It’s been an exciting time for old, dead, English kings from the Middle Ages. Just a month ago, scientists proved that the remains of a body found under a parking lot in central England were the remains of Richard III, solving a centuries’-old mystery over the body’s whereabouts. Now, thanks to a new study, scientists have begun unraveling a mystery about the first King Richard, known as “Richard the Lionheart,” whose death has always contained its own degree of mystery as well.
A few things haven’t changed much since Richard I died in 1199. The “West” was fighting the “East” back then in wars in the Middle East that got a lot of people killed and cost a lot of money. Back then they were called the Crusades. Richard I fought against the legendary Muslim military hero, Saladin, who had captured Jerusalem in 1187 from the Franks, thus initiating the Third Crusade. People have been fighting over Jerusalem for a long time.
But a few things have changed since then. For instance, when King Richard died 12 days after receiving crossbow arrow wound in the shoulder, they didn’t bury him whole in some grave. He was too important for that. He needed to be shared. So they did chopped him up and spread him around France like liver pâté on a fresh baguette.
Authors the new study, published in Scientific Reports, describe what happened:
According to the common medieval practices, a partition of the cadaver was performed, the internal abdominal and thoracic organs (entrails) were placed within a coffin in Châlus, the heart was embalmed separately and deposed in the church of Notre-Dame in Rouen (head of the English occupation of Normandy territories at that period), and the rest of the body was inhumed at Fontevraud Abbey, close to his father the King Henri II (and later to his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine). The partition of the body was widespread among the aristocracy at that time; indeed, 16 years before his death, his brother Henri au court mantel had received a double grave: entrails, eyes and brain were deposed in Grandmont, while the rest of the embalmed body was inhumed in the church of Notre-Dame in Rouen.
I don’t know how you lose track of the heart of a king who was not only considered one of Christendom’s greatest “defenders of the faith,” but also had a nickname taken from the supposed lion-like qualities of said heart. Richard III died in disgrace, so it’s no surprise his remains got lost. But the Dark Ages found a way the first Richard's lionheart, too.
The heart was rediscovered in 1838 inside a lead box during excavations of the Rouen cathedral. The lead box read: “Here is the heart of Richard, King of England,” in Latin. Inside, the heart wasn’t too recognizable—just a pile of brownish, decayed heart powder. See the box and the heart powder, below:
For a long time, legend had it that the arrow that killed King Richard was tipped with poison, and that the poison was what killed him. Unfortunately, the French scientists who tested some of the particles found inside the heart box came to a less romantic conclusion. They found no traces of poison. More likely, he died of gangrene or some other infection caused by the arrow wound.
Traces of other foreign elements were found, however, including mercury, which scientists believe would have been used to help embalm and preserve the heart. Traces of wood tar and frankincense were also found, fragrant-smelling substances that were also probably part of the embalming process, and would have linked him to Jesus Christ, whose body is believed to have been similarly embalmed.
Embalming the body parts was necessary, the scientists note, for practical reasons above all. The site of Richard I’s death, in Chalûs, is about 330 miles from where he was buried in Rouen. Some speculate that the biblical spiced used, like frankincense, might have been used to hasten Richard’s ascent into heaven. Records from the 13th Century show the church believed his soul sat in purgatory for 33 years to purify him of his sins.
That consciousness of using very high-quality herbs and spices and other materials that are much sought after and rare does add to that sense of it being Christ-like in its quality,” said Mark Ormrod, professor in history from the University of York, in an interview the BBC.
“Medieval kings were thought to represent the divine on Earth - they were set apart from other lay people and regarded as special and different. So that treatment of the heart strikes me as being absolutely credible.”