PGB 12: A Knight And A Churchman: The Unlikely Duo of Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s sarcophagi have started revealing their secrets! The two men found during the restoration have intriguing connections but couldn’t be more different. Learn more about the mysterious knight and the wealthy churchman in the latest episode!

Note: Throughout the episode and this article, I refer to the first sarcophagus as Le Chevalier or The Knight. Technically the INRAP scientists nicknamed him Le Cavalier or The Rider—I misspoke in the episode. But I do believe he is likely a knight, based on the evidence at hand, so I’m going with it. Stay tuned for any updates. 😄

A Brief Recap

It’s a long story but let me sum up. As part of the ongoing restoration of Notre Dame, last spring they took up part of the flooring to make sure the supports underneath could handle the weight of the scaffolding and equipment needed for the next phase of work.

image of interior scaffolding, Notre Dame de Paris, 2022.
Just a little bit of scaffolding…

In addition to confirming that they could proceed, they stumbled on a bunch of interesting artifacts. Including parts of the destroyed medieval rood screen and, unexpectedly, a lead sarcophagus. He seemed sort of tossed in among the rubble and made headline news across the globe. Who was this mysterious fellow?

But what didn’t make as much of a media splash was that they found a second sarcophagus just as they were shutting everything down. In fact, this was pretty much overlooked by the English-language press entirely and I didn’t find out about it until I was looking for updates on the first guy last summer.

Cleaning up the sarcophagi. I use the same sponge in my bathroom!
©Denis Gliksman, Inrap. 2022. [Ref Unknown]

Part of the low key coverage was possibly due to the fact that the second guy was found inside a burial vault and his identity wasn’t as much of a mystery to the scientists because his tomb was labeled. Though they don’t seem to have released that info at the time. Maybe they couldn’t read it?

Both sarcophagi were relocated to the forensic department at CHU (University Hospital) de Toulouse. And we were told that work would begin in September. Because 2022 was 2022, things didn’t actually get going until November. The team spent only a handful of days physically examining and documenting the remains before securing them, to avoid having them exposed too long.

And, finally, in December, their first findings were revealed!

The Duo of Notre Dame

So who are the two men found in the bowels of Notre Dame? The OG sarcophagus remains a tantalizing mystery. But the second one (the bonus sarcophagus, if you will) contained a very wealth canon who died at the beginning of the 18th century.

Le Chevalier

In the INRAP (national archeological institute) article on the findings, they call him “An Illustrious Stranger” or “un illustre inconnu”. Which I feel like could be the title of a 19th century romance novel—I’m tempted to write it myself! But the scientists apparently nicknamed him Le Cavalier or The Rider since he spent his life on horseback, as evidenced by the wear and tear on his pelvic bones. His upper body also showed evidence of “marked physical activity of the upper limbs,” further implying he may have been a knight.

He was definitely wealthy and probably either important in his own right or from an important family. His expensive lead sarcophagus and elaborate embalming support this theory. They also believe that Le Chevalier was interred at the foot of what was the medieval rood screen. This would have been a place of prominence and importance within the church and indicates he was a man of means or import. The part that I haven’t seen explained is why they assume he was buried in the location they found him. Considering the massive amount of upheaval in the intervening centuries, I’m not 100% on this fact. If you know more, drop me a line!

Viollet-le-Duc’s drawing of the medieval rood screen, based on extant descriptions. Was Le Chevalier buried in front of it? And can you imagine what this must have looked like in person?!

Inside the Sarcophagus

Regardless, his method of burial suggests Le Chevalier was indeed illustrious. We also know that he died sometime between the age of 25-40, possibly from a type of meningitis associated with tuberculosis. So he would have had a long, slow denouement to his life. He also lost most of his teeth, likely due to his illness. Their teeth featured heavily in the analysis—so tiny but so important!

Unfortunately, the exterior of his sarcophagus had been pierced in several locations at some point and the exposure to air resulted in significant loss of the organic material inside. But some of the more intriguing things that did survive are the evidence of his embalming (including the top of his skull being sawed off), bits of his shroud, and parts of the flowers that were used to decorate his body at burial.

Image of Le Chevalier's skeleton
Le Chevalier’s unusual skull
©Denis Gliksman, Inrap. 2022. Ref#13123
Detail image of flower remains in Le Chevalier's sarcophagus.
Some of the flowers in Le Chevalier’s sarcophagus
©Denis Gliksman, Inrap. 2022. Ref#13127

More surprisingly, his skull shows evidence of a deliberate skull deformity. It has a weirdly elongated shape, similar to what the Incan and Mayan used to do. It is formally called the Toulouse Deformity. This involved wrapping an infant’s head in a bandeau to force it into the preferred shape or perhaps in an attempt to protect a child’s delicate head. The practice went on until the early 20th century, so, alas, it doesn’t provide much dating evidence. But perhaps this means he has returned to where he or his people came from?

Lastly, the embalming style and burial flowers suggest that he was not from 14th century as previously thought. These rituals are traditionally found in 16th or 17th century burials, so Le Chevalier’s timeline has been moved up considerably. If this is proved correct, they may be able to find his name through the church records! And this actually creates a much more interesting narrative between the two men. So even though I’m disappointed that he may not be medieval, I do love the new possible connections!

The Church Canon

In the other sarcophagus, we have Antoine de la Porte, aka the “Jubilee Canon” because he was a priest for over 50 years! He was a canon or high-ranking priest at Notre Dame when he died, and was buried with some honor within the cathedral. And, helpfully, he had a name plate and some identifying medals on his sarcophagus so we don’t have the uncertainty we have about Le Chevalier.

Antoine wasn’t just any ol’ canon though. He appears to have been exceptionally wealthy and willing to share. As we learned in the Medieval University of Paris episode, most high-ranking churchmen were from rich families, so that part isn’t so unusual. But how he spent his money has gone down in history!

Helping Out The Sun King

Here, we have to take a quick detour back to the reign of Louis XIII. In 1638, Louis was desperate for an heir and he prayed to the Virgin Mary to help him. He promised that if he was given a son, he would pay to update the interior of Notre Dame. Low and behold, Louis Dieudonné, “the god given,” was born at last! Unfortunately for Notre Dame, however, Louis XIII died about 5 years later, leaving his promise largely unfulfilled.

His 4 year old son, the now Louis XIV, was of course not interested in church renovation. Many decades later, the Sun King finally started to fulfill that particular commitment, and began the planning about 1699. But the French crown by this point was cash poor, thanks to Louis’ endless construction at Versailles and his perpetual need to wage war.

Enter Antoine. He kindly donated 10,000 livres to the cause. By comparison, one chart I found has the average laborer making about 1 livre per day or about 300 livre per year (after holidays). So this was basically the equivalent of 33 average laborers salary!

Line drawing of 1715 Nave with new rood screen.
The scale is a wee bit off, but you the idea in this drawing from 5 years after Antoine’s death.
I wish we could still go up to the gallery level!

Part of this money was used to replace the medieval stone rood screen (near/above Le Chevalier’s resting place) with a fashionable gilded wrought-iron screen. Parts of the destroyed stone screen even ended up around Le Chevalier’s sarcophagus.

Antoine The Man

On Christmas Eve in 1710, at the age of 83, Antoine de la Porte passed away. This was recorded on the plaque attached to his sarcophagus:

©Denis Gliksman, Inrap. 2022. Ref# 13118

His sarcophagus was also pierced, so we basically only have his skeletal remains. It additionally showed signs of water damage from what they think was the 1910 flood. But they were able to tell from the skeleton that Antoine had excellent dentition and suffered from gout. It also showed us that, opposite of Le Chevalier, he had a very sedentary lifestyle.

So Antoine lived quite comfortably, most likely enjoying his Parisian food and French wine, and lived to a very old age! Even Louis XIV only made it to 76.

He died before the cathedral updates were done and was buried in a vault near the updated alter he had helped paid for.

But Who Was He Really?

I was very curious about this wealthy man of the church. Despite going rather deep down the rabbit hole, I couldn’t find anything about who he was exactly or where he came from. But genealogy is a hobby and side-side hustle of mine so I kept going! In the archives, I did find a very wealthy de la Porte family living just around the corner from St. Eustache church near Les Halles. They were rich merchants who were also involved in politics and hobnobbed with members of the royal court. It seems likely that Antoine probably belonged to that family.

Incredibly the de la Porte family mansion, the 16th-century Hôtel de la Porte, is still standing! It is now split into a museum for the French bar association (there is a museum for everything in France!) and a swanky long-stay hotel.

Hôtel de la Porte, looking good for her age!

If you have any additional information or research tips about Antoine and his origins, let me know below!

Antoine was also a patron of the arts and several of the works he commissioned still survive. There is even a posthumous painting of him preaching in Notre Dame that is now at the Louvre!

Antoine doing his thing

Theoretical Duo of Notre Dame Timeline™

Here I think its worth taking a longer moment on the currently assumed timeline. Subject to change as new information comes to light, of course!

Late 1500s or early 1600s: A knight in his prime, Le Chevalier dies, probably of tuberculosis. Perhaps he or his family were from Toulouse. Quite possibly, he would have been active in the reign of Henri IV, he of the wondering head (check out the podcast!). Our knight was buried in Notre Dame, in a place of prominence under the transept, near the medieval rood screen.

circa 1637: Antoine de la Porte is born. In Paris? Near St. Eustache?

1638: Henri’s son Louis XIII vowed to modernize Notre Dame in the name of the miracle of his son’s birth. And then quickly dies of (probably) tuberculosis in 1643.

1699ish: Louis’ son, the Sun King, Louis XIV finally makes good on his dad’s promise and begins updating the church.

1708ish: With funds from Antoine, the medieval rood screen is destroyed and tossed under the floor, possibly on top of and adjacent to Le Chevalier. Did Antoine see Le Chevalier’s sarcophagus? As a canon of Notre Dame, he probably would have lived in the Notre Dame complex. And if his gout allowed, he may have witnessed some of the works in person!

Dec. 24, 1710: Antoine joins Le Chevalier in eternal slumber.

Per the Guardian, part of his tomb was built from bits of the rood screen. So both men were, in the end, spending eternity with parts of the medieval rood screen. Another tie between them!

Beyond the Graves: 19th to 21st Centuries

19th Century Renovations: Were they disturbed during the Viollet-le-Duc renovations in the 19th century? Was Le Chevalier moved around? Is he even close to where he was originally interred? Hopefully we can find out more but we may never know.

April 15, 2019: About 150 years after all the restoration fracas, their slumber was disturbed again by the conflagration, with the spire and ceiling coming down on top of Le Chevalier’s resting place and Antoine’s.

Spring 2022: Disturbed yet again when discovered by the Notre Dame archeological team, suddenly they were on the move. Le Chevalier is perhaps returning to his homeland. Antoine perhaps is visiting Toulouse for the first time.

And now they are bound together not just by one impacting the other’s interment or centuries of shared resting place, but by their shared fame and shared fate.

The Saga Continues

Currently, they are undergoing more tests, including carbon dating and DNA testing if possible. The officials have said we should have the results in the first half of this year, so perhaps by mid summer! And all parties involved have said that once the testing is done, the remains will be treated with dignity but it has yet to be decided. I hope they are able to place them again in Notre Dame. Though I do also hope Le Chevalier gets a more dignified resting place this time!

Closing The Lid

As we put the lid on this episode, what do you think of these two very different men bound by the same fate? Who do you find more interesting? I, of course, am drawn to the man of mystery. Though, as a knight from a brutally violent time, I may not want to know him in person. And, frankly, I would prefer to dine with Antoine. He clearly had access to the good stuff!

À bientôt!


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Image Credits

Scaffolding: Friends of Notre Dame
Medieval Rood Screen: From “Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle“, Chapter “Chœur” by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, Édition BANCE — MOREL de 1854 à 1868.
1715 Rood Screen: Pierre Aveline, 1715. View & Perspective of Notre Dame. Image from Posterazzi (sold by the Granger Collection)
All Images marked “©Denis Gliksman, Inrap” taken from the INRAP Images d’Archéologie Digital Library. See Ref # with photo to locate details.
Hôtel de la Porte: Hôtel de La Porte le 22 janvier 2015. Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Lionel Allorge, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Antoine Saying Mass: La messe du chanoine Antoine de La Porte” circa 1710. by Jouvenet, Jean (Rouen, 1644 – Paris, 1717). Held in Musée du Louvre Département des Peintures Collection, INV 5502 ; MR 1861.

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