Past editor of Freemasonry Today, Michael Baigent was a successful author and influential mason whose writing sparked debate and created a loyal following. John Hamill looks back at his career
It is with real regret that we have to announce the death of Michael Baigent who was editor of Freemasonry Today from the spring of 2001 until the summer of 2011, when increasing ill health forced him into partial retirement. He continued as consultant editor until his untimely death from a brain haemorrhage on 17 June 2013 at a Brighton hospital.
Born in Nelson, New Zealand, in 1948, he was educated at Nelson College and the University of Canterbury, at Christchurch, reading comparative religion and psychology and graduating in 1972 with a BA. In later life he earned an MA in the Study of Mysticism and Religious Experience from the University of Kent.
After graduating, Michael spent four years as a photographer in India, Laos, Bolivia and Spain. Coming to London in 1976, he worked for a time in the photographic department at the BBC, which brought him into contact with Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh, who were filming a documentary about the medieval Knights Templar. Their mutual interests and enthusiasm ultimately led to the publication in 1982 of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a controversial bestseller and still in print after more than thirty years.
Embracing the craft
The success of the book enabled Michael to concentrate on research, writing and lecturing. Writing with Leigh, he produced works on such diverse topics as Freemasonry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, magic and alchemy, the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler and the Inquisition. His solo works covered the ancient mysteries, the early Christian church and the influence of religion in modern life.
Michael’s interest in the history of ideas and the esoteric tradition led him to the Craft, becoming a Freemason in the Lodge of Economy, No. 76, Winchester, near his then home. He later joined the Prince of Wales’s Lodge, No. 259, London, and was nominated by them as a Grand Steward and appointed a Grand Officer in 2005.
Freemasonry brought Michael to the notice of Lord Northampton, who invited him to become a trustee of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, which he was setting up as a focus for research into the more esoteric aspects of Freemasonry. Equally, Michael became involved in and greatly shaped the early years of the Cornerstone Society, which Lord Northampton had established as a forum for those interested in exploring the deeper meanings of the ritual. When the Orator Scheme was being discussed in 2006, Michael was the obvious candidate to draft the early Orations.
Leading from the front
When Michael became editor of Freemasonry Today it was still ‘the independent voice of Freemasonry’. He greatly extended its coverage beyond the Craft and Royal Arch and attracted a new audience to the magazine, including a growing number of non-masons. He not only sought out contributors and edited their pieces but was responsible for the page design and seeing the magazine through the presses. He employed his old talents and provided many of the photographs that illustrated the content. It was something of a departure for him when in 2007 the magazine merged with Grand Lodge’s then house organ, MQ Magazine, to become the Craft’s official journal. Yet he rose to the occasion and continued to produce a magazine that combined news with interesting, and sometimes challenging, articles.
Michael would have been the first to acknowledge that his work fell outside the normal run of academic historical research, but he believed completely in what he did. He was not writing for other academics but for the general reader, and he had a loyal following. Whether he worked on his own or with Lincoln and Leigh, Michael’s writing was never ignored and always provoked discussion – which is all any writer seeks.
His last years were, sadly, marked by increasing ill health, including an initially successful liver transplant, and financial problems caused by the unsuccessful case he and Leigh took against the novelist Dan Brown’s publisher, claiming that Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was both a plagiarism and infringed the copyright of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. A gentle, courteous man, Michael was always a pleasure to meet and talk to and will be greatly missed by many. Our thoughts go out to his wife, daughters and stepson and stepdaughter.
The answer, he suggested, is essentially threefold. As in the ancient Mystery schools, the candidate first needs to be prepared for the mental and spiritual journey that he is about to undertake and to dedicate himself to learning and discipline, before finally learning to control his own ego and thereby be at one with his true self and God. And the tool to open us up to these ancient truths is that of ritual initiation, he mused, through its use of drama and symbolism.
Derek Bain continued this theme by looking at the psychological effects of ritual. He highlighted how a candidate can interpret a symbol in one of four different ways: literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical. For instance, in the case of a dove, one can view it literally, i.e., as a dove, or allegorically, i.e., as a symbol of peace.
However, if one is inspired to do something peaceful as a result of the allegorical interpretation that is a tropological response, while the anagogical indicates a deeply personal interpretation of the symbol, something akin to a mystical experience.
Peter Granville-Davis then spoke on the practical theme of how to create a successful lodge and he emphasised the importance of active participation in the Craft as well as warm-heartedly living out its great tenets, such as communicating happiness and extending a hand where one is needed.
There then followed a ritual workshop organised by Andrew Hicks and the day ended with a stimulating question and answer session. News of the next Cornerstone conference will soon be available on the Society’s website: www.cornerstonesociety.com