The Man Who Ate King Louis XIV's Heart
William Buckland was born in Devonshire, in the South West of England in 1784.
Throughout his life he would come to be known as many things. A zoologist, palentologist, geologist, a lecturer and even a priest. But more than any of those things, William Buckland is best remembered as the “The Man Who Ate Everything”.
He began his tertiary studies at Oxford in 1801 and in fact became the very first person to study geology there. Eventually he would go on to have the dual role of lecturer as well as a campus priest. As a lecturer he began to earn himself quite the reputation due to his somewhat unorthodox style of teaching. And maybe at this point you’re thinking of a teacher or lecturer you’ve encountered who acted a little outside the box. Well unless you’ve had a lecturer loudly yell questions at you while shoving an old dried out hyena skull in your face, I’m not sure any of us can quite relate to what he put his poor students through.
He kept this hyena skull on him at all times in a blue pouch that he attached to his belt. Alongside the skull he also kept mammoth teeth, petrified feces and some old dry animal skins.
He once thrust the skull into a young man’s face yelling “Do you know what rules the world!?” The young man, somewhat bewildered and stammering didn’t have time to answer properly before Buckland continued, turning away and casting his eyes over the rest of the assembled students. “It is the stomach that rules the world! The great ones eat the lesser ones, and the lesser ones eat the lesser still.”
But this was not even the weirdest thing he would do in his lectures. He was known for his dramatic delivery when teaching and would occasionally gather his classes outdoors and lecture on horseback, riding the poor horse up and down in front of the students while shouting and gesticulating wildly. When teaching his students about dinosaurs he would roam around the classroom imitating the movements of the dinosaurs under discussion.
William Buckland was a man who thought very much about the position that food played in ones life. When it came to animals Buckland was a man enamoured by creatures of all shapes and sizes. Because of this, he ended up becoming the president of the Royal Geographical Society. He took on another animal related role by heading up the Society for the Acclimatization of Animals which allowed him to simultaneously fulfill his lifelong personal ambition. This society gave him the ability, under law, to import any animal or creature that he wished into the United Kingdom. He began to hatch a plan of sorts, while continuing his work with the various societies. During this period he became the first person to publish a scientific study of a dinosaur skeleton, and his love of dinosaurs even extended into his home. Specifically it extended to his dining room table which had been custom made for him and inlaid with fossilised dinosaur droppings. It was around this very dining room table that William Buckland would go about leaving his most enduring legacy.
You see, his new found ability to import whichever animal pleased him coincided nicely with his greatest goal in life…..to eat every animal in existence
He would hold lavish dinner parties with exotic meals served to his guests to both terrify and delight them. Boiled hedgehog, roast ostrich, dolphin and even crocodile steaks were just a few of the eccentric dishes he served in what would become his very own edible version of Noah’s Ark.
William Buckland had a particular fondness for serving and eating mice on toast. This cringeworthy meal became a staple for him, mainly due to the abundance of mice around his home and workplace. Seemingly not too far removed from the mouse is the common mole, however after tasting this particular animal Buckland named it the vilest dish he had ever eaten and swore off it entirely. It held this crowning achievement until it was knocked off it’s perch when William chewed on a handful of bluebottle flies. These were now his absolute worst.
Owing to the vast array of animals that passed his lips his house began to fill up to the brim with bones and fossils. Amongst them roamed a menagerie of animals, who I’m sure were probably never quite aware of how close they were to becoming his next meal. His home bustled and creaked with guinea pigs, snakes, frogs, ferrets, hawks, owls, cats, dogs, a pony and even a pet hyena named Billy.
He also had an enormous pet tortoise who would roam the grounds of his home carrying children on its shell. Amongst the foliage foxes would stalk the unsuspecting chickens who would squawk in terror each time they spied a flash of red amongst the bushes.
One story about William Buckland tells of a time he visited an Italian Cathedral and whilst there a priest told him that the damp and greasy floor was due to the miraculous, ever-flowing blood of the sacrificed martyrs. Wasting no time at all, Buckland dropped to his knees and ran his tongue across the floor. He popped back up again and with a smile on his face declared that it was not martyr blood at all, but that it was in fact, bat urine. There is no record of how he could have been so confident about his assertion, and frankly, I think I’d prefer not to know.
Perhaps the most notable story involving William Buckland took place while he was visiting Lord Harcourt in 1848. One night during his stay there, the Harcourt family hosted a lavish banquet filled with delicacies from all across the empire. Rather plain fare for Buckland compared to his usual exotic tastes but he gorged himself regardless, gesturing wildly while entertaining the other guests with his outlandish tales. It wasn’t until after the meal was finished that Lord Harcourt stood up to address his guests gathered around the table. He began to tell the tale of a priceless artifact that had been stolen during the French Revolution. This artifact had been missing for several years but now, right before their very eyes, Lord Harcourt was proud to inform them that he had, by rather difficult means, acquired this once lost prize.
Slowly he withdrew an ornate locket from his coat and clicked it open to reveal a small brown sponge like object roughly the size of a walnut. The guests were confused. What was this?
This, said Harcourt, was a small mummified piece of King Louis the 14th’s heart.
In old French tradition the hearts of Kings were separated from their bodies after death and mummified to be kept and displayed forever. They would be put upon velvet pillows in a glass display case, neatly preserved for future generations. During the French Revolution however, the incoming ruling powers didn’t care at all for all of this pomp and ceremony and cared even less what happened to the old dried out heart of their former king.
The story goes that the heart was stolen by a local Pre-Raphaelite artist who ground up most of the mummified heart to create a special paint pigment called ‘mummy brown’. Artists at the time went crazy for the stuff as it was so rare and yet somehow the remaining portion of the heart managed to find its way out of France and into the hands of Lord Harcourt.
The locket was lowered to the table and each one of Lord Harcourt’s guest leaned in closer for a better look. The locket was passed to the person beside him and then onto the person one seat along. Each person at the table took a minute or so, examining this extraordinary piece of history and then passing it along. Once it reached William Buckland he carefully picked it up and examined it closely. Then, without warning he exclaimed “I have eaten many strange things in my time, but I have never before eaten the heart of a king.” He popped the heart into his mouth and swallowed it before anyone could stop him.
Despite his clearly eccentric and outlandish behaviour he was still a well respected scientist in his field. He was however not a favourite of the famous scientist and explorer Charles Darwin who once called him “A vulgar and coarse man, driven more by his love of notoriety than his love of science.”
In 1826, William Buckland had a son whom he named Francis. He raised his son to be just like him, instilling his passion for eating from a young age. Francis once got into trouble with his father for eating a candle stick when he was just 2 and a half years old. By the time he was an adult, Francis was just as passionate as his father, for indiscriminately eating any and every animal he could get his hands on.
It seemed to start quite young with Francis too, if you believe this entry into his diary as young 7 year old boy. “A live turtle was sent down from London.... My father tied a long rope round the turtle’s fin, and let him have a swim in the ornamental pond in the middle of the Christ Church Quad, while I held the string. I recollect, too, that my father made me stand on the back of the turtle while he held me on (I was then a little fellow), and I had a ride for a few yards as it swam round and round the pond. As a treat I was allowed to assist the cook to cut off the turtle’s head in the college kitchen. The head, after it was separated, nipped the finger of one of the kitchen boys who was opening the beast’s mouth. This same head is now in my museum.”
Francis went on to study at Oxford, training as a surgeon. He was friendly with workers at the local morgue and would trade them eel and trout for some old body parts from corpses that had been brought in.
His love for animals on and off the plate, was well known. In his room at Oxford he kept an eagle, a jackal, marmots, guinea pigs, squirrels and dormice. Not only that but he had a particular fascination with reptiles, keeping an adder, as well as many non-venomous snakes, tortoises, frogs and chameleons. He kept a variety of skeletons and these along with taxidermied animals lined the walls of his room. It did go a bit too far however in that he would often keep the rotting remains of animals under his bed in order to dissect them in the evenings.
His most well known companion was a bear cub named Tig, whom Francis dressed in a cap and gown, the appropriate dress code for the Christ Church College at Oxford. Tig the bear cub attended wine parties, performed tricks, was known to have a fondness for sucking fingers, and would roam the streets looking for candy whenever he was left unattended.
Francis would host lavish dinner parties for friends and other guests where he would serve the most exotic meals he could possibly muster. There were steaming plates of boiled elephant trunk, boiled and fried meat taken from the head of a porpoise, roasted giraffe necks and even a rhinoceros pie.
In his own time he records having eaten a Boa constrictor, some sea slugs and even a small bowl of earwigs. Although he swore never to eat the latter two again. One of his connections at the local zoo informed him that one of the captive panthers had recently died. This was too good an opportunity to pass up and so he raced over to the zoo office and called in with the head curator. He negotiated with the man and had him dig up the corpse of the panther and send him over some panther chops. He notes that the meat had a foul taste which I assume is as a result of decomposition of the animal before it’s disinterment.
The two generations of Bucklands live on in scientific journals and zoological studies as men who achieved great things in their respective fields. Francis Buckland didn’t rise to quite the same heights of notoriety as his father William but he is remembered as a fierce advocate and researcher for what was then the fledgling study of responsible fishing and fish farming. He was instrumental in setting up the framework that helped prevent Britain from overfishing their stocks. He and his father were two men who had a simple goal and the fortuitous means of being able to very nearly achieve it. They wanted to know what the animal kingdom tasted like. Nothing was ever too much for them or too gross to eat. They were men who saw it as a duty to science, and not just their stomachs.
In a world where currently our choices and palates are limited, maybe we would do well to begin exploring a bit more of our own backyards to see how we could supplement our own diets, just as the Bucklands would have done.