DNA tests bring fate of France’s Henri IV to head

Head riddle: The mummified remains could still be Henri's. Picture: AP
Head riddle: The mummified remains could still be Henri's. Picture: AP
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A MUMMIFIED head thought to belong to French king Henri IV now appears to be nothing of the sort.

Three years ago, researchers declared they had found the head of the popular monarch who reigned from 1589 to 1610 and was credited with bringing religious peace to France and building Parisian landmarks such as the Pont Neuf.

But now DNA tests have found samples from the head do not match cells from three living relatives of the 17th century king, the first of the Bourbon line, known as Henri-Quatre, and grandfather of the Sun King Louis XIV.

It’s “impossible” the head belongs to Henri IV, said Jean-Jacques Cassiman, an emeritus professor at the University of Leuven, one of the authors of the new study published yesterday in the European Journal of Human Genetics.

The same study also found a blood sample attributed to King Louis XVI lacked any royal ties. Louis XVI died on the guillotine during the 1789 revolution and many spectators reportedly soaked their handkerchiefs in his blood. But Prof Cassiman found the lingering traces of powdered blood on the handkerchief they tested did not match the Bourbon DNA.

The professor said he wasn’t sure who the head or the blood belonged to. The DNA from both failed to match other royal families on record.

Amid the frenzy of the French revolution, the royal tombs at Saint Denis near Paris were dug up and some accounts claim Henri IV’s head got chopped off and stolen. Prof Cassiman and his co-authors dispute that Henri (born: 13 December, 1553; died: 14 May, 1610) was decapitated and believe the king is still buried in Saint Denis after the tombs were re-sealed in 1817.

“That is impossible to verify,” commented Michael Rowe, a lecturer in European history at King’s College London. He said Henri’s reputation might have saved his grave from desecration. “If the revolutionaries were going to spare any of the kings, it would have been Henri.”

Philippe Charlier, author of the 2010 study that identified the head as Henri IV, dismissed the new research. He said he and colleagues have found an exact match between a three-dimensional comparison of the ancient head and Henri IV’s death mask. He said the work will be published in a forensic journal.

Mr Charlier added there were doubts about the paternity of various kings, which might explain why there was no DNA link to the modern-day royals.