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Louis XVI's Blood... Isn't

By Ross Pomeroy

In early 2013, a team of scientists reported that blood on a stained handkerchief kept within a two-century-old gourd belonged to legendary French monarch Louis XVI.

The finding fit in nicely with popular history: After Louis XVI's public beheading in 1793, citizens of the newly formed French Republic supposedly rushed forward to dab their handkerchiefs in the quickly pooling blood.

That macabre, chaotic collection of timeless souvenirs could very well have happened, but a new study published in Nature's Scientific Reports disputes the earlier report from 2013. The blood in that gourd almost certainly doesn't belong to Louis XVI.

After sequencing the genome of the DNA contained within that blood, a team of geneticists turned up a great many reasons to doubt its royal authenticity. For starters, an examination of alleles determining height and eye color show that the blood's former owner was only slightly taller than an average European male in the 18th century -- roughly 5'8" -- and had brown eyes. This is incompatible with the widely circulated description of Louis XVI: around 6'3" tall and blue-eyed. Moreover, an examination of the blood's ancestry found it to be most related to individuals from Northern Italy. Considering that Louis XVI's heritage is predominantly rooted to present-day Germany and Poland, it is highly unlikely that the blood belongs to the king.

Laypersons may recall Louis XVI as the final king in the thousand-year French monarchy, and the only French king to ever be executed. He was married to the illustrious Marie Antoinette, who's widely credited with uttering the infamous phrase, "Let them eat cake." In fact, there's no evidence that she ever said that.

Source: Olalde, I. et al. Genomic analysis of the blood attributed to Louis XVI (1754–1793), king of France. Sci. Rep. 4, 4666; DOI:10.1038/srep04666 (2014).

(Images: Davide Pettener, Wikimedia Commons)

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