Head of French king found after 220 years

Scientists say they have identified an embalmed head as belonging to the French monarch who converted to Catholicism with the famous phrase “Paris is worth a Mass.”

Henri IV was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic at age 57 some 400 years ago. His conversion in 1594 from Calvinism ended France’s wars of religion.

Henri, one of France’s most popular monarchs, was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis near Paris, but during the frenzy of the French Revolution in 1793, the royal graves were dug up and revolutionaries chopped off Henry’s head, which was then snatched, according to the Daily Mail.

A head, presumed to be that of Henri IV, has passed between private collectors since then, the BBC reported.

“The preservation was excellent, with all soft tissues and internal organs well conserved,” the BBC added.

Henri was King of France from 1589 to 1610 and King of Navarre from 1572 to 1610. He was the first monarch of the Bourbon branch of the Capetian dynasty in France, which included his grandson Louis XIV, the Sun King.

A Huguenot, Henry was involved in the Wars of Religion before ascending the French throne with the death of Henry III in 1589. He converted to Catholicism prior to his coronation in 1594. 

In 1598, he enacted the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious liberties to the Protestants, displaying unusual religious tolerance for the period and thereby effectively ending the civil war.

Plans call for his head to be reinterred in the Basilica of Saint Denis after a national Mass and funeral next year.

A team of scientists used the latest forensic techniques to identify features seen in portraits of the king, according to the BBC.

“A lesion near his nose, a pierced ear and a healed facial wound – from a previous assassination attempt – were among the marks that identified the head,” the BBC reported.

The methods used to embalm the head also matched techniques in use at the time of his death, said the scientists in a report published by the British Medical Journal.

It was not possible to use DNA evidence to identify the head because it was impossible to find a sample from it that could be guaranteed to be uncontaminated.

But radiocarbon-dating yielded a date range of between 1450 and 1650, which fitted with the king’s own lifespan from 1553 to 1610, forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier said.

Charlier and colleagues compared the embalmed head to an autopsy report describing the particular embalming process used for French kings, written by the king’s surgeon, according to the Daily Mail.

“The human head had a light brown colour, open mouth and partially closed eyes,” Charlier said.

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