Forensic scientists in debate over head of King Henry IV of France

Scientists argue over claims remains belong to Henry IV of France, after DNA results cast doubt

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 6:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 11:25am


Doubt haunts a murky corner of forensic science as researchers squabble over an unearthed packet of mummified remains thought to have belonged to King Henry IV of France.

The mystery has produced a frightful case of regret by two researchers who were part of the first team to investigate the purportedly royal head.

Last week, French pathologist Geoffroy Lorin de la Grandmaison and Leslie Eisenberg, an American forensic anthropologist, wrote to the British Medical Journal, urging the retraction of the 2010 study that first identified the disembodied head as belonging to Henry.

At the centre of the macabre drama is an embalmed head with several vertebrae still attached. The remains were found in 1919 in the Royal Basilica of St Denis outside Paris and reportedly secreted away by a civil servant.

Reappearing almost a century later, the specimen still had soft tissue and organs intact, right down to the open mouth and partially closed eyes.

On the basis of computer tomography (CT) imaging and digital facial reconstruction, French medical examiner and forensic osteo-archaeologist Philippe Charlier and a multi-disciplinary team, including Eisenberg and Lorin de la Grandmaison, in 2010 identified the head as that of the charming and reputedly rakish monarch known variously as "the Green Gallant" and "Good King Henry".

Even a mushroom-like growth on his nose and evidence of a pierced right ear seemed to point to Henry IV. Although beloved by most of his people, the Bourbon monarch was assassinated in 1610 after 21 years on the throne.

That was just the beginning of his misfortune. In 1793, marauding revolutionaries sacked Paris' churches and desecrated the graves of many purported royals. Legend had it that Henry's remains got the same treatment that befell his descendant Louis XVI. Dead or not, it was off with his head.

But researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium were not so sure the head belonged to King Henry.

Obtaining a sample of the mummified tissue, they conducted a genetic analysis and compared it with DNA samples given by three male descendants. Analysing the Y chromosome of the three descendants, and genes that reveal matrilineal descent, they found similarities among the three descendants. But none matched the disembodied head.

The team further compared the Y chromosome taken from the mysterious head with that taken from a blood-soaked handkerchief said to contain the genetic material of Louis XVI. The two samples did not match.

The Y chromosome's pattern of repeated DNA letters is not as definitive a test of genetic relatedness as are the patterns found on other chromosomes. So perhaps this still was Henry's head?

"Impossible!" declared Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a professor at the University of Leuven and co-author of the Belgian team's study, whose results were published in the European Journal of Human Genetics last month.

Charlier, the lead investigator of the 2010 study, has been stout in defence of his findings.

But such protests have failed to hold Charlier's team together. Hence last week's letter by two co-authors and two others who said "robust scientific arguments . . . negate the conclusions".

"The retraction of the article is now justified, as a rigorous scientific anthropological study should have excluded the hypothesis [and the findings] that the head belonged to Henry," the four wrote.