DUBLIN — The head of a mummified Crusader, laid to rest in a Dublin church some 800 years ago, was stolen and a crypt vandalized, the police in Ireland discovered on Monday.
A second mummified body, believed to belong to a nun who died 300 years ago, was also badly damaged during a break-in at St. Michan’s church.
But the worst treatment was reserved for the crypt’s most famous occupant, a 13th-century corpse known as “The Crusader.”
“His legs were pushed up into his torso, his arms were moved to one side and his head has been decapitated,” said the Rev. David Pierpoint, the vicar of St. Michan’s and archdeacon of Dublin. “His head is gone.”
Police are still investigating the theft, but church officials are focused on retrieving the head.
“My biggest concern is to have the severed head of the Crusader returned to us in any form,” Mr. Pierpoint said, “so we can let him rest in peace.”
The intruders also defiled a section of the crypt that contains the bodies of the family of William Rowan Hamilton, a 19th-century mathematician who paved the way for modern quantum theory. One of the coffins was broken open and its contents were dragged out on the floor.
St. Michan’s, originally founded in 1095, is one of the most historic parish churches for Ireland’s Anglican congregation, the Church of Ireland, and is on the north side of the city center.
Its crypt is made of limestone, which draws the moisture out of the air inside, and its methane-rich soil reduces oxygen levels, making the atmosphere inside ideal for preservation. Many of the bodies laid to rest there have mummified.
St. Michan’s attracts around 28,000 paying visitors a year, who come to tour its small but historically significant interior, which includes the organ on which George Frideric Handel wrote his “Messiah” oratorio, and view the mummified bodies in their open coffins.
In the last century, visitors were even allowed to shake the Crusader’s leathery hand “for good luck.”
“We don’t know his name, but we know he’s about 800 years old and was probably a local parishioner,” said Mr. Pierpoint.
Because of the way the body was positioned — with arms and legs crossed, a common burial ritual for those who had taken part in the religious wars of the era — historians determined he had taken part in the Crusades.
He was also incredibly tall for the time, standing around 6 feet 6 inches tall, according to Mr. Pierpoint.
The Church of Ireland authorities say they have been inundated with offers of financial support following news of the break-in, but worry they may have to close the crypt permanently after the robbery.
Another section of the crypt was sealed after being vandalized in 1996 by three teenagers who broke in, dragged corpses into the churchyard and played football with the head of a little girl.
Mr. Pierpoint said he initially believed this week’s incident had been a similarly mindless act of vandalism, but he has since changed his mind.
Whoever attacked the church “came prepared, with crowbars and tools,” he said, which were used to remove solid iron and steel slabs from the front of the crypt. “My mind can’t get around the insanity of it, that anyone could do such a thing.”
The police said that they believed the break-in took place sometime over the weekend, but detailed forensic examinations are being carried out on the scene. Some of the robbery was also captured on CCTV footage.
The motive is still unclear, but the church authorities say they don’t believe there is any commercial market for such stolen relics.
There are fears that the ancient head, unless recovered quickly, will quickly disintegrate once exposed to air with normal moisture levels.