Scientists identify the head of France's King Henry IV

Updated: 2010-12-16 08:03

By Maria Cheng (China Daily)

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LONDON - After nine months of tests, researchers in France have identified the head of France's King Henry IV, who was assassinated in 1610 aged 57.

The scientific tests helped identify the late monarch's embalmed head, which was shuffled between private collections ever since it disappeared during the French Revolution in 1793.

The results of the research identifying Henry IV's head were published online on Wednesday in the medical journal, BMJ.

Scientists identify the head of France's King Henry IV

A two-way combo, seen in this handout photo released by the BMJ Group (British Medical Journal) December 15, 2010, of the statue of King Henri IV at Pau Castle showing the nasal skin lesion (L) and the French engraving by Ganies of the king wearing an earring in the right ear lobe (R). [Photo/Agencies]

Henry IV was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis near Paris, but during the frenzy of the French Revolution, the royal graves were dug up and revolutionaries chopped off Henry's head, which was then snatched.

"This case was considered with the same (level of severity) as if it were a recent forensic case," said Philippe Charlier, a forensic medical examiner of University Hospital R Poincare in Garches, France, who led the team.

Charlier and 19 colleagues ran a battery of forensic tests on King Henry IV's head this year.

As one of France's best-loved monarchs, Henry IV was credited with brokering peace between Catholics and Protestants, kick-starting the French economy and building Parisian landmarks including the Pont Neuf bridge and Place des Vosges square. He was the first of the Bourbon monarchs and grandfather of the Sun King Louis XIV.

In the scientists' examinations of the monarch's head, they found features often seen in the king's portraits, including a dark lesion above his right nostril. They also found a healed bone fracture above his upper left jaw, which matched a stab wound the king suffered during an assassination attempt in 1594.

Radiocarbon testing confirmed the head dated from the 17th-century. Charlier and colleagues also compared the embalmed head to an autopsy report describing the particular embalming process used for French kings, written by the king's surgeon. Perfumers on the team used their professionally trained noses to identify specific embalming substances in the mouth used to hide nasty odors.

The French researchers also created a digital facial reconstruction and ran computer tomography scans which showed the skull was consistent with all known portraits of Henry IV and the plaster mold made of his face just after his death.

Frank Ruehli, of the University of Zurich and the Swiss Mummy project, said the research was credible but that it would been more persuasive if the French scientists had found DNA evidence.

"They've narrowed it down considerably, and it probably is Henry IV," he said. "But without the final DNA proof it is hard to say absolutely who it is." Ruehli was not linked to the research.

Still, Ruehli said the French scientists did the next best thing, by matching evidence of Henry IV's facial lesion and healed wounds to historical documentation of those traits, which were likely unique to the monarch.

The discovery comes at the end of King Henry IV year in France, which marks 400 years since the monarch, also known as the "Green Gallant", was murdered.

Next year, France will hold a national Mass and funeral for Henry IV. His head will then be reburied alongside the rest of the country's former kings and queens, in the Basilica of Saint Denis.

Associated Press


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