preface of the 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.
After becoming a cause célèbre from the late 1960s to the 1980s, the mythical Priory of Sion was exposed as a ludibrium created by Plantard as a framework for his claim of being the Great Monarch prophesied by Nostradamus. Evidence presented in support of its historical existence and activities before 1956 was discovered to have been forged and then planted in various locations around France by Plantard and his accomplices. Nevertheless, many conspiracy theorists still persist in believing that the Priory of Sion is an age-old cabal that conceals a subversive secret.
The Priory of Sion myth has been exhaustively debunked by journalists and scholars as one of the great hoaxes of the 20th century. Some skeptics have expressed concern that the proliferation and popularity of books, websites and films inspired by this hoax have contributed to the problem of conspiracy theories, pseudohistory and other confusions becoming more mainstream. Others are troubled by the romantic reactionary ideology unwittingly promoted in these works.
The fraternal organisation was founded in the town of Annemasse, Haute-Savoie in eastern France in 1956. The 1901 French law of Associations required that the Priory of Sion be registered with the government; although the statutes and the registration Documents are dated 7 May 1956, the registration took place at the subprefecture of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois on 25 June 1956 and this was announced in the Journal Officiel de la République Française on 20 July 1956. The Headquarters of the Priory of Sion and its journal Circuit were based in the apartment of Plantard, in a social housing block known as Sous-Cassan newly constructed in 1956. The founders and signatories inscribed with their real names and aliases were Pierre Plantard, also known as "Chyren", and André Bonhomme, also known as "Stanis Bellas". Bonhomme was the President while Plantard was the Secretary General. The registration documents also included the names of Jean Deleaval as the Vice-President and Armand Defago as the Treasurer. The offices of the Priory of Sion and its journal Circuit were located at Plantard's apartment. The choice of the name "Sion" was based on a popular local feature, a hill south of Annemasse in France, known as Mont Sion, where the founders intended to establish a retreat center. The accompanying title to the name was "Chevalerie d'Institutions et Règles Catholiques d'Union Indépendante et Traditionaliste": this subtitle forms the acronym CIRCUIT and translates in English as Chivalry of Catholic Rules and Institutions of Independent and Traditionalist Union".
The statutes of the Priory of Sion indicate its purpose was to allow and encourage members to engage in studies and mutual aid. The articles of the association expressed the goal of creating a Traditionalist Catholic chivalric order. Article 7 of the statutes of the Priory of Sion stated that its members were expected "to carry out good deeds, to help the Roman Catholic Church, teach the truth, defend the weak and the oppressed". Towards the end of 1956 the association had planned to forge partnerships with the local Catholic Church of the area which would have involved a school bus service run by both the Priory of Sion and the church of Saint-Joseph in Annemasse. Plantard is described as the President of the Tenants' Association of Annemasse in the issues of Circuit.
The bulk of the activities of the Priory of Sion, however, bore no resemblance to the objectives as outlined in its statutes: Circuit, the official journal of the Priory of Sion, was indicated as a news bulletin of an "organisation for the defence of the rights and the freedom of affordable housing" rather than for the promotion of chivalry-inspired charitable work. The first issue of the journal is dated 27 May 1956, and, in total, twelve issues appeared. Some of the articles took a political position in the local council elections. Others criticised and even attacked real-estate developers of Annemasse.
According to a letter written by Léon Guersillon the Mayor of Annemasse in 1956, contained in the folder holding the 1956 Statutes of the Priory of Sion in the subprefecture of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, Plantard was given a six-month sentence in 1953 for fraud.
The formally registered association was dissolved some time after October 1956 but intermittently revived for different reasons by Plantard between 1961 and 1993, though in name and on paper only. The Priory of Sion is considered dormant by the subprefecture because it has indicated no activities since 1956. According to French law, subsequent references to the Priory bear no legal relation to that of 1956 and no one, other than the original signatories, is entitled to use its name in an official capacity. André Bonhomme played no part in the association after 1956. He officially resigned in 1973 when he heard that Plantard was linking his name with the association. In light of Plantard's death in 2000, there is no one who is currently alive who has official permission to use the name.
In 2002, Gino Sandri (former secretary to Pierre Plantard) announced the revival of Priory of Sion.
Plantard set out to have the Priory of Sion perceived as a prestigious esoteric Christian chivalric order, whose members would be people of influence in the fields of finance, politics and philosophy, devoted to installing the "Great Monarch", prophesied by Nostradamus, on the throne of France. Plantard's choice of the pseudonym "Chyren" was a reference to "Chyren Selin", Nostradamus's anagram for the name for this eschatological figure.
Between 1961 and 1984, Plantard contrived a mythical pedigree for the Priory of Sion claiming that it was the offshoot of a real Roman Catholic religious order housed in the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion, which had been founded in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099 and later absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617. The mistake is often made that this Abbey of Sion was a Priory of Sion, but there is a difference between an abbey and a priory. Calling his original 1956 group "Priory of Sion" presumably gave Plantard the later idea to claim that his organisation had been historically founded by crusading knight Godfrey of Bouillon on Mount Zion near Jerusalem during the Middle Ages.
Furthermore, Plantard was inspired by a 1960 magazine Les Cahiers de l'Histoire to center his personal genealogical claims, as found in the "Priory of Sion documents", on the Merovingian king Dagobert II, who had been assassinated in the 7th century. He also adopted "Et in Arcadia ego ...", a slightly altered version of a Latin phrase that most famously appears as the title of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin, as the motto of both his family and the Priory of Sion, because the tomb which appears in these paintings resembled one in the Les Pontils area near Rennes-le-Château. This tomb would become a symbol for his dynastic claims as the last legacy of the Merovingians on the territory of Razès, left to remind the select few who have been initiated into these mysteries that the "lost king", Dagobert II, would figuratively come back in the form of a hereditary pretender.
To give credibility to the fabricated lineage and pedigree, Plantard and his friend, Philippe de Chérisey, needed to create "independent evidence". So during the 1960s, they created and deposited a series of false documents, the most famous of which was entitled Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau ("The Secret Files of Henri Lobineau"), at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. During the same decade, Plantard commissioned de Chérisey to forge two medieval parchments. These parchments contained encrypted messages that referred to the Priory of Sion. They adapted, and used to their advantage, the earlier false claims put forward by Noël Corbu that a Catholic priest named Bérenger Saunière had supposedly discovered ancient parchments inside a pillar while renovating his church in Rennes-le-Château in 1891. Inspired by the popularity of media reports and books in France about the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the West Bank, they hoped this same theme would attract attention to their parchments. Their version of the parchments was intended to prove Plantard's claims about the Priory of Sion being a medieval society that was the source of the "underground stream" of esotericism in Europe.
Plantard then enlisted the aid of author Gérard de Sède to write a book based on his unpublished manuscript and forged parchments, alleging that Saunière had discovered a link to a hidden treasure. The 1967 book L'or de Rennes, ou La vie insolite de Bérenger Saunière, curé de Rennes-le-Château ("The Gold of Rennes, or The Strange Life of Bérenger Saunière, Priest of Rennes-le-Château"), which was later published in paperback under the title Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château ("The Accursed Treasure of Rennes-le-Château") in 1968, became a popular read in France. It included copies of the found parchments (the originals were of course never produced), though it did not provide the decoded hidden texts contained within them. One of the Latin texts in the parchments was copied from the Novum Testamentum, an attempted restoration of the Vulgate by John Wordsworth and Henry White. The other text was copied from the Codex Bezae. Based on the wording used, the versions of the Latin texts found in the parchments can be shown to have been copied from books first published in 1889 and 1895, which is problematic considering that de Sède's book was trying to make a case that these documents were centuries old.
In 1969, English actor and science-fiction scriptwriter Henry Lincoln became intrigued after reading Le Trésor Maudit. He discovered one of the encrypted messages, which read "À Dagobert II Roi et à Sion est ce trésor, et il est là mort" ("To Dagobert II, King, and to Sion belongs this treasure and he is there dead"). This was possibly an allusion to the tomb and shrine of Sigebert IV, a real or mythical son of Dagobert II which would not only prove that the Merovingian dynasty did not end with the death of the king but that the Priory of Sion has been entrusted with the duty to protect his relics like a treasure. Lincoln expanded on the conspiracy theories, writing his own books on the subject, and inspiring and presenting three BBC Two Chronicle documentaries between 1972-1979 about the alleged mysteries of the Rennes-le-Château area. In response to a tip from Gérard de Sède, Lincoln claims he was also the one who discovered the Dossiers Secrets, a series of planted genealogies which appeared to further confirm the link with the extinct Merovingian bloodline. The documents claimed that the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar were two fronts of one unified organisation with the same leadership until 1188.
Letters in existence dating from the 1960s written by Plantard, de Chérisey and de Sède to each other confirm that the three were engaging in an out-and-out hoax. The letters describe schemes to combat criticisms of their various allegations and ways they would make up new allegations to try to keep the hoax alive. These letters (totalling over 100) are in the possession of French researcher Jean-Luc Chaumeil, who has also retained the original envelopes. Jean-Luc Chaumeil was part of the Priory of Sion hoax ring during the 1970s, and wrote books and articles about Plantard and the Priory of Sion before leaving it during the late 1970s and exposing Plantard's past in French books. A letter later discovered at the subprefecture of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois also indicated that Plantard had a criminal conviction as a confidence trickster .
After reading Le Trésor Maudit, Lincoln persuaded BBC Two to devote three episodes in their Chronicle documentary series to the topic. These became quite popular and generated thousands of responses. Lincoln then joined forces with Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh for further research. This led them to the pseudohistorical Dossiers Secrets at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which though alleging to portray hundreds of years of medieval history, were actually all written by Plantard and de Chérisey under the pseudonym of "Philippe Toscan du Plantier". Unaware that the documents had been forged, Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh used them as a major source for their 1982 controversial non-fiction book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, in which they presented the following myths as facts to support their hypotheses:
However, the authors re-interpreted the Dossiers Secrets in the light of their own interest in undermining the Roman Catholic Church's institutional reading of Judeo-Christian history. Contrary to Plantard's initial Franco-Israelist claim that the Merovingians were only descended from the Tribe of Benjamin, they asserted that:
The authors therefore concluded that the modern goals of the Priory of Sion are:
The authors also incorporated the antisemitic and anti-Masonic tract known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into their story, concluding that it was actually based on the master plan of the Priory of Sion. They presented it as the most persuasive piece of evidence for the existence and activities of the Priory of Sion by arguing that:
In reaction to this memetic synthesis of investigative journalism with religious conspiracism, many secular conspiracy theorists added the Priory of Sion to their list of secret societies collaborating or competing to manipulate political happenings from behind the scenes in their bid for world domination. Some occultists speculated that the emergence of the Priory of Sion and Plantard closely follows The Prophecies by M. Michel Nostradamus (unaware that Plantard was intentionally trying to fulfill them). Fringe Christian eschatologists countered that it was a fulfilment of prophecies found in the Book of Revelation and further proof of an anti-Christian conspiracy of epic proportions.
However, professional historians and scholars from related fields do not accept The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as a serious dissertation, and regard it as one of the best examples of "counterknowledge". French authors like Franck Marie (1978), Pierre Jarnac (1985), (1988), Jean-Luc Chaumeil (1994), and more recently Marie-France Etchegoin and Frédéric Lenoir (2004), Massimo Introvigne (2005), Jean-Jacques Bedu (2005), and Bernardo Sanchez Da Motta (2005), have never taken Plantard and the Priory of Sion as seriously as Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh. They eventually concluded that it was all a hoax, outlining in detail the reasons for their verdict, and giving detailed evidence that the Holy Blood authors had not reported comprehensively. They imply that this evidence had been ignored by Lincoln, Baigent, and Leigh to bolster the mythical version of the Priory's history that was developed by Plantard during the early 1960s after meeting author Gérard de Sède.
In 1986, Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh published The Messianic Legacy, a sequel to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The authors assert that the Priory of Sion is not only the archetypal cabal but an ideal repository of the cultural legacy of Jewish messianism that could end the “crisis of meaning” within the Western world by providing a Merovingian sacred king as a messianic figure in which the West and, by extension, humanity can place its trust. However, the authors are led to believe by Plantard that he has resigned as Grand Master of the Priory of Sion in 1984 and that the organisation has since gone underground in reaction to both an internal power struggle between Plantard and an “Anglo-American contingent” as well as a campaign of character assassination against Plantard in the press and books written by skeptics.
Although Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh remain convinced that the pre-1956 history of the Priory of Sion is true, they confess to the possibility that all of Plantard's claims about a post-1956 Priory of Sion were part of an elaborate hoax to build a cult of personality and cult of intelligence around himself in French esoteric circles.
In 1989, Plantard tried but failed to salvage his reputation and agenda as a mystagogue in esoteric circles by claiming that the Priory of Sion had actually been founded in 1681 at Rennes-le-Château, and was focused more on harnessing the paranormal power of ley lines and sunrise lines, and a promontory called "Roc Noir" (Black Rock) in the area, than installing a Merovingian pretender on the restored throne of France. In 1990, Plantard revised himself by claiming he was only descended from a cadet branch of the line of Dagobert II, while arguing that the direct descendant was really Otto von Habsburg.
In September 1993, while investigative judge Thierry Jean-Pierre was investigating the activities of multi-millionaire Roger-Patrice Pelat in the context of the Pechiney-Triangle Affair, he was informed that Pelat may have once been Grand Master of an esoteric society known as the Priory of Sion. Pelat's name had been on Plantard's list of Grand Masters since 1989. In fact, Pelat had died in 1989, while he was being indicted for insider trading - "délit d'initié" in French. Plantard may have been naive about financial terms and interpreted the word "initié" esoterically, to mean "initiate". Following a long established pattern, Plantard "recruited" the "initiate" Pelat soon after his death and included him as the most recent Priory of Sion Grand Master. Plantard had first claimed that Pelat had been a Grand Master in a Priory of Sion pamphlet dated 8 March 1989, then claimed it again later in a 1990 issue of Vaincre, the revived publication of Alpha Galates, a pseudo-chivalric order created by Plantard in Vichy France to support the "National Revolution".
Pelat had been a friend of François Mitterrand, then President of France, and at the centre of a scandal involving French Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy. As an investigative judge, Jean-Pierre could not dismiss any information brought to his attention pertaining to the case, especially if it might have led to a scandal similar to the one implicating an illegal Masonic lodge named Propaganda Due in the 1982 Banco Ambrosiano bank failure in Italy, Jean-Pierre ordered a search of Plantard's home. The search turned up a hoard of false documents, including some proclaiming Plantard the true king of France. Plantard admitted under oath that he had fabricated everything, including Pelat's involvement with the Priory of Sion. Plantard was threatened with legal action by the Pelat family and therefore disappeared to his house in southern France. He was 74 years old at the time. Nothing more was heard of him until he died in Paris on 3 February 2000.
On 27 December 2002, an open letter announced the revival of the Priory of Sion as an integral traditionalist esoteric society, which stated that: "The Commanderies of Saint-Denis, Millau, Geneva and Barcelona are fully operative. According to the Tradition, the first Commanderie is under the direction of a woman", claiming there were 9,841 members. It was signed by Gino Sandri (who claims to be Plantard's former private secretary) under the title of General Secretary, and by "P. Plantard" (Le Nautonnier, G. Chyren). Sandri is a well-versed occultist who has spent his life infiltrating esoteric societies only to get expelled from them. After interviewing Sandri, independent researcher Laurent Octonovo Buchholtzer wrote:
I’ve personally met this Gino Sandri on one occasion, and I had the opportunity to have a really good talk with him, but I think that he's simply seeking attention. He seemed to me to be something of a mythomaniac, which would certainly be an excellent qualification for being Secretary of the Priory of Sion. During our conversation he said something in passing that I found quite extraordinary. He said, “Ultimately, what is the Priory of Sion? It's nothing more than a well-known brand name, but with goodness knows what behind it?” He gave a good brief account of the phenomenon of the Priory of Sion. Thanks to Dan Brown, hundreds of millions of people now have “brand awareness”, and several million of them seem to take it seriously.
As a result of Dan Brown's best-selling 2003 conspiracy fiction novel The Da Vinci Code and the subsequent 2006 film, there was a new level of public interest in the Priory of Sion. Brown's novel promotes the mythical version of the Priory but departs from the ultimate conclusions presented in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Rather than plotting to create a Federal Europe ruled by a Merovingian sacred king descended from the historical Jesus, the Priory of Sion initiates its members into a mystery cult seeking to restore the feminist theology necessary for a complete understanding of early Christianity, which was supposedly suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. The author has presented this speculation as fact in his non-fiction preface, as well as in his public appearances and interviews.
Furthermore, in their 1987 sequel The Messianic Legacy, Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh suggested that there was a current conflict between the Priory of Sion and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which they speculated might have originated from an earlier rivalry between the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades. However, for the dramatic structure of The Da Vinci Code, Brown chose the controversial Roman Catholic prelature Opus Dei as the Assassini-like nemesis of the Priory of Sion, despite the fact that no author had ever argued that there is a conflict between these two groups.
Further conspiracy theories were reported in the 2006 non-fiction book The Sion Revelation: The Truth About the Guardians of Christ's Sacred Bloodline by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince (authors of the 1997 non-fiction book The Templar Revelation, the principal source for Dan Brown's claims about hidden messages in the work of Leonardo da Vinci). They accepted that the pre-1956 history of the Priory of Sion was a hoax created by Plantard, and that his claim that he was a Merovingian dynast was a lie. However, they insist that this was part of a complex red herring intended to distract the public from the hidden agenda of Plantard and his "controllers". They argue that the Priory of Sion was a front organisation for one of the many crypto-political societies which have been plotting to create a "United States of Europe" in line with French occultist Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre's synarchist vision of an ideal form of government.
The 2008 documentary Bloodline by Bruce Burgess, a filmmaker with an interest in paranormal claims, expands on the "Jesus bloodline" hypothesis and other elements of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Accepting as valid the testimony of an amateur archaeologist codenamed "Ben Hammott" relating to his discoveries made in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Château since 1999; Burgess claims Ben has found the treasure of Bérenger Saunière: a mummified corpse, which they believe is Mary Magdalene, in an underground tomb they claim is connected to both the Knights Templar and the Priory of Sion. In the film, Burgess interviews several people with alleged connections to the Priory of Sion, including a Gino Sandri and Nicolas Haywood. A book by one of the documentary's researchers, Rob Howells, entitled Inside the Priory of Sion: Revelations from the World's Most Secret Society - Guardians of the Bloodline of Jesus presented the version of the Priory of Sion as given in the 2008 documentary, which contained several erroneous assertions, such as the claim that Plantard believed in the Jesus bloodline hypothesis. On 21 March 2012, Ben Hammott confessed and apologised on Podcast interview (using his real name Bill Wilkinson) that everything to do with the tomb and related artifacts was a hoax; revealing that the actual tomb was now destroyed, being part of a full sized set located in a warehouse in England.
The mythical Priory of Sion was supposedly led by a "Nautonnier", an Old French word for a navigator, which means Grand Master in their internal esoteric nomenclature. The following list of Grand Masters is derived from the Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau compiled by Plantard under the nom de plume of "Philippe Toscan du Plantier" in 1967. All those named on this list had died before that date. All but two are also found on lists of alleged “Imperators” (supreme heads) and “distinguished members” of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis which circulated in France at the time when Plantard was in touch with this Rosicrucian Order. Most of those named share the common thread of being known for having an interest in the occult or heresy.
The Dossiers Secrets asserted that the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar always shared the same Grand Master until a schism occurred during the "Cutting of the elm" incident in 1188. Following that event, the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion are listed in French as being:
A later document, Le Cercle d'Ulysse, identifies François Ducaud-Bourget, a prominent Traditionalist Catholic priest who Plantard had worked for as a sexton during World War II, as the Grand Master following Cocteau's death. Plantard himself is later identified as the next Grand Master.
When the Dossiers Secrets were exposed as a forgery by French researchers, Plantard kept quiet. During his 1989 attempt to make a comeback and revive the Priory of Sion, Plantard sought to distance himself from the discredited first list, and published a second list of Priory Grand Masters, which included the names of the deceased Roger-Patrice Pelat, and his own son Thomas Plantard de Saint-Clair: