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Mummified Head May Not Belong to King Henry IV

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Three years ago, a decapitated mummified head was identified by a French osteo-archaeologist as that of the French king Henry IV. The claim was based on a forensic examination of the head which apparently showed that the mummified head has an irregular mole on the nostril and a pierced right ear, both features seen on contemporary portraits of Henry IV. However, new research based on DNA evidence draws this claim into question and failed to prove that the head was indeed that of a former King of France.

King Henry IV ruled France from 1589 to 1610. He was king of the Pyrenees kingdom of Navarre in 1589, when an assassin killed his predecessor, Henry III.  As a Protestant, Henry IV's ascension to the throne of Catholic France was complicated.  He eventually converted to Catholicism, but considered as an usurper by Catholics and as a traitor by Protestants, Henry was hardly accepted by the population and escaped at least 12 assassination attempts. In 1610, one assassin, a Catholic fanatic, was successful and Henry IV was stabbed to death. He was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris.

According to some accounts, Henry IV’s grave was among those ransacked in 1793, when French revolutionaries took to mutilating dead monarchs as a statement against royal rule, and Henry IV was apparently posthumously decapitated. As the disrupted graves were re-closed in the early 1800s, there’s no way to verify whether Henry IV’s body was beheaded at this time or left alone.

In 2010, a mummified head which had been in the hands of private collectors was identified as that of King Henry IV.  However, a new DNA study published in the European Journal of Human Genetics throws the original identification into controversy.  A team led by Jean-Jacques Cassiman of the University of Leuven in Belgium found that DNA recovered from the head does not match that from the House of Bourbon, Henry's lineage.

"In order to realize an accurate genetic identification of historical remains, DNA typing of living persons, who are paternally or maternally related with the presumed donor of the samples, is required," said Cassiman.  But the analysis found that there was no match between the head’s DNA and that of three living descendants of the king.

However, Philippe Charlier, the original researcher who identified the head as Henry's, remains adamant that his initial conclusion was correct, arguing that illegitimacy in the family line makes DNA identification difficult.

By April Holloway

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