Michael Baigent: Renaissance man who questioned Christian history in his quest for truths

Baigent and Leigh were ordered to pay legal costs of £1.3m and were left pen

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor