Could it be that a still existing Knights Templar left a secret clue to the location of the Holy Grail on an obscure monument in an English country garden? No, quite simply, it couldn’t. While it might seem unusual to start with a conclusion, this tale is not one of Knights Templar or secret societies. Instead, it is one of how a small mystery can be blown into something that it was never intended to be. Indeed, there are many mysterious events in the world. Many involve cyphers. Many involve religion. The combination of the two, however, almost always sparks a series of events and claims that transcend pseudohistory to become downright dangerous. One such claim is the Shugborough Inscription.
It was sometime between 1748 and 1756 that the British MP Thomas Anson commissioned a new monument for Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. The memorial, enclosed in a rustic arch, would feature a relief by the famed Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers, the main body of which is a representation of Et in Arcadia ego, a 1638 painting by Nicolas Poussin. The piece features some critical changes to the original image, including notably the inclusion of a third sarcophagus on top of the main depicted tomb. The words “I am also in Arcadia” adorn the work and between the letters D and M, there is a mysterious inscription that some believe to be code.
O U O S V A V V
In 1982, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln wrote the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail which hypothesised that Jesus, as depicted in the Christian bible, married Mary Magdalene and had one or more children. These children would become the French Merovingian dynasty and a secret society called the Priory of Sion champions their claims to the French throne. The book suggested that Poussin was a member of this society and Et in Arcadia ego had hidden meanings. It was, in short, near enough utter fiction.
The authors themselves acknowledged the absence of verifiable historical truth in their work, stating that “it is not sufficient to confine oneself exclusively to facts.” Indeed, Henry Lincoln was already noted for his work on the British science-fiction series Doctor Who, creating one of the two of the most notorious villains in the show’s history, the Great Intelligence and fearsome Yeti. His episodes had more basis in truth than The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail does.
The book has been debunked time and time again, with the Discovery Channel, 60 Minutes, Channel 4, Time Magazine, and the BBC, all being among the outlets to do so. Waiting in his 2015 book The Holy Grail, The History of a Legend, the historian Richard Barber was derisory in his reaction to the claims:
“The Templar-Grail myth… is at the heart of the most notorious of all the Grail pseudohistories, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, which is a classic example of the conspiracy theory of history… It is essentially a text which proceeds by innuendo, not by refutable scholarly debate… Essentially, the whole argument is an ingeniously constructed series of suppositions combined with forced readings of such tangible facts as are offered.”
Richard Barber, British historian
As with Scientology that also sprang from the pen of a science-fiction writer, the ideas in the book soon took on a life of their own with devoted adherents insisting that the story of Jesus’ “bloodline” was true. An entire industry was built on the back of this bunkum, with thousands of books and TV shows embellishing and building on the “facts” created in 1982. Chief amongst these was, of course, The Da Vinci Code, which itself brought whole new followers to the theories.
Despite not being acknowledged by Brown, the Shugborough inscription has made its way into these theories, with Dave Ramsden’s Unveiling the Mystic Ciphers: Thomas Anson and the Shepherd’s Monument Inscription, suggesting the code translates as “Magdalen”.
The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail is one of the prime examples of the dangers of modern pseudohistory, pushed by hundreds of unverified sources with no experience of historical method or analysis. It has led to the development of a cottage industry of falsehood, the amount of content on bookshelves and hundreds of websites adding weight to the veracity of the claims in popular consciousness. Alarmingly, included in this are outlets such as the History Channel. These stations pushing the theories only lends weight to the “truth” of the claims as many still see the channel as an authority. Writing after the publication of the book in 1982, the historian Marina Warner said that “there is harm in strings of lurid falsehoods and distorted reasoning. The method bends the mind the wrong way, an insidious and real corruption”.
Robert McCrum, the literary editor of The Observer, has warned about the threat posed by fake history.
“There is something called historical evidence — there is something called the historical method — and if you look around the shelves of bookshops there is a lot of history being published, and people mistake this type of history for the real thing. These kinds of books do appeal to an enormous audience who believe them to be ‘history’, but actually, they aren’t history, they are a kind of parody of history. Alas, though, I think that one has to say that this is the direction that history is going today…”
Robert McCrum, The Observer
Sadly, the Shugborough Estate were not above this level of subterfuge either. Looking to capitalise on the early 2000s interest in Dan Brown and his novels, the estate launched a marketing campaign in 2004 that saw former codebreakers from Bletchley Park attempt to decipher the inscription. The marketing suggested there could be a link between The Shugborough Inscription and the Holy Grail, the claims mainly going uncontested in the press.
“Over the years there have been a number of theories posited about the meaning contained in the Shepherd’s Monument. Chief among these is the belief that the connections of the estate’s creators, the Anson family, with the grand masters of the closed society of Knights Templar, and the supernatural myths surrounding the estate — where lay lines meet, rivers cross and UFO spotters regularly gather — are evidence that the carving holds the secret to the Holy Grail.”
So, what then actually is the Shugborough Inscription?
Keith Massey, a linguistics expert, and Latin and Arabic teacher that was once employed by the NSA believes the key comes with the letters D and M. The engravings are commonly used on Roman tombs and mean “dedicated to the shades”, the souls of deceased loved ones located in the underworld. Their use on the Shepherd’s Monument indicates that the phrase between is meant to be understood in the context of Roman funerary architecture.
“This is a clue to the correct interpretation of the longer series of letters. The inscription was intended to be understood as a tomb memorial composed in Latin.”
Massey goes on to translate the “code” as Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam (“I pray that all may follow the Way to True Life”), a reference to the Biblical phase “Ego sum Via et Veritas et Vita” from John 4:16 which translates as “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.
Others agree that the inscription is likely to be initialised Latin, but disagree on the meaning. The novelist Oliver Stonor believed that the engraving likely translated as Optimae Uxoris Optimae Sororis Viduus Amantissimus Vovit Virtutibus (“Best of wives, Best of sisters, a most devoted Widower dedicates (this) to your virtues”). However, the grammar for such a phrase would be incorrect. Steve Regimbal, an American lawyer and playwright, has suggested that the meaning is, in fact, Orator Ut Omnia Sunt Vanitas Ait Vanitas Vanitatum (“Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity”) from Ecclesiastes 12:8. Regimbal has added some weight to his theory with the fact that the phrase “OMNIA VANITAS” was found to be inscribed at the estate of George Lyttleton, an associate of Thomas Anson who commissioned the monument.
While the story behind The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail might appeal to conspiracy theorists, the truth is that there is no historical foundation for almost all of the claims. These theories only play into age-old tropes around the evils of freemasonry and Catholicism, quests for the Holy Grail and secret cabals running the world. The ideas are based on supposition, coincidence and speculation, yet are presented expertly, combining their arguments into a persuasive fiction. However, while these theories may entertain as stories, they serve only as dangerously deceptive history, with many of the ideas being pushed by far-right groups. These groups seek to glorify the age of crusader knights while espousing theories of the New World Order that is often centred on “white genocide”, a “glorious past” and secret (Jewish) cabals.
Like so much, these theories have blown something innocent, yet mysterious, out of all proportion, creating a hoax that encompasses the truth. That being the inscription is most likely a tribute to George Anson’s deceased wife. While some may find the explanation Prozac, real history and reality must always shine through the fog of falsehood, and while we can’t be sure of what the Shugborough Inscription is, we can be sure of what it isn’t.
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