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A Forensic Analysis of Richard the Lionheart’s Heart

Richard the Lionheart was buried without his heart, and a modern forensic analysis just unveiled how it was preserved

A statue of Richard the Lionheart in London. Photo: Lawrence OP

Richard the Lionheart, the 12th century king of England, was buried without his heart. The king who led the third Crusades, died from wounds sustained in battle when an arrow pierced his shoulder, but before his body was put to rest, his heart was cut out, preserved, and sent to a cathedral in Rouen, Normandy, where his troops were based. The heart remained there for centuries, until, Nature says:

During an excavation of the cathedral in 1838, local historian Achille Deville found the remains of the heart inside a lead reliquary roughly the size of a shoebox, now kept at the Museum of Natural History in Rouen. A Latin inscription on the lid proclaims: “Here is the heart of Richard, King of England”.

Now, forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier has ran  a piece of the Lionheart’s heart through “a battery of tests”—the first time anyone’s done a forensic analysis on the remains of the organ. Nature:

Scanning electron microscopy identified pollen grains from myrtle, mint and other known embalming plants, as well as poplar and bellflower, which were in bloom when the king died.

Elemental analysis turned up high concentrations of calcium, suggesting that lime may have been used as a preservative. Mass spectrometry identified organic molecules characteristic of creosote and frankincense, both used for preserving tissue.

The scientists also found bacteria, although none could be related to Richard’s cause of death.

Identifying the tools and techniques of ancient embalming is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as what the finding implies. Nature again:

“It proves that embalming of Christians did happen,” says Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York, UK, who has conducted forensic analyses of Egyptian mummies. “The Church has tried to downplay the use of embalming in religious leaders and royalty” in the past because of the pagan origins of the practice, he adds. But mediaeval texts show that many elite members of society could have expected similar treatment.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Scientists Think They’ve Found Richard III’s Body Under a Parking Lot

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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