Henri IV’s Head Found

Posted By claire on December 15, 2010

BBC News have today reported that scientists have identified an embalmed head in a private collection as being that of Henri IV of France, the Bourbon King who was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610.

Henri IV, also known as Henri le Grand, Le Bon Roi Henri, the Green Gallant and Henry of Navarre, reigned from 1589 to 1610 and was a popular king, known for ending the French Wars of Religon by coverting to Catholicism and re-enacting the Edict of Nantes which gave the Huguenots amnesty and civil rights. He was stabbed to death on 14th May 1610 in Paris, on the way to the Queen’s coronation ceremony, by François Ravaillac, a Catholic zealot. Ravaillac claimed that he had had a vision telling him to persuade the King to convert the Huguenots to Catholicism and he killed the King after hearing that Henri IV had decided to invade the Spanish Netherlands, a move which Ravaillac interpreted as war against the Pope. Henri was laid to rest in the Saint Denis Basilica in Paris, an abbey known as the “royal necropolis of France” because it was the traditional burial site of French monarchs from the 10th to the 18th century.

In 1793, revolutionaries ransacked the Royal Chapel at Saint Denis and it was at this point that Henri IV’s head went missing. A head thought to have been Henri’s has passed between private collectors since that date but it is only now that it has been confirmed that the head is that of Henri. In a report published by The British Medical Journal, scientists have explained how they used the very latest forensic techniques to compare the head’s features with those of Henri in his portraits and sculptures, as it was not possible to use DNA. Portraits showed that Henri IV had a facial scar, a lesion near his nose and a pierced right ear lobe, and so did the head. Philippe Charlier, the forensic patholigist in charge of the team, described the head as having light brown hair, an open mouth and partially closed eyes. He also commented that it was incredibly well preserved, so much so that all of the internal organs and soft tissues were “well conserved”.

Henri’s headwill be re-united with his body next year in a special Mass and funeral at the Saint Denis Basilica.

The full report by the forensic team can be read at the British Medical Journal website –click here. It’s a fascinating report because it has photos of the mummified head, details of Henri’s features shown in portraits and on a sculpture compared to those on the head, full details of the evidence and an explanation of how the head was preserved. An incredibly interesting read!

Notes and Sources


13 Responses to “Henri IV’s Head Found”

  1. Fiz says:

    That was fascinating, Claire (True crime being one of my other interests!) Poor Henri, he didn’t deserve to be cut down by Ravilliac.

  2. Claire says:

    It is very interesting isn’t it?!
    I know, poor man, he sounds like he was such a nice guy too!

  3. Anne Barnhill says:

    Oh dear, I am so glad his head will be reunited with his body. Strange he is well-preserved. A sad story.

  4. Sharon says:

    Fascinating article Claire. Thanks. You really have to wonder why someone would hold onto a head of a dead man for centuries. Where the heck do you keep an artifact like that?
    I’m not a French history fan, but I have always loved Henry Navarre.

  5. Kari says:

    How strange and interesting. Morbid curiosity compels me to ask: Do we know why his head was preserved in the first place?

  6. Lisa Davis says:

    I must agree with Kari and wonder why would anyone bother to keep a head? But then again I can’t imagine wanting to open a coffin at all.

  7. Kelly says:

    Now that is some interesting stuff, i have read a lot about french royals and Henry was unique man, he changed his religion three times, under presure ofcourse, he was married to the daughter of Catherina D’medici from the valois dynasty and after his wedding the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began in Paris and several thousand Protestants who had come to Paris for Henry’s wedding were killed, as well as thousands more throughout the country in the days that followed. Henry narrowly escaped death thanks to the help of his wife. He was made to live at the court of France, but escaped in early 1576, on 5 February of that year, he abjured Catholicism at Tours and rejoined the Protestant forces in the military conflict. Really awesome that his head turns up right now. Especially after what the crowd did to the tombs during the French Revolution.. Thnks for sharing Clare, wunder if we could take a look when they reunite his head with his body, i think that something as unique as this, should get some press attention..

    Wow, can not believe it! Thnks
    From the Netherlands

  8. Jennifer says:

    That’s really amazing how they were able to match things up like that!!! I’m glad that they are reuniting his head with his body. Poor guy. I’m with Sharon on where you would keep something like that?!?! “Don’t mind the severed head on the book shelf…It’s just Henry of Navarre!” WHAT?!?! If I knew someone was keeping something like that, I would have thought they were crazy!! 🙂 Definitely good to hear that he was taken care of though!!!

  9. Lexy says:

    Kari, it was custom to embal king’s bodys, especially hearts, as a proof of respect.
    Claire, he was indeed a nice guyn trying to bring peace and tolerance in a torn country. He was so much loved that when French people rampaged king’s graves, only a few destroyed his, the majority still respected him.

  10. Eliza M.L. says:

    I remember reading somewhere that he wasn’t laid to rest with a head. It’s so good to know that they’ve found the rest of him and can make him whole again…although I agree with the others: Who keeps severed heads just lying around the house?

  11. Impish_Impulse says:

    I remember this show for famous people tracking their genealogy, and Brooke Shields is a direct descendant of Henri IV. She was shown his heart in a little box or urn and she reached up and rubbed it, much to the official’s dismay; although he quickly decided that if anyone was entitled to touch the container with his heart, it would be one of his descendants.

  12. Lauren says:

    LOL doesn’t everyone have heads laying around! Talk about a ‘conversation starter’! How does one come to acquire such an antique as it were? I guess it must’ve been on the up and up if the authorities knew where it was. Thanks for such an interesting article Claire!

  13. Matterhorn says:

    Fascinating article, it’s amazing how much scientists can reconstruct these days.

    This is rather off topic, but here is a post, surprisingly related to Henri IV:


Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.