The Second Life of Henri IV’s Severed Head

Whether it’s lying in the grave or sitting in a Paris bank vault, the monarch’s cranium has been the subject of much debate since his untimely demise

Henri IV depicted as Hercules vanquishing a hydra. All in a day's work. Wikimedia Commons

In life, the French monarch was probably best-known for signing the Edict of Nantes in 1598. In death, he was best-known for what happened to his head.

The Edict was a proclamation intended to impose peace between Protestants and Catholics in France after years of bloody war. It granted French Protestants the same rights as citizens as members of the state religion and helped to earn Henry IV the title of "le bon roi," or "the good king."

But not everybody liked this new policy of religious tolerance. "Le bon roi" was assassinated on this day in 1610 by a Catholic extremist, and he was buried in the royal chapel at Saint-Denis. There he rested until the French Revolution, when an angry mob ransacked the chapel. The mob pulled Henri and other buried kings from their tombs and tossed their remains into a pit.

A severed head, supposedly that of Henri IV’s, was saved from the wreckage. Moving from private collection to private collection, it made its way down through the years as a curiosity—that is, until the man known as the “Indiana Jones of the graveyards” came along.

Philippe Charlier is a medical doctor and anthropologist who has made a name for himself by identifying the remains of long-dead French (and occasionally non-French) historical figures using, in part, modern autopsy techniques. According to Elaine Sciolino for The New York Times, Charlier and his colleagues, who range from perfume-makers to forensics experts, have worked on the alleged remains of Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionheart and Diane de Poitiers, among many others. But a prominent French king was a big find, even for Charlier. That is, if it's Henri IV's head.

“It is unclear exactly when Henri's head was separated from the rest of his corpse,” writes Kim Willsher for The Guardian, “but when the public grave was opened in 1817, it was missing. A head said to be his came to light in 1919, when Joseph Emile Bourdais, a photographer, bought it at auction for three francs.”

Although Bourdais insisted the head belonged to Henri, he never succeeded in convincing others, Willsher writes. “Then in 2008 a head was found in the attic of a house” belonging to an old man who claimed to have bought it in 1953, and claimed it belonged to the king, writes Willsher.

So Charlier’s team got to work, publishing their findings in December 2010. Using computers, they recreated Henry’s face from the skull, writes Sciolino, comparing it with portraits from his life and his death mask. “They identified a small mole over his right nostril and a healed facial stab wound and matched the remnants of hair and beard to those of portraits,” she writes. Adding to this, they pinpointed the age of the skull and focused on the unusual embalming method used during the king’s autopsy.

It was King Henry IV, the study concluded, “positively identified according to the most rigorous arguments of any forensic examination.” After the examination, according to Sciolino, the head was given to a descendant named Louis de Bourbon, who put it into a Paris bank vault for safekeeping.

But later genetic testing conducted by another group of scientists indicated that the remains didn’t belong to a member of the House of Bourbon—one of the study’s authors said it was "impossible" that the head Charlier and his colleagues had worked on belonged to Henri IV, and said that the king is probably still lying in his grave, whole and undecapitated. Charlier argued, though, that royal paternity is so mixed up anyway that a lack of a DNA match doesn't mean it's not the king.

Who is right? At this remove, it’s hard to say, writes Maria Cheng for Historian Michael Rowe told her there wasn't good evidence one way or the other whether Henri was separated from his head. But his reputation may have saved him.

In his words: "If the revolutionaries were going to spare any of the kings, it would have been Henri IV."

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