Royal head: Scientists identify murdered French king

He was one of France's most adored kings, a monarch known as "le bon roi Henri" (good king Henri), who promoted religious tolerance, was a hit with the ladies and was the first to dream of putting a chicken in every pot.

Alas for Henri IV: on May 14 1610, at the age of 57, his life was cut brutally short by a Catholic fanatic who waylaid him during a procession and slashed him twice in the throat.

Then, during the French Revolution, came a second ignominy.

In 1793, a mob of revolutionaries ransacked the royal chapel at Saint-Denis, north of Paris, hauled the ancient kings from their tombs and mutilated their remains, which were then tossed into a pit.

For the next couple of centuries, a severed head, presumed to be that of Henri IV, led a peripatetic existence, bought and sold at auctions or kept in secretive private collections.

Now, though, a panel of forensic scientists have declared the head is genuine - and the way is thus open for Henri IV and other desecrated royals to return to the crypt after more than two centuries.

Reporting in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on Wednesday, the experts harnessed 21st-century detective techniques to probe the exceptionally preserved find.

"The human head had a light brown colour, open mouth, and partially closed eyes," says the study, led by Philippe Charlier, a forensic pathologist at the University Hospital Raymond Poincare in Garches.

"The preservation was excellent, with all soft tissues and internal organs well conserved."

The head had two telltale features that were seen in 16th-century portraits of the king.

One was a dark, mushroom-like lesion, 11mm (0.44 of an inch) long, just above the right nostril. There was also a large hole in the right ear lobe, with a sheen indicating long use, that came from an earring - again, something frequently seen in Henri's portraits.

So-called mitochondrial matching - looking for DNA handed down through the maternal line - was impossible because the mummified head had been handled so much that it was impossible to guarantee a sample that was uncontaminated.

Radiocarbon-dating yielded a broad-ranging date of between 1450 and 1650, which fitted neatly with the king's own lifespan, from 1553 to 1610.

More accurate information came from 3-D scanners and X-rays. They found a 5mm (0.2 of an inch) bone lesion in the upper left jawbone, corresponding to a stab wound inflicted in 1594 in a previous assessination attempt.

The red-and-white head hairs and remnants of a moustache and beard corresponded with the known characteristics at the time of his death, and his appalling dentition - with many teeth that were lost before his death - chimes with contemporary witness accounts.

Then there were deposits, found on the bald head, which came from three mouldings of the face, in 1610, after the desecration in 1793 and finally by a private owner in the early 20th century.

Most damning, though, were the evidence of the technique used to embalm the head, which Henri had specified before his death should be "in the style of the Italians."

And there were clear signs of three cuts to the neck bones, corresponding to the "beheading" of the king by a knife-wielding revolutionary in 1793.

"Now positively identified according to the most rigorous arguments of any forensic anthropology examination, the French king's head will be reinterred in the royal basilica of Saint-Denis after a solemn funeral ceremony," says the paper.

"Similar methods could be used to identify all the other kings' and queens' skeletons lying in the mass grave of the basilica, so that they can be returned to their original tombs."

The identification is the latest exploit by Charlier, who has been dubbed in the French media "the Indiana Jones of the graveyards."

He previously found that the supposed bones of Saint Joan of Arc, authenticated in 1909 by a papal commission, came in fact from an Egyptian mummy and a cat.

He also determined that a mummified heart held in the Saint-Denis crypt came from the uncrowned boy king Louis XVII, who died in prison during the Revolution.

And he confirmed that Napoleon died of stomach cancer, dispelling a legend that the emperor had been poisoned by his British captors.

i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

    salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

    Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower