Wednesday 20 February 2013

'Richard III and Other Dead Kings' by A L Berridge

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.

Richard III
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.

There were obviously no living descendants – but there was a dead ancestor. The hair of Marie Antoinette had also survived in the form of cuttings taken when she was a child in Austria, and when the two were compared the result was pretty conclusive. The chief scientist, Jean-Jacques Cassiman, was far too cautious to say definitely that the heart was that of Louis XVII – only that he was descended from Marie Antoinette. The child’s heart has finally been removed from public display, and been buried at the Saint-Denis basilica near the graves of his parents.

Henri IV and Louis XVI have had a sober time in comparison, but their stories too are worth considering. Henri IV fell victim to the same fate as poor Cardinal Richelieu, being dug up and decapitated during the French Revolution, and his head carried away to form part of a private collection. It was at least kept in a nice padded box, and over the years has changed hands many times, but (like Richelieu’s) it was mummified, and it is still faintly possible to see traces of a face.

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.

Interesting stories? To a French fanatic like me they're utterly fascinating, but still somehow not up to the standard of Richard III. I was enthralled by the French discoveries, but when I watched the documentary about the finding of Richard III I cried.

So why? Why? What is it about the discovery at Leicester that’s so special? 

Is it age? Richard III was already history when Henri IV was on the throne, and to whippersnappers like Louis XVI and XVII he was ancient history at that. But I don’t think that’s the answer. If it’s age that excites us we can look at these 27 Anglo-Saxon skeletons discovered last year on Salisbury Plain. Heck, we can look at this one exhumed in South Africa that’s estimated at 2 million years old. It’s far, far more historically significant – but it doesn’t make me cry.

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.

Then is it the mystery? As an ardent Ricardian and great fan of Josephine Tey, I’m all for anything that will smash the Shakespeare/Thomas More myth and clear Richard III’s name – but his skeleton won’t do that. We’ve learned a bit about scoliosis and the hunchback, but whether or not he killed the Princes in the Tower – not so much. There’s far more mystery solved in the case of Louis XVII than there is with poor Richard.

Is it the tragedy? The horrible details of post-mortem injuries, the reality of that lonely grave for a man who should have had a state funeral? It’s part of it, I think, and I’m warmed by the prospect of the body finally being given the respect it deserves, but even Richard wasn't in the same league as ten year old Louis. If tragedy were all, then Louis XVII would be king in this discussion even if he never was in life.

Of all the possible explanations, I think our own H.M. Castor came closest to the truth when she said in her post here:  ‘We simply do not usually have the chance to examine the remains of known individuals from history, to compare the sources with the bone-hard evidence’. I don’t know the Anglo-Saxon skeletons or Eqyptian mummies, but we all know Richard III. He’s what ‘1066 And All That’ would call a ‘Memorable King’, and he’s part of the more sensational narrative of history. The discovery of his bones makes us look at the whole story again with the sudden certain knowledge that it’s true. We may have known that with our heads, but here are the bones, here was the man, and it’s true.

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?

It’s a macabre thought, and may give an unwelcome significance to the phrase ‘Caesar Salad’, but there’s a truth in it way beyond the physical. We’re not alone. We didn’t spring up by magic. Millions of people have been here before us, and what they said and did has defined who we are now. 

That’s history. And as the body of Richard III has reminded us – it’s true.



Annis said...

Fascinating post. What a sad fate the poor little Dauphin suffered! No wonder people hoped for a happier outcome for him.

I believe that a lot of the excitement about Richard III's discovery is, as you say, because it brings a vivid immediacy to history, but also because authors like Josephine Tey and Sharon Penman have created such a romantic and sympathetic picture of Richard that even though centuries dead he has an ardent band of supporters and groupies - we saw one in action with the televised appeararance of Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society :) And perhaps, too, because we always have a soft spot in our hearts for the underdog.

Theresa Breslin said...

Such a terrific post. My heart has always ached for the Dauphin and for many years I chose to believe the Baroness Orczy version. Recently I visited the memorials of the Romanovs and although they were responsible for thousands of deaths it's seeing the ages of the children that makes me incredibly sad.

CrazyCris said...

Fabulous post! I hadn't heard of the definitive identification of the remains of Louis XVII or Henri IV, for me they mean as much as the recent Richard III discovery!
But I think you're right, the fascination with the Leicester remains has something to do with the fact that they were found under a car park!!! And also I think that someone went purposefully looking for them, and then actually found them!!!

adele said...

Wonderful post...and yes, story about the heart of the poor little Dauphin is indeed very tragic.

alberridge said...

Annis - I really think you've hit it. 'Underdog' is right. The poor little Dauphin was a victim certainly, but Richard was the ultimate underdog, and it makes those of us who believe in his innocence blaze with fury at the injustice. Thank you so much for this insight.

Theresa - Yay!!! Someone else who's read Orczy! I had one of those omnibuses fashionable in the 60's with 4 of the Scarlet Pimpernel novels (including the elusive 'I Will Repay' which I've never found since) and have only recently discovered that there are more. Yes, her style is stilted now, but she inspired me to France and one of these days I just HAVE to have a go at the French Revolution.

Crazy Cris - If you care about the French kings too, then we are of one blood, you and I. I feel particularly badly for Henri IV, actually, because if the Revolutionaries had known their history they'd have known he was a really good king who cared about his people, and did more than anyone to make their lot better. Posthumous injustice, but still injustice.

Adele - thank you. I find it really hard to think about that poor little boy. It's nothing really against the scale of something like the Holocaust, but he was targeted as an individual, as his father's son, for the crime of being born. I can't think of another child in history who's been made to pay in such a way for the crimes of his ancestors.

Ann Turnbull said...

I knew nothing about the fate of the little Dauphin until I read Jennifer Donnelly's novel Revolution, which is wonderful and contains this terribly sad story at its heart.

Tess said...

fascinating post! I knew about young Louis' heart, but had not heard about Henri IV's head and the blood in the gourd. Wow!

I would, however, hesitate to refer to Marie Antoinette as having been murdered...wrongfully convicted and executed, for certain. The Princesse de Lamballe was murdered...semantics, I know, but there was at least a pretense on the side of the Tribunal that she had been given the due process of law...

alberridge said...

Thanks, Tess. And you're right - I was emotionally carried away when I used the word 'murdered' of Marie Antoinette, and that's an important distinction with the Princesse de Lamballe. The problem with misusing extremes is that you've nowhere to go when something really deserves them.

Leslie Wilson said...

I did enjoy this blog - and I do feel sorry for the little Dauphin -and yet, I also thought about the fictional pauper child who would, perhaps, live just as miserable a life, as many did due to the disastrous policies of the Bourbons. Their suffering is not glamourised, iconised, call it what you will, yet just as real. I am I admit only mildly interested in Richard 3rd - yet I loved that image of history beneath us as we walk. And I do approve of Henri 4, who wanted every family in France to have a chicken in his pot on Sunday. He had the right idea.

Stroppy Author said...

Lovely post! I do feel more excited about the dauphin than R3, though.
I have some of Napoleon's hair - and there is something very strange and special about the real physical presence of a historical figure, in whatever form.

Mark Burgess said...

Good stuff Louise, thank you. I find it all fascinating. And when we lived in South London the best blackberries came from the local cemetery!

Little Angelic Rose said...

Really insightful post, thank you. I too have read the Baroness Orczy books, and loved the films based on them, and maybe if you want to escape the tragedy that is the sad end of the little Dauphin's story, find a copy of Kim Chesher's 'The Fifth Quarter', I think you'll love it.

I too have been moved by the discovery of Richard III, being a history graduate it is certainly weird to find the almost complete body of a known person, and not just any king but Richard III, and I wish, I really wish people could forget the carpark bit, he's suffered far more than we could have known without examining the bones. I think this discovery means more because we all have an opinion on him, we were taught the Shakespeare version at school, had some dispelled at uni, read books, but to be presented with the reality and the truth, it is a strange feeling. And I hope that historians now review the sources that didn't tally with what we thought we knew, stop thinking we know better and re-evaluate all the source material, because, let's face it, ultimately Richard was not lost - the contemporary sources all told us where he was, and where the church was, but we didn't believe them.