The mummified heart of Richard the Lionheart

After being killed during a siege, Richard the Lionheart had his heart removed and mummified before it disappeared for several centuries.

King Richard the first of England – better known as Lionheart – was killed by a boy using a crossbow during a siege in France, defending his ancestral holdings. Richard was not only king in England but duke of both Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou. 

So when he wasn’t in the Holy Land fighting Saracens, he was in what’s now France fighting the French. In fact, he hardly spent any time in England itself during his entire reign.

During a siege in France, he was inspecting the battlements of the castle he was trying to break into when a crossbow bolt hit his shoulder. The resultant medical procedure to remove it – or butchery if you prefer – probably infected the wound and from the description of the time, gangrene set in. The boy who had shot the crossbow was famously pardoned by Richard but when the king succumbed and died, the poor lad was flayed alive in a particularly brutal execution.

The king’s body was then divided with most of it going to Fontevraud Abbey, his entrails being interred at Chalus while his heart was sent to the cathedral in Rouen. The heart re-emerged in the 19th century, still encased in a lead box but pretty much turned to powder.

So I’m not sure that the term ‘mummified’ really stands up to the reality. However, there’s clearly enough left for medical staff to have just carried out a toxicological analysis. The reason was to prove or disprove a theory going back to the medieval period that Richard was killed by a poisoned arrow.

The evidence seems to suggest not. But the heart was covered in spices meant to give it a saintly odour after death. Its owner though was not killed by poison. He was brought down by a boy whose father had been killed by the king and was simply seeking revenge.

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