Feature Articles – Gisors: the cutting of the Priory
The French town of Gisors is believed to be – and was – the cradle of the Priory of Sion. The question is: why… and have we all been staring in the wrong direction?
by Philip Coppens
Gisors, 1188. A place and a date that with the publication of “The Da Vinci Code” has attained mythic proportions. Add “the Priory of Sion”, and we are at the birth of the greatest myth of the 20th century: a secret organisation, the Priory of Sion, who separated from the Knights Templar, in Gisors, France, in 1188, and whom survived the great Purge to which the Templars fell victim to on that fateful Friday October 13, 1307.
Something did ] happen in 1188, but it did not involve the Knights Templar, or the Priory of Sion, which did not exist. What did occur in 1188, was that the majestic elm of the town, was cut down. Louis Régnier in “Histoire de Gisors” writes how in the area of Capville, today the station of Gisors, an old elm tree formed the main attraction of the town. Peter of Tarantaise performed miracles here. Kings sat in its shade. The archbishop of Tyre preached the crusade from here. Philippe Auguste and Henry of England, sworn enemies, embraced and cried. Apparently, at one point, a cross became visible in the sky above or visible from it. With the cutting of the tree, a cross was placed on its site, but this “Croix Perçée” was displaced to Neaufles Saint Martin – or rather, to the edge of a field along the road, where it sat forgotten, until a French author, Gérard de Sède used it as the cover image of his book – Les templiers sont parmi nous – The Templars are amongst us. The foundations of the Priory of Sion were laid in Gisors. But rather than 1188, the date was March 1946. The man responsible has largely been forgotten, at least in countries outside of France: Roger Lhomoy. That month, after the Second World War had hardly ended, he claimed to have discovered a subterranean chapel, underneath the keep of the castle of Gisors, which contained the treasure of the Knights Templar.
Today, few people would take note of yet another such claim. But in 1946, people did – even archaeologists did.
Lhomoy came with proper credentials: he had been the guardian of the castle since 1929. According to a former mayor of Bézu Saint-Eloi, near Gisors, Lhomoy was locally known as a dowser and even a medium, always running across the countryside in search of treasure, pendulum in hand; in those days, that was not frowned upon.
Though something of a local phenomenon, few expected the statement that he made: “I have discovered under the keep a Roman chapel in stone of Louveciennes, 30 metres long, 9m wide and about 4.50 metres high. The altar is in stone, as well as the tabernacle. On the walls, at mid-height, are statues of Christ and the twelve apostles. Along the walls, posed on the ground, are 19 sarcophagi, in stone, 2 metres long and 60cm wide. In the nave, there are 40 metal coffers, arranged in columns of ten. It’s a fantastic sight, which I invite you to come and see.” According to Lhomoy, the chapel he had discovered was the chapel of St Catherine, about which local stories and legends were known to exist. The discovery was the result of a dangerous and apparently personal obsession. Lhomoy had begun his search by entering a well in the courtyard of the keep, a well that descended 40 metres deep, at least after he had cleared the block. He opened it, but at one point during these works, he broke his leg – everyone agrees that the work was so dangerous, that he could have easily died. The local guide still tells this story to the visiting tourists, but does not mention Lhomoy by name.
Once healed, Lhomoy continued, beginning a second hole, a short distance from the well. He made a vertical gallery of 16 metres, then a horizontal gallery of 9 metres, and another vertical gallery of 4 metres. “The mole” had to climb the height of a six story building to return to ground level.
When in March 1946 he therefore invited people to “come and see” for themselves, few felt up to the task. Only one person did enter: Emile Beyne, 59 years old and captain of the fire brigade and a future mayor. He, however, did not descend to the very end. It seems that no-one was able to verify Lhomoy’s claim, but he was believed – to some extent. On July 25, 1946, Lhomoy got an official permit to dig from the Ministry of Culture, but the local council said no. In 1952, with the help of two others, a new attempt was made and a new permit was attained. This time, the council allowed it, but merely to let Lhomoy drown in the small print: the council needed insurance, to the majestic sum of one million francs (roughly $200,000). Furthermore, 4/5ths of what would be discovered, would be for the town. Lhomoy and Co. realised that given these conditions, any official excavation was an impossibility.
Over the following ten years, Lhomoy therefore continued carrying out illegal excavations. Today, the tourist is led into the “caves” of the castle, where there is still ample evidence of Lhomoy’s various attempts to gain entrance from the underground storage rooms into the motte of the castle, in an effort to reach the chapel that he claimed to have found inside it. Fortune changed for Lhomoy, when in 1962, Gérard de Sède first wrote an article for a magazine and then a book on the mystery: “Les templiers sont parmi nous”. De Sède would later go on to write about the mystery of Rennes-le-Château and the Priory of Sion. What is less known, is that as early as 1962, Pierre Plantard, the soon to be self-proclaimed Grand Master of that Priory, was not merely on the scene, he was actually the official “business representative” for Lhomoy; in de Sède’s book, Plantard features in an appendix, explaining a rather esoteric interpretation of the castle’s layout. Those later claiming to be the descendents of the Knights Templar were indeed amongst them. Though today, few archaeologists think twice to touch the Knights Templar, anything associated with the Priory of Sion would make them run a mile. In 1962, reality was different. In fact, in 1962, the Ministry of Culture – more specifically the Minister of Culture himself – took a personal interest. In May 1962, André Malraux stated that the grounds would be closed to the public and that an official investigation would begin. He stipulated nevertheless that this had nothing to do with the sensationalist claims made by Lhomoy or De Sède, whose book had just been released.
Still, on October 12, 1962 – coincidentally the day before that fateful October 13, so associated with the Knights Templar – Lhomoy was convoked. He was told to descend into his hole, to where his tools were still lying, in what was shown to be a dead-end. Instead of an underground chapel, there was nothing there. Lhomoy’s explanation? That the tunnel had to be extended another 150cm (5 feet) before arriving to the crypt itself. The question that needs to be asked: was it bluff, or was he telling the truth? And why did it take half a year before he was sent into a dead end? In the eyes of the world, Lhomoy seemed thoroughly discredited; so, it seems, was De Sède. Even Plantard, having taken the decision to represent Lhomoy, should have been tainted. Indeed… except… Today, visitors can still see the digs Lhomoy carried out in the castle. A second official excavation campaign began on February 10, 1964, when Pierre Messmer, Ministry of Armies, used the 12th regiment of the Genie, stationed in nearby Rouen, to once again attack the same area of the keep, in yet another effort to penetrate into “the chapel”.
On May 12, 1964, an official communication read that “the decision was made to dig in Gisors, to verify certain assertions related to the presence of a treasure underneath the keep. Today, the work has been completed. They have had a negative result.”
The “negative result” should not surprise us, as it echoes the 1962 results. The “positive question” that should surprise us, is why? Why do this second campaign? Furthermore, whereas in 1962, the official reason was that they were looking for frescoes, were arguing that the entire excavation had nothing to do with Lhomoy – even though he was forced to appear and enter the tunnel – officially, in 1964, it was stated that it was to verify claims of treasure. Official communications by the French government seemed inconsistent at best – illogical at worst. But in those days, people took less notice of such inconsistencies and pondered less the about possible conspiracies. It all made for a remarkable paradigm. Indeed… most would have doubted Lhomoy after the debacle of 1962. But the somewhat unexpected if not outright bizarre need of the government to organise this second excavation in 1964… creates doubt as to what was happening. With hindsight, the situation was even weirder. In 1974, André Astoux wrote his autobiography, in which he recounted how in 1947, General de Gaulle received a letter from Lhomoy, requesting the authorisation to carry out excavations at Gisors. Astoux states that Malraux was deeply interested in the story, but concluded that he had invented everything. So if Malraux as early as 1947 doubted the entire story, why did he organise the 1962 excavation – and repeat it in 1964? There is only one logical answer: Malraux wanted to show the entire world that Lhomoy was a fraud. Which brings up another logical question: why – for which there is no apparent answer. Why did a French Minister go so out of his way to discredit a rather lonesome caretaker of the castle of Gisors? The courtyard of the keep, with no signs of a well and the chapel being identified as that of Saint Catherine. The outcome was as could be expected and perhaps the outcome was what was desired: silence fell over Gisors. The motte on which the keep stood was made out of earth; the keep had hardly any foundations; this man-made mound was beginning to feel the stress of the various holes and tunnels that had been dug; the walls of the keep began to open up and the structure was in dire need of preservation. “Lhomoy’s hole” was filled with cement. If ever there was something down there, this intervention sealed its fate.
Despite such work, the keep remained off-limits to tourists. The official reason: danger of collapse. It seemed a legitimate reason, though there was also a real drive to reopen the keep. It was therefore decided that the keep would be supported on fifteen gigantic cement pillars, each one metre in diameter and 27 metres in height. The project must have come with a price tag that would have rivalled any Templar treasure found.
The keep was finally reopened in the early 1990s. But the well, descending to a depth of 40 metres, was still there, covered with boards. Today, when entering the courtyard of the tower, just a covering of grass remains. Even the well is now filled in. The tour guide explains that the structure on the right hand side, as one enters, are the remains of a chapel. When asked to what saint it is dedicated, you are told “Saint Catherine”. And thus, all mystery is done away with… hidden by a grass covering. The final nail in the coffins Lhomoy claimed to have found came in 1974, when some reports argue, Lhomoy confessed, to Robert Charroux, France’s version of Erich von Däniken, and journalist Jean-Luc Chaumeil that he had invented it all and had lied to De Sède.
But others, as well as Chaumeil, felt this was all a bit too easy. Jean Markale, the French author who largely took over from Robert Charroux as France’s main mystery writer, agreed. Both speculated – felt – that Lhomoy had been used – as a disinformation agent – by the local priest. Markale wondered whether Lhomoy was asked to cause a spectacle in the castle, so that no-one was looking to what was really going on elsewhere in town: excavations in and near the church. If that were the case, Lhomoy should not have gone down in history as a mythmaker, but a man willingly abused by the local priests, and later stamped on again by Malraux. If he was arrested, he should have shouted he was a patsy. There is no doubt that there was a chapel of Saint Catherine on the south of the church of St Gervais-St Protais. The chapel was founded by the family of Fouilleuse, lords of Flavacourt, and was dedicated to Catherine de Fouilleuse de Flavacourt, for the occasion of her birth.
The German Wehrmacht bombed Gisors from 1940 onwards. Madame Dufour, of Gisors, was one of many who stated that during bombing in 1941, under the destroyed parts of the church, a subterranean cavity opened up that led to a crypt. The hole was quickly covered up – but perhaps not forgotten about.
This fortuitous discovery should not have come as a surprise. In 1938, the local priest Vaillant mentioned “a Latin manuscript from the year 1500 that speaks of thirty iron coffers in the church of Gisors”. It is therefore a remarkable coincidence that Lhomoy happened to claim he found iron coffers in a chapel of St Catherine – not under the church, but under the castle. Furthermore, what to make of a throwaway remark Lhomoy once made to a researcher, that certain parts of the church were not to be accessed, or that if one tapped on certain stones inside the church, a rather hollow sound could be heard – suggesting some cavity was underneath? Some even claim that what Lhomoy was really looking for, was a tunnel that led from the castle to the church, and which would provide an underground access route to the church’s crypt. Before looking further into the church, which seems to be the location where we need to look, let us return to the castle. Could there be anything underneath? The simple answer is yes. The motte was manmade, so a subterranean chapel could have been installed at the time of its construction – or even predate its construction, which would make it extremely old. But the question would be what purpose it served, and whether it was sealed off, or whether there remained an access route to it. If so, how, and where. It definitely would not have been easy, for Lhomoy spent years searching and if he ever did find it, it required a self-dug hole to penetrate into it.
On the flip-side of the coin, arguing for Lhomoy’s integrity, is a document dating from 1696, shown in de Sèdes’ book, made by a certain Alexandre Boudet. The document contained a drawing of the subterranean chapel, labelled “Chapelle souterraine Sainte-Catherine”. The cross-section matches the description given by Lhomoy. Furthermore, in the library of the Institute of Decorative Arts in Paris, there is an English engraving that shows the crypt of the castle, written underneath of which, it says “The cleaned crypt of the castle of Gisors.” Officially, there is no such crypt… So to the church: there is no visible evidence of a crypt here either, though this time, we have more eyewitness who saw the opening than just a lone caretaker. What is visible, and for which the church should be more notorious for, are three enigmatic pillars. In fact, one could argue that this church is the closest any church comes to Rosslyn with its three enigmatically engraved – and world famous – pillars. But the symbolism of the pillars in Gisors is far richer, and the pillars are far taller.
The most famous pillar is “le pilier des tanneurs” – the pillar of the tanners, representing several scenes of this corporation. One scene is that of a tanner holding a baton in his right hand, with his left knee on the ground, and his right knee bare – a pose that may remind Freemasons of something – a further parallel to Rosslyn and its Apprentice Pillar’s connection to the craft.
Just beneath are the words “MARIA”, and above “ISZG”. The latter is found throughout the church, but no-one knows what it is or means. Is it the Gisors Code? Next to it this pillar is “le pilier des dauphins” – decorated by a swirl of dolphins and lilies. Its construction was financed by the “Royal Confraternity of Saint Louis” and represents royal authority.
As de Sède and Plantard moved from Gisors to Rennes-le-Château, we could argue that there is definitely a connection – at some level – to Roslyn Chapel, which was also reeled into the enigma.
Many authors have tried to see a link between Gisors and Rennes-le-Château. Most have failed and hence some have invented one. But there, is, however, at least one. Outside, on the porch of Saunière’s church, is written “TERRIBILIS EST LOCUS ISTE” – This Place is Terrible, taken from Jacob’s Dream. That same theme, Jacob’s Dream, is illustrated above the entrance of the church of Gisors. Coincidence? Likely, but at least an undeniable link between the two sites. So where does this leave the mystery of Gisors? The most enigmatic character is the one person who has gone largely unnoticed: André Malraux. To add to the enigma, we should note that before entering politics, Malraux was a famous and successful author. In 1933, he wrote an award winning book, “La Condition humaine” (The Human Condition). In the book, the name of his hero’s father is Gisors… coincidence? Perhaps it should be, as the book is set in Asia and Gisors is not specifically Oriental-sounding. Let us also note that Gisors is a place name, not a name given to people.
Enough coincidences for two French journalists, Daniel Réju and specifically Serge Hutin, to start a more detailed enquiry. Réju and Hutin were journalists – not mystery writers. Their focus and inroads were different; they had “contacts” – some of which were very good, and some of which were very personal. What they found out was that Malraux had been informed by certain “discrete people” to make certain enquiries – enquiries which he could enforce once he became Minister of Culture. Both heard rumours that Malraux was chasing after a monetary treasure, as well as a certain knowledge that would hand to its possessor(s) certain privileges, privileges that could upset the world of international politics. For a politician, that must have sounded like the Political Holy Grail.
As minister, Malraux agreed to excavate Gisors. But it seemed that it was only part of a larger research project he had launched, one that would result in a file known as “Lazare”. The project was closed on March 24, 1965 – a few months after the official verdict of Gisors had been “confirmed”.
The project incorporated searches in at least two other towns, nearby Rouen and faraway Salses, north of Perpignan. To accommodate this research, several private archives were consulted, including those of families such as Maurin, Bautre, Perchaud-Vattoux, Joceran Urachet and Cobourg. Some would later complain that the researchers did not return some of the “loaned” documents.
Upon completion of the dossier, no further action was taken. On the surface of things, it seems that the entire effort, like the excavations in Gisors that occurred within the timeframe of this project, was unsuccessful. Or perhaps it had completed precisely that which Malraux needed to know? Depiction of Saint Jacob’s Ladder, above entrance to Gisor’s church It seems that the governments that followed De Gaulle’s have done their best to remove the “Dossier Lazare” from existence. It was never officially indexed, guaranteeing that tracing it in the archives was almost an impossible task. The two names that were linked with this dossier and its composition, Henri Cabanaret and Christian Eylauth, were officially not members of the Ministry of Culture – or any other Ministry. For those who did know of its existence and were able to trace it, an official request to have access to it, was always denied, sometimes with the statement that it could not be located in the archives. It remained missing until 1976; from early 1977 onwards, the official statements read that the file never existed. Coincidentally, Malraux died shortly before, on November 23, 1976. With his passing, was it time to pass on a new lie?
Every trace of what transpired in Gisors just after the War, as well as Malraux’s interest in it, had thus been erased – including the infamous well in the keep that began the journey. But like Lazarus, or the curious dead corpse that is depicted in a wall of the church of St Gervais-St Protois, is it possible that the file will once rise from the dead? Or is there a hope that whatever was in Gisors, will die with the passage of time? Cut like the elm… forgotten… and eventually displaced? Replaced by a modern myth of our times, the Priory of Sion, which has attained such gigantic proportions, cutting that down to size, seems almost impossible. Through the forest, one can no longer see the trees.