HistoryofScience.com Blog

Friday, December 17, 2010

Who Owned the Head of France's King Henry IV?



I have heard of collecting many things, from the ordinary such as swizzle sticks, to the sublime, such as Rembrandts. I even know one antiquarian bookseller who collects shrunken heads, but until recently I had never heard of owning the head of a deceased monarch.

It seems, however, that ever since the French Revolution a series of French private collectors owned the head of King Henri IV who was assassinated in 1610 at the age of 57. After his death, the king's body was embalmed and he was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis near Paris, but during the madness of the French Revolution in 1793 royal graves were dug up, remains mutilated, and mixed together in mass graves.

During the disinterment revolutionaries chopped off Henri's IV's head, which was stolen. The embalmed head then disappeared into unknown private collections until it resurfaced in 1919 when an antiques dealer bought it at auction for three francs. It then disappeared once again into secretive private collections until 2010, the 400th anniversary of Henri IV's death. This year the embalmed head with its internal organs intact, was subjected to a great deal of scientific examination using a combination of anthropological, paleopathological, radiological, forensic, and genetic techniques. Results were published in the British Medical Journal on December 14, 2010 in a paper entitled "Multidisciplinary medical identification of a French king's head (Henri IV)." Authenticity of the head having been confirmed, it will be reinterred in the Basilica of Saint Denis next year after a national mass and funeral.

But who deserves the credit for having preserved Henri IV's head over the centuries? It seems that collectors of relics like this don't want publicity, perhaps for good reason. None of the articles published on this bizarre case that I have seen mention the names of any of the collectors who owned the head.

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 6:39 PM   13 Comments

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