Sunday 19 December 2010

Discovery of King Henri's skull

At the height of the French Revolution, the royal tombs of France were desecrated, violated and their contents scattered to the four winds in an excess of urban unrest. In the square outside the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris, the skulls of the dead kings and queens were used as footballs or target practise by the revolutionary mob. Most were never recovered and to this day most of the magnificent restored tombs in Saint Denis are empty shells. 

Now, it seems that the skull belonging to the founding sovereign of the Bourbon dynasty, whose rule was overthrown in the Revolution of 1789 - 1792, has been discovered. King Henri IV, who ruled France from 1589 until 1610, unified the kingdoms of France and Navarre, as well as bringing about an end to the destructive Wars of Religion. He was (and to some extent still is) a popular monarch, whose assassination by a deranged religious fanatic in 1610 plunged the nation into mourning and political crisis. He was succeeded by his young son, Louis XIII, although practical power was held by his mother, Marie de Medici. 

The story of Henri IV's skull is a fascinating one. After being stolen during the ransacking of the cathedral, Henri's alleged skull somehow ended up in the possession of a Parisian tax collector, where it has remained since 1955. (Its exact whereabouts between 1789 and 1955 are still somewhat shady.) A team of nineteen scientists has, however, concluded beyond reasonable doubt that it is indeed the skull of King Henri IV and that the marks made by the dagger during the frenzied assassination can still be seen.

In a rather touching and appropriate gesture, the scientific team decided not to hand the monarch's head over to the current French government, but rather to entrust it to the King's closest living descendant - His Royal Highness Prince Louis de Bourbon, Duc d'Anjou (right). His Royal Highness described the moment as "very emotional" and stated that whilst he hoped to return the skull to its original resting place at the basilica of Saint Denis, where it can rest alongside the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, he is aware that as a claimant to the French throne he may not be able to persuade the current French republican government. The prince says that is profoundly aware of the "familial and moral" obligation he now has to find Henri IV a proper resting place. 

At the time of his assassination, King Henri IV was survived by both of his wives. His ex-wife, a glamorous and delightfully badly-behaved princess, known popularly as "La Reine Margot," and his current queen, an Italian aristocrat Marie de Medici. His legitimate children (all from his second marriage) included the new king, Louis XIII, who reigned from 1610 to 1643, his rebellious younger brother Gaston, and their three sisters - Elisabeth, Christine and Henrietta-Maria. The lovely Elisabeth became Queen of Spain through her marriage to King Philip IV, five years after her father's murder; the elegant but temperamental Christine married Vittore-Amadeo, Duke of Savoy and had five children and the youngest, Henrietta-Maria, married King Charles I of Britain and became the mother of two future British kings, Charles II and James II. 

For The Guardian's report on the hunt for Henri IV's skull, click here

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