Is the Skull of Shakespeare Missing from His Grave?
Even 400 years after his death, the Bard continues to be the source of amazing anecdotes. One of the tales that is often dismissed as fiction is that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave. However, this strange story may actually be true.
Although some people have debated the idea, the body of William Shakespeare is said to be buried in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Birmingham Mail reports that those who often doubt the gravesite question the size of the stone, which is said to be far too short for an adult burial.
Flowers in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon for the annual Shakespeare Service. (Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon)
There have been requests for decades to exhume the bones and see if they really are the ones of Shakespeare, as well as to prove or disprove other hypotheses, such as if he was buried standing up, as his friend and fellow writer Ben Jonson is in Westminster Abbey, buried 17 feet (5.18 meters) below ground to avoid being disturbed, or if he was actually buried in a family tomb.
To date, all attempts to investigate the grave have been turned down by the church authorities except one. Now, the first archaeological investigation of Shakespeare’s grave has been carried out for a documentary to be broadcast by Channel 4 on Saturday. The experts were given the go-ahead as they promised to only complete a laser scan to look underground and did not dig up the burial.
Archaeologists used a hi-tech scanning machine in the first investigation of its kind. (Channel 4)
According to The Guardian, Shakespeare’s gravesite is visited by hundreds of visitors each year and this number may increase for 2016 as it is the 400th anniversary of his death. The gravestone bears no name but offers a warning instead: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones .”
Did someone not heed the warning? Is any truth to a story published in The Argosy magazine in 1879? The magazine stated that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his shallow grave by trophy hunters in 1794.
Shakespeare's tomb in Holy Trinity Church. (Channel 4)
In search of answers, the archaeological team used non-invasive ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to examine the grave and their results are able to provide some answers to the mysteries of Shakespeare’s burial.
The team concluded that the body in the grave is buried with others, probably family members, about 3ft (91 cm) below the church floor. They found no evidence of metal – which would indicate the presence of coffin nails – in the area of the grave, so they think that the bodies had been wrapped simply in shrouds rather than placed in coffins.
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The most exciting of their finds is that there is an odd disturbance that is located at the head end of Shakespeare’s grave. Expert Kevin Colls from Staffordshire University said:
“It’s very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all. We have Shakespeare’s burial with an odd disturbance at the head end and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history, someone’s come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare. The team, using state-of-the-art equipment, has produced astonishing results which will undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories for years to come. Even now, thinking of the findings sends shivers down my spine.”
He also noted a “a very strange brick structure” that cuts across the head end of the grave.
GPR image showing rectangular feature at the head end of the grave, with apparent brick repair outlined in red. (Production Company/Arrow Media/Channel 4)
Together, these findings suggest that there was a disturbance in tomb of the Bard, possibly due to grave robbers. “Grave-robbing was a big thing in the 17th and 18th century,” Colls told The Guardian. “People wanted the skull of famous people so they could potentially analyse it and see what made them a genius. It is no surprise to me that Shakespeare’s remains were a target.”
Not everyone is so convinced however. The Rev. Patrick Taylor, vicar of Holy Trinity Stratford, has told the press:
“Holy Trinity Church were pleased to be able to cooperate with this non-intrusive research into Shakespeare's grave. We now know much more about how Shakespeare was buried and the structure that lies underneath his ledger stone. We are not convinced, however, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken. We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare's wishes, and not allow it to be disturbed. We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone."
Shakespeare Family Gravestones. (Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon)
The conviction that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen led the experts to look into another popular story - that a skull in a sealed crypt at St Leonard’s in the Worcestershire village of Beoley could be Shakespeare’s skull. This hypothesis was supported by two magazine articles that were believed to be written by a former vicar at St Leonard's Church and published in 1879 and 1884. The articles claimed that a doctor named Frank Chambers had disturbed Shakespeare's grave in the Holy Trinity Church and left the writer’s skull in a church in Worcestershire.
Alas, this tale was also proved as fiction when the team scanned the skull and carried out a forensic anthropological analysis on it. The results reveal that the skull could not belong to Shakespeare. “It was an unknown woman in her 70s,” Colls told The Guardian, including that the team even did a facial reconstruction to prove the point. And with that, the mystery of Shakespeare’s skull continues…
Featured Image: Shakespeare's memorial bust in the Holy Trinity church. Source: Birmingham Mail