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30 May 2023

Lionheart's heart smelled sweet for heaven

By Reuters

The heart of the Lionheart was embalmed with daisy, myrtle, mint and frankincense, kept sweet-smelling in saintly fashion in hope of speeding King Richard of England's ascent to heaven.

French scientists have analysed the organ, kept at Rouen Cathedral since the death of Richard I, known as The Lionheart; they found it was wrapped in linen, treated with mercury, herbs and reverence, and that it held pollen confirming records of his death from a war wound in the spring of 1199, in central France.

What Philippe Charlier, who published his paper on Thursday, did not find in the dirty powder that is all that is left of the heart was any trace of toxin - blunting tales that the Crusader king was hit by a poisoned crossbow bolt. Mediaeval dirt and an infected wound most likely caused his lingering death, aged 41.

For the English, fresh from rediscovering the remains of the Lionheart's 15th-century descendant, namesake and Shakespearian villain Richard III under a municipal car park, the findings of Charlier's team may revive memories of a monarch who lives on in popular culture as the absent but "good King Richard" in the tales of Robin Hood.

For the French, whom Richard was fighting when he died, his reputation as a ruthless warrior, against Muslims in the Holy Land but also in Europe, may explain the care taken to preserve the king's heart in a costly manner bound up in the mediaeval mind with the embalming of Jesus after the crucifixion.

"He had been rather criticised during the Crusade when he had been particularly cruel," Charlier, a youthful television celebrity in France, told a news conference at Versailles.

"People started to talk when he died, so very special care had to be given to his body and especially to his heart, with herbs and spices which were not chosen by accident.

"We know from historical sources that those herbs and spices were used to make the time Richard the Lionheart would spend in purgatory shorter and give him a kind of odour of sanctity.

"So this study is almost a scientific study of an artificial odour of sanctity, a man-made one," added Charlier, dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the graveyards" by French media for his high-profile analyses of relics and royal remains in recent years.

No Doubt

Unlike some such discoveries, notably genetic testing of the bones found to belong to Richard III or Charlier's analysis of a head which he concluded was that of Henri IV, France's great Renaissance king, no research was conducted at Rouen to determine whether the heart was indeed that of Richard I.

The organ was first rediscovered during work at the cathedral in the 19th century, in a lead casket dated to the 12th or 13th centuries bearing the inscription in Latin: "hic iacet cor ricardi regis anglorum" - Here lies the heart of Richard, king of the English. Its provenance was not in doubt, Charlier said, noting a prevalent practice at the time of dividing up royal remains for burial in different sites.

Among his previous work, Charlier, 35, has found that relics of Joan of Arc actually came from an Egyptian mummy and verified dried blood on a handkerchief was from the guillotined Louis XVI by DNA testing to link it to other royal remains.

In their paper in "Scientific Reports", Charlier of University Hospital Raymond Poincare and his team wrote that they found traces of linen, myrtle, daisy, mint, frankincense, creosote, mercury and possibly lime.

They had no clearly identifiable human tissue but said the embalmers themselves were not necessarily to blame - the rot may have been due to decay in the lead box and to damp getting in.

Whether they were successful in accelerating the process by which Richard entered paradise is a matter of pure speculation.

Charlier, whose Twitter account describes his "patients" as "you (soon), ... Henri IV, Richard the Lionheart, Louis XVI etc", noted in the paper that a 13th-century bishop had ruled: "Richard the Lionheart spent 33 years in Purgatory as expiation for his sins, and ascended to Heaven only in March 1232."