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Decapitation of King Louis XVI

DNA test on bloody gourd reveals it is not from decapitated King Louis XVI

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A new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports has cast doubt on a centuries-old belief that the blood contained in a decorated gourd (container made from a hard-shelled fruit) belongs to French king Louis XVI, who was beheaded during the French Revolution.

Louis XVI was King of France and Navarre from 1774 to 1781, after which he was subsequently King of the French from 1791 to 1792 before his execution by guillotine during the French Revolution.  The first part of Louis' reign was marked by attempts to reform France in accordance with Enlightenment ideals. These included efforts to abolish serfdom (the status of peasants under feudalism), remove the land tax on the French peasantry, and increase tolerance toward non-Catholics. But the French nobility reacted to the proposed reforms with hostility, and successfully opposed their implementation, leading to vehement opposition to French aristocracy and the absolute monarchy among common citizens. The resulting uprising concluded with Louis XVI arrest and execution on 21 January, 1793.

According to historical accounts, Maximilien Bourdaloue dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation, and then placed the fabric in the dried, hollow gourd and had it embellished with portraits of revolutionary heroes.

A gourd emblazoned with heroes of the French Revolution

A gourd emblazoned with heroes of the French Revolution contained the blood of Louis XVI. Credit: Davide Pettener

The contents of the ornately-decorated gourd alleged to hold traces of the king's dried blood has long been the subject of scientific disagreement, with tests throwing up contradictory results.  But a team of researchers from Europe and the United States have sequenced the full genome of the DNA found on the bloody handkerchief and the results “do not support the royal identity of the sequenced genome,” according to the authors report.

Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, said that about 76 percent of the DNA belonged to an individual whose genetic signature was from northern Italy, which is not compatible with Louis’ known, more central-European ancestry.  The individual likely had brown eyes and was of average height—contrary to reports that the king had blue eyes and was the tallest person in the royal court.

Featured image: "Execution of Louis XVI" – German copperplate engraving, 1793, by Georg Heinrich Sieveking. Image source: Wikipedia

By April Holloway

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