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Immortal Meals 4#: Eating a French King’s Heart June 17, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

There are great men among great men (Plato, Galileo, Einstein…)  and great eccentrics among great eccentrics. For this second exclusive club Beachcombing’s candidates would include the charming and irrepressible William Buckland (obit 1856), Victorian geologist and zoophagist and, towards the end of his life, inmate in a mental asylum.

Buckland – unlike his more mannered son, Francis – was completely unconscious of just how bizarre he was: perhaps the first condition for the true eccentric. There is, for example, a lovely story of a visit that he and some colleagues took to St Paul’s Cathedral where they found a strange stain on the stone floor. The visitors speculated on what this strange mark could be – there was a claim that the mark was a saint’s blood, while WB got straight to the nub of the problem. Getting onto his hands and knees like a dog, he licked the substance and announced to the amazed host ‘bat urine!’

As this story suggests Buckland lacked the normal concerns about what we put and what we do not put in our mouth. Indeed, he expressed an ambition to eat every living thing. And our records inform us that repasts on bluebottles and toasted mice, panthers and puppies were routine. But no meal that Buckland enjoyed was so extraordinary as the one that the raconteur Augustus Hare (obit 1903) described, a meal that Beachcombing has chosen to include in his Immortal Meals series.

On this particular occasion WB was eating at the country house at Nuneham Park when the table was shown the heart of Louis XIV (obit 1715), ‘the Sun King’ in a silver container. Without missing a beat and with that wonderful spontaneity that characterised him Buckland announced ‘I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before’. And, before any of the assembled host could stop him, the heart of Louis XIV passed down the great geologist’s throat.

AH our source for this incident does not inform us what an embalmed heart that was a century and a half old actually tasted like – but perhaps that is best left to the imagination?

Beachcombing should note that he has not found the anecdote in AH’s writing – not even the six volume Story of My Life – despite an hour looking this morning: it has come to him at second hand. Beach would particularly like to find the reference as some sources attach the tale not to William but to his son Frank, who also took pleasure in eating the strangest things.

Beach did though come across the following account in the New York Times 4 Dec 1910 that seems to be independent of Hare’s account:

One day at Nuneham [Archbishop Harcourt, obit 1847] was exhibiting [the heart] to his guests at dessert. It had been reduced by age and embalming process to the size and appearance of a small nut. It was passed around the table for exhibition. When it reached Dr. Butler [sic], Dean of Westminster, renowned not only for his zoological knowledge, but also for his extraordinary absence of mind, he without thinking what he was doing swallowed it, washing it down with a copious draft of the Harcourt port. That was the end of the royal heart of Louis XIV, the most powerful monarch of his time, and which thus disappeared down the maw of a famous English divine at Nuneham.

William Buckland was Dean of Westminster. This sounds very much like an independent family account in which a family member or the NY Times journalist mangled Buckland’s surname.

Can anyone help? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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17 June 2011: Chris has found the reference using google search on Hare’s Story of My Life, vol 5, p. 358. In 1882 Augustus was staying with the Hussey family and the story came up in the context of witchcraft! ‘Talk of strange relics led to mention of the heart of a French king preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it exclaimed, ‘I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,’ and, before any one could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever. Dr. Buckland used to say that he had eaten his way straight through the whole animal creation, and that the worst thing was a mole – that was utterly horrible.’ Thanks Chris!!!