Eat Your Heart Out
William Buckland (1784-1856) was an English Victorian-era geologist, the Dean of Westminster, and a proponent of Natural Theology whose supporters viewed the natural world as a complex machine designed and created by God. By 1845 Buckland’s mental state started to decline and he would have occasional “mental lapses”. Augustus Hare noted the most infamous one in a newspaper in 1882 (Chapman 2020, 212). The story was also made into a humorous light-hearted poem by William Plomer called “The Heart of a King: An Incident at Nuneham” in 1856 (Pemberton 2010, 250).
Figure 1. Photograph of Dr. William Buckland holding a fossil in 1849. Source.
Ownership of cultural objects/artifacts is one of the most heavily debated issues within the field of museology. The handling of historic or cultural artifacts/objects by unprofessional hands can go horribly wrong. The most recent (and fictional example) comes from the climactic ending of Rian Johnson’s The Glass Onion. Perhaps the most infamous factual one was the Ecce Homo (1930) fresco which was horribly retouched and is now referred to as the “Monkey Christ." The Buckland incident is another similar instance.
In 1848, Buckland and a couple of his friends travelled to the village of Nuneham Courtenay, 5 miles southeast of Oxford (Chapman 2020, 212). Within this small, obscure village rested the heart of the French monarch, King Louis XIV (1638-1715). Also known as the Sun King, Louis XIV is most known for his creation, the Palace of Versailles. Its construction was intended to demonstrate the superiority of French culture to the other European states (Treasure 2018, 180, 189). After he died in Paris, according to tradition, the King’s body was divided into three parts: his body, entrails and heart. His heart was transported, embalmed, and placed within the Eglise des Jésuites on Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris, now called the Saint Paul-Saint Louis Church (Talmon 2018; Le Centre des monuments nationaux 2015). After the French Revolution, his heart came into the possession of the Archbishop of York, Lord Edward Vernable-Vernon Harcourt (Talmon 2018).
Figure 2. Une messe sous la Terreur (A mass during The Terror). Artwork by Amédée Varin (1818-1883) and Charles Louis Lucien Muller (1815-1892). Source.
As to how an English estate came to acquire the mummified heart of a French king is not exactly clear, nor verified. During the French Revolution anticlericalism ran amok. Catholic churches were ransacked and vandalized. Priests and nuns were hunted down by mobs. In the September 1792 Massacres, 392 priests died in Paris alone. Eventually, on 24 November 1793, all churches in Paris were shut down (Price 17-18). During the Terror, five priests from the Saint Paul-Saint Louis Church were killed (Diocese of Paris). I suspect that the King’s heart was stolen from the church, sold and smuggled to Great Britain sometime after the Massacre.
Buckland and his friends were guests of Lord Harcourt and while they stayed at his estate, they were invited to have dinner with him. Details on what occurred at this dinner vary from source to source, but Augustus Hare’s autobiography provides the most detailed account of the event. Lord Harcourt brought out a silver casket or container to show to his guests. He claimed that the object inside the casket was the mummified heart of King Louis XIV. The silver casket was then passed around the table (Chapman 2020, 212;). Eventually, it got passed to Buckland. Upon viewing the king’s heart, Buckland apparently said, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before.” He then quickly grabbed the heart and swallowed it whole (Classen 2017, 19).
I do not know what happened next. It seems that Buckland did not suffer any consequences for eating the heart of a French king. Buckland already had a reputation for putting things in his mouth that he should not have. He once claimed the skill of knowing the age of a skull by its taste (Classen 2017, 19). But I imagine that this event might have shocked even the oldest of his friends.
Figure 3. The heart of King Louis XVII in the Basilica of St. Denis. Source.
Westminster Abbey. “William Buckland.” Westminster Abbey. Westminster Abbey. Accessed January 7, 2023. https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/william-buckland.
Le Centre des monuments nationaux. “The Last Journey of Louis XIV.” Versailles - La mort du roi - The last journey of Louis XIV. Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, September 9, 2015. http://www.leroiestmort.com/en/convoi-funeraire-de-louis-xiv.
Diocese of Paris. “Saint Paul.” St. Paul Parish Saint-Louis-du-Marais. Diocese of Paris. Accessed January 7, 2023. https://www.spsl.fr/saint-paul.
Price, Roger. The Church and the State in France, 1789–1870: ‘Fear of God Is the Basis of Social Order.’ Springer International Publishing, 2017.
Talmon, Noelle. “THE HUGE APPETITE OF LOUIS XIV AND THE SCIENTIST WHO ATE HIS MUMMIFIED HEART.” Ripley’s. May 1, 2018. https://www.ripleys.com/weird-news/appetite-louis-xiv/
Treasure, Geoffrey R R. Louis XIV. First edition. Boca Raton, FL: Routledge, 2018.
Pemberton, S. George. “History of Ichnology: The Reverend William Buckland (1784-1856) and the Fugitive Poets.” Ichnos (Chur, Switzerland) 17, no. 4 (2010): 246–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/10420940.2010.534341.
Chapman, Allan. Caves, Coprolites and Catastrophes: The Story of Pioneering Geologist and
Fossil-Hunter William Buckland. London: SPCK, 2020.
Classen, Constance. “A Taste of Heaven: Relics and Rarities.” In The Museum of the Senses
Experiencing Art and Collections. 9-24. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781474252454.