A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
With Bastille Day celebrations commemorating the Revolution just around the corner on July 14th, French royalists usually find June a no-fun month. But this year, the royalists had their own special day with a funeral for the heart of Louis, the son of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, ending a controversy that was still beating after 200 years.
The young crown prince, or dauphin, would have become Louis XVII had he been enthroned. Instead, he was placed in the Temple prison following his parent's execution. He died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1795. It was upon this death that a doctor (following a traditional practice for deceased kings) removed the ten-year-old boy's heart. Unlike tradition, the doctor preserved it in a jar. From here the heart is said to have taken a strange journey until it was returned to the royal family in 1975.
Rumors persisted that Louis was actually rescued from prison before death, and that an imposter or possibly a younger brother died there in his place. Accordingly, numerous men from all over the world have emerged since the days of the Revolution claiming that they were the dauphin or his direct descendant. The early nineteenth-century saw many such claims to royalty. In one case, a man in the Seychelles Islands was so convincing that he is still accepted as the dauphin by The Seychelles Nation newspaper, which includes him in their "history" of the island. In another case, Wisconsin missionary Eleazer Williams gained so much notoriety for his dauphin claim that an opera was written and performed about him entitled "The Lost Dauphin." Mark Twain also parodied such claims in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Quelling the murmurs, a DNA test in 2000 compared the heart's tissue with hair from Marie Antoinette. The analysis revealed that the heart was truly that of Louis, thus crushing the attempts of many still trying to prove a family link to the deceased dauphin. That is unless you are a descendant of Karl-Willhelm Naundorff, the Prussian clockmaker who in 1845 argued so vehemently that he was the dauphin that his family now carries the Bourbon name--they refute all DNA evidence against their assertion.
For those not claiming a relation to a Louis, yet otherwise loyal to the royal, the funeral ceremonies were celebrated as a proud day for French monarchy. Reports say people greeted the Duke of Anjou, Louis-Alphonse de Bourbon, with "Long live the king!" immediately following the observances.
While Louis' heart now rests in peace, remains of other deceased French rulers are being rousted from their slumber. The scientists behind the DNA study of the heart want to next reopen the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte to make sure the body inside it is his. The French government has previously objected to disturbing Napoleon's repose.
Meanwhile, Louis XI may or may not be coming back to life via a facial reconstruction. Serhiy Horbenko, a Ukrainian orthopedic surgeon was hired by the French government to re-create the face and head of Louis XI using the fifteenth-century king's actual skull. But this project may be dead in the water, as Horbenko miffed his French hosts by most improbably alleging that Joan of Arc never existed. After examining other skeletons in the same crypt as those of Louis XI, Horbenko determined that the bones of a robust female skeleton were those of Marguerite de Valois, the illegitimate sister of Charles VII (who was propped up to the throne by Joan of Arc and was the father of Louis XI). Horbenko also concluded that the skeleton's appearance was consistent with that of a warrior who had been wearing heavy armor. Marguerite would have been powerful, connected, and according to Horbenko, poised to take the throne if not suppressed by Charles and his nobles, who invented Joan of Arc to take credit away from Marguerite. Then, says Horbenko, she was kept under lock and key while the hapless "Joan" burned at the stake. Horbenko's status flat-lined in France after his dramatic bid to rewrite history.
Some might say that the deceased French royalty are hardly resting in peace.
Evan Walker, an anthropology and geography major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.