On the 21st January, 1793, the French Revolution reached its ultimate goal. King Louis XVI, the last king of France, was executed alongside his queen Marie Antoinette.
The execution was public and used that feared and fearsome toll of the Revolution, the guillotine. And, at the moment of the king’s death, a legend sprung to life. Some say that the blood from the dead king’s mortal wound was staunched by a handkerchief.
And those same people say they know where that handkerchief is now.
Follow the Gourd!
The legend has it that the blood that was spilled from Louis XVI’s beheading was soaked up with a handkerchief and stored inside a gourd. Obviously royalists were keen to search for this infamous gourd, and indeed they came across such a gourd, containing a bloodstained handkerchief.
Most readers will by now be somewhat cynical of such a story, and such a miraculous discovery. History is littered with fakes, after all. But when scientists checked the blood on this handkerchief, they were able to confirm that it was indeed the blood of King Louis XVI.
Scientists performed DNA analysis on the blood and tried to match the blood sample from the squash with the DNA from the mummified head of an ancestor of the king. King Henry IV of 16th-century France was a direct ancestor of King Louis XVI. When the DNA samples were matched, the results came out positive.
Over the course of time, scientists have done many evidence analyses and blood sample analyses that seem to confirm that the sample is from Louis XVI’s blood and he is connected to the French king Henry IV. The circumstantial evidence which connects the squash to the gourd of the French Revolution, the legend of the king’s blood and the matching of DNA all confirm that the story of the gourd and handkerchief is true.
Interestingly, without the use of present scientific tools, the establishment of a relationship between the two would have been impossible. The remains of the two kings lie scattered across different parts of Europe.
It is possible that some parts will never be recovered. Moreover, the connection between the two kings is not parental. King Henry IV is seven generations earlier than Louis XVI on his father’s side. Yet, the use of specific scientific aids helped in establishing the relationship and confirming the story of Louis XVI blood.
Louis XVI was born in the year 1754 and was executed in 1793. At his execution, historical legends say that the public went up to the scaffold to dip the handkerchief into the royal blood of King Louis XVI.
The gourd that was unearthed also had some figures related to the French Revolution, and an inscription in French that says “On January 21, Maximilien Bourdaloue dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation”.
After it was confirmed that the blood in the squash actually belonged to Louis XVI, Scientists looked to compare the DNA sample with the sample collected from the remains of the king’s descendants. Of the descendants of the king is only one, his son Louis Charles or the Dauphin. The Dauphin, or Louis XVII, died at the young age of 10 years old when he was poisoned or passed away from an illness.
The death of the dauphin happened after two years of his father’s death. The crystallized heart of the boy, formally known as Louis XVII, is kept in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Denis in Paris. While the heart of Louis XVII exists today, it is not easy to take permission from the church to take out the heart and collect DNA samples for further analysis.
So Where Is It?
That is not so easy to answer. The gourd is today in possession of an anonymous Italian family. It is believed that the gourd has been with the family since the 1800s and early 1900s.
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The family later approached scientists and historians to do DNA analysis on the blood sample. Before the gourd came under the ownership of the family, it was gifted to the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
At first, the squash was taken as a joke and a myth. It was taken as a legend because something as trivial as a gourd and a handkerchief would not survive through the periods of history.
However, this particular squash has not only survived but also has detailing of the Revolution and messages from the French public. The rare squash has been confirmed as a historical artifact of the fading moments of the French monarchy. Today, the squash, decorated with the faces of key figures of the French Revolution, is (tentatively) valued at $700,000.
What is less well known is that part of the legend cannot be verified, as there was no surviving handkerchief inside the gourd. However, the inside of the squash was soaked with blood, and scientists were able to take five samples for further analysis. The analysis of Louis XVI blood happened at two different laboratories, who both concurred as to the results.
One of the laboratories probed the sample for the Y chromosome while the other laboratory checked for the HERC2 gene to confirm the blue-eyed trait of Louis XVI. Mitochondrial DNA of the blood was also analyzed to determine the maternal origins of Louis XVI.
The tests showed that the blood sample belonged to a person with a rare genetic makeup. The blood sample was confirmed to be very old, with no descendants in the present day or among common people.
The blood also did not belong to any of the owner’s family forefathers. The rarity and age of the blood sample showed that it was free from forgery. With cases of forgery ruled out, the strongest possibility was it had Louis XVI blood. The only match that has not been made is between the blood sample and the heart sample of the Dauphin Louis XVII. If the test is completed and successful, it will immediately give inconvertible proof that the blood is true of Louis XVI.
At least, that was what was thought until more detailed tests in 2014 which concluded the blood was not, after all, Louis XVI’s. It seems that a final answer to the riddle may elude us forever.
Top Image: The head of King Louis XVI. Was his blood really caught in a handkerchief and kept in a decorative gourd? Source: British Museum / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri