Every Valentine’s Day, we’re inundated with hearts. We purchase cards with hearts and heart-shaped balloons. We wear clothing with hearts and adorn ourselves with heart-shaped jewellery. We ingest heart-shaped foods and candies and send heart emojis in texts.
While we may fall victim to Valentine’s Day commodification and heart-logo mania, there was a time in our not too distant past when actual human hearts were cherished, preserved, worn or placed in special urns and enshrined.
My research into 18th century preservation practices led me to a favourite book that details these heart histories of the famous and infamous: historian Charles Bradford’s quirky tome, Heart Burial (1933).
Amazingly sweeping and entertaining, the book narrates the heart journeys of many – primarily western – military, religious and political figures. One such figure, the diplomat Sir William Temple (1628-1699), is buried next to his wife in Westminster Abbey.
But in his will, he directed his heart “be buried in a silver box under a sundial in the garden of Moor Park, near Farnham, Surrey, opposite his favourite window-seat overlooking the garden he had loved so well”.
One haunting entry describes William King (1684-1763), the principal of St Mary’s Hall, Oxford, who requested his heart be placed in a silver urn and deposited in St Mary’s Hall Chapel. There, the book says: “A curious sound of tapping [can be] heard before midnight … said to be caused by the beating of his heart.”
In 2015, five 17th-century embalmed hearts in heart-shaped and engraved urns were found buried under the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France.
Archaeologists identified one of the hearts as that of Toussaint de Perrien who, in a loving gesture, had his heart placed in a cardiotaph (a heart-shaped lead urn) and buried with his wife, Louise de Quengo.
The practice of preserving the heart – the ancient symbol of the soul and emotion – was not uncommon. But for people in the 18th century, as this case and others show, it also symbolised lovers being united in death.
Perhaps the most storied literary heart is that of poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Shelley died tragically just shy of 30 years old, drowning when his boat, the Don Juan, was wrecked during a storm off the coast of Italy.
Shelley’s body, along with that of two companions, washed ashore in the Gulf of Spezia ten days later. Italian law required the cremation of a drowning victim’s body, so Shelley’s corpse was laid upon a funeral pyre on the shores of the sea, with literary luminaries such as Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt in attendance.
Novelist Edward John Trelawney’s graphic account of extracting Shelley’s calcified heart cemented the morbidly romantic legend. Kept in spirits by Hunt, the heart was eventually returned to Shelley’s wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, who kept it in a desk drawer the remainder of her life.
The year after her own death, the heart was discovered in her desk, wrapped in a silk bag and surrounded by the pages of Adonais, Percy’s elegy to John Keats. The Shelleys’ son, Sir Percy Florence, had his father’s heart encased in silver and placed on display at Boscombe Manor. Upon his death in 1889, the heart was laid to rest in the family vault at St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth.
While the story of Shelley’s heart has a poetically morbid romance, Napoleon’s storied heart has quite an unromantic ending.
In May 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte’s corpse was autopsied over two days before it was to be transported from St Helena to France. Napoleon had requested his intestines be preserved and given to his son, and his heart be sent to his wife Empress Marie-Louise.
Legend has it that following the first day of the embalming process, Napoleon’s valet awakened the surgeon to inform him that the notorious rats of St Helena had eaten Napoleon’s heart (which had been placed under a sheet with Napoleon’s body). Allegedly, the surgeon requested a sheep’s heart replace Napoleon’s without anyone being the wiser.
When rumours circulated in January 1928 regarding the heart of renowned English novelist Thomas Hardy, many were in disbelief. Hardy’s ashes were to be placed in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. But first, his widow had requested that his body be dissected so that his heart could be removed and placed in a custom-made brass urn and buried at St Michael’s Church, Stinsford, near Dorchester.
Unbelievably, the surgeon who performed the autopsy placed the heart in Mrs Hardy’s biscuit tin, a temporary resting place until the funeral director, Charles Hannah, was to arrive the next day with the bespoke receptacle.
When Hannah arrived and noticed the upturned tin, with most of the heart missing, he supposedly strangled Cobby, the guilty culprit – and Hardy’s favourite Persian cat. Placing the dead cat with the remainder of the heart in a box, he left the Hardy residence, surrounded by mourners, and proceeded to St Michael’s where the contents were buried.
While heart preservation and burials still occur today – mainly for those requesting the ancient tradition of being buried in the Holy Land, or other places of religious significance – for most, this sentimental and morbid practice has died out.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons that at this time of year we frantically obsess over everything heart-shaped – a symbolic gesture to a lost tradition emblazoned on our collective conscious by our romantic forbears. Though Napoleon’s and Hardy’s storied hearts also serve as reminders, perhaps, that we shouldn’t take romantic traditions too seriously.
Looking for something good? Cut through the noise with a carefully curated selection of the latest releases, live events and exhibitions, straight to your inbox every fortnight, on Fridays. Sign up here.