King Richard I's Heart Reveals Key to Preservation: Organ Analyzed in Detail
Hundreds of years ago, a king was born in Oxford, England. The son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the boy would one day be known as Richard the Lionheart, the man made famous by the Crusades and in the fictional stories of Robin Hood. Now, researchers have found the preserved heart of this king, and have analyzed what exactly preserved it.
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Richard's path to the throne wasn't easy. He was only the second son of Henry II, which did not make him heir to his father. Yet in 1183, Richard's elder brother Henry III died, leaving the way to the throne clear--for the most part. Richard's father had hoped to leave Aquitaine to his youngest son, John. In that way, he would have been able to provide for all of his children. Richard, though, would have none of it. Instead, he joined forces with Philip II of France against his father, which drove him to an early grave in 1189. Richard was finally king of England.
As king, Richard became involved in the Third Crusade, prompted by Saladin's capture of Jerusalem in 1187. He sold off sheriffdoms and other local offices in order to pay for the mission, and eventually left for the Holy Land himself in 1190. It would be four years before he finally returned home. While Richard met with a quick victory, he was imprisoned by Duck Leopold of Austria when bad weather drove him ashore near Venice on his return. A massive sum of 150,000 marks was asked for his release, which took years to raise. Eventually, the king returned home and was crowned for a second time, since he feared that the ransom payment may have compromised his independence.
He didn't stay in England for long, though. Richard travelled to Normandy where he waged intermittent warfare against Phillip II. During his absence, his younger brother, John, schemed against him; he attempted to claim the throne for himself by garnering support from others. It turned out that John didn't need to wait for his throne for long. While besieging the castle of Chalus in France, Richard was fatally wounded by a crossbow bolt. The king died on April 6 1199.
While the king died that day, his heart lived on--sort of. It was removed and mummified separately from the rest of his body, a common practice at the time. For years, it rested in a reliquary at Notre Dame before its rediscovery in 1838. Yet the heart itself had been reduced to dust--a brownish-white powder was all that remained.
However, scientists have now tested this powder to see exactly what was used to preserve the heart. Philippe Charlier and his colleagues found a variety of compounds in addition to tiny fragments of linen, which suggested that the heart was wrapped before placed in the box it was found in.
In particular, the researchers detected mercury and pollen from a variety of plants, including myrtle, daisy, mint, pine, oak, poplar, plantain and bellflower. While some of these, including poplar and bellflower, may have naturally settled out of the air into the casket at the time of burial, others were probably used to preserve the heart. In particular, myrtle, daisy and mint would not have been bloom at the time of burial and would have been part of the embalming process. The embalmers also used Frankincense, a tree resin, for preservation.
While Richard the Lionheart died, his heart lives on. It is currently located in a glass box in Rouen's Departmental Museum of Antiquities.
The study that detailed the findings of Richard's heart is published in the journal Scientific Reports.