Michael Baigent was one of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG), the alternative history book written together with Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, which has sold more than two million copies since it was first published in 1982.
In the book, the authors put forward the controversial theory that Jesus did not die on the cross but instead married Mary Magdelene, had children with her and lived in southern France. They suggest that there exists to this day a “bloodline” of Jesus’ descendants, via the Merovingian royal dynasty, which is protected by a secret society, the Priory of Sion.
The germ of the idea had been sown in the 1970s when Lincoln had produced three films for BBC Chronicle on the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, including The Priest, the Painter and the Devil (1974). The documentary tells the tale of Berenger Saunière, a rural priest in a little French village, who becomes fabulously wealthy from unknown sources. Lincoln had in turn been inspired by the work of the author Gerard de Sède (obituary 24 June 2004), whose Le Trésor Maudit of Rennes-le-Chateau (The Accursed Treasure of ..., 1968) he had read while on holiday in France.
Baigent was surprised at the popularity of their book. In an article for this newspaper in 2006, he commented: “Who could have predicted that it would have become such a success, remaining in print for the next 25 years? All we knew at the time was that this was a story that needed to tell itself, and that if we didn’t tell it, somebody else would.” Anthony Burgess, reviewing their book in The Observer, noted presciently: “It is typical of my unregenerable soul that I can only see this as a marvellous theme for a novel.”
Boosted by the book’s success, Baigent and Leigh continued writing in the alternative history genre. Their The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (1991) posited that the scrolls had been written by a group close to Jesus, rather than by a minor sect, as per the orthodox history, and suggested that the scrolls had been concealed by the Catholic Church.
In The Temple and the Lodge (1989), the duo examined freemasonry’s role in the creation of modern Europe and America and Secret Germany (1994) documented a plot to kill Hitler, which was devised by a group of senior members of the Nazi hierarchy. In The Elixir and the Stone (1997), the authors trace hermeticism through to the development of modern philosophy. In their last collaboration, The Inquistion (1999), Baigent and Leigh reprised the theme of the Catholic Church and its alleged repression of heretical beliefs. Throughout all these works the pair challenged the official version of the last two millennia of human history, seeking to find “truths” which had been obscured or deliberately concealed by those in power. The continued popularity of this alternative history genre is in no small part due to the work of Baigent and Leigh.
In his best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003), the author Dan Brown made use of certain elements of the HBHG story, beginning the book with the bold statement: “FACT: The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organisation.” Brown goes on to give a lightly coded recognition to the HBHG authors by naming one of his characters Sir Leigh Teabing, his surname an anagram of Baigent.
However, Baigent and Leigh believed that Brown had plagiarised HBHG and in 2006 took legal action against Random House, the book’s publishers. They sought formal acknowledgement that they had originated the Mary Magdalene theory and should be credited for it. “We had no alternative but to sue, as we saw it as a blatant exploitation of our intellectual property,” said Baigent.
Following a trial, which generated much public interest, Justice Peter Smith concluded that there was “no copyright infringement”. Baigent and Leigh were ordered to pay legal costs of £1.3 million. These costs and the fees for the subsequent appeal left the pair penniless. Leigh died the following year (obituary 29 November 2007).
Baigent told an interviewer after the trial: “I could hardly bear it. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was expecting it to be tough, but I was not prepared for the intensity, the ferocity and the personal quality of the attack. There were days when I had to fight the impulse to stand up and walk out of the court and just keep walking.”
The publisher, Random House, said in a statement that the ruling “ensures that novelists remain free to draw on ideas and historical research”. Dan Brown commented that: “Today’s verdict shows that this claim was utterly without merit. I’m still astonished that these two authors chose to file their suit at all.”
Baigent was born in New Zealand in 1948 and initially trained in psychology and teaching. He embarked on a career in professional photography in 1973 and came to England three years later during research for a project on the Knights Templar. It was then that he met his future research and writing partner. Until 2011 he had been the editor of the magazine Freemasonry Today.
The author Robert Bauval said of Baigent: “Michael was a kind and gentle man, and a great writer. He was the real thing, original and with fine virtues and integrity, who wrote responsibly after carefully researching his subject. He was a Renaissance Man, a Gnostic on a quest for the divine spark. I had much admiration and respect for him.”
Michael Baigent, writer: born Nelson, New Zealand 27 February 1948; married Jane Cotton (two daughters, one step-daughter, one step-son); died Worthing 17 June 2013.