There was an absolutely fascinating story on the French news about the head of Henri IV. The most beloved of all the French kings was assassinated on May 14, 1610 (well, he wasn’t beloved by everyone apparently). He was buried in the basilica Saint-Denis alongside the other French kings. Almost 200 years later, his eternal rest was interrupted when the royal tombs were raided during the Revolution. On October 25, 1793, a mob swarmed into the basilica, broke open the crypt, and threw the bones into a common pit. When Henri IV’s lead-lined coffin was opened, his remains were in a remarkable state of preservation. For several hours, his coffin was propped up so that the mob could take their leave of him. At some point, his head was apparently severed from his body before the rest of him was pitched into the mass grave. Revolution or no revolution, royal relics were worth money.
A hundred and twenty years later, the earthly goods of an artist from Montmartre were sold at auction. For the princely sum of 3 francs, photographer and second-hand dealer Joseph-Émile Bourdais bought one of the lots. In a box, wrapped in old fabric, was a mummified head. Being acquainted with portraits of Henri IV, Bourdais became convinced that he was holding the head of the slain king. He became obsessed with proving his case, but he met with either derision or amusement. Since he was poorly educated, in fact, basically illiterate, his theories carried no weight at all. Still, he persisted. He offered a view of the skull to anyone who’d give him a few coins and listen to his theories. He wrote a pamphlet in support of his cause. Shortly before he died in 1946, he tried to give the skull to the Louvre who politely said, “Non, merci.” His lucky sister inherited it. A man named Jacques Bellanger bought the head from her in 1953 and tucked it into an armoire.
Decades passed. In 2008, a journalist and an historian who specializes in Henri IV were working on a TV program about the monarch. They heard about Mr. Bellanger’s mummified head and arranged to see it. Bellanger entrusted the head to the pair who took it to a laboratory. The first examination was just visual. Although the only intact earlobe, the right, was pierced just as Henri IV’s had been, it was hardly decisive proof. A subsequent examination showed damage to the bone consistent with a knife attack on the king in 1594 and the remains of a mole of the nostril just where Henri IV had one.
Next it was time for a DNA test. The researchers needed to gather samples that were reputedly fragments of the king’s body for comparison purposes. They got a few hairs from his beard from various museums. On their way back to Paris with the precious bits of hair, they got a phone call from an expert in facial reconstruction. He was in a fever pitch of excitement: “If it’s not Henri IV, it’s his twin brother!” But then came disappointment – the DNA was useless. It had been completely corrupted by lead, no doubt from a coffin. All that could be confirmed was that the various fragments all had similar amounts of lead, meaning that they’d all been in the same lead coffin for the same amount of time. But it wasn’t enough.
The breakthrough happened in 2011. A handkerchief that had been soaked in the blood of Louis XVI at the time of his execution was discovered in a dried gourd container in Spain. Although seven generations separated the men, if a DNA link could be made, there would be conclusive proof. Of course, there had been a persistent rumor that Louis XIII had not been the father of Louis XIV, due to the many years that the royal couple had remained childless before the arrival of the future Sun King. Another DNA sample was attempted, this one from near the trachea, which had been more protected from the lead of the coffin. This time, the sample was usable, and, you’ve guessed it, it was a match. Two historical mysteries were resolved – the head of Henri IV was definitively identified and the parentage of Louis XIV was confirmed.
The final step was a facial reconstruction. An expert used the skull and pegs to represent the depth of various facial tissues before a “skin” was applied. The resemblance to the portraits of the king is uncanny. Of course, one could argue that the reconstruction was influenced by the portraits. But assuming that is was done with integrity, as well as art, it’s an amazing recreation. As the experts exult, Joseph-Émile Bourdais, the illiterate second-hand dealer was right all along, seul contre tous (sul kontruh toose), literally, “alone against all,” or against all odds.
- Dried squash ‘holds headless French king’s blood’ (abc.net.au)
- Royal Reliquaries, or Who Do You Think You Are? (pastpersistent.wordpress.com)
- Louis XVI blood mystery ‘solved’ (telegraph.co.uk)