Head of France’s King Henry IV identified

Mummified head of Henry IVA mummified head that’s been floating through private collections for a few hundred years has been identified as the head of King Henry IV of France.

Henry, the Protestant king of Navarre who converted to Catholicism so he could claim his throne after the assassination of Henry III by a monk, was himself assassinated in 1610 by François Ravaillac, a Catholic fanatic/nutjob who had seen in a vision that Henry’s preparation for war with Spain was really a war against the Pope.

Assassination of Henry IV, engraving by Gaspar BouttatsIn 1793 after the execution of King Louis XVI, French revolutionaries desecrated the royal tombs in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, decapitating them and dumping the bodies in mass graves. It was a symbolic extension of the guillotine going back through time to sever the connection between France and its monarchs, even the once-beloved ones like Henry IV, who had ended 30 years of religious civil war by reinstating the civil rights of Protestants and general freedom of conscience in the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

After the revolutionary upheaval, the head disappeared only to turn up at an auction in 1919 where an antiques dealer bought it for three francs. It’s been in private collections since then and was widely reputed to be the head of King Henry, but until now there was no proof, only rumor.

Led by Philippe Charlier, a forensic medical examiner at Poincaré University Hospital in Garches, France, a 19-person multidisciplinary team composed of forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, geneticists and even perfumers examined the head, using a variety of techniques to determine its identity. Unfortunately they were not able to compare its DNA to living descendants of the first Bourbon king because they couldn’t extract any uncontaminated mitochondrial DNA from the mummified head, but the physical evidence is extensive and so overwhelmingly points to Henry that we can say the head has been positively identified.

Details of the different facial characteristics: (A) mole, (B) pierced ear, (C) bone lesion from knife wound, (D) grey scalp deposit, (E) red moustache, (F) red hairsThe head displays a variety of distinguishing characteristics matching extant portraits and the medical history of the king. There’s an unevenly shaped mole above the right nostril and a pierced right ear. The piercing is quite large and the lobe has a patina developed from years of earring use, a fashion adopted by many men in the Valois court.

There’s a lesion in the upper left maxilla (aka the mustache bone or the top of the jaw) corresponding to a stab wound inflicted by would-be regicide Jean Châtel in 1594. There are red and white hairs on the head and face, but none on the pate. Henry had ginger tresses and goatee but was bald on the top of his head. He had horrible teeth according to contemporary witnesses, and so does the mummified head.

Radiocarbon dating returned a date range of between 1450 and 1650; Henry was assassinated in 1610. Gray deposits on the head matched three different moulds of the head, one done right after the king’s death before embalming, one on the mummified head in 1793 right after it was so rudely separated from its body, and the last done in the early 20th century by one of its owners. The head also mutely testifies to its removal from the body. Three postmortem cutting wounds at the base of the neck indicate deliberate decapitation.

Overlay of skull with a sculpture of Henry IVOverlays of the skull and sculptures of the king done near the end of his life match perfectly, as does a facial reconstruction. Also, the embalming method matched the very specific technique used at Henry’s request.

The autopsy report of King Henri IV, published in the complete works of the surgeon Guillemeau (1549-1613), showed that the brain was not examined. Such an examination was not systematically performed when the cause of death was known (which for Henri IV was two knife wounds made in the thorax by Ravaillac). Another practitioner, Pigray (1532-1613), was in charge of the embalming process, and he took into account the king’s wish to be embalmed “in the style of the Italians.” This form of embalming minimises the mutilating aspect of the embalming procedure by not opening the skull—the brain and all internal structures remain in the skull (no vault sawing, no evacuating trepanation, no ethmoidal perforation). Computed tomography of the head confirmed that no sign of skull base or vault trauma (except for the old maxilla lesion), sawing, or opening of the cerebral cavity was present.

A circumferential band of black pigment was seen on the skin at the base of the neck. Using Raman spectroscopy, it was identified as ivory black, a variety of amorphous carbon. This charcoal, obtained by anaerobic calcination of animal bones, corresponds to that deposited by the surgeon Pigray on the surface of the cadaver to absorb decomposition fluids and putrefactive gases; the precise upper limit of the cervical deposit may be explained by the head being protected by strips of cloth so that it was not blackened during the process.

Now that the head has been conclusively identified, it will be reburied at Saint-Denis in a ceremony next year. I wish I could be there. I’m sure it will be lovely and moving and Henry IV was totally my favorite king.

Reconstruction from the skull Henri IV

13 thoughts on “Head of France’s King Henry IV identified

  1. Interesting.

    Morbid as my tastes are, I still wouldn’t want a human skull or head in my possession. Give some respect to the dead, plz.

  2. Oh. Yay. “I have the KINGS head in my personal library! It’s a royal paperweight!”
    What happened to honor?

    1. At least the most recent owner had the decency to hand it over. He must have known he wouldn’t get it back no matter what the results, so in that sense at least there’s honor to be found among the centuries of degradation.

  3. If thats King Henry IV’s head then I’m a monkeys wristwatch. No DNA evidence indeed! And show me a friggen portrait that has him wearing an earring of any kind on either ears at any time!

    He may be a king to you but to me he be a Clever Man, a Karadji. Due to the size of the piercing in his ear, i am guessing he may have had a bone through it at some point, a fashion which I am certain was never adopted by men of the valois court. The blackened skin, the deliberate decapitation marks, the red and white ochre in his hair etc etc

    I reckon that head belongs in Australia to be buried with the Warrior it adorned – Bembilwyam.

    1. Your a pretty ignorant fool.

      Lets see all of your years behind a microscope that give your argument ANY merit if all.

      Did you not even read the article at all? Let me Repeat the facts that you CLEARLY missed.

      a 19-person multidisciplinary team composed of forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, geneticists and even perfumers examined the head

      NINETEEN PEOPLE. Who have gone to school, graduated and dedicate their ENTIRE lives to their work. Do you not know ANYTHING about anthropology?

      I will dumb it down for you because clearly you need it.

      “Radiocarbon dating returned a date range of between 1450 and 1650; Henry was assassinated in 1610″

      ( I’m almost positive that there were no ‘ warriors that wore ‘bones’ in their ears in 1610 and in all places Australia? where do you even GET this rediculous information)

      Many royal Kings wore earrings. Read a book. Learn some history….

      ” the embalming method matched the very specific technique used at Henry’s request”

      Henry SPECIFICALLY requested to be embalmed “in the style of the Italians.”

      Which Mnimises mutilation. Which dumbed down means they did not open the skull, they did not touch the brain, and left all internal structures intact.They left it ALONE. Which is NOT typically done in embalmings.

      Before you go making ignorant comments like this, you should probably stop talking for a while seeing as how you know absolutely nothing about anything especially anthropologically speaking.

      Read a book every once in a while. Fool… I don’t even understand why people like you are allowed to even speak out loud.

  4. Dear Livius,

    Thank you for posting so many great articles on your blog. I was especially fascinated by this particular one about Henri IV. In his portraits, the French king sometimes looked a little peculiar – the facial reconstruction, however, shows a good-looking man.
    Interesting details also about earring use. I recently saw a painting of Henri’s brother-in-law, Henri III, in which the latter sports a rather large earring. :yes:
    Some of your blog readers have commented that the forensic examination of Henri’s head shows little respect for the dead, but you stated that he will be officially reburied at St. Denis this year.
    I am currently working on a biography of Anna of Saxony (1544-77). She was said to be misshapen and rather unattractive. Because of her scandalous lifestyle, her family had her buried in an unmarked grave in Meissen Cathedral, near Dresden, Germany. I wish authorities would allow the exhumation of her body to shed light on her alleged disabilities.
    If you are interested, here is my blog on Anna:

    Best wishes from a fellow historian,

  5. Respect for the truths of science and the edification of historical knowledge trumps any “respect for the dead” — especially if forensic science is conducted respectfully.

  6. Well said, guid Heather. Ye thumped the “Monkey’s Wristwatch” ‘pon his napper and nailed his virtual lugs to the page.

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