Avignon, France – 14th Century
Believed to be suffering from terminal lupus, in April 1314 Pope Clement V lay on his deathbed in Avignon, the recently established seat of the Holy Roman Church.
Bertrand Raymond de Got—the French Archbishop of Bordeaux who had taken the regnal name Clement V when he was crowned pope in June 1305—had largely assumed St. Peter’s Chair through King Philip IV’s influence, having bound himself to the French monarch before his elevation as Christ’s vicar on earth. And with Philip’s encouragement, Clement—disinclined to face the violent chaos in Rome after his election—insisted that the papacy be moved to Avignon, which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus was established the first pope in Avignon rather than Rome in what was later known as the Babylonian captivity of the papacy.
His body swollen and agonized, knowing death loomed close, he summoned his brother, Cardinal Florian de Got, for one final but important assignment. At his bedside lay two rolled parchment scrolls bound by hemp.
“Florian,” the pope rasped, “I am not long for this world. God forgive me, but I must confess to you that I have amassed a great fortune during my papacy, and I am leaving it to you alone. The treasure is safely hidden, and I will disclose to you how to find its location when you return from handling one final burden I must ask you to assume.
“Those scrolls, the ones on the table. They are most valuable, and terribly dangerous in the wrong hands. I want you to take them to Notre-Dame immediately. Give them to the archbishop there. He will know what to do. The scrolls are not safe here in Avignon, especially if Philip should name my successor, someone not of my own choosing. Should the king see the confessions in one of the documents, he will hardly be able to contain his wrath.”
The young French monarch ruled his kingdom with a silver tongue and an iron fist. Known as Philip the Fair for his handsome features, he was anything but when it came to governing his empire, something Clement knew only too well.
Philip had been only seventeen years old when the crown passed to him on the death of his father. Plagued by fiscal deficits owing to the many wars he either inherited or incited—most notably with Aragon, England and Flanders—Philip was deeply in debt to both the Jewish merchants of Lombardy and the Knights Templar, the latter of whom established international banking much as it operates in modern times.
In a shrewd maneuver of fiscal handiwork, Philip expelled all the Jews from France and confiscated their property, including several Jewish silver mints, thereby not only gaining substantial wealth in the process, but also escaping repayment of his debt to them.
Not content with that, he had convinced Pope Clement V to free him of his great debt to the Templar monastic order by claiming the movement was a state unto itself and abolishing it entirely.
The contents of the scrolls Clement now handed to his brother could incite wrath from Philip against both Clement and his family.
“Make haste, dear brother, for when I die, I cannot guarantee your safety. You will travel incognito, dressed in bishop’s clothing to avoid Philip’s troops who are watching for papal envoys. And I shall provide you with an official bishop’s escort, so you will be well received as such. Now go, and may God’s grace be with you.”
Cardinal Florian de Got left Avignon shortly afterward—not as a prince of the Church nor the brother of the pope, but as a mere bishop. Unfortunately, he died during the difficult eight-hundred-kilometer journey to Paris, with the hidden scrolls sewn securely into the sleeve of his right arm.
Uncertain what to do, his entourage—who themselves were unaware of their master’s true identity—dutifully proceeded on to Paris carrying the body of the presumed bishop for the rectors at Notre-Dame to deal with.
As the great cathedral of Notre-Dame was in the final stages of its construction—now some one hundred and ten years after it began—Jerome Baudette, the esteemed Bishop of Bordeaux who succeeded Bertrand de Got, had paid handsomely to be interred in the foundation of the grand cathedral at such time as he passed away. This privilege was granted to a rare few and was largely contingent on their recipients’ influence in the Church, not to mention the tithings they pledged to secure their crypts.
As it happened, Baudette was attending a conference of European bishops in Lisbon, Portugal, when he took ill and shortly afterward died. It was decided that his body would be taken by ship from Lisbon up to the French port of Le Havre, and from there down the Seine River to Paris and his final resting place at Notre-Dame, according to his wishes.
But those wishes were never to be realized. The English ship carrying Baudette’s body, the Shoreham, sank during a ferocious storm in the Celtic Sea off the coast of France. There were no survivors, and Baudette’s casket plunged to the ocean floor.
By sheer happenstance, Florian de Got’s body had arrived at Notre-Dame in Paris at the same time that Bishop Baudette’s corpse had been expected. And since no one yet knew of the shipwreck, and this man was dressed in bishop’s attire, the rectors assumed he was the venerable Bishop of Bordeaux, and they interred him in Baudette’s prearranged crypt deep in the catacombs beneath the cathedral, dressed just as he had been when he arrived, with the secret scrolls still hidden inside his sleeve.
Pope Clement V died many days later, and eight months after that, King Philip died in a hunting accident at the age of forty-six. His three sons each took their turns as king, but none of them lasted long and died relatively young themselves. Ultimately, the throne passed to his nephew, Philip, Count of Valois, head of the Capetian House of Valois.
Avignon served as the seat of the Holy Roman Church for the next sixty-seven years and home to seven popes, all of them French.
Notre-Dame Cathedral – Paris, France – Present Day
A charred lattice of ten-meter oaken trusses, roughly-hewn from their original construction between the years 1163 to 1260, had toppled onto the floor of the great cathedral during the accidental fire of April 2019, which was likely linked to restoration work taking place in the spire at the time.
Some three years later, the oak beams still lay where they had fallen, while a team of archeologists and forensic specialists combed through the debris, seeking what could still be salvaged from the ruins as the interior underwent extensive cleaning.
In a surprise discovery, a fourteenth-century lead sarcophagus had been found in an excavated crypt just beneath the cathedral floor. And ground-penetrating radar used to determine the stability of the underlying floor revealed an even older pit, one likely dating as far back as 1230, when the cathedral was undergoing its original construction.
But once excavators cleared out the centuries-old detritus in that lower pit, they made another stunning discovery: beneath thick layers of dirt and the ample offscourings of time lay an ancient crypt obviously buried beneath subsequent construction that occurred over many hundreds of years. Clearly it held someone of prominence, for the crypt was elaborately fashioned. But strangely, there was no apparent indication of the identity of the person whose remains lay within.
When the crypt was later opened and the tightly sealed coffin disinterred, forensics specialists determined the person to have been a distinguished religious figure, noting that the ornate garments covering the body were in surprisingly good condition given the sealed crypt’s apparent age.
But examiners discovered peeking through the thinning fabric a flat, tightly rolled set of parchment scrolls apparently sewn into the garment’s sleeve with embroidered threads of gold, and with the hemp cord surrounding it having bonded to the paper itself. It would take extreme caution to separate the hemp from the scrolls for later analysis.
The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Anton Gauthier, was consulted as to the disposition of the scrolls. Considering their fragility and likely esteemed provenance, the cardinal decided this matter would best be handled by the archival specialists at the Vatican. He summoned Father Michael Dominic, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, to oversee the extraction and analysis.
But as it happened, Father Dominic had already received another official invitation to be in Paris at the same time.