King Richard I’s embalmed heart has turned to dust

Tomb of Richard I of England at Rouen Cathedral, France. Image by AYArtos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tomb of Richard I of England at Rouen Cathedral, France. Image by AYArtos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

PARIS (AP) – King Richard I, the 12th-century warrior whose bravery during the Third Crusade gained him the moniker Lionheart, ended up with a heart full of daisies, as well as myrtle, mint and frankincense.

Those were among the findings of a French study, announced Thursday, which analyzed the embalmed heart of the English king more than 810 years after he died.

The biomedical analysis also uncovered less flowery and spicy elements like creosote, mercury and perhaps lime in the heart, which has been in the western French city of Rouen since his death in 1199.

Despite the embalming ingredients, the heart turned to powder long ago, doubtless because the lead box cradling it wasn’t airtight. It’s so unsightly now that it’s kept from public view.

The study’s leader, Philippe Charlier, suggests the flowers and spices were to give the king the “odor of sanctity.” The study came out less than a month after a team of British archeologists uncovered the long-lost remains of 15th-century King Richard III – a relative but not a direct descendant of Richard I – under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Unlike that ignominious ending, Richard the Lionheart, leader of the Third Crusade, was ceremoniously laid to rest in three places.

His entrails were interred in the central French town of Chalus, where he died in a skirmish with a rebellious baron; his body reposes at the Fontevraud Abbey, beside his father Henry II and later his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine; and his heart, wrapped in linen, pickled for posterity and placed in a lead box, was sent on to the Cathedral of Rouen.

In 1838, the heart, already turned to powder, was rediscovered, transferred to a glass box and placed in Rouen’s Departmental Museum of Antiquities.

Charlier, a forensic medical examiner, and his 11-member team used the latest biomedical techniques to decipher the composition of The Lionheart’s heart, the most symbolic of human organs. Charlier claims it is the oldest embalmed heart ever studied and, belonging to a king, certainly the most prestigious.

The study was published in Scientific Reports, part of the Nature Publishing Group.

While the team used barely two grams of the brownish white powder that the heart had become, they found an array of flowers and spices used to embalm it, aimed at both conserving the heart and, Charlier theorizes, giving it a fragrant smell.

The aim of the study was essentially to figure out “how to embalm a heart in the 12th century,” Charlier said in a telephone interview.

The mix of spices and sweets also reflects what is known of the first embalmers in the West – they were cooks, the study says.

Charlier conceded that because the heart had turned to powder, likely because the lead box was not hermetically sealed, it was not possible to learn how the organ was opened to introduce the various elements, nor whether the stew of fillers was applied in powder or liquid form.

The presence of incense in the potpourri was the most striking because, Charlier said, it had not been found in previous embalmings, even in corpses dating from the Middle Ages.

Charlier speculates that the incense, among the gifts offered to the infant Jesus by the three kings and reportedly used on the outside of his body at death, was meant to give The Lionheart a direct line to God.

British historian Dan Jones, author of The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, said the French analysis of Richard I’s heart does not appear groundbreaking, “but it’s an interesting curiosity all the same … to see exactly what ingredients were used.”

Placing Richard l’s heart in a reliquary in Rouen, capital of the duchy of Normandy, “was obviously a powerful symbol,” Jones said. At the time of The Lionheart’s death, “Normandy was under threat from the kings of France … It was supposed to have propaganda value in keeping his memory alive and reminding the people of Normandy of their allegiance – i.e. to the kings of England, not of France.”

So what went into trying to preserve, and apparently perfume, the heart?

Microscopic analysis showed pollen grains from daisy, myrtle and mint. Also found were pine, oak, poplar, plantain and bellflower, likely airborne contaminants. Poplar and bellflower were blooming at the time of death, the study says. Molecular analysis turned up frankincense, the white matter in the powder.

There were large amounts of lead – said to be contamination from the box cradling the heart – and traces of copper and mercury, or quicksilver – commonly used at the time. There is also a suggestion that lime may have been used as a disinfectant.

How bodies were preserved back then “is a field of much speculation and, thus, such a study provides some decent evidence,” said Frank Ruhli, a professor at the University of Zurich’s Center for Evolutionary Medicine. However, he said in an email that the study has limited impact because of its focus on a single organ and on only one, if well-known, person.

The curator at the Rouen museum says the heart will remain hidden from public view. “Visually, it is not something very pretty to present,” said Caroline Dorion-Peyronnet. “It’s dust, it looks like nothing.”

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AP-WF-02-28-13 1719GMT


Tomb of Richard I of England at Rouen Cathedral, France. Image by AYArtos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tomb of Richard I of England at Rouen Cathedral, France. Image by AYArtos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.