For some 800 years, the man known as “The Crusader” had rested peacefully at St. Michan’s church in Dublin, Ireland, his body naturally mummified by the crypt’s limestone bricks and methane-rich soil.
Now, vandals have broken into the historic church, decapitated the 13th-century mummy and stolen his head, forcing St. Michan’s to close its vaults for the foreseeable future.
A guide at St. Michan’s discovered the crime on the morning of February 25, 2019, when he was preparing to open the church for visitors. The vandals, who likely used crowbars and other tools to pry away the heavy steel door of the crypt, had also smashed the mummy’s legs into his torso and moved his arms to the side, the New York Times reported.
Elsewhere in the vaults, they swiveled the head of a 300-year-old mummified nun some 180 degrees, turned yet another mummy on its side and damaged the family crypt of William Rowan Hamilton, an Irish mathematician who first described the number system known as quaternions.
“These are people who have been lying at rest for years and years and to have them desecrated in such a sacrilegious way is so distressing and disturbing,” the Rev. David Pierpoint, vicar of St. Michan’s and archdeacon of Dublin, told the Irish Times. “I’m quite disgusted. The likelihood is we’ll have to close these vaults and close our tourist facility.”
Founded in 1095, St. Michan’s has been open to the public since the 1930s, and welcomes some 28,000 visitors every year to view the contents of its vaults. Because the crypt’s walls are made of limestone, which absorbs moisture in the air, and the soil is rich in methane, which reduces oxygen, many of the bodies interred there have naturally mummified.
According to Pierpoint, the Crusader was likely a local parishioner who lived some 800 years ago. His name is unknown, but historians have determined he fought in the Crusades (probably the Fourth Crusade) because he was buried with his arms and legs crossed, as was traditional for soldiers in holy wars.
As he was nearly 6 ½ feet tall, unusual for the time, the Crusader’s legs had to be broken and folded up under him in order to fit in his small coffin, according to Atlas Obscura. Visitors were once encouraged to shake the mummy’s leathery hand, which protruded slightly from the coffin, but this practice was recently discontinued.
The Irish state police force are investigating the break-in, which they think occurred over the weekend of February 23-24. Church officials are particularly anxious to retrieve the Crusader’s head. Though naturally preserved by the unique atmosphere inside the crypt, it could quickly disintegrate once exposed to regular air and moisture.
“My biggest concern is to have the severed head of the Crusader returned to us in any form,” Pierpoint told the New York Times, “so we can let him rest in peace.”
This is not the first time vandals have attached St. Michan’s. In 1996, several teenagers broke into the church vaults and removed bodies from their coffins, including the remains of a young child, whose head they kicked around in a grisly game of soccer. Guards caught them in the act, and the vaults were closed for a week while the bodies were “reconsecrated and sealed,” the Irish Times reported.
But after this latest shocking crime, it’s not clear when—if at all—the vaults will reopen. If the crypt is closed permanently to paying visitors, St. Michan's will lose critical funds that help to maintain the 11th-century church.