Medieval Paris,  News,  Podcast

PGB 10: The Mystery of Henri IV’s Skull

King Henri IV’s skull is sitting in a bank vault in Paris. Or is it? If not, whose head is it?! Join us as we follow the mummified skull of Henri IV through 400 years of history!

I must admit that I had not heard of this mystery before watching a video from The Kings of France Channel. Since she also gives a great overview of his life, we’ll start the show notes here too:

Research À La Française

The video was a great starting off point and led me down a very strange research path! I can see why The Kings of France creator kept the skull at a high-level. It is very difficult to shake out the full details. Even the modern events have contradictory articles.

The research for this episode really hammered home to me to how different the information between anglophone and francophone sources is presented. Both have shortcomings inherent in all research endeavors, of course. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve asked “where are the sources?” and “why is the bias so glaring I need sunglasses?” But the French sources seem more comfortable with ambiguous information than we do. Even in regards to newspapers of record or academic sources, to say nothing of more informal sources.

This means that I have to be as careful as possible in my research (I’m sure mistakes have been made—please leave a comment or drop me a line to let me know!). It is also an interesting peek into the two different cultures and how philosophically they approach life in very different ways. But that is a conversation for another day!

Putting It All Together

Let’s walk through the pieces of Henri IV’s posthumous misadventure by examining the key events of this odd historical footnote!

Original Burial

We’ll fast forward to the first of several burials for Henri IV. After his assassination on May 14, 1610, he was embalmed and prepared for the grave. This was followed by about seven weeks of preparation and ceremony before he was buried at the basilica of Saint Denis, the traditional resting place of French kings.

Henri IV lying in state at the Louvre, 1610

Revolutionary Mayhem

And there he rested until 1793, when the Revolution came calling. The government decided to celebrate the one year anniversary of the First Republic by desecrating the graves of all the royals buried at Saint Denis. These burials covered over a thousand years of history, starting with Dagobert I, who died in 639!

The desecration of the burials started in August 1793 and really picked up steam by October. The popular image of this event has a mob storming Saint Denis and going hog wild. But it was more organized than that and took more time. The Republic was big on bureaucracy and there were some records made of the proceedings, including the state of each body and what was taken from each tomb. The lead coffins were destined to be melted down into bullets or materiel. The valuable jewels and other objects were added to the treasury. The bodies, stripped of anything valuable, were then moved into mass graves.

The desecration of the royal tombs (sanitized version?)

Henri In The Flesh

When they opened his tomb, Henri’s body was apparently in a remarkable state of preservation. So much so they supposedly made a new death mask from his well-preserved face! They even propped him up for two days on display before adding him to the mass grave. And here’s where it gets a little weird. Or weirder? There are multiple stories of varying degrees of interaction with le Bon Roi. One official account has a soldier cutting off Henri’s moustache and claiming it as good luck charm but leaving him otherwise unharmed. Other later sources have his body being slashed to pieces; his head, or rather a head that was later attributed as being his, being shown around next to the mass grave; and even one lists a necrophilic act (based on his reputation as the Vert Galant, maybe??).

With the exception of the moustache, none of these were mentioned in the extant contemporary records. Some of them just seem to be floating around the internet with no known source (particularly the necrophilia). We have no reason to believe that his whole body, including his noggin but minus the ‘stache, didn’t make it into the mass grave.

Henri IV on display, avec moustache

Side Note On The Mass Graves

The revolutionaries were very keen on keeping the Valois line and Bourbon line, which started with Henri IV, separate. They were buried in separate grave pits and Henri’s first wife was buried with her Valois kin and not with Henri. I assume it was because the marriage was annulled, which means she was restored to being a Valois (she never remarried).

It’s unclear how well or badly the bodies were treated as they were placed in their new graves. Considering the revolutionary glee in destroying anything royalty related, the general assumption is this was not a gentle process. And to top it off, they used lime in the pits to hasten the deterioration of the bodies. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, vite vite!

Bonus Side Note on Lime

Lime and quicklime (chemically not the same substance) have long been used in burial pits for sanitation purposes. It was also historically thought to hasten the degradation of the bodies, though that may not always be the case. There was a recent experiment which showed that, at least in the short term, it may actually preserve rather than destroy. And there are instances where the lime has re-calcified and created almost a barrier over the bodies. However, in the case of our royal pits, the excavators believed that the lime had a detrimental effect on the remains. And for this article, we’ll stick with their conclusions.

The Second Resurrection

Time passed, Napoleon did his thing, and Louis XVIII, who was Louis XVI‘s brother, was on the throne. As a Bourbon, he wanted to honor his ancestors and have the bones dug up and placed back in Saint Denis. And here’s where it starts to get even weirder.

The record shows that, not surprisingly, the remains are a jumbled mess. 24 years have passed, the ground has settled, and the lime has done its (supposed) job. The excavation team valiantly did their duty, though. They did try to count noses at least and match up the bits and pieces as best they could. In the Bourbon grave, they came up a bit short. Three bodies only had their lower halves; the upper halves were missing. This has been interpreted two ways: that the full torso and head were missing or simply just the head. Louis XVI wasn’t buried at Saint Denis, so we can discount the one king who we know lost his head.

Could those torsos have been taken as trophies and not recorded in the official records? It seems a number of the Bourbon bodies were in a decent state of preservation, which may have offered macabre temptation. Or perhaps the lime had just done its job very well in one part of the pit? Or maybe the torsos, through the settling of the soil, wandered off beyond the walls of the excavated pits? Because of the state of the bones, the team was unable to say which three bodies were missing their torsos. It’s not even clear if the three bodies were all male!

The Head in the 20th Century

Fast forward another century and three mummified skulls turn up in an auction. On Halloween 1919, a photographer (and possibly junk or antiques dealer?) named Joseph-Émile Bourdais, purchased the three anonymous skulls from the estate sale of Emma Nallet-Poussin, painter and sculptor, for three francs. However, there is a lot of debate about this, including the identity of Emma. Here is one long and very dogged inquiry (in French).

My biggest concern is that there is no definitive provenance for the skulls. I did find one story (in French) from L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux in 1874 that talks about the desecration of Henri IV’s body in 1793 and the possible journey of his head. But it is a story supposedly passed down by the author’s grandfather, in a periodical dedicated to “researchers and the curious.” So big grain of salt, but this is one of the earlier stories about the skull.

Back to Bordais. In 1924, five years after his curious purchase, he read an article in La Gazette des Arts which convinces Bourdais that he has the skull of Henri IV. This fact is frequently stated as the start of his obsession, but I could not find record of a publication called La Gazette des Arts, only La Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Regardless of the source, poor Bourdais spent a lot of money and effort trying to prove his theory, including all sorts of tests, scans, and x-rays. He died in 1946, after failing to sell the skull to the Louvre and other museums. The skull ended up in the hands of his sister, who sold it to a Jacques Bellanger, tax collector and antiquities (or at least curiosities) collector, in 1955. It’s unknown what happened to the other two skulls! RIP, whoever you were.

An image of the skull from 1933. when it was possession of Bordais

21st Century Resurrection

Our skull ends up in Bellanger’s attic, where, in 2009, he agrees to give it up for scientific study. Now things get a little fuzzy. Option 1: Bellanger directly bequeathed the skull to Louis de Bourbon, Duc d’Anjou (senior member of the remaining Bourbon family, in Spain) who then gave it over to researchers. Or Option 2: Bellanger gave the skull to Dr. Philippe Charlier and friends (or perhaps a documentary film team first) who conducted a large number of experiments and tests on it before giving it over to Duc Louis. Who then put it into a bank vault in Paris for safe keeping. Either way, the skull is now supposedly just chilling in the vault.

Philippe Charlier is an interesting character. He’s known as the “Indiana Jones of the Cemetery,” with many publicized archeological finds. The publication Le Point also states that Charlier has studied vampires in Transylvania. Charlier seems charlatan-esque to me, but I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to relics. And vampire hunters.

The First Definitive Conclusion

And here begins the real craziness. Charlier’s research in 2009/2010 (behind paywall, summarized in French here) concluded definitively, in his opinion, that the head belonged to Henri, despite lacking DNA evidence. Apparently being buried in a lead coffin does nasty things to DNA just like lead does nasty things to us in life! However, the skull does carbon date to the right period, has some of the correct features (though some are in the wrong place), and the facial reconstruction appears to match portraits. He even released a book on the findings (below), co-authored with Stéphane Gabet, French journalist and documentary filmmaker.

The Second “Definitive” Conclusion And More Confusion

But pretty much as soon as the research was released, there was an outcry against the legitimacy of the claims, including the lack of DNA testing. So the poor skull was taken out of its cushy bank vault. Magically, this time Charlier removes material from inside the mummified throat and some badly degraded DNA is located. This degraded DNA is tested against a handkerchief supposedly soaked in Louis XVI’s blood from his execution, that had been stored in a gourd container for the better part of two centuries. Despite the unusual nature of the sources, lo and behold, they are a very tentative match! Charlier considers this to be additionally definitive and the matter settled.

Round 3

Well, settled until another, much more rigorous DNA examination was made. This was performed by a team of researchers who had worked on other French and European royal DNA ancestry projects. And who were more rigorous in their testing and methodologies than perhaps Charlier was. The report makes fascinating reading if you are into genealogy and genetic genealogy. This team basically concluded that both the skull and the handkerchief were spurious, compared to both DNA from living descendants and from other historical DNA testing done on the house of Bourbon and the house of Hapsburg (Henri’s mom was Hapsburg). They simply do not contain the expected DNA from the families in question.

The researchers do, however, add a few caveats about the results. They warn that these results could be due to several significant non-paternity events (i.e. the queen passed off her lover’s baby as the king’s) or even, in one argument, a non-maternity event (meaning the mom wasn’t the mom, much harder to pull off but not impossible). There are definitely plenty of juicy rumors in the Bourbon family history! But if the non-paternity rumors are true, then the skull and the handkerchief shouldn’t match because they have no familial tie. Either way, Charlier’s DNA conclusions don’t stand up against the second team’s conclusions.

The living Bourbon descendants used in the study

How do you feel about DNA testing of this sort? Can it be used as valid evidence or is this kind of testing too new and still developing to be considered definitive? Let us know below!

The End Of The Journey?

So, the skull remains in a bank vault and the fate of Henri’s head remains a mystery. Is it Henri IV in the vault? Is it one of the many skulls that were re-buried in Saint-Denis? Did it not survive between 1793 and 1817? Is it sitting in someone’s private home somewhere, unknown and unattributed?

Personally, I think it unlikely that the skull in the bank vault is Henri IV’s. Considering the stories that were shared about the treatment of his body at the time, surely we would have a contemporary mention of the missing skull? Or is it all a big cover up? We learned in the stolen crown jewels episode that there was a lot of controversy and cover up going on in the Revolutionary government! This also occurred at the peak of the Terror, so things were a bit a lot crazy.

The only thing that makes me think “maybe” is the carbon dating. I would like to see that repeated outside of Charlier’s influence and see what comes back. If it is not part of one of the desecrated royal bodies, who else has lost their head?

Digging Deeper

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases of items marked “affiliate link”.

If you want to dive a bit deeper into this bizarre mystery, check out some of these resources.

Henri IV. L’énigme du roi sans tête. By Philippe Charlier and Stéphane Gabet. The book at the heart of the modern controversy. Only available in French [affiliate link].

The First Bourbon: Henry IV of France & Navarre. By Desmond Seward. An accessible and affordable option to become acquainted with le Bon Roi. In paperback or in Kindle versions [affiliate links]

Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age. By Vincent J. J. Pitts. A much more scholarly investigation of the Vert Galant. With more scholarly pricing. In paperback or in Kindle versions [affiliate links].

Henri IV’s Paris

Intrigued by le Bon Roi and want a taste of his Paris? The good news is that in between wars, assassination attempts (supposedly he survived or avoided about 10 before his end), and loving the ladies, Henri was also a prolific builder! Here are some of the surviving spots. He really did have excellent taste in architecture.

Place des Vosges: One of the most famous sites in the Marais, the Place des Vosges was built by Henri IV as the Place Royale. It included housing for the elite and spaces for workshops and shops, with an open square in the middle (which is now a lovely park).

Place Dauphine: The quieter Place Dauphine is one of my favorite not-so-secret secret places in Paris. It was built before the Place Royal/des Vosges and is triangular shaped instead of square. Same concept, though, of housing and some commerce. It is somewhat easy to miss. You can access it from the Pont Neuf on the west side or behind the Palais de Justice on the east side. Basically turn around at Henri’s statue and voilà!

Pont Neuf: Pont Neuf, or the “New Bridge” is the now the oldest bridge in Paris. It is the bridge that runs along the west side of the Île de la Cité, with the statue of Henri IV and access to Place Dauphine in the middle. You can also access the tip of island, the Square du Vert-Galant, from near the statue. The curved outcroppings were originally meant for shop stalls, since this was the first bridge in Paris without houses and shops built on the bridge. Now you get an amazing view of the Seine, the Louvre, and much more!

Assassination Location: The location of Henri’s assassination is a little muddled but happened near 8 Rue de la Ferronnerie. Once you see how the streets are laid out, you can easily understand how a traffic jam occurred! Here is a fun article on the locations attributed to the sad event.

Saint Denis: The Basilica of Saint-Denis is now located in a near suburb of Paris that you can reach on Métro Line 13, M: Basilique de Saint-Denis. Note that this is a bit of a rough neighborhood, so plan accordingly. Tickets are required, check out the website for more info.


What a weird, wild journey! Do you think the head is Henri’s? How do you feel about collecting the relics of the dead? How much do you think it costs to store a mummified head in a Parisian bank vault?! Let us know below! My bet is that the Duc can easily afford it and I cannot. 😉

À bientôt!


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Image Credits

Henri Portrait: Henri IV, King of France, 1610, by Frans Pourbus the Younger. From Wikimedia Commons. Held in the UK Royal Collections. Uploaded by FDRMRZUSA.
Henri Lying In State: Henry IV of France as he lay in state after his murder in the year 1610, engraving after Quesnel. From Wikimedia Commons. A cleaned up copy of an image from Gallica. Posted by Robert Allen. Captioned [translated], “”The most high puissant and excellent Prince Henry the Great, King of France, and Navarre, &c. &c. as he lay in state after his murder, anno 1610. Engraved by R. Dunkarton from a rare print engraved by J. Briot, after Quesnel. London: Published by S. Woodburn, 112 St. Martin’s Lane”
Desecration of the Royal Tombs: La Violation des caveaux des rois dans la basilique de Saint-Denis, en octobre 1793 by Hubert Robert, circa 1793. Held by Musée Carnavalet, Paris. From Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Fæ.
Henri on Display: The exhumed corpse of the French King Henry IV standing bandaged and upright in a coffin in the vaults of a chapel. Line engraving with etching by E. Bovinet, A. Chataigner and T.B. de Jolimont after E.H. Langlois. The Wellcome Collection, Reference: 44469i.
Skull 1933: 1933 photograph of the skull, from the Magazine “Vu” n°289, 27 septembre 1933, page 1489. From Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Phidelorme, under Creative Commons Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Living Bourbon Descendants: Figure 1 from “Genetic genealogy reveals true Y haplogroup of House of Bourbon contradicting recent identification of the presumed remains of two French Kings” from European Journal of Human Genetics, Volume 22, pages 681–687 (2014), available on

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