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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Scientists confirm head belongs to French King, Henri IV

What a headline huh?

After nine months of running tests, a team of researchers in France has confirmed that a head that went missing a couple of centuries ago and only resurfaced recently is indeed that of one of the country's most respected Kings, Henri IV.

Henri IV, (from Wikipedia)


The tale of how the head went missing in the first place is of course bound up with French history.

The potted version for the non-history buffs (although those who wish to dig a little deeper could start off with Wikipedia).

Henri IV reigned from August 2, 1589 until May 14, 1610 and (among other things) is perhaps best remembered for enacting the Edict of Nantes which "guaranteed religious liberties to French Protestants (Huguenots)" which had been under threat from the country's Catholics during the Wars of Religion from 1562 until 1598.

As was the fate of many a French monarch, Henri IV was assassinated, and buried in the Basilique Saint-Denis, a Cathedral in what is now a northern suburb of Paris and one that became the final resting place of French Kings and Queens throughout the centuries.

And that was where his body (head included) lay until 1793 when French revolutionaries, not satisfied with having executed the then-monarch Louis XVI, ran amok at the Basilique, opening tombs and reburying royal bodies in mass graves nearby.

It was then, of course, that the head of Henri IV did its disappearing act only apparently to resurface in the hands of a private collector (yikes, there really are such people) recently (remember this is the potted version) and be put up for rigorous testing by a team led by Philippe Charlier, a forensic medical examiner and osteo-archaeologist at the University hospital Raymond-Poincaré in the Parisian suburb of Garches.

Those tests included "radiocarbon dating with 2-sigma calibration" (are you paying attention?) which, according to a paper published by Charlier's team in the latest edition of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) "yielded a date of between 1450 and 1650 nicely bracketing the year of Henri IV’s death" (oh the joys of scientists writing papers for other scientists).

In fact for the full explanation of how they used a combination of "anthropological, paleopathological, radiological, forensic, and genetic techniques" to confirm that the embalmed head was indeed that of Henri IV, take a wander over to the BMJ.

The long and the short of it is that the "irregular mole they identified on the right nostril and an earring hole in the right earlobe" both matched features seen in portraits and statues of Henry IV and the said head is that of Henri le Grand (one of his nicknames).

The timing of the confirmation couldn't have been better because, if you've been paying attention to your dates, this year marked the 400th anniversary of his death.

And plans are afoot (or should that read "can now go ahead"?) next year for a national Mass and funeral to be held for Henry IV, during which his head will once again be laid to rest alongside this country's former monarchs in the Basilique Saint-Denis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Henri IV is also the first king of the Bourbon dynasty which ruled France up to the French Revolution and Napoleon's rule, and a few years after that. He was also a protestant by birth and converted to catholicism in order to become King of France, rumored to have said "Paris vaut bien une messe" (Paris - the heart of royal power - is well worth a mass)

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