The Telegraph - UK
Michael Baigent, who has died of a brain haemorrhage aged 65, was a co-author of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, one of the most controversial books of the 1980s; in 2006, with Richard Leigh, he lost a plagiarism case against Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, the spectacularly successful thriller which they claimed was based on their book.
21 Jun 2013
Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, authors of Holy Blood and Holy Grail. Photo: John Downing
Written by Baigent, Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail claimed to have uncovered a vast conspiracy to conceal a bloodline descended from Jesus of Nazareth that had played a key role in European history.
A decade earlier Henry Lincoln had produced the television film The Lost Treasures of Jerusalem? about the village of Rennes-le-Château, north of the French Pyrenees where, around 1900, the village curé, Bérenger Saunière, had somehow amassed huge wealth. Between them they developed the theory that Saunière had stumbled on evidence that Jesus had not died on the Cross but had married Mary Magdalene, escaped to southern France and fathered at least one child, starting a royal dynasty that begat the Merovingian kings.
This knowledge, the book claimed, was kept down the centuries by an order called the Prieuré de Sion, a secret society which worked for the restoration of the royal line. The authors speculated that the source of Saunière’s wealth could have been “hush money” paid by the Vatican.
Despite its extraordinary claims, which earned the authors threats of hellfire and damnation, the book, published in 1983, impressed at least some critics. “If this sensational conclusion remains both unproved and utterly incredible,” wrote a reviewer in the Financial Times, “much of the material displayed on the way is fascinating.” Anthony Burgess observed that the plot would make a “marvellous theme for a novel”.
Yet when, in 2003, elements of the story were used by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, Baigent and his co-author Leigh (though not Lincoln) took umbrage, and in 2006 the pair sued Brown’s publishers Random House – coincidentally also the publishers of their own work – for copyright infringement, claiming that the “architecture” of Brown’s work had been taken from their book.
The case went badly for the plaintiffs, particularly for Baigent, who cut such a sorry figure in the witness box that one observer compared the spectacle to “watching a man being flayed alive”. Though Brown freely admitted making use of the book – even to the extent of naming one of his characters Sir Leigh Teabing (an anagram of Baigent) – there was nothing in law that prevented a thriller writer drawing upon someone else’s research. The case, and the subsequent appeal, were lost.
The case attracted international media attention due to the reclusive Brown’s appearance in court and the imminent release of the blockbuster Hollywood film based on his book. The High Court proceedings boosted sales of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which had stalled at 3,500 copies a year in Britain, to 7,000 copies a week. But against their royalties windfall, Leigh and Baigent were left with a legal bill of about £2 million.
The case took its toll on the two men’s health. Richard Leigh died in 2007, and within six months Baigent collapsed and ended up in hospital, where he was given a liver transplant. He also had to sell his home and move into rented accommodation. There was little disagreement over the biggest winner in the case – Random House, which reaped the rewards of hugely increased sales of both books.
Michael Baigent was born into a Roman Catholic family in Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 27 1948 and grew up in the South Island city of Nelson and the small community of Wakefield. His father left the family when Michael was a boy and he was largely brought up by his maternal grandfather, Lewis Baigent, who owned a sawmill in the Kina Peninsula, and whose surname he took.
From Nelson College, Baigent went up to Canterbury University where he studied Religion and Psychology. After graduation, he left New Zealand, hoping to make a living as a photojournalist. After drifting for several years around Australia, southeast Asia, Bolivia and Spain, in 1976 he arrived in England, where he became interested in the history of the Knights Templar and began researching the mysterious medieval order for a film project.
In the course of his research he met Richard Leigh, an American novelist and short story writer who introduced him to Henry Lincoln, a television scriptwriter, at a summer school where Lincoln was lecturing. The three discovered that they shared an interest in the Knights Templar and agreed to work on what would become The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. While Leigh did most of the writing, Baigent carried out the research.
Matthew d’Ancona, who met the two men during the plagiarism trial, described them in the Spectator as an “exceedingly odd couple ... suspicious as cats” who exuded the “twitchy eccentricity of two men who don’t get out very much”, the bearded Leigh resembling a “retired roadie for the Grateful Dead” and the dapper Baigent “a Wardour Street film distributor on his uppers”.
The pair continued their collaboration in a series of follow-up books, all of which dealt to some extent with sects, secrecy and subversion. In The Messianic Legacy (1986, also co-written with Lincoln), they claimed that the then Grand Master of the Prieuré de Sion, Pierre Plantard de Saint Clair (1920-2000), was seeking to restore the Merovingian dynasty and assume some sort of monarchical role in the EU. (It was later proved that Plantard had made up the Prieuré as a hoax in 1956).
Further collaborations included The Temple and the Lodge (1989), a history of Freemasonry and its role in the creation of modern Europe and the United States, and The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (1991), alleging a Roman Catholic conspiracy to conceal the scrolls. Secret Germany: Von Stauffenberg and the Mystical Crusade against Hitler (1994) was a highly imaginative recreation of the plot to kill Hitler, and The Elixir and the Stone (1997) concerned the hermeticists and their search for wisdom. Their final book together, The Inquisition (1999), was roundly rubbished by the critics as slipshod, historically inaccurate and biased.
Baigent was sole author of several books including The Jesus Papers; Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History, which was released during the plagiarism trial in 2006 and was little more than a reworking of themes from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. “Nothing in this book,” observed one critic, “need concern grown-ups”.
Michael Baigent was a Freemason and a Grand Officer of the United Grand Lodge of England. From 1991 he was editor of Freemasonry Today.
He is survived by his wife, Jane, by their two daughters and by a stepdaughter and stepson.
Michael Baigent, born February 27 1948, died June 17 2013