The Basilica of Saint-Denis is a large medieval abbey church in the ancient town of Saint-Denis just north of Paris. While the present structure didn’t take shape until the 1130s, the first church was built over Saint-Denis’ tomb in 475. It has a long, epic history and one that has always been full of surprises.
After weaving past the pointed arches, ogival vaulting and flying buttresses inside this incredible building, you’ll eventually come to the crypt of the Bourbons at the bottom of the basilica.
The crypt of the Bourbons contains cenotaphs, in other words, funerary monuments which do not contain a body. One of the most treasured relics was taken from the body of Louis XVII, whose small withered heart now sits in a crystal jar.
Louis XVII was the younger son of King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. He was born in 1785 and recognised by royalists as the King of France in 1793 at the age of eight.
His life was mysteriously cut short two years later during the French Revolution in 1795. This followed a stint as king that was so brief that Louis XVII was never actually crowned.
Following the unusual French tradition of preserving royal hearts, little Louis’ heart was sliced out by a surgeon the day after he died. It was smuggled around for years by the overseeing physician, Philippe-Jean Pelletan, who tried to keep the heart safe during the turbulent time of the French Revolution.
During the Revolution, the tombs at the Basilica of Saint-Denis were broken into and their contents tossed into a collective pit of tangled bones, so Pelletan’s concern was justified.
One of the ways in which Philippe-Jean Pelletan strove to protect this royal gem was to submerge the heart in alcohol and then hide it behind his library. This preserved the heart for eight years, but eventually, the alcohol evaporated, leaving a withered, mummified relic.
After being forgotten for years, Louise XVII’s heart was then stolen by a student and sent to the Spanish branch of the Bourbon royal family. Eventually, the heart made its way back onto French soil in the 19th century and ended up in its rightful place at the basilica in 1975.
The heart of Louis XVII didn’t receive a proper ritual burial until June 8, 2004, though, when the Mémorial de France in Saint-Denis finally organised the official funeral mass that this regal legend deserved.
As well as the strange story of the heart, the church is also associated with the highly curious legend that when Saint-Denis was beheaded, he picked up his head and walked to his own burial.