The lost head of beloved French king, Henri IV
Severed from its body during the 1793 ransacking of the French kings’ sepulchres at St Denis Basilica, then detained by private owners for over two centuries, Henri IV’s head was finally found and identified. It should also soon be given a proper second burial to rest in peace for eternity – for good this time.
As the world was finding out about Richard III’s remains discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England, and watching the thrilling scientific investigation carried out to prove their identity, similar research was taking place in France.
It resulted in a documentary broadcast recently on France’s Channel 5 and a newly published book, ‘Henry IV, Mystery of a Headless King’ by Stéphane Gabet and Philippe Charlier, which documents all the details of this epic discovery.
A case worthy of a CSI episode
Indeed, the book, like the documentary, scrupulously examines and recounts the incredible and fascinating stages of the discovery and the identification of Henry IV’s mummified head. In addition, it reads like the most captivating investigation case.
It was all made possible thanks to the teamwork of the most eminent French specialists: historians, biographers, anthropologists, forensic doctors, museum curators, chemists, filmmakers, not to mention the actual descendant of the ‘Good King Henri’, the Prince of Bourbon, Duke of Anjou.
1610-2008: The destiny of a king’s head
After Henry IV was assassinated by François Ravaillac, on rue de la Ferronerie, in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, on 14 May 1610, his body, according to the custom, was embalmed and buried at St Denis Basilica. Then, in 1793, at the height of French Revolution, it was dug up and tossed into a mass grave. When this public grave was reopened in 1817, Henry IV’s head was missing.
In 1919, Joseph-Emile Bourdais, a Montmartre dweller, bought an embalmed head at the Hôtel Drouot auction for three francs, and spent the rest of his life trying, unsuccessfully, to prove it was Henry IV’s. He even wrote an essay about it. In 2008, the same head was found in the closet of tax collector Jacques Bellanger, who had bought it from Bourdais’ sister in 1953.
Stéphane Gabet, co-author of the book and maker of the documentary, said that opening the box in which the head had been preserved, was a “magic moment”.
The scientific investigation
Philippe Charlier, the other author of the book, is also the forensic medical examiner and specialist in osteo-archeology who supervised and conducted all the tests. He first declared that: “The preservation was excellent, with all soft tissue and internal organs well conserved.”
He turned to methods such as radiocarbon dating (it matched Henri’s life span), computed tomography (the head matched up with details from a mold made after the king’s death) and raman spectroscopy (which gave an indication on the method used for embalming the body known as ‘in the style of Italians’).
More recently, a DNA match was made to further confirm the identity of the head. Tissue samples from the head were compared to the DNA of King Louis XVI, whose blood was soaked up with a handkerchief and stored in a gourd to celebrate the French Revolution following his beheading in 1793.
While some historians and scientists still disagree and argue the research was botched, or that in this case, DNA testing cannot be trusted, the quest that lead to identify a five-century-old head is captivating and extremely convincing.
Either narrated or filmed, it is a real whodunit and for my part, I am ready to believe that Henri IV finally got his head back!
What do you think? Have you been following the saga?
1.’Henri IV, L’énigme du roi sans tête‘, by Stéphane Gabet and Philippe Charlier, La Librairie Vuibert, février 2013
2.Philippe Charlier’s blog : Pathographie, 2010
3. Le mystère de la Tête d’Henri IV, on France 5.
1. St. Denis Basilica, by profzucker on Flickr
2. ‘Henri IV, L’enigme du roi sans tete’, by Stephane Gabet and Philippe Charlier – photo taken by Jacqueline Dubois
3. Statue of Henri IV – Pont Neuf, by Jacqueline Dubois
4. Henri IV’s Reconstructed Face, from ‘Le récit de l’enquete’ – photo taken by Jacqueline Dubois