A forensic team in France has analysed the remains of the embalmed heart of Richard the Lionheart. This week, the results of their research were published revealing how the heart of the Crusader king was treated with holy reverence after his death.
Richard I of England, known as Richard the Lionheart in the English speaking world and “Coeur de Lion” in France died in 1199. As well as sitting on the English throne King Richard also held the Duchies of Normandy and Aquitaine in France. After his death, some of his embalmed remains were entombed at Fontevraud Abbey in France’s Loire valley but for centuries after his death, his embalmed heart, in medieval times regarded as the organ in the human body that housed the soul, was lost until it was rediscovered in the city of Rouen in 1838.
Eight centuries after his death, a French scientific team, under the direction of Philippe Charlier, who was responsible for authenticating the head of Henry IV, have been examining the dusty remains of Richard the Lionheart’s heart, who despite his worldwide fame associated forever with his role in the Crusades to the Holy Land, ruled for a mere ten years. The forensic team’s analysis of what remains of the heart of the Crusader king has now been published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Following the Crusades, Richard I died at Châlus near what is now the city of Limoges in central France. His death was probably the result of gangrene or septicaemia having set in after Richard suffered an arrow wound to the left shoulder when he was fighting without the protection of chainmail, reports France 24.
Tomb of Richard I of England at Rouen Cathedral, France
As was common in medieval times, after his death, King Richard's body was dissected with most of his organs and entrails being placed in a coffin at Châlus. His heart, however, was embalmed separate from his other organs and ended up in the Church of Notre-Dame in the city of Rouen in Normandy. His body was entombed at Fontevraud Abbey between Angers and Tours in the Loire valley. The heart of Richard the Lionheart was to remain, forgotten, in Rouen until a lead box containing a whitish-brown powder was discovered in 1838 by a local historian. The sealed box was engraved with the Latin inscription, “Hic iacet cor Ricardi regis anglorum” — “Here lies the heart of Richard, King of England”.
Until now the powdery remains of Richard the Lionheart’s heart had remained undisturbed but the forensic team, led by Dr Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist from Raymond Poincare University Hospital in France, obtained permission from Rouen’s Museum of Antiquities to carry out an analysis of a small sample of the dusty remnants. Reported on BBC News, Dr Charlier said, “We carried out exactly the same kind of analysis that we would perform on an exhumed body for forensic purposes. We did a microscopic examination, toxicological analysis and also a pollen analysis."
Lead box which housed the heart of Richard the Lionheart discovered in Rouen
The forensic team were restricted in what they could do as the size of the sample was limited to two grams (0.07 ounces) from the 80 grams of King Richard’s heart which remained in the lead casket. Analysis was carried out using an electron microscope and gas chromatography. The scientists were not able to test for DNA as this would have meant taking a far larger sample. In any case, the presence of lead, which causes DNA to degrade, could have produced inconclusive results. Carbon dating also had to be ruled out since the carbon-based derivative creosote had been used as part of the original embalming process.
Whilst there had previously been speculation that Richard I may have died after being wounded by a poisoned arrow, the forensic team found no evidence which would confirm that theory. The team did however find traces of pollen grains from poplar and bellflower in the sample. This pointed to Richard the Lionheart having died in April, May or the beginning of June which would tie in with the King’s recorded date of death in historical records of 6 April 1199.
picture by Philippe Charlier
Crystal box containing the remains of the mummified heart of Richard I
The forensic investigators found evidence of the materials used in the embalming process. The heart had been wrapped in linen and traces of myrtle, daisy, mint and possibly lime were identified. The team were particularly interested in a discovery that highly prized frankincense had been used in the embalming process. This aromatic resin, obtained from boswellia trees, has assumed religious significance for Christians although it has been traded in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa for more than 5000 years. Dr Charlier commented, “This is the only case known of using frankincense - we have never found any use of this before. This product is really devoted to very, very important persons in history."
Although Richard the Lionheart enjoys a reputation as a ‘good’ king', history has been kind to him and has tended to gloss over his various misdeeds which were well known in the 12th century.
Richard the Lionheart, as well as slaying Muslims during the Crusades, also engaged in massacres of English Jews and was responsible for a number of treacherous acts against his father King Henry II. The Independent reports there was even speculation of Richard I having had a number of homosexual affairs, a practice regarded in the 12th century as unnatural.
Reported on Livescience, Dr Charlier said King Richard I’s embalmers may have regarded the process as one of “theological transformation”.
History has it that the Bishop of Rochester wrote that Richard spent 33 years in purgatory, only reaching Heaven in 1232, as expiation for his sins. As Dr Charlier said, speaking to The Independent, “We found many interesting things. But the most interesting was the presence, in substantial quantities, of frankincense, which has never been found in any other embalming. It is unique. This suggests that Richard, and those around him, knew of episodes in his life which had a bad smell... Frankincense, linked to Christ’s story, may have been intended to make him smell like a saint and therefore to ease his passage to heaven.”
33 years might have seemed like an eternity for Richard the Lionheart, but at least to those around him in Purgatory, he’d have smelt fragrant.
Aerial view of Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou, Loire Valley, France
The full report by Philippe Charlier is entitled "The embalmed heart of Richard the Lionheart (1199 A.D.): a biological and anthropological analysis" can be read on Nature.com.