Many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s skull IS missing, possibly stolen from the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon around the turn of the eighteenth century. What are the facts?
For the last four hundred years, Holy Trinity Church authorities have been fending off requests to open Shakespeare’s grave. American scholars and literati in particular have been prepared to finance digs, but the church has adamantly refused permission. An admirable stance, many would say, although some suggest the Tutankhamen-like curse that guards the grave have given the church authorities pause:
A cynic might suggest that without Shakespeare’s skull, Holy Trinity Church would have little to attract the hordes of tourists that spew from their buses every day. My answer to that is, having met several of the guardians of the church, I suggest they would be perfectly happy to forgo the three quid entrance fees to the grave site for a bit of peace and quiet and the return of the church to its primary function. Having said that, even in 1901, twenty-five thousand visitors passed through the church, so I suppose its primary function for many years has been housing poor old Will – or most of him.
Despite the church’s misgivings, in 2016 a Channel Four team were granted access to the tomb for a non-invasive archaeological investigation using the latest advances in ground-penetrating radar. The results were amazing, but first let’s look at the circumstantial evidence for the missing skull.
The Holy Trinity Church register records the burial, on 26 April 1616, of Will Shakespeare gent’, presumably intact.
In 1879, the magazine The Argosy, carried a Gothic tale entitled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen. To get an idea of the type of material the magazine published, the story appeared with ‘Andre the Beggar Boy’, ‘Clarissa’s Choice’ and ‘A Day with the Seals’. The full contents can be read here.
The anonymous author, A Warwickshire Man, is generally agreed to be the Rev. C. J. Langston, who became vicar of Beoley Church, a small parish church twelve miles from Stratford-upon-Avon in 1881 (the later date has sown a seed of doubt in some minds).
The story of the theft of Shakespeare’s skull from his grave in Holy Trinity Church is written in a lively, idiomatic style, and, to this reader, the account is convincingly full of corroborative detail – names of local men, actual places and events. The motive of the theft may also be factual: Horace Walpole, the writer of the Gothic tale The Castle of Otranto reportedly offered £300 for Shakespeare’s skull.
The story of the grave robbery is well-told in the manner of the time, ending with the failure of negotiations with Walpole’s ‘agent’ and the robber, Frank Chamber’s, decision to have his accomplice return the skull to Shakespeare’s grave.
In an ominous ending, Frank visits Holy Trinity the following Sunday and notices a crack in the stone above the Bard’s grave ‘two feet from the communion rail’. His accomplice swears he returned the skull, and there the first story ends.
Why would Walpole want Shakespeare’s skull? In my short story ‘Alas, Poor Will’, coming out later in the year, I have Sherlock Holmes answer Watson on that question.
“Who would want the skull of William Shakespeare, and why?
Holmes shrugged. “Mozart, Haydn and Jonathan Swift all had their skulls stolen from their graves.”
“Again, I ask, to what purpose?”
“If obsessed collectors will pay for the autographs, death masks and possessions of the great, why not their skulls?” Holmes borrowed my tobacco pouch and packed his pipe. “There is a powerful potency to objects of veneration, particularly human remains—a truth the world’s religions understand and exploit. Through these totems devotees may experience an empathy with the worthy or saint whose personal effects or body parts they handle. Add to that the thrill of possession, having that which no other has, and you have an intoxicating mix of desire.”
Next post – Rediscovering the Skull!