France stages funeral for Louis XVII's heart
January 4, 2007 12:13am CST
(AP) French royalists staged a pageant-filled funeral Tuesday for a tiny, rock-hard relic they hailed as the heart cut from Louis XVII, who died at age 10 in a filthy revolutionary prison. A hearse brimming with lilies — the symbol of the French crown — delivered a crystal vase containing the heart to the Saint-Denis Basilica. There, it was placed in a royal crypt containing the remains of Louis XVII's parents, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. After two centuries of mystery surrounding the boy's fate, DNA tests have convinced many historians that the relic passed secretly from person to person was truly the royal heart. A faction of royalists — who want to turn back the clock and restore the monarchy — seized on the DNA tests to press the government to allow the funeral at the Gothic basilica north of Paris, the resting place of France's kings. Trumpets sounded and incense wafted in the air as a small boy marched up the aisle with the vase draped by a purple veil. Outside, a crowd of royal-watchers followed the Roman Catholic Mass on a huge screen. Afterward, cries of "Long live the king!" greeted the Duke of Anjou, Louis-Alphonse de Bourbon, one of several pretenders to the French throne. To this day, the Bourbons dispute the rights of succession with the Orleans dynasty that followed. The Mass recognizing the royal heart attempted to end 209 years of legend and uncertainty about Louis XVII's death. Yet some skeptics insist the mystery remains unsolved. Historian Philippe Delorme, who wrote a book about Louis XVII and organized the genetic tests, lists the facts of the boy's brief but grim life as follows: Louis XVII lost his parents to the guillotine in 1793. He was locked in Paris' Temple prison for three years. The boy was brainwashed, with captors forcing him to sing revolutionary songs and curse his mother's memory. He also spent months alone in a dark tower, with nobody to wash him or clean his cell. At Tuesday's requiem Mass, Cardinal Jean Honore compared the boy to today's abused children. "The fragility of a child ... imposes absolute respect in our world today," he said. When Louis XVII died of tuberculosis in 1795, rumors circulated that the royal heir had been smuggled to safety, and a commoner had died in his place. The small body was dumped in a common grave — but first, a doctor secretly carved out the heart, in keeping with a royal tradition. He spirited it away in a handkerchief and kept it as a souvenir, Delorme said. The heart passed from person to person until it was returned to France in 1975. The DNA tests were carried out in 2000, establishing a genetic link with a strand of Marie-Antoinette's hair saved during her girlhood in Austria. But still, some people continue to insist the true heir was one of the many people who came forward in the 19th century — in places as far-flung as the Seychelles and Wisconsin — claiming to be the lost boy. One was Charles-Guillaume Naundorff, a man with German papers who turned up in the early 19th century. One of his descendants is among those who challenged the Saint-Denis funeral. Some mourners Tuesday said they understood why some people preferred the happier ending to Louis XVII's story. "But DNA is sufficient proof that this heart is truly that of the right child," said Elisabeth Bramwell, a descendent of a noble French family who wore black lace and a large cross around her neck. While Louis XVII's story reached its epilogue Tuesday, one scientist who probed the heart for DNA spoke of plans to investigate another historical figure. Jean-Jacques Cassiman of Belgium's Louvain University told VRT television about his new task: Testing the DNA of Napoleon Bonaparte to make sure the body entombed in Paris is the real thing.