The gold reliquary containing Anne of Brittany's heart in the Dobrée Museum.
The gold reliquary containing Anne of Brittany’s heart in the Dobrée Museum. Jibi44/CC BY-ASA 3.0

In death as in life, Anne of Brittany’s affairs of the heart are a saga for the ages. This 15th-century ruler—the only woman to marry two French kings, as well as a Holy Roman Emperor—died in 1514. After a funeral that lasted well over a month, she was buried in the royal necropolis of Saint Denis, north of Paris.

Well, almost all of her was: Detailed instructions in her will explained that her heart was to be cut out, placed in an intricate gold box, and then sent to Nantes, France, to be placed in her parents’ tomb. In the years since, however, that organ has had a dramatic second life, culminating in its theft last week from a museum in Nantes.

In the late 18th century, the reliquary was wrested from its resting spot, after an order decreed that all church-owned precious metals were to be melted down. It went up to Paris, narrowly escaped destruction, and was stored in the National Library. A quarter-century later, it came back to Nantes, where it moved from one museum to the next. Finally, in 1896, it was put in the Thomas-Dobrée Archaeology Museum, where it has sat quietly on display for the past 126 years.

But under the cover of darkness, late on April 14, robbers broke into the museum through a window. Despite setting off an alarm, they plucked the heart from its spot in an exhibition, and disappeared into the night. (A Hindu statuette and some gold coins went with them.) A week of nail biting ensued—was the heart gone for good?

Thankfully, all was not lost. At a spot near the city of Saint-Nazaire, some 40 miles west of Nantes, police found the treasures. They had been buried in the ground, but were otherwise unharmed. (It’s believed the thieves intended to melt them down, and sell the gold.) In the meantime, two men have been arrested, on charges of “association with criminals” and “theft of cultural assets,” with two more at large.

Incredibly, this is not the only stolen heart to find its way home in the last week: Six years after its theft, the heart of Dublin’s patron saint was recovered undamaged, from a local park.