Victor Hugo's best-kept secret
The Da Vinci Code stirred up a storm of controversy in Christian circles and Glynis Cooper detects a possible Guernsey connection involving Victor Hugo, a literary genius but a complex character. Does Guernsey have its own link to the centuries-old mystery of the Holy Grail?
The Da Vinci Code stirred up a storm of controversy in Christian circles and Glynis Cooper detects a possible Guernsey connection involving Victor Hugo, a literary genius but a complex character. Does Guernsey have its own link to the centuries-old mystery of the Holy Grail? THERE can be few who have not at least heard of Dan Brown's blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code and the film that followed - or the resultant court case for plagiarism brought by the authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. The latter was not even a novel, but a serious and well-researched work of non-fiction which aimed to prove that Jesus had, in fact, married and raised a family and that there were modern-day descendants of his bloodline through the dynasty of the Merovingian kings of France.
Such a marriage and any children of Jesus would obviously have had to be kept a closely-guarded secret. Had such events occurred and become widely known about, it would have destroyed the Roman Catholic Church.
A self-appointed organisation called the Priory of Sion was set up to protect documents and genealogies which, it was said, might offer definitive proof that the holy blood was an actual bloodline and the Holy Grail the vessel (or womb) that had nurtured that bloodline.
It was a secret organisation that remained very much in the shadows, but, unlike Dan Brown's book, did not have murderous albino monks rampaging about.
The Priory had a Grand Master and to him or her alone (there were female Grand Masters as well) all of the secrets guarded by The Priory were entrusted. Past Grand Masters are said to have included Blanche d'Evreux (the town in Normandy where Rollo was baptised), Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Fludd and one of Guernsey's most famous residents, Victor Hugo.
One of the concepts on which The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail was based was a series of documents relating to the Priory of Sion lodged with the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris in 1956. These turned out to be bogus, but that does not detract from the wealth of other authenticated evidence.
Although the last documented mention of the Priory of Sion was in 1619, that is not to say that it doesn't still exist, perhaps under another name. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail have been sought for 2,000 years and there is always a grain of truth in folklore.Victor Hugo never actually claimed to be Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. Indeed, he would have been prevented by the house rules from doing so, but he certainly seriously upset the Catholic Church. The Pope banned many of his books and Les Miserables (published in 1862 while he was living in Guernsey) was attacked an astonishing 740 times by the Catholic press.
Matters were not helped by Hugo's announcement from Jersey in 1853 that he wanted to set up a new religion to complete the botched work of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, he was known to sometimes write in code.
What was Hugo involved in that antagonised the Church so much? Why was he vilified by the Pope? Did he really belong to a secret religious organisation and is there any grain of truth in the legend that he was Grand Master of the Priory of Sion?
Hugo was born in Besancon in 1802. He was a complex man brought up in the Catholic faith, a patrician who liked to be thought of as liberal and a people's champion. A brilliant eccentric, neurotic and egocentric (his personal motto was Ego Hugo), he had already made a name for himself as a poet, novelist, dramatist, orator and political activist by the time he was exiled from France in 1851 for transforming himself from a militant monarchist to a socialist revolutionary.
Bohemian playwright and film maker Jean Cocteau once said of him that Victor Hugo is a madman who thinks he's Victor Hugo.
Hugo arrived in Jersey in 1852 and it was there that his interest in mysticism and spiritualism flowered. In 1853, he became heavily involved in the new science of table turning? which, he said, enabled him to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Hugo particularly wanted to talk to his dead daughter, Leopoldine, who had drowned with her new husband in a boating accident on the Seine in 1843.
Along the way, Hugo added an impressive list of contacts with whom he claimed to have spoken. They included Jesus, Cain, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Judas, Mohammed, Luther, Galileo, Dante, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Socrates and Moliere. It has been said of Hugo that he never knew when to stop and it did little for his credibility when he claimed to have made contact with an incoherent fairy speaking in Assyrian.
In that same year of 1853, Hugo wrote Dieu and La Fin de Satan, which were included in Les Contemplations, his opus of religious work completed in Guernsey and published in 1856. It was on the island - of which he said, 'gracious on one side, Guernsey is dreadful on the other. The west is ravaged, the rocks of the coast constantly try to fool you. Creation retains something of the anguish of chaos. Splendours bear scars' - that Hugo experienced prolonged periods of profound spirituality and his younger daughter, Adele, wrote in her journal of her father's deep mysticism while he was in Guernsey.
On arriving here in 1855, Hugo felt that he had entered the final stage of his life and wrote of the island as 'the rock of hospitality and freedom, that corner of old Norman land where live the noble little people of the sea, the isle of Guernsey, stern and gentle, my present refuge, my probable tomb'.
He bought a house in Hauteville which, appropriately enough, had the reputation of being haunted.
In a brilliantly lighted room, with glass on all sides, at the very top of the otherwise somewhat gloomy house, Hugo stood writing at his lectern, a drop-down bench, gazing through the windows across the roofs to the sea beyond and his beloved France. Here he wrote many of his most acclaimed works: Discours de l'Exil (1855); Legende de Siecles (1859); Les Miserables (1862); Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois (1865); Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866, a tribute to Guernsey); La Voix de Guernesey (1867); and L'Homme Qui Rit (1869). He also explored his considerable artistic talents and experimented in painting by different methods and with various materials.
By now, Hugo had turned against Catholicism with fervour and insisted that he and his sons, Charles and Francois, should be buried 'without crucifix or priest'. He had become immersed in the supernatural and an esoteric philosophy of secret or private thought and ideas intended for understanding only by a select few. Despite this, however, and his prodigious output of work, Hugo found a kind of peace in Guernsey. Delighting in his 'island universe'? he wrote, 'with rhododendrons among the potatoes, seaweed spread out on the grass all over the place'.
After the amnesty of 1859, Hugo remained an exile by choice in Guernsey for another 11 years. The ancient traditions and supernatural heritage of the island suited him well. He would strike dramatic poses on remote parts of the south coast, where he felt at one with the 'elemental spirits', and have his photograph taken.
He believed in the spectral white ladies and black dogs that prowled the lanes at night and claimed that Friday nights Le Catioroc, near L'Eree, echoed with 'the cries of women wailing for their demon lover'.
Hugo featured a haunted watch house near Pleinmont in Toilers
of the Sea.
In his writings, he referred in code to what might have been spiritual experiences but which at least one biographer believes were much more likely to be references to his endless sexual conquests.
It is known that during this period, Victor Hugo belonged to a Rosicrucian (red or rose cross) Order. Originally said to have been founded by Ormus in AD46, the more modern Order of Rosicrucians was founded by a Grand Master of Sion, Jean de Gisors, in 1188. Gisors lies on the eastern edge of Normandy, to which the Channel Islands belonged at that time. The Priory of Sion had, until 1188, functioned as the administrative arm of the Knights Templar (founded in 1118), whose famous symbol was a red cross emblazoned on a white tunic.
The Rosicrucians were a closed and secret society that believed in esoteric thought and philosophy. Robert Fludd, in many ways a successor of Dr John Dee, alchemist to Queen Elizabeth I, was supposedly also a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion and he endorsed the Rosicrucians wholeheartedly, proclaiming that 'the highest good was the Magia, Cabala and Alchymia of the Brothers of the Rosy Cross'.
Leonardo da Vinci is also said to have been a Rosicrucian.
The grain of truth in folklore and a link between Victor Hugo, Da Vinci, secret societies and the Priory of Sion lies in the intricate weaving of his story. Together with Hugo's outspoken views on conventional religion, his claims to have spoken to Biblical figures through his own spiritualism, his criticisms of the Church in Les Miserables and his outright rejection of Catholicism were enough to earn him the Church's condemnation.
Truth, however, is often much stranger than fiction. Although in life Hugo never achieved his aim of setting up a new religion, in 1926 the religion of Cao Dai was established in Vietnam.
It was based on the many and varied spiritual communications that Hugo claimed had taken place with him while he was in Jersey and which had continued to a lesser extent in Guernsey. Cao Dai has three levels of spiritual attainment and teachings: Saint, Sage and Buddha, along with three saints: Nguyen Binh Khiem, Sun Yat-sen and Victor Hugo. It was a twist of which Dan Brown and Hollywood would have been proud.