King Of Hearts: Richard The Lionheart's Organ Analyzed In Detail
March 1, 2013

King Of Hearts: Richard The Lionheart’s Organ Analyzed In Detail

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

When King Richard I of England died in 1199 his heart was embalmed separately of his body, wrapped in linen and buried in a small lead box. The man who was more famously known as Richard the Lionheart because of his courageousness as a military leader spent most of his Kinghood in France at battle. In fact it was in battle when he was struck down by a crossbow during a castle siege, later dying from his injury.

After his death, as was a customary practice of aristocracy during the Middle Ages, Lionheart´s entrails were removed and buried in Chalus, his body was entombed in Frontevraud Abbey, and his heart was embalmed and buried in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen, France. The box containing then-leader of the Third Crusade´s heart was rediscovered in 1838 during an excavation.

Now, 175 years later, the remains of the heart have been analyzed in greater detail by Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist from Raymond Poincare University Hospital in France, and his colleagues. The heart, which is now a grayish-brown powder, was too poor to reveal an actual cause of death, but Charlier and colleagues did rule out one theory that a poisoned arrow was the reason for Lionheart´s demise.

While the team could not pinpoint an actual cause of death, most historians believe he succumbed to gangrene or septicemia from a wound in battle. However, through biological analysis, Charlier and his team were able to find out more about the methods used to preserve the organ. The results of their work have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"We carried out exactly the same kind of analysis that we would perform on an exhumed body for forensic purposes,” Charlier said in an interview with the BBC. "We did a microscopic examination, toxicological analysis and also a pollen analysis."


"I'm a historian of medicine," Charlier said, but noted that his main aim is to develop autopsy techniques. He said he devotes his studies to analyzing historical cadavers because it´s more “complex and interesting” than analysis of modern ones donated to science.

Charlier, who in France has become to be known as the “Indiana Jones of the graveyards,” is somewhat of a celebrity because of his work. He said in a New York Times interview that he got interested in historical autopsy after taking part in an archeological excavation as a child. Over the last several years, he has been at the forefront of the studies of some of the most famous people throughout European history.

He has analyzed such greats as Henri IV, Louis XVII and Charles III. He has also studied the remains of Diane de Poitiers, a favorite mistress of Henri II.

Charlier, who is now 34, also led a 2007 study that determined that bone fragments previously accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as those of Joan of Arc, were in fact forgeries, taken from a cat and an ancient Egyptian mummy.


Now Charlier has focused his attention on Richard the Lionheart; or more appropriately, his actual heart. Through further analysis, Charlier and his associates found that the organ was embalmed with myrtle, daisy, mint and frankincense.

Charlier took two grams of the remains for sampling. He used microscopic, toxicology and pollen analysis to determine the method of embalming. Historians believe the herbs used were of biblical significance, allowing Richard I to move from purgatory to heaven.

But why was he condemned to purgatory in the first place? Some of the ruler´s contemporaries, namely the bishop of Rochester, were concerned about his violent anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic views and declared he would spend 33 years in purgatory for his sins.

It is believed that Richard I died at the age of 42 due to an infection he received from a crossbow injury. Charlier was looking specifically for what germ may have killed the great 12th-century leader. But it would prove difficult because he was not allowed to conduct a DNA analysis of the heart — mainly to discourage an onslaught of requests from Britons who have long sought to connect themselves genetically to the courageous King.

While DNA analysis was out, the team was able to debunk the theory that Richard I was killed by a poisonous arrow.

"Our toxicological analysis showed no presence of any arsenic or any other metals, so we haven't found any proof of any contamination during the end of Richard the Lionheart's life," explained Charlier. “We have no confirmation that he would have been poisoned: there is no argument for this."

Other herbs found in the embalming process, such as poplar and bellflower, suggest that he died in the spring, sometime between the end of April and the beginning of June, as these flowers are in bloom around that time. History books place the date of his death as April 6, 1199.


Charlier also believed some of the other spices and vegetables found in the remains have biblical ties as well, providing an insight into medieval rituals. Some of these herbs “used for the embalming process were directly inspired by the ones used for the embalming of Christ.”

Although, he noted, the use of frankincense in the embalming ritual is unusual because it is the only case his team has ever found like this. But at the same time, it also makes sense. “This product is really devoted to very, very important persons in history,” Charlier explained to the BBC.

The fragrant blooms also may have been used to give the King an “odor of sanctity,” offering up another biblical tie, being “similar to Christ,” he said.

The team also found traces of mercury, which would have been used to stop the heart from decomposing.

Charlier explained that the team used up as little of the heart sample remains as possible to conserve them for future generations of science. He acknowledged that these are “not only samples, they are also human remains and we have to respect them."

The research has gained interest in the scientific community.

"That consciousness of using very high-quality herbs and spices and other materials that are much sought after and rare does add to that sense of it being Christ-like in its quality," Mark Ormrod, professor in history from the University of York, said in a BBC interview with Rebecca Morelle.

"Medieval kings were thought to represent the divine on Earth - they were set apart form other lay people and regarded as special and different. So that treatment of the heart strikes me as being absolutely credible (sic)," said Ormrod.

He added that this was a rare treat, getting a forensic look into the ancient past of medieval kings through their remains.


This work coincides with another recent analysis of the remains of an English King from the 15th-century that were found last September buried under a car park in Leicester, England.

In that study, led by scientists from the University of Leicester, DNA testing proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains were that of King Richard III, who died in 1485 at the age of 32. The carbon data testing showed that the remains did belong to a man in his late 20s or early 30s and was dated back to between 1455 and 1540.

Charlier also recently analyzed the cadaver of a 13th-century figure. He said the cadaver´s veins had been filled with a mixture of beeswax and mercury, which preserved the body rather well. “Also it was smoked, like salmon or like pork," he added.

He said that surprisingly, even after 800 years, the cadaver still smelled pretty good. A paper on that study will be published in the journal Archives of Medical Science.

Of all his work and studies, Charlier told the New York Times that he still hasn´t achieved his dream, which is to gain access to the mass grave of the remains of France´s royals, which had been taken from their tombs in the basement of the St. Denis basilica and preserved in a single vault, sealed shut since 1817.

“I have petitioned the French state for help,” he said. “We could learn so much about them, how they lived, became ill, died. And their bones deserve to go home.”