The Perfumed Lionheart

Listen along to this post

Richard I of England was blessed with a great head of hair and a great nickname, Cœur de Lion, Lionheart. He was also the great-great-grandson of William the Conqueror. Born into the Plantagenet-Angevin royal family, he inherited immense wealth and privilege even if his parents were the dysfunctional Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

A 19th-century depiction of Richard I

Richard lived a life that reads like a Medieval fantasy series; crusades, captivities, multiple shipwrecks. His dad kidnapped his fiancee. His brother bribed the Holy Roman Empire to keep him IN prison. Drama! I’d gladly watch eight seasons. 

Effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II annoyed to be in each other’s presence even in death. Church of Fontevraud Abbey

Outside of tv, though, Richard’s legacy is more complex. How he is perceived today depends on who you are. To some, he is a hero, a Warrior-King of England. Even if he didn’t speak English and only spent a total of six months on the island as an adult. Others see him as a tragic figure writing songs of abandonment in Occitan during his captivity. Still, many see him as a villain. A title that’s hard to fight against when he tried to kill most of his family, slaughtered captives, and pillaged Akko.

This isn’t just a hot take from later centuries. The contemporary English chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall wrote in the Chronicon Anglicanum that Richard was among “the immense cohort of sinners”.

Personally, Richie gives me intense Medieval fuckboy energy. Just a guy that was good at poking people with a pointy stick, but not much else. A rich kid who failed his way to the top and called his mom if things got rough. She’d tax the hell out of the peasants to sort it out.

Richard I and Saladin. c1325-1335. CC/The British Library,

More than anything, I think people are drawn to his moniker, Lionheart, and the idea of a king as a chivalric hero. 

His life, however interesting, isn’t nearly as compelling to us here at Death/Scent as his death, more specifically, the aromatic preparation of his heart.

Starting At The End

By March 1199, Richard had returned from his embarrassing captivity within the Holy Roman Empire. He made himself feel better by crowning himself king a second time, building a giant castle, and suppressing his enemies at home.

There was just a little clean-up work in the south, putting down a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. This was supposed to be a walk in the park. An upstart viscount with a tiny castle brought to heel in a few days. As Ralph of Coggeshall put it, Richard “devastated the viscount’s land with fire and sword”.

However, during the battle, someone was too cool for school and didn’t wear his chain mail. Richard was wounded in the shoulder with an arbalest (crossbow) bolt. Still, the wound wasn’t fatal, and Richard might have survived if infection hadn’t set in. Sadly it did, and by April 6th 1199, he died in his mother’s arms.

A 19th-Century depiction of the death of Richard I

Then under Queen Eleanor’s direction, she had him cut into pieces, put his heart in a lead box wrapped in magical herbs and buried the bits all over the place.

This act sounds…less than respectful, more like instructions to dispatch a vampire, but in actuality, it was a high honour.

Heart Burial

The Crusades had created a situation where influential people were dying far from home. Transporting the whole body was rarely possible, but taking back symbolic organs like the heart or bowels for burial was feasible. This started the phenomena of heart and entrail burials among the English and French elite. The Angevins were particular fans.

Richard’s great grandfather Henry I had his body buried at Reading Abby in England, and his viscera buried at the Rouen Cathedral in Normandy. Richard’s brother Henry The Younger had his entrails, eyes, and brain buried in Grandmont and the rest of his body placed in the family vault at Rouen.

These heart burials mirrored the practice and popularity of relic-cults in the Middle Ages. They served as nationalistic relics and presented a powerful political message. The king’s funeral was spread across the kingdom, allowing each region to mourn the king. It reinforced the legitimacy of his reign, and thereby the rights of his successor. It also allowed a kingdom divided by the English Channel to strengthen its claim to both territories and fulfil multiple ritual obligations.

Effigy of Richard I over the site of his heart burial.

However, despite being divvied up, none of Richard was bound for England. Instead, Richard’s heart was buried in Rouen. His entrails stayed in Châlus, where he died, and the rest went to Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. It seems reinforcing the claim to their ancestral territories was more important at the moment than sending part of the king’s body back to England.

Now you might be thinking, “a loose heart, ridden on horseback across France in April?! There won’t be much left to bury.” Indeed, which is why his heart was embalmed, but this wasn’t just any embalming.

Medieval Embalming?

Forget your modern ideas of embalming when thinking about Medieval embalming. There was no formaldehyde involved nor a desire to make the body look rosy-cheeked and sleeping. It was essentially mummification and closer to curing fish than modern Western embalming practices.

Most people in the Middle Ages lived and died within 30 miles of their birth. There was no facade of separating death from daily life and no need to try and preserve a body for most people.

Also, the grave wasn’t seen as the eternal resting place of just one body as it is in North America today. Various European communities encouraged decomposition to allow for grave turnover (they still do, btw). So it’s not surprising that most of the population were buried au-naturale.

Only a small number of people would have been subject to embalming in the Middle Ages, and it was as much a religious and political act as an effort to preserve the flesh.

Bless His Heart

King Richard’s heart was embalmed, placed in a lead box and buried in the Rouen Cathedral. Shockingly Richard’s heart lay undisturbed from 1199 to 1838 when it was excavated by the historian Achille Deville. The still-sealed box was engraved with the Latin inscription, HIC IACET COR RICARDI REGIS ANGLORUM (Here is the heart of Richard, King of England). 

There are suprisingly few photos of the reliquary and none of them are great. Musée départemental des Antiquités Yohann Deslandes/CG76

The heart itself was pulverised, essentially a fragile heart-shaped pile of human dust. However, the fact that it survived at all and in-situ is a testament to the success of the burial. It didn’t need to look like a freshly plucked heart after 640 years. It just needed to survive. It succeeded in its efforts to galvanise Richard’s right to rule and his divine mandate as king. 

The fragile state of the organ meant it wasn’t safe to examine in 1838. Instead, the remains were sealed inside a crystal box and reburied. It would take until 2012 for the heart to be examined and reveal its aromatic secrets. Dr Philippe Charlier of Raymond Poincare University Hospital and his team published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, in 2013.

Perfumed Hearts

Richard’s heart is one of the oldest surviving examples of Medieval European mummification, and it wasn’t clear how the embalmers did it. There are written records of other mummified royals from several decades later, though. Hence, it was important for Charlier et al. to analyse the heart and compare it to other known mummified bodies.

The heart appeared as a desiccated remain surrounded by shards of fabric, debris, and coated in a whiteish-brown powder. Through their analysis, they were able to show that the heart had been wrapped in linen and laid within the lead reliquary.

The crystal box containing the remains of the mummified heart of Richard I. Philippe Charlier

Pollen remains of poplar, Holm oak, and bellflower were found but determined not to have been part of the embalming. Instead, they are assumed to be environmental contamination from the time of burial. This helps to confirm the account of an April/May burial, as that is the time of year in France when all three are in bloom. 

However, before being placed in the reliquary, the heart was subject to aromatic and desiccating treatments. 

The remains showed signs of being treated with mercury and lime. Lime, of course, is a known disinfectant and desiccation agent. Mercury compounds were used in other Medieval and Renaissance-era mummies. These compounds were possibly there as a preserving agent or possible because of the extraordinary powers assigned to mercury at the time. 

Vegetal structures and pollen found on the remains indicated that the heart was soaked in an oil and resin-based mixture with a host of macerated aromatic materials. Myrtle, daisy, mint, pine resin, wood tar, creosote and frankincense were found on the heart.

Myrtle, mint, pine, wood tar, and creosote were elements found in other European embalmed bodies later in the period. These materials served two functions, delay decay AND scent the organ. Perfuming the organ was undoubtedly to mask the scent of decay. It may have also elevated the importance of the remains by conveying a sense of the incorruptibility of Richard’s heart.

Smells Like Heaven

What is of particular interest is the use of daisy and frankincense. At the time of this writing, no other mummified Medieval and Early Modern European remains have been found that used daisy or frankincense in embalming. These materials appear to lean more towards the aromatic and symbolic than a practical preservation technique. 

Daisy was associated with both the Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary in Medieval Northern Europe. Daisies were sometimes called Mary’s Rose in Medieval England. They were also associated with innocence, purity, and children. Hence the connection to the Baby Jesus, as the ultimate expression of all three. You can understand perhaps why a mother may want her favourite child’s heart presented in such a way.

What is interesting to me is the lack of roses. Intensely aromatic and deeply symbolic, roses were found in other Medieval embalmed bodies, but not Richard’s. We can only speculate about why that choice was made, but the use of frankincense is evident. 

The Power Play of Frankincense

The whiteish powder found all over Richard’s heart turned out to be the remains of a heavy application of frankincense. Frankincense obviously played an important role in the treatment. While frankincense was used in ancient body preparations, it was unheard of in Medieval Europe. Frankincense was rare, controlled by the Church, extremely expensive, and deeply associated with the story of Christ. Frankincense is presented at Jesus’s birth and is part of his embalming (anointing) after his death.  

The Adoration of the Magi (lower part of a rood screen). Unknown artist. Victoria and Albert Museum. Medieval art traditionally depicts Balthazar, the magus that brings frankincense, as an African man.

The Medieval audience would have understood that Richard’s remains were being presented in a Christ-like or at least a saint-like way. His heart wasn’t treated like a traditional royal heart burial but as the creation of a saintly relic. Saintly organs were on display all over Europe. The evidence of their authenticity and divine favour was presented in their incorruptibility as much as their rumoured miracles. 

Incorruptibility didn’t mean the body didn’t decay per se. It just meant that there was some level of preservation or flexibility present in the body that was seen as miraculous. Part of the Medieval understanding of incorruptibility was the Odour of Sanctity

The Odour of Sanctity was a divine otherworldly odour attached most often to the dead bodies of holy people. It wasn’t just the lack of a corpse smell. It had to be a wondrously good smell, often incense and flowers, exuding from the body with no earthly explanation for the odour.

By embalming her son’s heart in frankincense and flowers, Eleanor was using the language of sainthood to preserve or perhaps rewrite her son’s legacy. Richard wouldn’t be remembered for his failures or being among ‘the immense cohort of sinners’. He would be remembered as a brave warrior, an anointed king, a gallant hero, and a defender of Christendom.

The symbolism wouldn’t have been lost on anyone in the presence of the heart. I’m sure, given the amount of product still present in 2012, those that witnessed the heart on its procession to the cathedral would have smelt the frankincense.

Think of what the world of Medieval France smelt like for the average person. Now imagine a shiny metal box being ceremonially carted through your town. It carries the king’s heart, which exudes not the odour of death but the heavenly odour of frankincense. It would remind you of Balthazar bringing his gifts to Jesus. The Myrrh Bearers going to anoint the dead body only to find a miracle had occurred. How would that have made people feel? What message would that give?

Was it all stagecraft? I don’t think so. This was a legitimately devastating moment for the country and the Queen Mother. No one was excited to crown Richard’s younger brother, John, king. John did such a crap job, by the way, that no English royal house has ever named a child John since.

I think this was an act of genuine mourning, but also the adroit use of political theatre.

Eleanor’s wise use of symbolic aromatics aided in Richard forever being remembered as The Lionheart.

Detail of the Richard Cœur de Lion statue by Carlo Marochetti outside the Palace of Westminster, London.

Further Resources