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What Happened to Shakespeare’s Skull?
A recent investigation of Shakespeare’s grave using ground-penetrating radar seems to confirm an old story that the playwright’s skull was stolen.
According to BBC News, an 1879 publication claimed the skull of William Shakespeare had been stolen by trophy hunters nearly 100 years earlier from his grave beneath the floor of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. A recent investigation for upcoming Channel 4 documentary Shakespeare’s Tomb, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, has revealed this story may actually be true.
The grave has been disputed as Shakespeare’s final resting place as it doesn’t appear to be long enough for an adult, and it has no name, only this foreboding inscription:
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.
However, the ground-penetrating radar revealed several interesting details about the burials: The length of the grave extends beyond that of the stone, Shakespeare, as well as his wife and other relatives, were buried only a meter below floor, and, most significantly, the ground has been disturbed in the area where Shakespeare’s head should be.
The grave of William Shakespeare
The Beoley Skull
The skull in the Sheldon Chapel vault at Beoley
Following the revelation that Shakespeare’s skull may be missing, the documentary crew visited nearby St Leonard’s Church in Beoley, where author Simon Andrew Stirling had previously made a fascinating discovery: a skull in one of the vaults below Sheldon Chapel may belong to Shakespeare. In this interview, Stirling says he uncovered a brief mention of the theft in a book about Worcestershire folklore, a legend even most locals were not aware of.
According to the story, a trainee surgeon had hired three youths to steal the skull from Shakespeare’s grave in 1799, in hopes of selling it novelist Horace Walpole for 300 guineas. When the deal with Walpole didn’t work out, the boys hid the skull in the Sheldon vault, where they had been stealing lead from coffins to make coins.
Stirling’s attempts to take measurements and possibly conduct DNA testing of the unidentified skull in the vault were blocked.
For the Channel 4 documentary, however, researchers were given permission to perform a forensic anthropological analysis of the skull. Though Stirling seems doubtful, the team’s findings indicated that it belonged to a woman who died in her 70s, not Shakespeare.
Watch Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb on Channel 4 this Saturday, March 26th.
For more on the hunt for Shakespeare’s missing skull, read Stirling’s book Who Killed Shakespeare?