DNA analysis links blood of Louis XVI, beheaded in French Revolution, and mummified head of his ancestor Henri IV

DNA analysis links blood of Louis XVI, beheaded in French Revolution, and mummified head of his ancestor Henri IV

A ‘souvenir’ handkerchief, claimed to have been dipped in the blood of King Louis XVI, guillotined in Paris in January 1793, has been authenticated by a genetic link to the mummified head of his ancestor, King Henri IV.

The handkerchief was contained in an ornate calabash gourd, decorated with the portraits of revolutionary figures and the text: “On January 21, Maximilien Bourdaloue dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation.”  The gourd has been in the possession of an Italian family for over a century and historians have been trying for years to verify its claim.

Louis XVI
Louis XVI

Genetic analysis of blood traces found inside the gourd in 2010 revealed “a likely match for someone of Louis’ description”, including his blue eyes, but to prove his identity with any certainty a matching DNA sample was required from someone else in his royal lineage.  That came in the form of a mummified head, believed to belong to Louis’ 5 x great-grandfather, King Henri IV.

Henry IV was assassinated in Paris in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic, who stabbed him to death while his coach was ‘stuck in traffic’ due to the crowds gathered for his queen’s coronation.  The head of Henri’s embalmed body was taken in 1793 when his grave was desecrated with the same revolutionary fervour which dispatched his descendant Louis XVI and his queen Marie-Antoinette at the guillotine.  The head was passed down among private collectors over the years, until a French journalist tracked it down in 2010.

Henry IV and his mummified head
Henry IV and his mummified head

A team led by famed forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier, who originally analysed the head in 2010, found that it shared a genetic signature with the blood sample.  The two men, separated by 7 generations, were almost certainly related.

Charlier told Agence France-Presse: “This study shows that they share a genetic heritage passed on through the paternal line.  They have a direct link to one another through their fathers.”

Charlier’s co-author, Carles Lalueza Fox, said: “It is about 250 times more likely that the (owners of the) head and the blood are paternally related, than unrelated.”

The discovery is the latest in a string of historical riddles solved by the hi-tech forensic analysis of Philippe Charlier, who the French media call the ‘Indiana Jones of the Graveyards.’ Among his more notable coups, he has determined that:

-  Napoleon Bonaparte was not, contrary to popular belief, poisoned to death by his English captors in 1821.

Agnes Sorel
Agnes Sorel

-  Agnes Sorel, ‘official mistress’ of King Charles VII of France, died of mercury poisoning at the age of 28 in 1450.  Charlier used 3-D imaging of her preserved skull to bring to life her face, famed for its beauty.

-  Vatican-authenticated bone fragments said to have come from Joan of Arc, burned at the stake by the English in 1431, were in fact from a cat and an Egyptian mummy dating to between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC.

-  A mummified heart came from the uncrowned 10 year-old king Louis XVII, who died in prison in 1795.

-  The 66 year-old Diane de Poitiers, mistress of (the 20 years younger) King Henri II of France, poisoned herself in 1566 by drinking an elixir of gold in an apparent desperate bid to keep her youth.

Charlier is currently working on chemical analysis of the decomposed heart of Richard the Lionheart, who ruled England from 1189 to his death in 1199, apparently from blood poisoning after he was shot with an arrow while besieging a French castle.

Philippe Charlier – image by Caroline Delmotte, for the New York Times

Source: Veronique Martinache, Agence France-Presse

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