THE FACE of France’s ‘good’ King Henri IV has been reconstructed – but why was his real head kept in a wardrobe for 60 years? OLIVER ROWLAND reports:
WHILE the body of Richard III was recently discovered under a car park in Leicester, in France, a couple of civil servants kept the severed head of one of the country’s most popular monarchs hid-den in a towel in a wardrobe for 60 years.
Like Richard III, the face of ‘good’ King Henri IV was recently reconstructed and was exhibited for the first time to coincide with a new book Henri IV, l’énigme du roi sans tête (Editions Vuibert).
The book’s authors, journalist Stéphane Gabet, who rediscovered the head, and forensic doctor Philippe Charlier who analysed it, called the image “unsettling, because it is so close to the known pictures of the king”. It was produced by forensic imagery specialists using his head.
The story of the head begins 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.
No one knows where it lay for 100 years, but Gabet and Charlier picked up the head’s story in 1919, when it turned up in a Paris auction among the effects of a deceased painter and was bought by a man named Bourdais, who became convinced the head was that of Henri IV.
He was impressed by the blueish colour of the skin, which, he said, he had once read was remarked on at the time of the desecration of the graves. The colour was due to an embalming method. He exhibited it and even offered it to the Louvre – but no one believed him.
Mr Gabet told Connexion that after Bourdais died, a journalist discovered Bourdais’ sister, in Montmartre, had the head and he wrote about it in a magazine. A young couple named Bellanger who were interested in history read the piece and decided to try to buy the head.
“She didn’t want to sell, but over the years they kept going back and convinced her they wanted to take up her brother’s work to have the head recognised. So she said ‘OK’,” Mr Gabet said.
While working on a documentary about Henri IV, Gabet stumbled across a letter written by Mr Bellanger to a historian in which he expressed interest in the whereabouts of the head. Intrigued, he visited the couple who admitted they had it and showed him the head, which they kept wrapped in a towel in a wardrobe.
“They had tried archive research and had tried to recuperate a moustache hair from a museum, supposed to belong to the king, and tried to have the head analysed, but didn’t manage it.
“There was no technology for studying DNA or facial reconstruction techniques in the 1950s and 60s. They spoke to no one, even their children didn’t know.
“Often the real pleasure of a collector is to own something, not to boast about it, and it was a secret between them.
“I turned up at just the right moment. They didn’t know what to do with it and I told them I had access to historians and scientists, so they say ‘great, let’s do it’.”
But why keep it a secret from family?
“Perhaps they were afraid their children would judge them. They’re ordinary people, retired fonctionnaires. They’re like anyone else, the difference being they had this stuffed head in their loft, and perhaps they weren’t very proud of that,” said Mr Gabet.
They were also far from sure it was really the king’s head. Today they are in their eighties and live in a retirement home in Chartres, he said.
A direct comparison between DNA from the remains and samples from those of a known descendant was used in the UK, but this is illegal in France.
Instead, scientists used DNA from a handkerchief soaked in the blood of the guillotined Louis XVI, which had been kept in a vial by Italian aristocrats. Scientists involved say there is a “direct paternal relation” between samples from the head’s larynx and the blood.