It seems you can pick up bits of dead kings just about anywhere now. We’re all still buzzing with the discovery of Richard III under a Leicester car park, but over the last thirteen years in France they’ve managed to identify the head of Henri IV, the blood of Louis XVI, and the heart of Louis XVII, with an added bonus in the hair of Marie Antoinette. Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to search the attic.
Yet outside the scientific and historical worlds these discoveries haven’t been greeted with the same excitement as our own ‘Richard Crookback’ - and what I want to know is why. I'm a Francophile myself, I'm interested in all those kings, but there's something special about the Richard III discovery that sets it apart.
What is it?
The heart of Louis XVII is at least as good a story, and by far the most tragic. He was the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the little Dauphin who was imprisoned in the Temple under the name ‘Louis Capet’ and died there of tuberculosis at just ten years old. He had been kept in in a darkened cell from the age of eight, with no-one to wash or clean up after him, and was degraded by being forced to sign a document confessing to incest with his murdered mother. He probably never knew his parents had been guillotined and he was the uncrowned King of France.
|The Dauphin - Louis XVII|
But did he really die that lonely prison death? Was the wracked little body the doctors recorded as being covered in sores and tumours really his? Perhaps it’s because the child’s treatment was so unbearable that rumours abounded of his secret escape, and of the substitution of a dying pauper for the wretched king. Baroness Orczy even wrote the novel ‘Eldorado’, in which the Scarlet Pimpernel himself rescued the child, and part of me still wants to believe it.
Some facts supported the theory. A prison guard called ‘Simon the Shoemaker’ quit his job in 1794, and his widow later claimed he had smuggled the Dauphin to safety in a laundry basket. The story was given credence when in 1894 the coffin of the supposed Dauphin was exhumed and found to contain the body of a man aged between 18 and 20. True, the body had already been moved once when it was rescued from its mass grave, but still the questions remained.
|Heart of Louis XVII - Associated Press|
Not any more. One particular relic had been making the rounds for centuries, and was even offered to Louis XVIII on the restoration of the monarchy – the supposed heart of the Dauphin, which had been secretly removed during the autopsy by Dr Philippe-Jean Pelletan, who ‘wrapped it in my handkerchief and put it in my pocket without being seen’. Even the relic's story is full of incident. Pelletan kept it in alcohol in a jar on his bookcase, but as the alcohol dried out the heart grew desiccated. In 1810 it was stolen, but when the thief contracted tuberculosis himself he repented, and his widow restored it to the doctor. In 1828 Pelletan gave it to the archbishop of Paris, but the palace was vandalised in the July Revolution, the crystal container was smashed, and the heart was finally discovered buried in a pile of sand. But still it survived, and in 2000 scientists finally decided to put it to the test of DNA.
|Henri IV reconstructed face|
In 2010 scientists set to work identifying that face. They were fortunate to have three clues to go on: a healed facial wound, a lesion near his nose – and a pierced ear. The less squeamish can see a video of all this here, but this picture gives at least a general idea.
Suggestive certainly, but nothing is definite these days without DNA. Short of digging up poor Louis XVII’s heart yet again, it was hard to see where a possible match could be found – until someone thought of this.
It’s perhaps the oddest of all of them. This gourd has been in the possession of an Italian family for more than a century, and what they found intriguing was the inscription partially shown below, which translates as follows: ‘In the 21st of January this year Maximilien Bourdaloue soaked his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation… When it was congealed, he put it in this gourd and gave it to me for two banknotes of ten francs each.’
Handkerchiefs are clearly less durable than the blood of kings, and there was no sign of such a thing when in 2011 the gourd was lent to the University of Bologna for testing. There was, however, a sticky residue, and when geneticists from Bologna and Barcelona examined it they found it to be blood of a male of the right age and antiquity, who was also a ‘heterozygote’ - a compatible form for a person with blue eyes. The genetic pattern itself was found to be extremely rare (scientists among us can find a more intelligent description here), and it would be hard to find anything like a match.
Enter (in its box) the head of Henri IV.
(I was going to include a picture, but it's really too gruesome for a family blog. The curious can see one here.)
Blood and head were both tested for DNA, and the results made headlines. From this BBC site: They ‘share a genetic heritage passed on through the paternal line,” forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier told AFP. “They have a direct link to one another through their fathers. One could say that there is absolutely no doubt any more.’ Voila. Two kings confirmed for the price of one.
Neither do Egyptian mummies, come to that. They’re kings, they’ve been dead even longer, but maybe it’s almost too long. They lack significance dead because we have no sense of them alive. The portraits are too stylized to be meaningful, and if someone says the word ‘Tutankhamun’ I think immediately of either a gold mask or something dead in bandages. An Egyptian specialist would be horrified by that, but I suspect it’s a common layman’s view.
|Richard III Skeleton - Image credit University of Leicester|
But there must be something else. Louis XVI was well known, so was the Dauphin, they have the same legendary quality of Richard, but still we’re not stirred to the same degree. Nationalism, of course, Richard was British and the two Louis are French, but to someone like me there’s no difference and it’s my own reaction I’m trying to understand.For me personally there is that one other thing, and it’s this. Richard III was found under a car park. Not in a box or a gourd where he’d been specially preserved, but just somewhere dumped and under our feet. Millions of people have walked over his grave and never even known.
|Currently doing the rounds on Twitter - credit unknown|
That’s it. That’s where it is. When people say ‘the past is all around us’ I doubt they’re really referring to kings under car parks, but that’s surely part of what they mean. As Shakespeare wrote in ‘Hamlet’, ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’ So he might. How many people have breathed this air before us? Whose bodies have fertilized the soil from which we harvest our vegetables? Do we really think we stand upon an island certified sterile from that terrible thing we call the past?