Richard I’s Heart Analyzed

It is the year of Richards. First we learned that it is indeed King Richard III’s skeleton found beneath a car park in Leicester, and now Richard the Lionheart’s embalmed heart has been analyzed, the report now available in the journal Nature (nature dot com). Here’s the abstract:

During the Middle Ages, the partition of the cadaver of the elite members was a current practice, with highly technical treatment given to symbolic organs such as the heart. Considered mostly from a theoretical point of view, this notion of dilaceratio corporis has never been biologically explored. To assess the exact kind of embalming reserved to the heart, we performed a full biomedical analysis of the mummified heart of the English King Richard I (1199 A.D.). Here we show among other aspects, that the organ has been embalmed using substances inspired by Biblical texts and practical necessities of desiccation. We found that the heart was deposed in linen, associated with myrtle, daisy, mint, frankincense, creosote, mercury and, possibly, lime. Furthermore, the goal of using such preservation materials was to allow long-term conservation of the tissues, and good-smelling similar to the one of the Christ (comparable to the odor of sanctity).

According to Dr Phillipe Charlier Raymond of Poincare University Hospital, interviewed by the BBC on bbc dot com this morning, Richard’s heart was too badly decomposed to confirm exactly how he died, though it’s likely it was from  gangrene or septicaemia from his wounding 12 days earlier. The arrow from a French arbalest entered his left shoulder close to the cervical vertebra. They found no evidence of poison.

They found poplar and bellflower pollen in the sample, suggesting that his death occurred a little later than the 6 April 1199 date that’s come down to us, the plants being in flower from the end of April through early June.

According to Dr. Charlier, the addition of mercury would have been to stop the heart from decomposing.

So exciting! It hadn’t occurred to me to discuss herbs for embalming Sir Ranulf Pagnell’s heart in The Cross-legged Knight. Lucie and Magda would have been so intrigued.

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