Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio.’
So begins Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code, one of this century’s most remarkable publishing sensations, which was released 20 years ago this week, on March 18, 2003.
The story of a dashing Harvard ‘symbologist’ caught up in a deadly plot to cover up the truth about Jesus Christ and the Holy Grail, Brown’s book sold a staggering 80 million copies and inspired a Hollywood film franchise starring Tom Hanks.
The film adaptation of the novel starred Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou
For what seemed like months on end, enthusiastic readers regaled their friends with stories of murderous albino monks, the historic rivalry between the Catholic Church and the Knights Templar, and the mysterious documents hidden in the church at Rennes-le-Chateau in France.
Even at the peak of Da Vinci Code‑mania, most people admitted that Brown’s book was abysmally written. The next sentence in the book — ‘Grabbing the gilded frame, the 76‑year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself . . .’ — gives a flavour of his clumsy ‘style’, if that’s quite the right word.
So begins Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code, one of this century’s most remarkable publishing sensations, which was released 20 years ago this week, on March 18, 2003
But as Brown addicts insisted, the appeal lay in its page-turning story, as well as the murky history behind it.
For the supposed truth, which the Catholic Church has been covering up for centuries, is that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene — a woman of dubious morals who became one of his most devoted disciples — had a child. The child’s descendants became the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings, who ruled over what is now France between the 5th and 8th centuries.
According to The Da Vinci Code, Christ’s bloodline survives to this day. The secret is guarded by a shadowy group called the Priory Of Sion, whose heads included household names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo and Sir Isaac Newton.
You might well think this utter tosh, but Dan Brown has always maintained that it’s absolutely true.
In an explanatory note, he writes ‘all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate’. The Priory Of Sion, he adds, is a ‘real organisation’, and there are documents in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France that prove it.
Yet the really extraordinary thing isn’t Brown’s plot, which is, indeed, pure fantasy. It’s the even more fantastical plot behind the plot — the true story of one of the strangest and most colourful hoaxes in history.
The first clue lies in The Da Vinci Code itself. The villain’s name, rather implausibly, is Sir Leigh Teabing. And as it happens, the plot is remarkably similar to the thesis of a non-fiction book, The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, written by Henry Lincoln, Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent (the latter surname an anagram of Teabing), first published in 1982.
In 2005, ‘Leigh Teabing’ (or rather, Leigh and Baigent) sued Brown for copyright infringement. Although they lost the case, Brown freely admitted that he’d been inspired by their book.
In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (pictured) says that the Priory Of Sion dates from 1099. In reality, it was founded in 1956, the brainchild of a draughtsman with an over-developed imagination
It was from The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, for example, that he got the idea that Mary Magdalene had borne Jesus’s child. It was from this book, too, that he learned about the Merovingian dynasty and the Priory Of Sion. And this book was also the first to claim, perhaps a bit ungallantly, that the Holy Grail was actually Mary’s womb.
Bizarrely, The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail also claims that the Priory Of Sion is trying to turn the EU into a Holy European Empire, based on the formidable power of the European Parliament.
Even for Brown, this was a step too far. But where had these ideas come from? Now the plot really thickens.
Of the book’s three authors, the guiding spirit was Henry Lincoln, a sometime TV scriptwriter best known for a Doctor Who series in the 1960s in which the Abominable Snowmen rampage through the London Underground.
On holiday in France, Lincoln had read a book called L’Or De Rennes (The Gold Of Rennes), which claimed that the medieval church in Rennes-le-Chateau, deep in the Languedoc, held a tranche of secret documents about the Priory Of Sion and the Merovingian kings.
Fascinated, Lincoln went to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris to check the story. And what did he find? A hitherto unknown document called Les Dossiers Secrets, confirming that the Priory Of Sion had existed since the Middle Ages.
This was an amazing discovery. Or it would have been if it hadn’t been a colossal hoax.
In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown says that the Priory Of Sion dates from 1099. In reality, it was founded in 1956, the brainchild of a draughtsman with an over-developed imagination.
Born in 1920, the son of a butler and a cook, Pierre Plantard was a shameless fantasist. He offered his services to the Vichy government during World War II, keen to fight the ‘Masonic and Jewish’ conspiracy he blamed for France’s woes.
Dan Brown’s net worth is currently estimated to be more than £100 million, while Pierre Plantard died in obscurity in 2000
Then Plantard founded his own secret society. But since it didn’t attract any members, he gave up and joined his old antagonists, the Freemasons, instead.
In the late 1950s, he tried to set up a Committee Of Public Safety, offered his services (again!), this time to General de Gaulle, and claimed to have clairvoyant powers. None of this brought him the attention he craved. Finally, he decided to set up his own chivalric order, the Priory Of Sion.
At first, it was little more than a residents’ organisation in his home town of Annemasse, close to Lake Geneva. Sion, incidentally, is the name of a hill near the town, where Plantard hoped to build a New Age spa retreat. Alas, the plan came to nothing.
Still, in the early 1960s Plantard decided to make some money by flogging ‘knighthoods’ to gullible history buffs. He invented a mythical pedigree for his secret society, dating back to the Crusades, and made up some stuff about them protecting the lost bloodline of the Merovingian kings.
And who, you may wonder, was the heir to the Merovingian dynasty, the true king of France? None other than Pierre Plantard! Quelle surprise!
With the help of a friend, Plantard made fake medieval documents ‘proving’ that the Priory Of Sion was a real medieval organisation. Then he went to the Bibliotheque Nationale, pretending to be a researcher, and stuffed them into the archives. In the meantime, Plantard commissioned another friend to write L’Or De Rennes, the book that would bring his secret society to the world.
The irony is that as a money-making scheme, Plantard’s hoax was a complete failure. The years passed, and the Priory Of Sion remained utterly obscure. There was no rush of people to buy his fake knighthoods. Nobody cared.
But then came the twist. Henry Lincoln read the book, went to the library, saw the documents and swallowed the whole thing. And Lincoln added a new element for British readers — the business about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail.
This new element, incidentally, left Plantard appalled. How dare these Anglo-Saxons steal his hoax and add even madder ingredients of their own making!
He was so cross about it, in fact, that he went on French radio and announced he had made the whole thing up.
But still nobody listened. So, eventually, he changed his tune and invented a new story about ley lines and the Habsburg dynasty instead.
All of this might seem pure French farce, with Inspector Clouseau lurking in the background. But then Dan Brown discovered the story.
Brown’s signal quality, apart from his total lack of literary skill, was that he had absolutely no sense of the ridiculous. He read The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail and seems to have believed every word.
Perhaps that explains why Dan Brown’s net worth is currently estimated to be more than £100 million, while Pierre Plantard died in obscurity in 2000.
As the inventor of the story, Plantard always knew the whole thing was a bit absurd, and it’s easy to imagine his childish glee as he created his fake documents.
But when you open one of Dan Brown’s books, it is obvious that he takes them — and himself — immensely seriously. The seriousness, in fact, is the point. As fans of The Da Vinci Code know, the stakes literally couldn’t be higher. And this breathless earnestness was perfectly pitched for a U.S. airport bookstore, or, indeed, a Mediterranean beach in the summer of 2003.
An extraordinary story, then. But the most extraordinary thing of all? The fact that even after all this time, Dan Brown has never, to my knowledge, admitted that the whole thing is nonsense.
‘How much of this is based on reality?’ an interviewer once asked. And without missing a beat, entirely straight-faced, Brown replied: ‘Absolutely all of it.’
- Dominic Sandbrook discusses the history behind The Da Vinci Code in an episode of his podcast The Rest Is History.