Since it was published three years ago, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" has become one of the most popular novels of all time, with more than 30 million copies in print worldwide. With a major movie based on the book due out soon, the book seems assured of a place on the bestseller lists for a considerable time to come. What has attracted readers to "The Da Vinci Code" is its central theme, which Dan Brown claims is not fiction but fact — that a mysterious European society, known as the Priory of Sion, has for centuries guarded a momentous secret. That secret, which is the theory at the heart of the novel, is that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and today their descendants are living in France. It's not surprising that this has incurred the wrath of many Christians, including the Vatican, while others have wondered if there might not be some truth to all of this.
Well, wonder no more. Correspondent Ed Bradley reports on the real secret of the Priory of Sion.
To follow the trail of the Priory of Sion, you first need to go to a small, remote village in the foothills of the French Pyrenees called Rennes le Chateau and to go back in time more than 100 years. It was here that the Priory was said to have had a mysterious influence on the village priest, Berenger Sauniere, who spent money on a scale that was way beyond his means.
After lavishly redecorating the interior of the church, Sauniere built a grand estate for himself, with a promenade that stretched along the edge of the village. At one end he constructed a tower, where he entertained guests and housed his extensive library. Saunière died in 1917, but the mystery of his wealth lived on. In the 1950's, newspaper reports suggested that Sauniere had discovered a fabulous treasure and soon Rennes Le Chateau began to be invaded by treasure hunters from all over the world.
One of those treasure hunters who now gives tours of Rennes Le Chateau and has become a major player in this story is Henry Lincoln, a British scriptwriter. Lincoln says his interest was first aroused when he came across a book containing reproductions of two parchments. These had supposedly been found by Sauniere behind the altar in his church and had led him to that treasure. Each contained a passage from the Gospels, written in an ancient script, and was said to contain a secret message.
"Ah, I thought, I've got the makings of a film here. Don't forget that was my career. I was a writer for television and I thought 'this is a damn good subject for a documentary,'" says Lincoln.
But in the three documentary films that Lincoln made for the BBC, no treasure was ever found. He suggested that Sauniere, the priest of Rennes Le Chateau, had acquired his mysterious wealth through his association with a shadowy organization, and the clues were in those parchments.
"My researches have thrown up several times the name Priory of Sion. Could this be the meaning of 'PS?'" Lincoln wondered.
Lincoln decided that it was, and he went on to suggest the secret Sauniere took to his grave was that the Priory of Sion's role was to protect none other than the descendants of Christ.
"There's Mary Magdalene to whom the church is dedicated, holding the cross. She's supposed to have brought it to France, the cross and the grail," says Lincoln.
Lincoln's theory was that Mary Magdalene had married Jesus and the Holy Grail that she allegedly brought to France was not the cup from the Last Supper but the child that she and Jesus had together.
This was the theme of a book he co-authored in the 1980s called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" which was an international bestseller and on which Dan Brown acknowledges he drew for "The Da Vinci Code." Just how many dozens of other books it also inspired can be seen in the bookshop at Rennes Le Chateau. So does Lincoln still believe in that story today?
"I can't say that it's a fact because it isn't. It's an idea. But it fits the facts that we have, very few though they be," Lincoln says.
One of those alleged facts is featured prominently at the beginning of "The Da Vinci Code." On a page headed "Fact," Dan Brown says that the Priory of Sion, which is central to the secret at the heart of his book, is a real organization. He says that at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris — the French National Library — you can find proof that it was founded in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades. That proof is in some documents known as the Dossiers Secrets or Secret Files.
So 60 Minutes decided to check out those Secret Files. The Bibliothèque Nationale made exact copies for the 60 Minutes team to look at because they said the originals were too fragile to handle.
We soon found what we were looking for. One document gives the history of the Priory of Sion dating back to the 12th Century, and there's a list of Grand Masters that includes such illustrious names as Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci. This information would be astounding — except for one thing.
"I do know what was going on in Jerusalem in the 12th Century, I do know. I spent 40 years working on it and what these people say — did not happen," says Jonathan Riley-Smith, the former professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University and a leading authority on the Crusades.
French researchers have also questioned the authenticity of these secret files ever since they were deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale in the 1960's. Their attention came to focus on a man named Pierre Plantard, who claimed to be the current Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. But evidence at the police headquarters in Paris tells a different story. Historian Claude Charlot, who is director of police archives, says there's a file on Plantard, who died in 2000, showing that during World War II he was investigated by the secret services. So what was their conclusion?
"The investigation said, 'He is a young man whose mind — as we say in French — is cloudy. He is a fantasist; he is not a serious person,'" Charlot said, with the help of a translator.
One of Plantard's fantasies was to set up right-wing, anti-Semitic organizations, similar in style to medieval orders of chivalry. But in reality these organizations existed only on paper.
"I noticed that in one of the police reports it was noted that his organization 'French National Renewal' was described as a 'phantom group.' That he claimed it had 3,000 members and the police found it had only four," Bradley remarked.
Charlot says it was a pure invention.
After the war, Plantard moved to the small French town of Annemasse. In 1953 he was given a six-month sentence for fraud — but three years later, he was again setting up a new organization. Under French law, it's necessary to deposit the statutes of every new association with the authorities. That's how a government official there was able to give us information about it. It was called "The Priory of Sion," named not for 12th-century Jerusalem, but for the local mountain close to where he lived. Ten years later and now back in Paris, Plantard gave the Priory of Sion a fictitious pedigree by drawing up that list of Grand Masters and depositing it in the Bibliotheque Nationale. Charlot says that apart from that list, no historian has found any evidence that the Priory of Sion existed before Plantard set up his version in 1956.
"In other words, all that Plantard tells us, or what other people tell us about the Priory of Sion — that the Grand Master was Victor Hugo or Leonardo Da Vinci — is sheer invention," says Charlot.
The Priory of Sion, says Charlot, was just another figment of Plantard's imagination.
But if the Priory of Sion was just a figment of Pierre Plantard's imagination, what about those parchments that mentioned Sion and were supposedly found by the priest in his church at Rennes Le Chateau? Bill Putnam and John Edwin Wood who have written a book about the mystery say the text in one of the parchments precludes them from being genuine.
"This one uses a Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate. There are a number of known versions of this at various times in history and by looking exactly at which words are used and which words are not used you can tell which version it is," Putnam explains.
Putnam says this is the version of the Bible used. The only trouble is, it wasn't published until 1889, and Sauniere was supposed to have found these centuries-old parchments well before that date.
"So it could not possibly have been around had these parchments really been discovered by Sauniere prior to that date," says Putnam.
Putnam says it was all just an elaborate hoax.
Putnam and Wood say once again it was Plantard who was responsible for that hoax. Hearing of the story of Rennes Le Chateau, he decided to use it for his own ends and turned to a friend named Philippe de Cherisey for help in creating those parchments.
"Philippe de Cherisey was a different character altogether. He was something of a joker. He'd actually been an actor and had played parts in French television and he was fond of puzzles. And he invented the parchments because he liked puzzles," says John Edwin Wood.
Like Plantard, de Cherisey is now dead. So where are those parchments today? French writer Jean-Luc Chaumeil, who knew both men well and inherited many of their papers, says he has them.
Chaumeil says he got the parchments from de Cherisey and had them analyzed by two experts, who found that they are maybe 40 years old.
Chaumeil also has a document, handwritten and signed by de Cherisey in which he describes how he created the parchments to produce what he calls "a good hoax."
"But if the parchments are a hoax, if the parchments are forged, what does that do to the story of Rennes Le Chateau and the story of the Priory of Sion?" Bradley asked.
"If the parchments are wrong, no, the story is finished," Chaumeil replied.
None of this evidence has deterred Lincoln or his supporters, who refuse to accept that the story is finished.
"I am not a naïve innocent who was hoaxed by Monsieur Plantard and Cherisey. No, I am a very, very careful researcher," says Lincoln.
As for Brown, he declined 60 Minutes request for an interview. But on his official Web site, there's a page entitled "Bizarre True Facts from The Da Vinci Code," where he continues to claim that the Priory of Sion is a European secret society that since 1099 has been guarding "a shocking historical secret."
Asked where they would place this hoax in the list of hoaxes that have been perpetrated throughout history, Putnam and John Edwin Wood both say "at the top."
"This is undoubtedly the most magnificent — we take our hats off in admiration to the achievement. It's really quite extraordinary," says Putnam.
But one mystery still remains, and it's the one that began this story: Where did the priest of Rennes Le Chateau, Bérenger Saunière, get the money to build his estate? In 1910 he was summoned to appear before the bishop's court in the local, medieval-walled city of Carcasonne.
In Carcasonne, Sauniere was tried and found guilty of trafficking in masses. Priests are allowed to accept money for saying up to three masses a day. But what Saunière had done was to solicit and receive money for thousands of masses, which he couldn't possibly have said. In fact, he didn't even try. So the source of the wealth of the priest of Rennes le Chateau was not some ancient, mysterious treasure — but good old-fashioned fraud.
Produced By Jeanne Langley
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