New twist in King’s head saga

Scientists have cast doubt on a sample of French royal blood used to identify a mummified head as that of king Henry IV

24 April 2014

A NEW study has added another twist to controversy over whether or not a mummified head found in a wardrobe is really that of France’s “good” King Henry IV.

In a paper published in the online journal Scientific Reports, an international team of mainly Spanish scientists, state that a sample of blood supposedly from the guillotined king Louis XVI (a descendant of Henry IV) that was key to identifying the head “does not seem compatible with Louis XVI’s known ancestry”.

They found, for example, that the blood’s owner had roots in France and Italy, whereas many of Louis XVI’s ancestors were from Poland and Germany. What is more, they say, they found no genes related to tall stature – despite Louis XVI being famed for his height – and strong evidence for brown eyes, whereas the king’s were blue.

Instead the scientists think they blood might have been someone else’s, collected by a fraudster and put inside a gourd identifying it as the king’s in which it has been kept ever since.

Prof Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain, told the BBC: "In the French revolution, the guillotine was working every day - and probably it was much more easy to approach the scaffold when non-important people were being beheaded. Maybe that was one of the occasions. They thought nobody was going to be able recognise whether the blood was from the king or not."

The gourd was for the last century in the ownership of a family of Italian atristocrats.

The story of the head began with Henri’s death in 1610, assassinated by a Catholic fanatic.

The king’s body was embalmed then buried at the Basilica of Saint-Denis. The head is thought to have been cut off when the graves of kings were desecrated in 1793 during the French Revolution. The body was thrown into a common grave – but when it was exhumed under King Louis XVIII in 1817, the head was missing.

A head thought to be the king’s turned up at a Paris auction in 1919 and after a series of twists and turns was found a few years ago by a French investigative journalist, Stéphane Gabet, who met a couple of elderly fonctionnaires who had been hiding it in their wardrobe.

It went on to be identified by French forensic doctor Philippe Charlier as likely to be the king’s due to certain physical features, like a mole, an ear piercing and a scar. Then, backed by Spanish scientists, Charlier announced last year the almost certain identification because he said there was a “direct paternal relation” between samples from the head’s larynx and the blood from the gourd. Gabet told Connexion at the time that 22 published proofs had now been put forward, allowing – in his opinion – 100% certainty. A reconstruction of how the king would have looked was prepared.

However other experts contined to cast doubt on the head, including historian Philippe Delorme, who pointed out that French geneticists had found no match up between mother’s line DNA from the head and a modern desendant of the king’s mother, to which Gabet responded: “They’re based on a link of more than 14 generations and it’s quite possible there was an illegitimate child. Our analysis is via the male line direct from Henri IV to Louis XVI, over seven generations. It’s not comparable.”

Last autumn a further study also found no link between modern descendants and the head – or the handkerchief blood - to which Charlier said there were numerous doubts about the paternity of various kings in the Bourbon line, which might explain why there was no link between the DNA of modern-day descendants and the ancient head.

Should the new findings be true, the mystery remains over the match up between the head and blood.

Henri IV is remembered for ending the Wars of Religion, beautifying Paris and for his caring attitude. He was also a ladies’ man, nicknamed the “Green Gallant”. He is remembered for wishing that every peasant should have “une poule au pot” [chicken in the pot] for Sunday lunch.

Photo:Screenshot from FranceTV Info

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