The heart of the kings of France: “cordial immortality”

C. Régnier, France

Christian RÉGNIER, MD
Practicien Attaché des Hôpitaux de Paris, Société Internationale d’Histoire de la Médecine, 9 rue Bachaumont
75002 Paris, FRANCE (e-mail:

Commencing in the 13th century, the very catholic French sovereigns had their hearts, bowels, and internal organs (including the brain) separated from the rest of the body at death. A ritual ceremony was set up to glorify the royal organ, which was a symbol of political power and the people’s religious fervor. For all that separation, the body, the bowels, the internal organs, and the heart were interred in the same tomb. The ritual of separating the heart at death reached its peak in the 17th century: luxurious cardiotaphs (heart tombs) were created, funeral orations, and the appearance of grand ceremonies for heart burials, with specific testaments to the organ. In the debate opposing soul and body, the magnificence of the heart tombs contrasted greatly with the modesty of the funeral plaques covering the royal remains. Practiced not only by the kings of France, blood princes, and the French high nobility, separate heart-burial was also the custom for Polish, Scottish, and Austro-Hungarian nobility, as well as civil dignitaries and prelates of the Catholic Church. From the death of Hugues Capet in 997, the bodies of the kings of France (except three) were buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, but the hearts were meted out to different destinations according to the deceased sovereign’s will. Many were placed in the Church of the Annunciation in Paris. Spreading the royal hearts throughout the territory was a way for the French monarchy to make their political mark on the entire land.

Medicographia. 2009;31:430-439 (see French abstract on page 439)

The heart, mentioned 85 times in the Bible (figuratively), is for Christians a symbol of immortality, purity, suffering, and love. The sixth wound of Christ, interpreted as the impiety of man, injures the heart. In the Christian Occident, “cardiac cults” were established in the 13th century, such as that of Mary’s Immaculate Heart and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Placing the soul in the heart, the Christian Occident symbolically assimilated the organ with immortality and with communication between men.1-3

In the context of « cordial » or “heart-related” religious fervor, it is not surprising that the kings of France, monarchs by divine right, attached particular importance to the preservation of their royal hearts. Extracted from the rest of the body, the heart often traveled to destinations (and fates) that differed from the corpse. This practice of separating the heart (and entrails) was vested with strong political and religious symbolism: the King gave his heart to France and offered his soul, his valor, and his purity to the devotion of the people. Symbolizing love and courage, the royal heart represented the self-sacrifice of the nobility. While the Age of Enlightenment hunted down the last remaining vestiges of religious obscurantism in the 18th century, the ceremony of separating the royal hearts grew on a considerable scale.3-5

The ritual heart burial of the kings of France was a rather “coded” affair and always took place at night under cover of darkness. The heart was put into a reliquary, set upon a black taffeta–covered cushion, and then placed on the lap of the king’s confessor. The relic was thus transported in a funeral procession comprised of a black funeral coach drawn by six horses, escorted by twelve torch-bearing riders.4,6

The postmortem fate of the body of Francis II

Born in Fontainebleau on January 20, 1544, Francis II was the eldest son of Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) and King Henry II (1519-1559). In 1557, aged 13, the young prince married Mary Stuart (1542-1587), the very Catholic Queen Mary I of Scotland whose beauty, refinement, and tragic destiny has inspired many writers. Francis II succeeded to the throne of France upon the death of his father in 1559, yet reigned a mere 17 months, mainly under the influence of his wife’s uncles (François and Charles de Guise).

Of fragile health, Francis II succumbed at the age of 16 to what was presumed to be meningitis following a chronic middle- ear infection. In his World History From 1550 Until 1601 (Histoire universelle depuis 1550 jusqu’en 1601), the Calvinist writer Agrippa d’Aubigné (1552-1630 ) wrote: “The son of Catherine de Medici was one of those whom we call “malnez,” unable to purge by the nose, or by the mouth, which he held open to get air, upon whose ear an abscess formed.” Régnier de la Planche, historian of Francis II, recounted that the young prince spoke with a nasal voice and had a certain degree of deafness. A portrait in enamel made by Léonard Limosin in 1553, preserved at the Louvre museum, depicts a child with a swollen and pale face, a wide mouth, and a pug nose. Particularly inspired by the image, the doctor Augustine Cabanès (1862-1928), an avid lover of the medical-historical footnotes of history, gave the following icono-diagnostic: “difficulty getting rid of accumulated mucus by nose and mouth, nasal voice, middle-ear inflammation, hardness of hearing, these signs are not themselves a grouping we consider characteristic of the presence of adenoid vegetations in the nasal pharynx, and how not to recognise the adenoidal features there?” Cabanès took up the thesis of Doctor Potiquet, author of an 1893 work dedicated to the “Death of Francis II” (Mort de François II), and the doctor who concluded the relation between adenoid vegetations and otitis media. Other more or less well-supported diagnoses were put forth, such as nasal polyposis, tuberculous osteitis, or syphilis (like his grandfather Francis I!).4,7,8

Reliquary from the end of the 18th century representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary’s Immaculate Heart.
© MuCEM, Dist RMN/Virginie Louis/Anne Maigret.

On November 15, 1560, the young king fainted in the Church of Saint-Aignan in Orleans and was subsequently transported to the residence of Jérôme Groslot, town bailiff. Complaining of violent pains in his left ear, the king also had a high fever and a facial rash. The presence of the great surgeon, Ambroise Paré, during those painful days is uncertain; a vesicatory would have been applied behind the king’s ear as the usual treatment.

Would Catherine de Medici and Mary Stuart have been opposed to the trepanation of the king? On December 5th, Francis II, “this king without vice and virtue,” died. An inevitable rumor of poisoning surfaced, accusing the Huguenots, notably Prince Louis de Condé who was ousted from power by the Guises and condemned to death. Rumors surmised that the Protestants could have used a servant to poison the king’s nightcap or that Ambroise Paré could have put poison into the affected ear! Catherine de Medici was also suspected of wanting to get rid of her elder sons in order to exercise power alone. Though Francis II had not yet been buried, his brother, Charles IX (1550-1574), aged 10, was immediately enthroned. The haste was intended as a way of preventing the prominent men of the kingdom from stirring up trouble. No official ceremony was organized for the young king’s funeral.7,8

Portrait of Francis II (1544-1560) as Dauphin of France, by Leonard Limosin. Oil on enamel (circa 1560). The Louvre, Paris, France. © Bridgeman Art Library.

Cathedral of Sainte Croix in the center of Orleans, France.
The building was reconstructed in the Gothic style in the 17th century; the façade is by Jacques Gabriel. © Richard List/CORBIS.

Funerary spirit seated reading a biblical text, forming part of the elegant monument created for the heart of King Francis II. © RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

In keeping with the tradition held by the kings of France since the Middle Ages, the heart was separated from the body at death and embalmed apart. The remains of Francis II were brought to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, while his heart was taken from the Chambre Ardente of the Hôtel Groslot to the Saint-Croix Cathedral of Orleans. The transfer ceremony for his heart took place in complete anonymity on December 6th, with neither members of the royal family nor dignitaries of the Kingdom or Church in attendance. Only three people accompanied the young king’s heart to its resting place: Sansac and Labrosse, the child’s tutors, and Louis Guillard, the Bishop of Senlis.

At the Cathedral of Orleans, where fragments of the cross and nails from the Passion of Christ are preserved, the heart was placed in front of the main altar. The elegant monument for the heart of Francis II was created by Fremyn Roussel and Jean Le Roux (aka Picard) and is comprised of a white marble column interspersed with flames and decorated with three funerary spirits. Two of these spirits are represented standing, extinguishing the flames of discord (etymologically, the disharmony or poor understanding of hearts!), while the third is depicted as seated reading a biblical text. At the top of the column, an urn of gilded bronze, crowned by the figure of a child’s face, was made to preserve the precious heart. The monument to Francis II is now found in the Basilica of Saint-Denis near the column of his third brother, Henry III, who was assassinated in Saint-Cloud in 1589. In 1562, the civil unrest that had been smoldering finally burst into the flames of civil war. The cities of the Loire fell into the hands of the Protestants, and Orleans was conquered by the Prince de Condé. The heart of Francis II was exhumed, “fricasseed and burned” in a big bonfire by the hordes of people who then devastated Notre-Dame de Cluny, where they overturned the tomb of Louis XI (1423-1483), one of the rare French sovereigns opposed to the separate burial of his heart.4,7,8

The cover of the “Treaty of Embalming” (Traité des embaumements), written in 1699 by Louis Pénichier, describing the techniques for preparing a heart for burial.

The heart of the Green Gallant: from assassination to bonfire

Henry IV (1553-1610), age 57, was assassinated in Paris in the Les Halles market district on May 4, 1610. The king wanted his heart to be placed in the school church of La Flèche, in the modern department of Sarthe. In accordance with his wishes, the Queen, Marie de Medici (1573-1642), had the relic taken to the Jesuits who organized a solemn ceremony. Accounts from the time describe the translation ceremony of the murdered sovereign’s heart in minute detail.

On May 6, the monks of the Saint-Louis Church in attendance at the embalming of the king’s heart reported: “Monsignor the Prince de Conty, collapsing into tears, knelt down in front of the royal heart and, his prayers finished, having taken it from a cushion adorned with gold brocade, put it back into the hands of the Jesuit superior.” The heart of Henry IV was displayed for 3 days at the Saint-Louis Church in Paris.4,7,9

A 1699 work called the Treaty of Embalming (Traité des embaumements), written by Louis Pénichier, described the techniques for preparing a heart for burial in detail: opened and cleaned, the heart was put into spirit of wine or oil of turpentine turpentine to soak. Dried, covered with plants and aromatic tinctures, the heart was then put into a small oilcloth bag and sealed inside a lead box before being placed into its reliquary.4

View of the Jesuit College in La Flèche, 1655 (colored engraving). Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France. © Lauros/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library.

Escorted by 12 horsemen bearing torches, the heart of Henry IV left Paris on May 9th in a black coach drawn by six horses outfitted in funeral harness. Put in a reliquary, the sacred organ was placed on a black velvet cushion, which rested on the lap of Father Cotton, the King’s Confessor. The funeral procession, commanded by the Duke of Montbazon, On May 6, the monks of the Saint-Louis Church in attendance at the embalming of the king’s heart reported: “Monsignor the Prince de Conty, collapsing into tears, knelt down in front of the royal heart and, his prayers finished, having taken it from a cushion adorned with gold brocade, put it back into the hands of the Jesuit superior.” The heart of Henry IV was displayed for 3 days at the Saint-Louis Church in Paris.4,7,9

A 1699 work called the Treaty of Embalming (Traité des embaumements), written by Louis Pénichier, described the techniques for preparing a heart for burial in detail: opened and cleaned, the heart was put into spirit of wine or oil of turpentine to soak. Dried, covered with plants and aromatic tinctures, the heart was then put into a small oilcloth bag and sealed inside a lead box before being placed into its reliquary.4 Escorted by 12 horsemen bearing torches, the heart of Henry IV left Paris on May 9th in a black coach drawn by six horses outfitted in funeral harness. Put in a reliquary, the sacred organ was placed on a black velvet cushion, which rested on the lap of Father Cotton, the King’s Confessor. The funeral procession, commanded by the Duke of Montbazon, passed through Nogent-le-Rotrou, La Ferté-Bernard, and Le Mans, with an overnight stop in Chartres, where Montbazon had arranged for the heart to spend a night amidst the hearts of other royal ancestors. Along the route from the beginning to the end of the journey, the grieving crowd paid ardent tribute to the heart of Henry IV: “They shed more tears than if they had lost their fellow loved ones.” Tradition permitted people to approach and kiss the relic during its passage: nobles kissed the box, commoners and peasants kissed the cushion. The funeral procession took 9 days to reach its destination.4,6,7 Passing under a triumphal arch, the procession arrived in La Flèche on May 18th. The royal organ was placed on a marble pyramid in the choir of the Church of Saint-Thomas. The four faces of the pyramid were made to represent the four virtues of the late sovereign: piety, swiftness of mind, courage, and clemency. Father Cotton delivered the funeral oration: “Where then Sirs, will this divine heart take its rest? Below ground in some gloomy cavern which makes us shudder? No, no, Sirs, he needs a living and breathing tomb: and as long as only one of this company remains on earth, he will rest, he will live in our court, he will be lodged in our memory.” In front of a huge kneeling crowd, Father Cotton took the heart between his hands and said: “Here lies the heart of Henry the Fourth, the very high, very powerful, and very Christian King of France and Navarre” and repeated three times according to custom: “The king is dead, pray for his soul [his heart].” The ceremony ended with the sound of trumpets and « cries » of the people wishing long life to the new king, Louis XIII.4,7

The tomb of Henry IV’s heart was located high up, near the vaulted arch, a placement that Father Cotton justified:

It must be in view of everyone, raised in the holy and sacred temple of God with whom his soul reigns in the Heavens, and that one says upon entering: Here is the heart of the great Henry, Henry the Happy, Henry the Vallant, Henry the Brave, Henry the Wise, Henry the Gracious! Here is the heart of the Father of the French, Protector of the Innocent, Premier Monarch of the world. Here is the heart of France that rests in this place of his choosing, in order to safeguard the good and shield from the villains.

While alive, the king had been preoccupied with his burial and ultimately wished to have his crowned heart surmounted by his bust and surrounded by allegories representing Force and Justice.

The heart of Henry IV was joined by that of the queen in February 1643 (who probably died as a consequence of heart failure).4

In 1793, the church of La Flèche became a political club, but the presence of the royal relics ruffled the Republican fiber of the Montagnard, Didier Thirion (1763-1815), who ordered the burning of both royal hearts in public. According to Augustine Cabanès, doctor and author of the famous series The Secret Office of History (Le cabinet secret de l’histoire), the ashes of the fire were supposedly gathered up just after the ceremony by a man named Boucher, correspondent member of the Royal Academy of Surgery. Said to have been put into a bottle with the inscription Cineres cordis Henrici Magni, the ashes were never found…4,7

The heart of Louis XIV: an unexpected destiny

Louis XIV (1638-1715) died from gangrene of the left leg (linked to diabetes?) in Versailles on September 1, 1715. According to tradition, the remains of the sovereign were interred in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. To respect the king’s final wishes, the heart was given to the Jesuit Superior from the Saint Paul–Saint Louis Church on rue Saint Antoine in Paris, where a chest crowned with two silver and bronze angels supporting a silver heart had been built to contain the hearts of both sovereigns, Louis XIII (1601-1643) and Louis XIV.

Sully showing his grandson the monument containing the heart of Henry IV. Painting by Marie-Philippe Coupin de la Couperie. 19th century. Musée National du Château de Pau, Pau. © RMN/Gérard Blot/Madeleine Coursaget.

The Sun King’s remains were brought to the church on March 21, 1730, for a ceremony that brought together some loyal souls, including the memorialist Saint-Simon (1675- 1755), who wrote: “Cardinal Rohan carried the heart to the Grand Jesuits with very little accompaniment and pomp. Other than the purely necessary and minimal service, it was noted that not even six members of the Jesuit Court were present at the ceremony.”4,10

On September 15, 1792, at the request of the Mint, the reliquaries were melted down. Both royal hearts were sold to Alexandre Pau, also known as Pau de Saint-Martin (1751- 1820), a wildlife and landscape painter, whose paintings can be found in Sceaux, Toulouse, Dunkirk, and Rouen. Another painter, Drolling, acquired the hearts of Marie Therese, the Duchess of Burgundy, and the Regent. Though difficult to obtain, painters needed to use mummified organ matter, which they ground and combined with some oil in order to get a nice brown color, called “mummia.” Only a fragment of the heart of Louis XIV (which was the biggest?) would have been used by Saint-Martin for his works. During the Restoration, on March 3, 1819, the painter gave a piece of the Sun King’s heart and the unused heart of Louis XIII to the Count de Pradel, the minister in charge of the royal household of King Louis XVIII (1755-1824), in exchange for a snuffbox. The relics were put in copper caskets and placed in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Another legend says that the heart of Louis XIV was brought to the Val de Grâce Hospital.4,7

In an 1994 article appearing in the Bulletin de la Société Libanaise d’Histoire de la Médecine (Bulletin of the Lebanese Society for the History of Medicine), Jean-François Dars and Ann Papillault deciphered a painting by Saint-Martin made after 1793, entitled Vue de Caen (View of Caen), which is located in the museum of Pontoise. Both authors wondered: “The dark red color used for the garments of the figures in the forefront, could it be from the heart of Louis XIV?” Just a tiny sample of the canvas would make it possible to identify the royal DNA…

Cabanès provided a tragic-comic version of the fantastic adventure of the heart of Louis XIV: an English doctor, Doctor Buckland, residing at 104 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, was called upon (when? why? by whom?) to examine the heart of the Sun King. Partly naming his sources, Cabanès wrote: “It was something dry and shrivelled, greatly resembling a piece of leather. The learned doctor examined the thing with rapt attention, and sniffed it for a long time, so long that he ended up swallowing it!” The body of Doctor Buckland rests in Westminster Abbey. The mystery remains, is the heart of the great King in Val de Grâce, on the canvasses of Saint-Martin, in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, or in Westminster Abbey?4,7

The heart of Louis XVII: a tenacious mystery?

Louis Charles, Duke of Normandy, the second son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, was born in Versailles on March 27, 1785, and became Dauphin on June 4, 1789, after the death of his elder brother (who died from osseous tuberculosis contracted from his nursemaid).

Along with his family, the young prince was incarcerated in the Temple Prison on August 12, 1792, and then separated from his father on December 11th. The child was described as healthy, without any particular medical antecedents, and rather chubby-cheeked.

Detail of the monument containing the heart of Louis XIII in the Saint Paul–Saint Louis Church in Paris (17th century). © RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

After the execution of his father on January 21, 1793, Louis XVII became king. Torn away from his mother on July 3rd, the young child was put into the care of Simon the shoemaker and his wife, who were instructed to raise him according to the principles of the Republic. His mother, Marie-Antoinette, was transferred to the Conciergerie on August 1st and guillotined on October 16th.7,11 In January 1794, the young Capet was taken from the Simons and abandoned into the hands of other “jailers” in exchange for a discharge attesting to his good health. The mystery of Louis XVII began at this precise moment in time: the childminders were changed often and did not really know the child. The famous surgeon, Joseph Desault (1738-1795), appointed by the Convention to treat the young prince, entrusted to his nearest and dearest that he did not recognize the child whom he had seen before the Revolution. Very conveniently, Desault died on June 1, 1795, from typhoid fever (or, according to his wife, from poisoning).7 What became of the royal heir? For some, the young Capet died in the Temple on June 8, 1795, in a state of advanced cachexia (tuberculosis?). For others, he escaped (perhaps with the assistance of his former caregiver Mrs Simon?) and was replaced by another (older) child. Historians, Legitimists, and Orleanists held opposing opinions on this question, which rapidly took on the elegant allure of an enigma highlighted with improbable developments.

Painting by Alexandre Pau de Saint-Martin (1751-1820) entitled
Vue de Caen (View of Caen). The garments of the figures in the forefront are painted a dark red color whose main ingredient is believed to originate from the heart of the Sun King, Louis XIV. © Musées de Pontoise, 95300, France, with kind permission.

Portrait of the Dauphin, later King Louis XVII of France (1785-1795), painted by Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty. Rafael Valls Gallery, London, UK. © Bridgeman Art Library.

Exhumed coffin purported to be that of Louis XVII. © Albert Harlingue/Roger-Viollet.

In order to hush up the rumors of poisoning, the members of the Convention hastened to order an autopsy on the child who died in the Temple. On June 9, 1795, Doctor Philippe- Jean Pelletan, Doctor Jean-Baptiste Dumangin, Doctor Pierre Lassus, and Doctor Nicolas Jeanroy performed the autopsy. “We found in a bed the corpse of a child who seemed to us to be approximately ten years of age, that the commissioners said was the deceased Louis Capet, and whom two of us recognized as the child to whom they had administered treatments for several days.” The doctors were careful not to officially authenticate the corpse of Louis XVII and failed to take note of the many scars the child had had since birth, even though Lassus was the Professor of Forensic Medicine in the medical school of Paris. Death was attributed to a “long-term scrofulous defect”; this term indicating osseous tuberculosis.7,11

On the 10th, or perhaps the 12th June, the corpse of the child from Temple Prison was buried in the mass grave of the Saint-Margaret Cemetery on rue Saint-Bernard in Paris. The gravedigger, a man by the name of Bertrancourt, removed the corpse from the communal grave, put it into a lead coffin, and then buried it elsewhere in the cemetery.

The skeleton from the Saint-Margaret Cemetery in Paris was exhumed in 1846. Examined by Doctor Joseph Récamier (1774-1852) and Doctor Gabriel Andral (1797-1876), the examination confirmed osseous tuberculosis in a 16-year-old boy. Exhumed again in 1894, the skeleton was examined by the doctors Magitot and Manouvrier, reputed paleo-pathologists, who identified a subject between 18 to 20 years of age. Two obvious conclusions were drawn: either the exhumed skeleton was not that of the Dauphin, or the child who died in the Temple was not Louis XVII.

The examination of the bones was inconclusive; however, a relic has managed to be preserved to this day, albeit through numerous adventures: the heart presumed to be that from the child who died in the Temple Prison…7,10,11

During the autopsy in 1795, Doctor Philippe-Jean Pelletan (1747-1829), professor of the surgical clinic at the Hôtel-Dieu, appropriated the heart, which he then kept at home in a jar of alcohol. After the return of the Bourbons, the doctor wanted to restore the heart to the royal family. Fearing imposters, Louis XVIII refused this burdensome present just as many Louis XVII survivors revealed themselves. Likewise, the Duchess of Angoulême (sister of Louis XVII), Charles X, and the Count of Chambord, refused to accept this relic; did they perhaps doubt its authenticity?

In 1828, Doctor Pelletan gave the heart to Monsignor Hyacinthe Louis de Quélen, Archbishop of Paris, who kept it in the treasury of the Archdiocese Palace. On July 29, 1830, during the “Trois Glorieuses,” the Archbishop’s palace was vandalized. Rioters inadvertently destroyed the famous vase containing the heart of the Dauphin. On August 5th, once the July Revolution had ended, Gabriel-Philippe Pelletan (1792- 1879) (son of the doctor who had removed the organ) and Lescroart, one of the rioters, went to the vandalized palace and there they found the heart on a heap of sand. Other accounts put this scene in February of 1831.7

In 1895, after having passed through many hands, the vase containing the “desiccated heart, held to the upper wall (of the jar) by a copper cylinder” was given to Count Urbain de Maillé, representative of Don Carlos, the Duke of Madrid, pretender to the throne of France. The relic was brought to the Froschdorff Chapel, near Vienna, in a blood-covered shawl, which Marie-Antoinette wore to the scaffold. In 1930, pertaining to the relic, the famous doctor-historian Augustine Cabanès wrote:

Were it proved that the heart in dispute belonged to a 10 to 11-year-old child, it would still be necessary to show that this child is indeed the Dauphin. And the misfortune is that all hearts from 10-year-old children are alike, more or less, and that nothing enables one to differentiate between the heart of the Dauphin of France and the heart of a peasant…

In 1975, the Massimo princesses, young daughters of Don Carlos, gave the relic to the Duke of Bauffremont, president of the Memorial of France in Saint-Denis so that the (presumed) heart of Louis XVII could be preserved in the necropolis of the Kings of France, where it now rests.11

In December 1999, according to journalist-historian Philippe Delorme, biologists from the University of Louvain and the University of Münster (Germany), after being given permission by the Duke of Bauffremont, removed (in front of bailiffs) four fragments of the presumed heart of Louis XVII. The tissues were “desiccated, contracted, and of a petrified consistency.” Cut up with the aid of a saw, the fragments were taken from the cardiac apex and near the aortic orifice. Professor Casseman (Louvain) explained:

We were unable to penetrate it with a scalpel. It was therefore decided to use a small sterilised saw with which the top of the heart and the end of the aorta were cut. We then sawed these pieces again to get two samples. One was for us in Louvain, the other for the University of Münster. Following that, each person worked on his part.

The very damaged mitochondrial DNA (non-nuclear) contained in the fragments of the heart of the Dauphin was compared with the hair of Marie-Antoinette, her two sisters, Anne of Romania, and André de Bourbon Parma.

On April 19, 2000, the professors Jean-Jacques Casseman and Bernd Brinkmann (Münster) came to the same conclusion: all of the genetic samples had “a genetic consensus sequence” in common. Using polymerase chain reaction amplification technology, the researchers highlighted an identical alignment of sequences in the D loop of mitochondrial DNA. In his conclusions, Professor Casseman remained cautious: “As a scientist, I cannot maintain that this is Louis XVII. It is up to the historians to bring proof of that. All that I can say is that the heart which we examined comes from a maternal descendant of Marie-Antoinette.” Convinced by the results of the genetic analysis, Louis de Bourbon, Duke of Anjou, pretender to the Throne of France, declared: “today marks the end of more than two centuries of mysteries.”11

Crystal urn containing the putative heart of Louis XVII, conserved at the Basilique de Saint-Denis. From: Eur J Hum Genet. 2001;9:185-190. © 2001, Nature Publishing Group.

First page of European Journal of Human Genetics article published in 2001 on the mitochondrial DNA analysis of Louis XVII’s heart. © 2001, Nature Publishing Group.

The unlikely history of the young Capet could have come to an end with scientific evidence, but several methodological protests were raised: (i) the exclusively maternal transmission of mitochondrial DNA was called into question; (ii) the analysis of the simple strand of hair without the follicle would be very inconclusive because the analyzed hair of the ancestors and descendants of Louis XVII did not include the follicle; and (iii) the heart from Pelletan did not present any proof of authenticity…


Louis XVI, decapitated on January 21, 1793, did not have the privilege of a body and heart funeral. He had, however, dedicated his reign to the cult of the Sacred Heart and wrote to his confessor, Father Hebert, at the beginning of 1792: “You know, my God, that my heart always submitted to faith and moral rules; my mistakes are the fruit of my weaknesses.”4,12

Assassinated on July 13, 1793, Doctor Jean-Paul Marat, spokesperson for the Montagnards of the Convention, did indeed have the privilege of a ceremony of the heart. His body was displayed in the Church of the Cordeliers from July 15th. His corporeal remains were brought to the Pantheon on July 21st and then removed in 1795. His heart was locked in a pyxis (urn) and brought to the Cordeliers. The heart was put on display at the Luxembourg Palace on July 21st then returned to the Cordeliers on July 28th, where it was hung in the vaulted arch above the meeting table of the Revolutionaries. At Libreval (Saint-Denis), with the rest of the royal tombs from the Basilica, a section of cave was prepared in order to house Marat’s heart.4,13


The writings of Cabanès often oscillate between more or less referenced historical truth and imaginary accounts. Contrary to his affirmations, the Basilica of Saint-Denis does not have “the famous cabinet where the hearts of Henry IV, Marie de Medici, Louis XIII, and Louis XV are presumed to be locked away.” According to the curator of the Basilica, the Chapel of the Princes, located at the entrance of the crypt (southern arm of the transept), has nine lockers containing fragments of the bodies of Marie de Medici, Henry IV, Louis XIV, and the hearts of Louis XIII, Louis XIV (segmented), Louis XVIII, and the Duke of Berry (second son of Charles X). _

The Assassination of Marat, by Jean Joseph Weerts. Oil on canvas, 1886. Musée d’Art et d’Industrie, Roubaix, France. © Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library.


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