Advent calendar

Door 23: The Heart of a King

Twenty three

ADVISORY This blog is carnivorous. Those with an aversion to stories about eating meat, be warned!

What meat is on your Christmas dinner menu? Turkey? Perhaps some goose for a change? Or maybe pork, or beef. How about something a little more adventurous? Swan? Porpoise? Bluebottles? One particular geologist wouldn’t have been happy until he’d sampled the entire animal kingdom.


William Buckland by Thomas Sopwith

William Buckland was an accomplished man. He was Dean of Westminster, describer of the Megalosaurus, winner of both the Copley Medal and the Wollaston Medal, commemorated at the Geological Society in the form of the William Buckland Room, and possessor of a Wikipedia entry that features an entire section devoted to his ‘Known Eccentricities‘. One such eccentricity that he shared with his son Frank was zoöphagy. His aim was to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom.

He wasn’t the only geologist to be fond of unusual flesh for dinner. In 1859 Richard Owen followed up his famous dinner served in the model of the Iguanadon in Crystal Palace Park with the ‘Eland Dinner’. In the London Taven, diners were served an array of exotic meats including the titular eland. Frank Buckland was present, and enjoyed it so much, he founded the Acclimatization Society to seek out new sources of food. Seeking to top Richard Owen’s menu, at a meal in 1862 the members of the Acclimatization Society ate sea-slug, kangaroo and curassow. Frank Buckland went onto found the Museum of Economic Fish Culture promoting the farming of fish and other sea-dwelling creatures in order to eat them.

However, prior to these excessive meals there is a story told of William Buckland partaking of a unique delicacy which if true, would not only top any menu from the Acclimatization Society, but would complete the history of the Bourbon Kings of France with a loud burp.

The heart of King Louis XVII of France as preserved at the Basilica of Saint Denis

The heart of King Louis XVII of France as preserved at the Basilica of Saint Denis

Since the 13th century, it had been the practice in France to separate the bowels, heart and other internal organs from the body of a dead King or Queen. The hearts were then embalmed, put in an ornate reliquary, which in turn was placed on black taffeta-covered cushions situated on the lap of the King’s confessor. Under the cover of darkness, a funeral procession would take the royal heart to its last resting place, often in a completely separate location from the body, usually specified by the monarch before they died.

The heart of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, was taken from Versailles to l’Église Saint Paul-Saint Louis to lie beside the heart of his father King Louis XIII. It was enshrined in a chest capped with silver and bronze angels holding a silver heart. For 77 years after Louis XIV’s death, there it stayed.

Louis XIV of France as painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701

Louis XIV of France as painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701

Then came the Revolution. As well as decapitating the current King and royal family, the revolutionaries disposed of the hearts of the old kings. The chest was melted down by the order of the Mint, while the hearts of the two kings were sold to Alexandre Pau, a landscape painter. There was a particular shade called ‘Mummy Brown’ that could only be obtained by grinding up organic matter, usually embalmed Egyptian mummies. At the time of William Buckland’s repast, Mummy Brown was a particular favourite of the Pre-Raphaelites. M. Pau was in need of some handy organic matter with which to make his pigments, and the hearts seemed as good as any mummies he was likely to get hold of.

View of Caen by Alexandre Pau de Saint-Martin

View of Caen by Alexandre Pau de Saint-Martin

He started on the heart of Louis XIV, who allegedly had the larger heart. It’s speculated that a view of Caen painted by Saint-Martin housed in the Museum of the town of Pontoise gets its rich colour from the royal blood contained within the paint. What happened to rest of the heart is a matter of conjecture as there are competing claims. One story tells of M. Pau returning the remains of the heart to the royal court after the Restoration of Louis XVII. Another story is that it is in l’Église du Val-de-Grâce, in Paris.

The most intriguing story is that it ended up in the hands of the Harcourts of Nuneham House who exhibited it over port at a dinner given by the Archbishop of York, Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt. Other guests at the dinner included William Harcourt, brother of the Archbishop and founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Dean of Westminster, one William Buckland. The remains of the heart, now no bigger than a walnut, were passed around the table for the inspection of the guests. When it reached William Buckland he proclaimed thus:

“I have eaten many strange things, but I have never eaten the heart of a king before.”

Whereupon he ate it.

Nuneham House, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire.

Nuneham House, Oxfordshire. Home of the Harcourts

Is it true? Even if it is, was the object sent round the table actually the remains of Louis XIV’s heart? Given William Buckland’s joy of peculiar delicacies, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if he reacted in such a way when presented with such a morsel. Then again, given his increasingly fragile state of mind at the time of the meal and his liking of a good prank, he may well have staged it or even made the story up completely. Yet, there is a connection between Nuneham House, home of the Harcourts and Louis XIV. One of Pierre Mignard’s portraits of the King hung there until recently, as did other portraits of the King in prominent positions around the house. The Harcourts can trace their line back to the Norman invasion and there is another branch of House Harcourt resident in France to this day. Just maybe…

Whatever the truth or otherwise of this tale, when someone passes you a bowl of walnuts this Christmas, do double-check before you eat them. Enjoy your Christmas dinner. Whatever it is that you’re eating!

7 thoughts on “Door 23: The Heart of a King

  1. Pingback: Door 24: We wish you a Merry (Mary Anning) Christmas | Geological Society of London blog

  2. Pingback: Door 2: Heigh-ho, or Geology in Popular Music | Geological Society of London blog

  3. Pingback: Door 24: Christmas greetings from the geoadvent blog team! | Geological Society of London blog

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