In the early evening of 25 March 1199, Richard the Lionheart – King of England, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Overlord of Brittany, one-time prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor, and crusading scourge of the Saracens in the Holy Land – was walking around the perimeter of a poorly-defended castle in central France.
He was laying siege to the relatively puny castle of Châlus-Chabrol. Confident that the occasional crossbow shot from the castle walls posed little threat, Richard inspected the castle walls without the protection of his chainmail. One of the defenders was causing him great amusement – a man standing on the walls, crossbow in one hand, the other clutching a frying pan which he had been using all day as a shield to beat off missiles.
While Richard’s attention was thus diverted, another lurking crossbowman took a pot shot at him and struck lucky, his bolt hitting the king in the left shoulder near the neck.
The wounded Richard went to his tent, where he tried, but failed, to pull the bolt out. A butchering surgeon eventually managed to remove it, but “carelessly mangled” the king’s arm in the process. The wound quickly became gangrenous.
When the castle shortly fell, the stricken Richard had the crossbowman brought before him. He turned out to be a boy. The boy claimed that Richard had killed his father and two brothers, so he had sworn to kill Richard in revenge. The boy expected to be swiftly executed, but Richard, as a last act of mercy, forgave him, saying, “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day,” before ordering the boy to be freed and sent away with 100 shillings.
The 42 year-old king lingered on until 6 April 1199, then died in his mother’s arms. The boy was rearrested, flayed alive and hanged.
According to the chronicles, Richard became “the Lion (that) by the Ant was slain”. As was the custom for medieval aristocrats, his body was dissected – the majority being buried at the foot of his father’s tomb at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. His entrails were buried in Châlus where he died, while his heart was buried in a small lead box in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen.
According to a 13th-century Bishop of Rochester, Richard spent 33 years in purgatory for his sins, then finally ascended to Heaven in March 1232. Meanwhile, his earthly remains mouldered to dust as the centuries passed. In 1838 an excavation of Notre Dame Cathedral uncovered the lead box, inscribed ‘Here is the heart of Richard, King of England‘, which by now had dissolved into a grey-brown powder.
Nearly 175 years later, this powder came into the possession of French scientist Dr Philippe Charlier, who specialises in solving historical riddles with hi-tech forensic techniques.
Dr Charlier and his team’s biochemical analysis of the powder found a variety of compounds, including traces of proteins found in the human heart muscle. They also found tiny fragments of the linen that the heart was wrapped in before being placed in the box. Some metal compounds, including lead and tin, likely seeped into the powder from the box, while the presence of mercury indicated it’s use as an embalming agent.
The team was unable to confirm Richard’s precise cause of death, but was able to rule out a widespread theory that the arrow which struck him was poisoned. Dr Charlier said: “Our toxicological analysis showed no presence of any arsenic or any other metals, so we haven’t found any proof of any contamination at the end of Richard the Lionheart’s life.”
Charlier’s team found pollen from a variety of plants, including poplar and bellflower, suggesting that the heart was placed in the box sometime between April and June, when these plants are in flower.
Their analysis also revealed other rare, high-quality ingredients used to preserve the heart, including myrtle, daisy, mint and possibly lime. Dr Charlier said: “The spices and vegetables used for the embalming process were directly inspired by the ones used for the embalming of Christ. For example, we found frankincense. 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.”
Dr Charlier’s findings were published yesterday in the journal Scientific Reports.