The most spectacular secret society hoax in recent history, the Priory of Sion (Prieuré de Sion) was founded in 1956 in the small town of Annemasse in southeastern France by Pierre Plantard (1920–2000), a minor figure in French right-wing occult circles. The founding papers of the organization declare that its objects were “1. The constitution of a Catholic association intended to restore antique chivalry; 2. Pursuit of the study and practice of solidarity.” Its membership was limited to adult Catholics.

Behind the Priory lies two decades of failed attempts by Plantard to launch a similar organization to pursue the conservative Catholic esotericism much in vogue in early twentieth-century France. In his younger years, Plantard had been an associate of Georges Monti, the former secretary to Joséphin Péladan. Péladan had been among the most influential figures in the Paris occult scene in the 1880s and 1890s, and Monti passed onto Plantard something of Péladan’s taste for aristocratic and reactionary occultism. Plantard also had a long history of involvement in reactionary political groups; before the war he was associated with members of the Cagoule, a secret society that attempted to overthrow the French government and establish a fascist state modeled on Mussolini’s Italy. See Cagoule; Catholic Order of the Rose+Cross.

In 1940, not long after the German conquest of France, Plantard organized a secret society named Alpha Galates, with 12 levels of initiation culminating in the degree of Druidic Majesty, reserved for himself. Although he produced a periodical, Vaincre (“Conquer”), that supported the Vichy puppet government and circulated pro-Nazi propaganda, Plantard spent four months in prison when the authorities found out about it, since it had been launched without official approval. Vichy-era government documents nonetheless dismissed Plantard as a crank whose organization existed mostly in his own head. Other than his brief prison stay, he spent the war years in Paris working as a paid sexton at a Catholic church and studying lessons from the correspondence course put out by AMORC, an American Rosicrucian order based in California. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC).

As outlined in its 1956 documents, the Priory of Sion was a new version of Alpha Galates. Even by secret society standards it was a tiny organization, and for most of its history its membership consisted mainly of Plantard himself. In its first years it either was, or masqueraded as, a committee for the right to low income housing, though these efforts were hindered by a six-month stint in prison following Plantard’s conviction for fraud; he had claimed the Priory was a large organization, and sold high degrees of initiation for even higher sums of money.

Despite this setback, Plantard spent the next two decades engaged in a massive campaign of disinformation to make the Priory look larger than it was. During France’s constitutional crisis of 1958, he put out publicity claiming that the Priory was behind the Committees of Public Safety that put Charles de Gaulle back in power. These efforts had little impact, but Plantard’s further attempts to publicize the Priory had unexpected consequences.

Around 1960 Plantard met Noel Corbu, who opened a restaurant in the little town of Rennes-le-Château in southern France in the early 1950s, using for the purpose a stone tower built by an eccentric former parish priest named Bérenger Saunière. To publicize the restaurant, Corbu concocted a romantic tale about hidden treasure supposedly discovered by Saunière in the parish church, and turned Saunière into a man of mystery with international connections. None of Corbu’s tale has the slightest basis in fact, nor can it be traced back past a 1956 magazine article for which Corbu himself was the sole source. See Rennes-le-Château.

Plantard took these stories, embellished them, and used them to provide a fictitious origin for the Priory of Sion, tracing it back via the Albigensian heretics and the crusading Knights Templar to the Merovingian kings of early medieval France, whose last descendant he claimed to be. In the process he borrowed liberally from the origin story of the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, an eighteenth-century German Rosicrucian order; he added “de St Clair” to his own name to imply a connection to the Sinclair family of Scotland, once the hereditary patrons of Scottish stonemasons’ guilds, and invented a stellar list of past Nautonniers (grand masters) of the Priory, including such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton, borrowing most of the names from lists of Rosicrucian Imperators circulated by AMORC. Along with a friend, Philippe de Chérisey, he started inserting documents backing these claims into several important French historical archives. See Albigensians; Knights Templar; Leonardo da Vinci; Merovingians; Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross; origin stories; retrospective recruitment; Rosicrucians; Sinclair family.

In 1964, he wrote a book detailing his claims, but was unable to find a publisher. In 1965 he arranged with Gérard de Sède, a writer of popular non-fiction, to have de Sède revise the book and publish it under his own name, with the proceeds to be split with Plantard. Plantard’s friend Philippe de Chérisey was also to receive a share in return for concocting two parchments, allegedly found in a Visigothic pillar in the church at Rennes-le-Château, that contained coded messages backing up the Priory of Sion’s invented Merovingian origins. The book was published, and launched the “Rennes-le-Château mystery” into French counterculture literature, but the partners fell out over the division of the royalties. In a variety of court documents and publications, Plantard and de Chérisey both admitted that the parchments had been forged, a conclusion later backed up by laboratory analysis.

None of this prevented the next stage in the unfolding of the story. In 1969, English actor Henry Soskin (who wrote under the pen name Henry Lincoln) encountered the Rennes-le-Château story by way of a second book by Gérard de Sède, and began to pursue the story, first on his own and then with the help of two other British writers, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Soskin, Leigh, and Baigent soon found themselves on the receiving end of Plantard’s disinformation campaign. Ironically, they realized early on that they were following a prepared trail produced by a single source (see Baigent et al. 1983, pp. 96–7), but still accepted the accuracy of the Priory’s manufactured pedigree.

However, the British authors were by no means passive receptacles for all this material. They had interests of their own, focused most notably on the origins of Christianity, and managed to link Plantard’s revelations into these interests, with sensational results. Their interpretation of the Priory “mystery” appeared in three TV documentaries, followed by the bestselling book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), which claimed that Pierre Plantard was a descendant of Jesus of Nazareth, who had a child by Mary Magdalene – a claim Plantard himself, a devout if eccentric Catholic, rejected with some vehemence. See Christian origins.

In 1984, after a series of bitter quarrels with Soskin, Plantard folded up the Priory and tried to distance himself from the media circus of claims and counterclaims around the bloodline-of-Jesus theory. In 1989 he attempted to launch the Priory again, this time with a completely different set of claims about its origins, but his efforts went nowhere. An incautious claim about the Priory connections of controversial French business figure Roger-Patrice Pelat landed Plantard in court in 1993, where he admitted under oath that he had invented the Priory of Sion, its history, and its claims out of whole cloth.

From that time until his death in 2000, Plantard seems to have made no further attempts to revive the Priory. Still, his efforts succeeded in giving his small and unsuccessful group an unearned reputation as one of the most important secret societies in history, and the disinformation campaign he concocted, liberally enlarged by the imaginative contributions of more than a dozen busy writers, has redefined the history of the western world for millions of people. A bestselling novel, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), borrowed much of its theme and plot from Plantard’s claims, as expanded by Soskin, Leigh, and Baigent, and at least 10 secret societies now claim either to be the authentic Priory of Sion or the current holders of its lineage. The richest irony of all is that the flurry of media attention given to the Priory of Sion has largely succeeded in distracting researchers from the activities of real secret societies in various periods of European history. See Da Vinci Code, the.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006