While it’s not what I’d do, legend has it that when King Louis XVI was beheaded in 1793, onlookers in Paris rushed to the scene to dip their handkerchiefs in the dead king’s blood. Years later, one of these gruesome souvenirs made headlines when an Italian family sent it off for genetic testing to see if the relic was the real deal.
A hollowed-out gourd had been in the family for over a century inscribed with the following phrase: “On January 21, Maximilien Bourdaloue dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation.” Decorated with etched portraits of heroes from the French Revolution , it appeared to have been stuffed with one of the blood-soaked handkerchiefs.
The decorated gourd said to contain a handkerchief dipped in the blood of King Louis XVI. (Davide Pettener / CC BY 3.0 )
In 2009 the family hired Carles Lalueza-Fox, a world-renowned paleogenomicist known for decoding ancient DNA and author of Genes, Kings and Imposters , to try to figure out if the artifact was a fake. While it sounds pretty straightforward, it’s anything but. In fact, finding a DNA sample from the House of Bourbon with which to compare the supposedly-royal blood is no easy feat and resulting studies led to heated academic debate.
The mummified heart of Louis XVI’s son was out of the question, as scientists had been unable to extract the Y-chromosome, which passes from father to son. Lalueza-Fox therefore used a sample from a mummified head believed to belong to Henri IV . Embalmed when he died in 1610, his head went missing when his grave was ransacked during the revolution, only to resurface again in the 1900s during an auction.
The supposed blood of Louis XVI was compared with the dubious head of Henri IV, seen here with Joseph-Émile Bourdais who bought the relic in 1919. ( Public domain )
These two dubious remains became the subject of in-depth DNA testing . In a study published in Forensic Science International experts concluded that the two were related. The forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier went so far as to state that “one can say that there is absolutely no doubt anymore,” reported the Daily Mail .
Others remained unimpressed. A 2013 report added analysis of blood from three living descendants of Henri IV into the mix and claimed that the mummified head and blood did not belong to their respective monarchs. “For the blood, I’m 100 percent certain it is not original,” stated one geneticist in Archaeology. “For the head, the DNA that has been analyzed is not of Henry IV.”
Contemporary accounts described King Louis XVI as being exceptionally tall and blue-eyed, as depicted by Antoine-François Callet. ( Public domain )
But that wasn’t the end of it. Scientists sequenced the full genome from the bloody handkerchief and concluded in Scientific Reports that it was “probably” a fake. Although contemporary accounts described Louis as an exceptionally tall, blue-eyed king of German and Polish ancestry, the blood sample came from a short person with brown eyes of French-Italian heritage. They also found that the gourd actually contained the DNA of at least three other people.
In the end, the gourd and its blood-soaked handkerchief were most likely the brainchild of an 18th century swindler. Alternatively, the lack of a match could have been caused by some unknown royal infidelity. Oh la la!
Top image: Detail of political cartoon depicting the Duc d’Orléans on the scaffold holding the severed head of Louis XVI up to the crowd. Source: Bodleian Library / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
By Cecilia Bogaard