HISTORY OF A HOAX: THE MOLE, THE HOLE AND THE MAN WITH NO SOUL
by ANDREW GOUGH
There have been many archaeological hoaxes over the years and most academic disciplines have endured their share. This shameful list includes the likes of the Book of Mormon (1830), the Feejee Mermaid (1842), The Cardiff Giant (1869), Piltdown Man (1912), The Cottingley Fairies (1917), The Loch Ness Monster (1934), Alien Autopsy (1995) and the James Ossuary (2002), amongst others. However, few, if any, genres have experienced the onslaught of fraud and deceit as the mystery of Rennes-le-Château. Not surprisingly, the latest Rennes-le-Château hoax is arguably the most ridiculous of them all. Bizarrely, it includes the Loch Ness Monster, the tomb and mummified body of Mary Magdalene, the artefacts from her wedding to Jesus Christ, and, as if that were not enough, the Ark of the Covenant. Somehow, I found myself embroiled in the decade-long controversy over the alleged discoveries and, ultimately, I became the catalyst that led to the perpetrator’s full confession.
How it Began
In 2001 a nightclub owner turned treasure hunter, by the name of Bill Wilkinson, proclaimed on his website that he had discovered a tomb in a cave in the South of France, in Cathar territory, in the vicinity of the hill-top village of Rennes-le-Château. Countless numbers of books have been written about the Pyrenees hamlet, whose priest appears to have discovered a heretical secret in 1891. ‘Discovered a tomb. At night it rained’, he wrote in his diary, before proceeding to renovate his village, home and church in a manner more akin to a Rockefeller than a man of the cloth. All the same, the legend, which inspired Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is believed by many to be based on a story of dubious authenticity, created in the 1950s by the tourism-hungry custodian of the priest’s former estate, by the name of Noël Corbu.
There are no prerequisites, degrees or apprenticeships required to join in the Rennes-le-Château debate. Almost anyone can profess an opinion, and usually do. I should know. For the last six years I have hosted a popular English-speaking Rennes-le-Château discussion forum, and have chaired the respected Rennes-le-Château research society, the Rennes Group, since 2009.
Enthusiasts of the genre understand the plausibility of the priest’s alleged discovery. The region is full of tantalising history and legends. In recent times the French Revolution yielded many treasure hoards. Then there were the Cathars, a religious movement with dualistic and gnostic elements, whose parfaits (lay priests) are said to have descended the cliff face at Montségur with a treasure the day before their faithful were burned en masse in a bonfire at the foot of the mountain in AD 1244. Cathar treasure notwithstanding, the more dramatic treasure tales start in earnest much earlier, in AD 72, when the Roman General, Titus, sacked Jerusalem, including the Temple of Solomon, which was home to many of the greatest relics in antiquity, amongst them the Menorah and the Ark of the Covenant. Germanic invaders weakened Rome’s empire and in AD 410 it fell to the Visigoths, who returned the treasure to their kingdom in the Pyrenees. Author and former Rennes-le-Château Chairman, Guy Patton, sums this up in his book, Web of Gold:
Having settled in their new kingdom, straddling the Pyrenees, the Visigoths established their capital at Toulouse and created well-fortified centres of power at Toledo, Carcassonne and Rhedae, now the little hill-top village of Rennes-le-Château. Evidence that the Visigoths had possession of an immense treasure is borne out not only by the Guarrazar artifacts, but also from commentators and historians, including Procopius, El Macin, Frédégaire and the Englishman, Gibbon. That this included the spoils of Rome is confirmed by their references made to the Missorium, a magnificent, jewel-encrusted, golden plate weighing about 100 pounds, and also to the Emerald Table with its gold stands and pearl inlay.
Bill Wilkinson would have known of this legend. He would also have been aware that the region was once known as Gaul, the largest Jewish settlement outside the Holy Land, and that Mary Magdalene is believed to have travelled there with her daughter after the crucifixion. Superimposed upon this tradition is the belief that Jesus Christ survived the crucifixion, or that it never happened, and that he later joined his wife and daughter in France, where they lived, died and were buried. This is part of the fundamentals of Rennes-le-Château. Contributing to the enticement of it all, Wilkinson added some eye candy to the mythos: the photographs of his tomb revealed a mummified body of a woman in a coffin, draped in a Templar cross and accompanied by various objects of curiosity, including a ragged, old book. It all seemed too good to be true. And, of course, it was.
Back then nobody knew Wilkinson’s real name. This is because he called himself Ben Hammott, an anagram for ‘The Tombman’, a name he had chosen for his website. Inexplicably, few seemed concerned that he had chosen a childish and pretentious alias, or that he had resorted to using a fake name in the first place. There were so many elements of his story that did not add up, and one of the examples of his complete and utter insincerity was his boasting that he intended to employ Max Clifford, the highest-profile publicist in the UK, if not the world, renowned for supporting controversial and unpopular clients, as his publicity agent.
Hammott assembled a small, trusted team of researchers, who often attended the Rennes Group, then chaired by Guy Patton. This included the author Bill Kersey, the infamous ‘Man A’ in Henry Lincoln’s book, The Key to the Sacred Pattern, who informed the BBC of an important discovery near Rennes-le-Château and promised to take them to it, but, instead, left town without a trace. The other member of Hammott’s team was Sandy Hamblett, a nurse and archaeology student from the West Country, who edited a Rennes-le-Château journal. Wilkinson moved in with her after his marriage dissolved.
The Rennes Group meeting in Glastonbury 2001 was especially eventful. This is when Wilkinson opened a bottle he had found buried near the Devil’s Armchair, a curiously-carved megalith situated on a forested hilltop in nearby Rennes-les-Bain. It was thought that the bottle contained parchments written by the priest from Rennes-le-Château. Just why, and how, Wilkinson had been able to refrain from opening such a coveted discovery baffled anyone who had ever longed to discover something of that ilk, and the implausibility of this reality was yet another yellow flag that we were looking at a hoax.
It was the spring of 2007 and I was keen to meet Wilkinson, so I rounded up my friends, the author, Lynn Picknett, and the godfather of punk and Rennes-le-Château aficionado, Rat Scabies, and headed to the Rennes Group meeting in Oxford to check him out. Much to my surprise, Wilkinson was actually quite believable, but at the same time clearly too sly to be trusted. We debated the whole thing on the drive back to London, just as we would for years to come.
I eventually became quite close to Wilkinson. Rat and I met him for drinks from time to time and on one occasion I celebrated his wedding anniversary with him and his wife. Still, there were times when I doubted myself. ‘Maybe he had found the treasure after all,’ I thought. I spent many a night discussing the whole convoluted affair, weighing up my suspicions and concluding that it would be suitably ironic for a night-club owner to have solved it in the end. A couple of years later Rat held a Rennes-le-Château night upstairs at his local, The Griffin, a pub which author Christopher Dawes made famous in his fabulous book, Rat Scabies and The Holy Grail, where Rat presented Wilkinson with a lie detector test. To my amazement, he passed!
I interviewed Wilkinson on my website in February 2009. He was keen to promote his first book, The Lost Tomb of the Knights Templar, and was hamming it up with his now unique brand of psychobabble:
‘Seriously, I have been offered money – a lot of money – £3,000,000, in fact, for the tomb’s location. But at the time I didn’t think it was a genuine offer. Maybe it was, but who can tell?’
‘Would you take me to the tomb in return for my public validation of its authenticity? I’ll sign a non-disclosure agreement. All you have to do is say yes and the sceptics will be silenced. What do you say?’
‘Fuck off,’ he replied. I remember thinking, ‘smart ass.’ Really, it did not take a very clever person to conclude that he was making it all up.
Then there was the Rennes Group meeting where the respected Rennes-le-Château author, Ian Campbell, took pause after Wilkinson’s latest show and tell, which included his passing around the wooden chest that Kersey had located by dowsing in a cave during filming for the film, Bloodline. Campbell began to clap. Soon the whole room was applauding and congratulating Wilkinson on his achievement. Campbell added, ‘Well done. At last someone has found something.’ I reluctantly joined in.
I was convinced that the whole thing was a hoax and I was getting closer to proving it. That was my goal. Bruce Burgess and René Barnett’s documentary, Bloodline, was due out and I had dinner with Barnett near Heathrow Airport in London during one of her visits to the UK. I remember thinking that she seemed a nice lady and so I offered to share my concerns. However, it was apparent she was too emotionally invested in the story, and the film, to consider the possibility that Wilkinson’s discoveries were fabricated. And then it all went horribly, if not comically, wrong.
It was a few weeks after my dinner with René when I received a call, quite late at night. It was a Friday and I had finished three-quarters of a bottle of my favourite Zinfandel and was feeling suitably lucid after a long week.
The phone rang: ‘Hello, Andrew speaking,’ I answered.
‘Hi, is this Ben Hammott?’ the caller inquired.
‘No, this is Andrew Gough, but I can give you Ben’s email. By the way, how did you get my number?’
‘Actually, I am a journalist for the largest online newspaper in North America. May I ask you a few questions about the discoveries featured in the documentary, Bloodline?’
‘Sure,’ I said, naïvely, never having received an answer to my question.
I proceeded to recount my view on whole thing; ‘Every pillar of Hammott’s story is fraudulent,’ I informed the journalist, before tossing in the old chestnut, ‘I may have been born at night, but not last night.’
After twenty minutes or so I paused and reflected on the appropriateness of what I was sharing with someone I did not know or trust, let alone a journalist, and requested that our conversation not be reproduced in any way. The voice on the other end of the phone calmly retorted:
‘You don’t understand North American law very well do you, Mr Gough? I’ve recorded our conversation and your comments will be in tomorrow’s feature article.’ And with that he put the phone down.
Sure enough, the next day, 10 May 2008, the National Post featured the film in an article, called The Hollywood Holy Grail. It stated, with the producers’ conviction, that they had made a truly important film, and included praise for Hammott’s discoveries. Then, somewhat bluntly, the tone shifted and featured my cavalier, Zinfandel-inspired quips:
But Andrew Gough – who, as a contributor to The Dan Brown Companion and the operator of a web forum on ‘esoteric mysteries’, is no stranger to conspiracies – has a different view. ‘I think almost all the pillars in the film are fraudulent,’ Gough claims, adding, ‘I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night, you know? [Hammott] has no credentials.’ Furthermore, Gough reports knowing Hammott personally. ‘The story [of discovering the tomb] is different every time [Hammott] tells it,’ he adds.
‘Damn!’ I thought. My cover had been blown. I would no longer be able to get close to the people I needed to befriend in order to prove that the whole thing was a hoax.
Never Fear the Truth
The movie, Bloodline, was skilfully crafted and its director, Bruce Burgess, was compelling on camera. As was Nicolas Haywood, an alleged spokesperson of the Priory of Sion, who looked the business and bestowed significance on Wilkinson’s discoveries by saying:
I have friends in the Priory of Sion and speak on their behalf. We do not seek publicity. We delight, on occasion, when the right people come along with the right mindset and intention, and that is why I am here.
I remember thinking with some incredulity, ‘what, then, does that say about the Priory of Sion’s judgement?’
The tagline of the film was ironic: ‘Never Fear the Truth’. ‘Ha!’ I thought. What would have been more appropriate is Henry Lincoln’s mantra, ‘never believe a word of it’. Still, it captivated the genre for the better part of three years.
The film is entertaining in its own right, but even more so knowing that Wilkinson is lying through his teeth. In one exchange Burgess asks Wilkinson, who had just discovered two bottles, each buried in hallowed Rennes-le-Château locations, and each concealing parchments written by the priest and containing treasure clues,
‘How are you feeling right now?’
‘It’s hard to describe.’ [Pause. Smirk.] ‘It’s um . . . I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like woof! It’s awesome. It seems a cliché word, but, you know, it makes you shiver, you know.’ [Smirk.] Wilkinson responded with the sincerity of a wolf at a sheep convention.
‘Why you? I guess they would suspect that it is a big hoax because there are so many hoaxes around this mystery . . .’
‘But, it’s not a hoax. I did not bury these.’ [Smirk.] I believe Saunière was responsible for these,’ replied Wilkinson with the sincerity of a war criminal on trial.
Wilkinson’s book perpetuated the lies he had told in Bloodline, with one classic excerpt stating:
As we have recently seen, Rennes researchers have been rather ferociously passing judgement on some papers that the Ben Hammott team had the exciting opportunity to locate and unravel. The most ferocious attacks have occurred on two websites – Arcadia, run by Andrew Gough & the Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource site run by a character called Raven (Corjan de Raaf). They have a vested interest in not being seen to support English researchers, as they work closely with French counterparts, who have no wish to see the Hammott research expanded upon. We thought researchers would be interested in helping us solve any ‘riddles’ and that they would be excited regarding these finds.
However, there has been accusation after accusation, with our integrity called into question, and the repeated attacks suggest outright that we have hoaxed the whole affair, and that we are nothing but liars and fraudsters!
Guilty as charged. My friend, Corjan de Raaf, and I were thrilled to have been cast as the villains.
The tragic death of Bill Wilkinson’s adolescent son, coupled with the belief of his critics that it never happened – that it was all an emotionally staged misdirection constructed to shield Wilkinson from further criticism on my Arcadia website – led me to insist that the discussion forum refrain from further, inappropriate speculation. And I needed to lead by example.
Time passed, and I seldom thought about Wilkinson’s dodgy discoveries. It was clear to me they were faked, but I could no longer be bothered to wave the flag. All went quiet for a while, and then the first sign that things were beginning to implode within ‘camp Hammott’ came when Burgess, who was as close to Wilkinson as anyone, revealed on the Arcadia discussion forum in 2010 that he too thought it was all fabrication:
When Ben found bottle three up on Blanchefort, I went with him… I must admit that I thought the whole treasure was silly beyond belief, so I took a nap in the bushes… And guess what, they found a crack in the ‘Guardian’ rock which resembled (???) the crack on one of the stations of the cross in the church, in which was a stone marker, and although they removed it, somehow remembered that it pointed in a certain direction (???) which led to a rock, under which was . . . yes, you’ve guessed it, the small brownish bottle contained clue three. Glad I was sleeping off lunch.
Burgess’s rant was brilliant and confirmed what we were all thinking – that Wilkinson’s ridiculous claims were not to be believed. A couple of years later, in 2012, the implosion accelerated. In February I was befriended on Facebook by someone operating under the alias of Richard Paul, who had created an account for the express purpose of alerting the Rennes-le-Château community to the fact that Wilkinson had previously hoaxed a Loch Ness Monster discovery. The claim struck me as audacious, even ridiculous, and I wanted to know more about it. Disappointingly, Paul would not accept my calls and so I investigated the claim on my own. What I discovered was that in 1999, the same year that Bill Wilkinson changed his name to Ben Hammott, he and his brother, Mick, had presented a video of the Loch Ness Monster to a team of specialists at the Loch Ness & Morar Project, a respected organisation, led by the esteemed authority, Adrian J. Shine. According to Shine, the Wilkinson brothers were looking for validation that the video was authentic, so that they could sell it, presumably for a large sum of money.
My conversations with Adrian Shine (February 2012) confirmed that the Loch Ness Project scientists rejected Wilkinson’s video. Shine confirmed that Wilkinson had submitted a copy of his hoaxed video on 5 August 1999 and that he was notified of the scientists’ views seven weeks later, in a letter from Shine dated 25 September, which described Wilkinson’s effort as ‘a well constructed hoax’. Shine also mentioned that he had visited the Loch at the location where Wilkinson indicated he had filmed ‘Nessie’, not expecting to find the creature, but rather in the hope of identifying how Wilkinson had orchestrated the deception.
Another letter around the same time, this one from the company hired to analyse Wilkinson’s ‘Nessie’ footage, deemed it ‘an attempt to deceive’, adding, ‘we feel that the neck and head are latex mouldings, attached to and manoeuvred by a diver.’
Despite Shine’s rejection, Wilkinson attempted to sell the video to various newspapers, including the UK Sun and the Daily Mirror. Amazingly, he did receive an offer, but turned it down in the hope that he could demand much more should Shine and his team authenticate the video. The strategy backfired and the offers dried up.
A couple of months after his Loch Ness monster video was rejected, Wilkinson changed his name to Ben Hammott and began refocusing on the tomb of Mary Magdalene in Rennes-le-Château, which he had faked prior to the Nessie prank, presumably circa 1999/2000. No-one took notice of the Loch Ness Monster hoax until Paul watched Bloodline with a colleague of Shine, who recognised Wilkinson from the Loch Ness Monster deception.
In hindsight it makes sense that Wilkinson never revealed his discovery to the proper French authorities, in this case the DRAC (Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles). It never existed. Wilkinson would later confess that the tomb was a model, constructed in his shed in North London. Again, in retrospect, no evidence for the tomb ever existed besides Wilkinson’s own video footage, and in the months leading up to his confession he was telling people that he was fearful of returning to the tomb due to his belief that ‘it is cursed’.
Another yellow flag was the fact that the video ‘evidence’ never included audio of the camera’s descent down the irregular-shaped shaft in the cave and when I examined the camera a few years back I noticed that the audio could not be turned off, which begged the question: was there something on the audio that Wilkinson wanted to hide? Clearly, we can now assume that the answer was ‘yes’.
Within a couple of weeks of Paul’s revelation I was contacted, again on Facebook, by someone who called themselves ‘The Mole’. I was his only Facebook ‘friend’ and his profile picture foreshadowed the role he would soon play.
The individual, who did not speak English as his primary language, identified himself (withheld for confidentiality) and proceeded to share that Wilkinson was in the process of soliciting investors for what amounted to a fake Ark of the Covenant. The conversation, which took place throughout February and early March 2012, began as follows:
The Mole: ‘Is it true Ben Hammott is now claiming to have found the Ark of the Covenant?’
Andrew Gough: ‘Would not surprise me. It’s all a set up and hoax. Don’t believe a word of it. Best, Andrew.’
The Mole: ‘Yes I agree and I think this new find will maybe be one hoax too many!’
The foreplay continued.
AG: ‘Yes, he knows the mystery, no doubt, but that was not always the case. RLC is fragile and he just takes the Mickey, don’t you think? ;)’
The next day we continued:
The Mole: ‘Yes I think so and he spoils it for everyone. He drags good people into his schemes. His friend Patrick Jokl is involved in this new hoax. I think dishonesty is catching, no!?’
Jokl is a German caver and Rennes-le-Château enthusiast, who had ingratiated himself with Wilkinson and had effectively replaced Kersey and Hamblett as his primary research partner.
A couple of days later we picked up where we had left off:
AG: ‘What can you tell me about the new hoax? Where is that being discussed?’
The Mole: ‘The Hammott team recently met with Erich von Däniken in Switzerland. They have convinced him that they have found the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah! EvD is hoping to obtain finance from his friend Rudolf Gantenbrink for the Hammott team to research the tunnel system that could lead to the Hammott tomb and the temple. These talks are ongoing and will depend on how much EvD will offer!
‘At the same time they are in talks with Bruce Burgess. The set up here is a little different. They are offering to sell the location and all its contents to JZ Knight for a very large sum of money. The sticking point is that she also wants the original tomb which Hammott is refusing?
‘Bruce Burgess has seen photographs of the “new” tomb (yes another corpse) which is in a bad state as it has collapsed. However if they do go public with this new hoax, I will release pictures of their scam tomb BEFORE it was collapsed by Patrick Jokl!’
The mole proceeded to provide pictures of the fake Ark of the Covenant.
I was intrigued, but agitated, that Wilkinson was at it again. I requested permission to publish the photos, to which the mole replied:
The Mole: ‘All they want is money so they do not want anything released until they have secured a deal. We would maybe scupper any deal if we revealed the “find” first?? (Without our pictures of course!). I will leave the decision to you.’
The Mole and I spoke most days for a span of about four weeks, until finally he posted:
The Mole: ‘. . . Best win for me will be only the truth. I promise I am only honest.’
That was the last I heard of the Mole. I reflected on what he had told me and decided to expose the hoax. I posted an account of the Ark of the Covenant and Loch Ness Monster hoaxes on my forum, and what ensued was fascinating to behold. Within days, ‘Team Hammott’ had imploded. His ex-wife, with whom I was in dialogue, a very sharp, no-nonsense lady, had contacted Jokl and informed him that the tomb was a hoax and that all the relics were purchased from eBay. Shockingly, Wilkinson’s right-hand man was under the impression that the tomb was real all along, even though he and Wilkinson were jointly hoaxing the Ark of the Covenant. Bickering ensued and Wilkinson soon provided a full confession on my Arcadia DiscussionForum, posted by Sandy Hamblett, and which he later shared with Bloodline producer, René Barnett. It went as follows:
It has been a long time coming and something that is long overdue. And to tell the truth, for once, I am glad it has all finally come out and I thank Andrew for being the intermediary that facilitated this outcome. I have thought many times about coming clean and telling the truth, but lacked the guts to do so.
Everything I said I discovered is a hoax, planted by me and only me.
Sandy, Bill, Pat, René and Bruce, my brother, and everyone else were unwitting pawns in my game, for the lack of a better word. I have no idea why I did it, or carried on what was at first a stupid prank that escalated out of control. My intention was never to deceive, but then of course it was by doing what I did.
Perhaps I did it for the money, though very little was ever forthcoming and realised early on that it probably never would.
Did I do it for fame and attention? Perhaps. I did enjoy it at times but it wasn’t the driving force behind it. Maybe I just carried on to see what I could get away with. I really don’t know.
I know saying sorry to the many friends and acquaintances I have made and deceived over the years can in no way make up for what I have done. There is probably nothing I can say or do now to right the wrong. But I am very, very sorry and know that many of them I will lose, which apart from the deceit, is perhaps the worst thing about this sorry and despicable act of mine.
Have I made money from my exploits, yes, a bit through book sales, but nearly all the money I have made has paid for further research and my many trips to RLC to try and find something real that I still believe to be there, to in some way hope to make up for my past deeds. I do believe Saunière found a secret, something hidden in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Château, and there is something truly amazing to be found. It is something that I will continue looking for.
I have had nothing since bad luck since I become involved with the Rennes-le-Château affair, bad karma, almost certainly. Today I have no money, no family life, no home and now probably very few friends. It is perhaps a well disserved [sic] outcome.
I apologise to everyone who has supported me over the years, everyone who bought my book, but most of all I apologise to my friends and family for letting them down. I cannot say sorry enough to Sandy, Bill, René and many others for being my friends and supporting me all these years. I have lied to you and let you down in such a big way I cannot even hope for your forgiveness.
Anyone who would like to return my book can contact me for a refund and when I have the money I will reimburse them.
As it turns out, Wilkinson had commissioned the accomplished UK sculptor who had created the props for the films, Robocop and Alien, to make both the Loch Ness Monster torso and the miniature tomb of Mary Magdalene. His ex-wife posted on the Arcadia Discussion Forum that he was no stranger to this sort of work himself:
He was a plasterer by trade and has always had an artistic bent. He was a silk-screen artist when we met, with a few pieces in some London galleries. He also made and sold plaster models (mainly in the skull/skeleton line!) And he has also produced some good short films, which he made the sets for. On a lighter note, in the pub we ran together, he covered the walls in fake rocks, which obviously looked so authentic that a bat took up residence there!
In the days following Wilkinson’s confession his team panicked and acted out in a resentful manner. Jokl followed Wilkinson with a similar, albeit emotional confession on a German Discussion Forum, which included confirmation that he had only just learned that the tomb of Mary Magdalene, which he had spent the last six years searching for, never existed.
There are no hidden clues in the messages, because Ben has himself made them… His son became ill, then Bloodline, the DRAC, publicity, books, interviews, etc, etc, and now he found himself in a web of lies, from which an escape no longer existed. For 48 hours, I know that one of my closest confidants, a brother to me and my team for 6 long years has lied and cheated. Rennes le Château was my life.
Inexplicably, Jokl found it in his heart to forgive Wilkinson. Then again, they were partners in crime, so to speak, in the fraudulent Ark of the Covenant affair:
Also, I am not without fault . . . I made a model of the Ark which I wanted to sell to an American, to finance the excavation of the tomb. My dream is shattered and I apologize again to all the people I’ve done wrong by my supposed knowledge. I have always acted in good faith and conscience, because my mission was clear – the mystery of Rennes le Château and the airing of Ben!
Good faith? Conscience? Sorry, I was not following this logic.
Jokl also posted on my Arcadia Discussion Forum (and in all fairness English is not his primary language):
It is NOT TRUE that we tried to sell the ARK to some German researchers! In deed we went to a nerby country and i asked a very well known person to help us to take further steps for EXCAVATING THE TOMB! He never saw the Ark Photos, only the TOMB footage!!!!!!! You can ask him Andy, in deed it was my idea to raise some money from Bruce, because i thought he once tried to steel the TOMB from Ben and wanted to sell it to a person in the US! So I wanted to take the money to put it in an excavation, exactly this I asked the german speaking Person,-WE NEED MONEY TO DO THE EXCAVATION AND WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS??? And he tried to help us but couldnt do anything. To that moment I had NO IDEA THAT THE TOMB WAS A FAKE! I never wanted to sell the Ark to this person! Even now we all should say the truth!
I remember reflecting on this post and thinking, ‘Let me get this straight. Jokl is saying he attempted to deceive Burgess, and others, with a fake Ark of the Covenant, because he thinks that Burgess tried to steal the tomb of Mary Magdelene; a tomb that only ever existed in Wilkinson’s North London garden shed?’ Classic!
The reaction of the ‘Hammott team’ was, understandably, panicked. They were exposed for either being fraudulent, stupid or naïve. Jokl followed with an email and offered to write an article, and to provide an interview with Wilkinson, should no legal action be taken. Kersey unapologetically posted on the Arcadia Discussion Forum that he would delay his next book until the whole thing ‘blows over’, as though he was talking about the weather. Hamblett rapidly distanced herself from that which she had once staunchly defended, stating in an email, ‘Everyone seems to be trying to score points about “outing” and standing up for truth.’ I didn’t really know how to respond.
Within a week of Wilkinson’s confession Burgess and his cameraman came to my London flat to film my take on it all for his film project. As the Mole had alluded, Burgess was making a film that featured Wilkinson and his alleged discovery of the Ark of the Covenant. But that was before the hoax was exposed. At first I was wary of his intentions. Actually, I was quite hostile, but I soon realised he was only looking for the truth.
In the weeks that followed, the severity of Wilkinson’s deceptions seemed lost on many of those interested in the Rennes-le-Château mystery, as if an apology could make amends for a decade of deceit and lies. I questioned his repentance, and this was underscored by the fact that it took me 28 mouse clicks to find his well hidden confession on his website, which actually included a reference to me: ‘I thank Andrew for being the intermediary that facilitated this outcome.’ Then there is his equally well hidden and ambiguous disclaimer that ‘these discoveries are not real’, which somehow implies that his other discoveries are real.
The post-confession weirdness continued and Bloodline producer, René Barnett, featured Wilkinson on her US Internet radio programme. Callers missed the point and enthusiastically inquired about ‘how he did it’. The whole thing reminded me of a celebrity guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show and underscored the largely Americanised notion that if you humble yourself with a dramatic and public apology, then all is forgiven. I was not so sure. Wilkinson remains a permanent fixture in Rennes-le-Château, despite his heinous deceptions. In fact, he said he was even in the village when he dialled in to Barnett’s radio show.
I must say that I did not buy for one second that Wilkinson was the Mole, as he claimed he was in Barnett’s interview. There is too much evidence for the Mole’s actual identity for that to be the case. At the time I felt that Wilkinson’s ego was preventing him from admitting that a member of his team had been disloyal. And I am certain this was the case.
What surprised me the most, and I really should have seen it coming, was that by exposing his hoaxes I, not Wilkinson, had become the villain. Around a third of the emails I received said ‘well done’, but the rest were filled with ‘I don’t believe you – prove it was hoax’ or ‘how could you?’, as though I was the guilty one. One Wilkinson supporter, who had recently been locked up for vandalising a priceless urn and smashing a window at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England, started an Internet blog, which published my private correspondences from the days when he was a member of the Rennes Group, and demanded that I admit that I had forced Wilkinson’s confession in order to suppress the true authenticity of his discoveries. I was bemused, but ultimately disheartened.
I reflected. This was not the case of a man who had faked a one-off discovery and had gotten a little carried away and perhaps become a bit addicted to the limelight. No, this is a man who systematically orchestrated three different hoaxes – more if you count the individual artefacts he sourced on eBay – and profited from the deception via the sale of books, tours and lectures.
It is true that only the Mary Magdalene hoax was known to the public. Nevertheless, this evocative claim provided a unique glimpse into the psyche of a generation, which longs for the pillars of their emotionally held beliefs to be ratified by the discovery of a fabled relic or Biblical legend. I suppose this phenomenon is nothing new, but, in this instance, Bill Wilkinson’s fantastical hoaxes served another purpose. They transformed the lives of those who believed his lies into something more. Unforgivably, Wilkinson’s pranks exploited the vulnerable, especially the adherent supporters of the sacred feminine.
Should he be forgiven? That is not for me to say. All I know is that the Rennes-le-Château mystery is fragile and I would like to think that we have witnessed its last hoax for a while, maybe even ever. But I suspect that is being somewhat optimistic.
Further Reading: Some Background
The existence of a real and demonstrable mystery in Rennes-le-Château remains uncertain and the topic has been hotly debated for decades. Many believe there is no mystery, only information we are lacking or do not fully understand. Given the history of fraud and misdirection within the genre, one can hardly blame them. A brief look at the forefathers of the mystery reveals that its pillars may not be as firmly rooted as we thought.
Noël Corbu (1912 – 1968)
Some would say there was no mystery until Noël Corbu invented it. Corbu was an ambitious French businessman, who purchased Saunière’s former estate from Marie Denarnaud in 1946 and converted it into the Hôtel de la Tour two years after her death. It appears that Corbu was the first to invent and dramatise the story of the Rennes-le-Château priest, Bérenger Saunière, and the heretical treasure he is said to have discovered in 1891, in order to promote tourism to his otherwise desolate and remote hill-top hotel. To this end, he invited local journalist, Albert Salamon, to Rennes-le-Château to discuss the story. Salamon then featured Saunière’s alleged discovery in a series of articles over 12, 13 and 14 January in the 1956 edition of La Dépêche du Midi. Corbu sold his hotel to Henry Buthion in 1966 and was killed in a suspicious car crash three years later, close to the seminary where Saunière was sent as punishment for his dubious behaviour.
Pierre Plantard (1920 – 2000)
Allegedly the last Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, Pierre Plantard was a controversial figure, who began his career as editor of the French journal, Vaincre. While gaps in his professional record prevent a full and accurate understanding of his movements, critics are quick to point to a legacy of fraud, misrepresentation and prison. He registered the Priory of Sion in 1956 and served as its Grand Master from 1981 to 1984. During the 1960s he seems to have masterminded the association of the Priory of Sion with Rennes-le-Château. He and his colleague, Philippe de Chérisey, are believed by many to have orchestrated the creation of the more sensational aspects of the Rennes-le-Château story and to have manipulated public figures, such as the best-selling authors, Gérard de Sède and Henry Lincoln.
Philippe de Chérisey (1923 – 1985)
A marquis by birth, de Chérisey was a professional writer and humourist, who wrote for a French radio programme, called ‘Signé Furax’, which featured good-natured deception of its listeners. He was a close friend of Plantard and admitted to having created the Rennes-le-Château parchments as part of a hoax for the radio programme. He was quoted in 1982 as saying, ‘This document has had a life of its own beyond my wildest dreams.’ In support of this claim he wrote a 44-page document, entitled ‘Stone and Paper’, which describes how the parchments were coded. He also wrote a novel in 1969, Circuit, about a gold treasure and the discovery of a Roman tomb in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Château. Curiously, Plantard’s 1956 Priory of Sion journal, devoted to the ‘Defence and Rights of Liberty for Low-Cost Housing’ was also called Circuit.
The Priory of Sion
The debate continues over the authenticity of the Priory of Sion, an alleged secret society, headed (over several hundred years) by a list of Grand Masters that reads like a Who’s Who of esoteric thought leaders. Not surprisingly, the organisation is closely tied to the legend of Rennes-le-Château.
Most advocates for the existence of the Priory of Sion believe it that its origins are ancient, and that it grew out of L’Ordre de Sion (The Order of Sion), as founded by Godefroy de Bouillon in 1090. Still others believe it is far more recent.
As we have seen, the story of Rennes-le-Château was introduced, if not created for the first time, in 1956 in an article in La Dépêche du Midi. In the same year, Pierre Plantard and his colleagues registered the newly formed Priory of Sion, which many believe was named after a mountain close to where he lived, and not L’Ordre de Sion.
After time in prison for fraud, Plantard, the future Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, teamed up with a colleague to provide material to a bestselling French author for his new book about Rennes-le-Château. This included parchments, which Plantard and his colleague confessed to having faked. The French author later provided the BBC with input for their television programmes about Rennes-le-Château, and the three researchers (Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln) who were consulted on the programmes published an international bestseller on the subject by the name of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Later, Plantard resigned from the Priory of Sion after being investigated by a French judge, admitting it was all a hoax. He died in 2000 and remains the last Grand Master of the order. Is that because it never existed and when he died the fantasy perished with him? In the words of the respected French researcher, Jean-Luc Chaumeil:
The Priory of Sion was created in 1956. We were able to contact former members of this office, who all burst out laughing when we mentioned Rennes-le-Château. According to its former President, the association was at the time a ‘club for boy scouts’ and NOTHING MORE . . . !
The mystery of Rennes-le-Château remains fragile and rife with fraud and misdirection, which is why Bill Wilkinson’s latest hoax is all the more reprehensible. Nevertheless, there is reason to suspect that the heralded hamlet of Rennes-le-Château may have real secrets to reveal some day. Only time will tell.