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Feature Christmas 2010: History

Multidisciplinary medical identification of a French king’s head (Henri IV)

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 15 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6805

Re: Multidisciplinary medical identification of a French king’s head (Henri IV)

Medico-historical identifications imply an objective over-view on both the subject and the methodologies employed. Any criticism cannot ignore all the previous publications and justifications given by authorities in the field of History.
Regarding the absence of craniotomy on the mummified head of Henri IV:

Professor Donatella Lippi has shown that such a skull opening was not systematic at this period in France and Italy [1,2], including for Kings, Queens and relatives (for example the uncle of Henri IV, the cardinal Charles Ier de Bourbon, died in 1590).

Jean-Pierre Babelon (Académie of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres), Bruno Galland (public director of the National Archives) and Jacques Perot (president of the Henri IV Society) have shown after an exhaustive analysis of first-hand archives, that such a skull opening is not attested in the case of Henri IV (no mention in the autopsy record from 1610, no mention in all the contemporaneous manuscripts of the exhumation in 1793). Only a late and very dubious mention is present in a novelistic text from 1801 (the same author describes also a skull opening on the mummy of Louis XV… an impossible lesion as this King did not support any autopsy nor embalming due to smallpox) [3-5].
Regarding the traceability of the mummified head, we have reconstructed its course from the exhumation (1793) to its reappearance (1919): stolen during the profanation by Alexandre Lenoir; given by Alexandre Lenoir to Jean-Etienne de la Vallée-Poussin (died in 1802, Lenoir published and prefaced its drawings); heritage of Emma Nallet-Poussin (grand-daughter of the last) sold in 1919 by a furniture warehouse at Drouot and bought by Joseph-Emile Bourdais (public reappearance of the head) [4].
Regarding the genetic study co-signed by Prof. Cassiman and the people journalist at Point-de-Vue-Images-du-Monde Philippe Delorme [6]:

This publication clearly shows that it is hopeless to try to match a family tree and a series of genetic links on such a long period. What could the explanations be?

Medical literature shows there exists from 1 to 4 % of children born from a father different from expected (rate per generation) [7-8]. There are 13 generations between Henri IV and the three living subjects considered in the study, raising the risk of false legit paternity to between 12 and 41 % over the span of these 13 generations.

For instance, one of the family trees involves Louis-Philippe, duke of Orleans, a.k.a. "Philippe-Egalité" whose mother (Louise-Henriette de Bourbon-Conti) said about the father of her children: "Quand on est tombé sur un fagot d'épines, sait-on celle qui vous a blessée ?" ("When one falls on a bundle of spines, does one know which hurt you?"), explicitly acknowledging she could not tell who was Philippe-Egalité's father. Same doubts exist with Philippe-Egalité's children, whose paternity is not certain, including that of French king Louis-Philippe [9-10]. Other doubts exist as well with Louis XVI's paternity [11].

No documented statistics exist in the scientific literature on non-maternity risks, for instance due to child exchange or secret adoption. One can note that 10 generations separate Henry IV (died in 1610) from the retained common maternal ancestor (Anne de Habsbourg, died in 1327), and 20 more additional generations until the person tested ("Louis XVII", died in 1795), for a total of 30 generations between the two subjects [12]!

Lastly, it has to be said that the genealogic trees presented by the authors of the publication are much more complex in reality, with frequent ramifications from one branch to the other [12].

A statistical modeling of the identification arguments was also carried-out with Lionel Mathelin (LIMSI-CNRS, Orsay). The probability that the match of the genetics between samples from “Henri IV's head” and so-called “Louis XVI's blood” [13] was only due to chance is estimated to only 1 in 71,280 or 1 in 641,520 depending on the retained model.

Further genetic analyses will be necessary on the “Louis-XVI’s blood” in order to confirm or not its authenticity, and explain the potential contradictory results.
From a morphological point of view, recall that 22 objective arguments have been given (both from anthropological and historical point of view) and allow authentication of the head as belonging to Henri IV beyond reasonable doubt, as expressed in our initial publication [14].
Lastly, with Philippe Froesch (VisualForensic, Barcelona), a three-dimensional comparison was recently carried-out between Henri IV's death mask and the mummified head. Unlike a first anatomical comparison (published in 2010 in BMJ) [14], based on a few key anthropological points, this new comparison relies on a very large number of points and curves since it was done in 3-D. It has shown that the anatomical match was complete, and this could not be due to chance. Further, the asymmetry of the face as seen on the different death masks is also clearly visible on the skull under consideration. This study will be published in an international forensic journal, as it may be sufficient by itself for an individual identification.
Hence, at the anthropological, historical and statistical levels, the many arguments allow to come to the conclusion, beyond reasonable doubt, that the head is authentic and belongs to Henri IV. Recent genetic analyses [6] clearly question the heterogeneity of the genetic heritage within the Bourbon/Orleans family.
As a consequence, no argument is sufficient to ask for a retraction of the BMJ article as it meets none of the criteria: scientific misconduct, plagiarism, serious errors, and duplicate/concurrent publishing (self-plagiarism) [15].
Controversy is part of any important scientific publication, and particularly frequent for medico-historical identifications. But passions should be left aside in favor of objectivity and rigor. In any cases, a researcher has to accept that he will never be able to convince some skeptics colleagues in the case of a multidisciplinary study.
1. Lippi D. About craniotomy. BMJ online, 15/02/2011 (
2. Lippi D. Illacrimate sepolture. Curiosità e ricerca scientifica nella storia delle riesumazioni dei Medici. Firenze (Italy): Firenze University Press, 2006.
3. Charlier P, Babelon JP, Galland B. An historical identification is not an improvisation. BMJ online, 14/02/2011 (
4. Gabet S, Charlier P. Henri IV, l’énigme du roi sans tête. Paris, Vuibert, 2013.
5. Charlier P, Grilletto R, Boano R, Gourevitch D, Galland B, Babelon JP, Perot J. Ouvrir un corps de roi : pourquoi, comment ? Le cas d'Henri IV. Rev Prat. 2011;61(6):880-5.
6. Larmuseau MHD et al. Genetic genealogy reveals true Y haplogroup of House of Bourbon contradicting recent identification of the presumed remains of two French Kings. Eur J Hum Genet 2013 Oct 9. doi:10.1038/ejhg.2013.211.
7. Anderson KG, Kaplan H, Lancaster JB. Demographic correlates of paternity confidence and pregnancy outcomes among Albuquerque men. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2006;4:560-571.
8. Sykes B, Irven C. Surnames and the Y chromosome. Am J Hum Genet. 2000;4:1417-1419.
9. Anonyme. Les Six d'Orléans. Essai historique sur la branche cadette de la Maison de Bourbon. Paris: Dentu, 1835, pp. 131-132.
10. Castelot A. Philippe Egalité, le prince rouge. Paris: Perrin, 1951.
11. Pinoteau H, Gandrille F, Papet-Vauban C. Etat présent de la Maison de Bourbon (4th edition). Paris: Le léopard d'or, 1991.
12. Fogg RN, Boorjian SA. The sexual dysfunction of Louis XVI: a consequence of international politics, anatomy or naïveté? BJU Int. 2010;106(4):457-459.
13. Charlier P, Olalde I, Solé N, Ramírez O, Babelon JP, Galland B, Calafell F, Lalueza-Fox C. Genetic comparison of the head of Henri IV and the presumptive blood from Louis XVI (both Kings of France). Forensic Sci Int. 2013;226(1-3):38-40.
14. Charlier P, Huynh-Charlier I, Poupon J, Keyser C, Lancelot E, Favier D, Vignal JN, Sorel P, Chaillot PF, Boano R, Grilletto R, Delacourte S, Duriez JM, Loublier Y, Campos P, Willerslev E, Gilbert MT, Eisenberg L, Ludes B, de la Grandmaison GL. Multidisciplinary medical identification of a French king's head (Henri IV). BMJ 2010;341:c6805.
15. Kleinert S. COPE’s retraction guidelines. Lancet. 2009;374(9705):1876-1877.

Competing interests: No competing interests

31 October 2013
Philippe Charlier
(Forensic anthropologist)
Philippe Froesch, Lionel Mathelin, Bruno Galland, Jean-Pierre Babelon, Jacques Perot
UFR des sciences de la santé (UVSQ, AP-HP)
2 avenue de la source de la Bièvre, 78180 Montigny le Bretonneux, France