Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Richard's Lionheart

Box that held Richard's heart. The inscription reads:
"Here is the heart of Richard, King of England." 
Once Richard the Lionheart died from a crossbow bolt that was removed by a clumsy surgeon, the debate over appropriate interment began. Like saints, "There's such divinity doth hedge a king" (to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare*) that the body is special, and many people for whom he was their lord would want his memorial to be in their territory. His body was sent to Fontevraud Abbey to be interred near the body of his father, King Henry II. (See the picture in the post linked to above.)

But that was just his body.

Supposedly, on his deathbed he told his mother that he wanted his heart to go to Rouen, where it was placed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Rouen was the base for English forces in France at the time. His other internal organs were removed and buried in Chalus, where he died.

Over time, the location of the heart and entrails were lost, but an excavation at Notre Dame in 1838 uncovered a lead box inscribed with "Here is the heart of Richard, King of England."

Technically, the "heart" doesn't exist: 800 years has reduced it to dust, but that dust contains clues to 12th century embalming techniques. A 2006 "autopsy" was performed to find out what it could about the heart. It found several components:

  • Human proteins associated with cardiac muscle
  • Fragments of linen (the heart was probably wrapped in it)
  • Some lead and tin (probably leached into the dust from the box)  and mercury (used during embalming)
  • Pollens: pine, oak, poplar, plantain, bellflower (in the air when he died, so probably incidental)
  • Myrtle, daisy, mint (not in bloom in spring, and probably used during embalming to give a nice aroma)
  • Frankincense (used for embalming and symbolically because of the Three Wise Men's gifts)
  • The remains as they look today, in a crystal container.
  • Calcium (probably from lime used to preserve the heart)

Of interest to historians is the elements found that can only be accounted for by attempts to embalm/preserve the heart. The Church frowned on embalming, because it was known to be a pagan practice.

The shoebox-sized reliquary, and the crystal box that contains the remains of the heart of Richard, now sit in the Museum of Natural History in Rouen.

*Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5, line 98

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