That’s Not My Head: Royal Relics Disproved

Relics are objects of intense historical or sentimental value, and in religious terms is part of the remains of a saint or holy person. Since the introduction of Christianity, relics have played an important part in religious faith and the procurement of miracles. Most often, relics are created from the human remains or physically associated objects of unique and holy individuals. Monarchs however are a slightly different case. Royalty have a connection with religion, though often varying in intensity, because they fill a divine role. The divine right of kings, or divine-right theory of kingship asserts that any monarch is subject to no earthly authority, and that their rule is derived directly from God. Thus, the king is not subject to law, the will of the people, or the aristocracy. There are multiple implications of this theory: first that anyone who attempts to depose the king is performing a sacrilegious act, that only God can judge the king, and that the skeletal remains of the monarch may have special power.

Mummified head of Henri IV, via History Blog

Mummified head of Henri IV, via History Blog

Whether or not monarchs have religious power or divine will, there is something powerful about their memories that will lead people to covet their remains. For example, the search for Richard the III was a massive undertaking that led to major debate and archaeological examination. While much of the arguing was over the proper techniques and the importance of not jumping to conclusions, one of the reasons why people were so passionate about this was because of the historical and sentimental importance of monarchs. Monarchs are powerful individuals who define historical eras, so it isn’t that odd that the control over their remains could in a sense bring an individual status or power.

More recently, two religious relics have surfaced on the black market in France: the mummified head of Henry IV and a bloody handkerchief from Louis XVI. Henry IV ruled over France from 1589 until his assasination by a Catholic fanatic in May 1610. He was credited with bringing religious peace to France and built numerous Parisian landmarks.  After his death he was embalmed and buried with other monarchs in the Basilica of St. Denis. During the 1793 revolution, the tombs were ransacked and it was reported that his embalmed head was taken. Rumor has it that his head was passed among private collectors until it was finally tracked down in 2010 and returned to France. Forensics scientists confirmed the identity of the head based on the light brown color of hair, the presence of a hole in the right earlobe for an earring, and a lesion on the face that the king was known to have gotten during an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Henry IV was the first of the Bourbon monarchs and grandfather of King Louis XIV, our second relic. Louis XVI reigned from 1774 until 1792 when he was executed during the French Revolution, where it was reported that many spectators soaked their handkerchiefs in the king’s blood. These handkerchiefs have become a relic traded by collectors.

A re-examination of the head and handkerchief which were previously confirmed by scientists, has revealed that neither relic belongs to a monarch from the Bourbon lineage. They compared the DNA from each to DNA of known members of the dynasty, and found that neither relic was a clear paternal or maternal DNA match. Further, the DNA analysis of the handkerchief revealed with 84.2% certainty that the blood belonged to a person who did not have blue eyes, as it is known that King Louis XVI had blue eyes.

The facial reconstruction of the head of Henri IV, via Tepegraph and AFP

The facial reconstruction of the head of Henri IV, via Tepegraph and AFP

Now that they have disproven the identities of these relics, we need to raise some questions about the facial reconstruction done using the mummified head. Following the discovery that this mummified head was supposedly Henry IV, a reconstruction was completed that looks fairly close to the paintings that had been done of the monarch. Since it has been disproved, we need to question whether this reconstruction was accurate or affected by the fact that the artist knew who it was supposed to be. Interestingly enough, during the reconstruction the artist actually questioned the age and architecture of the skull, arguing it didn’t seem to fit the profile of Henry IV, but attributed this to his party hard lifestyle. It seems though that the artist’s first instinct were indeed correct!

As I’ve discussed before, the human remains of the famous must be handled delicately. These individuals carry an emotional weight, like that of religious relics, and it is important that they are carefully examined and interpreted prior to the release of any conclusions.

Works Cited

Science News 2013. New Research Refutes Claim That Mummified Head Belonged to King Henry IV of France.


Samuel 2013. Face of France’s Good King Henri IV reconstructed. Telegraph.

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