Found at last: 400-year-old head of Henri IV

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The embalmed head of one of the best loved, and most hated, kings of France has been identified by scientists 400 years after his assassination.

After nine months of the most advanced forensic tests, the scientists are convinced that a partially preserved 17th-century head, complete with hair, beard and pierced right ear, is that of King Henri IV, the first of the Bourbons and the great-great-great-grandfather of King Louis XVI.

The head has been knocking around Europe in private collections since the ancient tombs of French monarchs at Saint Denis, north of Paris, were desecrated and vandalised during the French Revolution in 1793.

By comparing the head digitally with contemporary paintings and a death mask, the scientists have concluded that it can only be that of "good" King Henri, the monarch who briefly ended the French wars of religion and granted freedom of worship to Protestants in 1598.

More details of the research, described in an article in the British Medical Journal yesterday, will be revealed in Paris today. The methods used may make it possible to identify other royal body parts, jumbled during the attack at the Basilique de Saint Denis and now preserved in a single vault.

Philippe Charlier, the celebrity French forensic scientist who led the investigation, said: "This case was considered with the same level of painstaking care as if it were a recent forensic case."

Although no DNA tests were possible, the 19 researchers used computer programs to recreate the face of the partially preserved head and concluded that it was consistent with all known portraits of Henri IV and with the plaster death mask made after his murder in July 1610.

The head, which resurfaced two years ago in the private collection of an 84-year-old Frenchman, also carries several "distinguishing marks".

There is a small mole over the right nostril, something shown in most portraits of Henri IV. There are signs of scarring to the left of the upper lip, where Henri was stabbed in an unsuccessful murder attempt in 1594. The right ear is pierced for a ring, which was the royal fashion in France in the early 17th century.

Henri IV, a contemporary of Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, is remembered as one of the most humane and far-seeing of French monarchs. He was also detested by fundamentalist Catholics and Protestants alike, and was eventually murdered on a Paris street by a diehard Catholic.

Henri de Navarre, who changed his own religion as often as he changed his mistresses, acceded to the throne in 1593 after agreeing finally "to abjure Protestantism". He is reported to have said: "Paris vaut bien une messe (Paris is worth a mass)."

In his 17 years on the throne, he introduced reforms to improve the French economy and promised that every peasant family should have a "chicken in the pot" at weekends. In 1598, the treaty of Nantes guaranteed freedom of worship to Protestants.

Henri is also known for two of the most beautiful landmarks in Paris, which were completed or started during his reign: the Pont Neuf and the Place des Vosges.

The purported "head of Henri IV" first surfaced in a German private collection in the 19th century. It was sold at auction in Paris for three francs in 1919 and resurfaced two years ago in the private collection of the 84-year-old French owner who bought it in 1955.