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02/28/2013

How Richard the Lionheart's heart was embalmed: study

Heart

Philippe Charlier, a forensic medical examiner, addresses reporters during a news conference held near Versailles, Thursday. King Richard I, the 12th century warrior whose bravery gained him the moniker Lionheart, ended up with a heart full of daisies, as well as myrtle, mint and frankincense. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

In July 1838, a historian in northern France discovered a small, sealed, leaden box. It was found during excavacations of the ancient Rouen cathedral in Normandy, and it was engraved with an inscription:

HIC IACET COR RICARDI REGIS ANGLORUM

Translated from Latin, the message reads "here lies the heart of Richard, King of England."  Historians determined that it was the partial remains of Richard I, "Richard the Lionheart," who had died in battle in 1199 during the Crusades. 

Today, French researchers revealed exactly how the medieval king's heart was embalmed, shedding light on early embalming practices during a period for which there are no known written texts on the subject.

By examining the whitish-brown powder within the box, the team found fragments of linen, suggesting that is how the heart was wrapped. And using electron microscopes they found pollen grains: myrtle, daisy, mint, pine, oak, poplar, plantain, and bell-flower.

Poplar and bellflower were blooming when Richard died, so probably contaminated the sample. But the other plant matter -- particularly frankincense, an important biblical substance -- was almost certainly added during the embalming process to give the king "the odour of sanctity." 

The researchers also detected mercury and creosote, both probably used to conserve tissue for as long as possible during the 470 kilometre journey from Chalus, where Richard was killed, to Rouen. 

Richard, nicknamed Lionheart because of his courage on the battlefield, was hit in the shoulder by a crossbow shot while he was fighting without using any chainmail, as the paper recounts.

At the time it was typical for bodies of nobles to be taken apart and buried in different areas:  Richard's organs and abdomen were put in a coffin in Chalus where he died, his heart went to Rouen, and the rest of his body was buried at Fontevraud Abbey near his father, King Henry II. 

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

 

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