Who's Skull is Missing?
If you watched the recent documentary on Channel Four entitled Shakespeare's Tomb, broadcast on the 26 March 2016. You will know that Kevin Colls of Staffordshire University and geophysicist Erica Utsi recently were granted permission from the Church of Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, to do a radar survey of all the graves of the Shakespeare family buried in the Chancel of the Church. They were not allowed to dig the ground, but the radar survey (shown below) did show some interesting things.
Firstly we need to clear one thing up. The radar did not show the bones of the people themselves. Just the impression that a burial would make in the ground. So they couldn't see a skeleton of anybody. The first thing they proved that each of the seven people interred in the ground was that they were not in a family vault. What they found was the seven graves were of the type that would mean that they were wrapped in a cloth (called a winding sheet) and buried. No coffins, no lead box. All the graves were no more than 3 feet deep, around one metre.
Shakespeare's stone, marked by the use of the "cursed" inscription is actually shorter than the rest. This had lead to rumors than he was buried standing up! However the radar showed that his grave extends right up to the plinth area of the alter. And so a blank slab on the top (head) end is still covering the burial of Shakespeare.
Further investigation of the area around the plain slab at the head of Shakespeare's stone, revealed that a structure had been put in place to support it. Erica Utsi commented that in all here experience of doing these types of surveys she had not seen anything like it.
The conclusion was that it would be done to repair the slab just to stop it sinking. But why would it be sinking in the first place. And why would Shakespeare's stone need a slab at the top end?
Kevin Colls and Cambridge historian Dr Helen Castor think they have found the reason. It occurs in a magazine called the Argosy published in 1879 (link below to a PDF of it).
On page 268 there is a story of how Shakespeare's skull was stolen! It relates to a story that was thought to be a work of fiction by most Shakespeare academics.
The story told third hand to the person writing the piece, relates to one Frank Chambers who in 1787 was assigned to work with a doctor working in Alcester (the only doctor in the area). Sometime around the 1790's Frank Chambers attend a dinner with many of the local gentry of the Stratford area. By that time the Stratford Jubliee's were on the go and one said (in connection with that event) if the face of William Shakespeare on the monument in the Church actually looked like the real William.
One of the guests said that you had better dig him up to find out. Then another guest said the Horace Walpole was offering 300 guineas for Shakespeare's head!
Now Chambers, who was a medical man, wasn't opposed to digging bodies up that were more recently buried, for medical research. He had employed some men in the past to do this. So with the prospect of a lot of money at stake he got in touch with the men. There names were Tom Dyer, Harry Cull and another man with the surname of Hawtin. They agreed to help him dig up Shakespeare.
Late at night with Hatwin watching outside, they eventually got into the church and went to the stone of Shakespeare. Tom Dyer was clearly a tradesman and worked in a smithy, so he could easily get the lock open of the church door.
They lifted the slab up and started to dig. To their surprise the first thing the came across was a more recent burial. Complete with bones, the remains of an Oak coffin, with nails and a silver plaque, with the name Ashwin. Also found were burnt glass and a ring! The image below shows the details in the Argosy of what they found...
I should point out this bit of the story was NOT referred to in the Channel Four documentary, though in one bit you can see the piece of the Argosy where it's shown.
They then continued to dig down till it looked like the had found the grave soil. At which point Frank Chambers told them to work with just hands.
The story then takes an unexpected twist for they state that the burial was 3 feet down!
Precisely the same depth as the radar survey showed!!
Colls and Castor clearly worked out that the tale would therefore appear to be true! Otherwise how would they know it was 3 feet down? Before the radar survey everyone also assumed they would be in a vault. But the Argosy makes no mention of that. Or at least in a coffin, but as the next part of the story relates that wasn't true either.
Tom Dyer eventually finds the skull and removes it. He hands it over to Chambers and he looks at comparing it with the image of Shakespeare nearby. He concludes that it is smaller than the bust.
The rest of the grave was filled in and the stone carefully placed back in place.
Frank Chambers then tries to sell the skull, but his attempts turn out to be fruitless. It seems some of the people just wanted to see it, not purchase it. Chambers heard that the vicar of Hatton, Samuel Parr was a big Shakespeare collector and he approached him, saying he had something of great importance. So Samuel met him and tried to tell him about the skull, but Samuel kept butting in with statements, as he asked his questions. Parr was not to pleased with some of the historians, that were looking for stuff on Shakespeare. He then told Chambers that if any man violated the "sanctity of that grave" he would have that man whipt! So Chambers changed the subject.
It was clear that Chambers wasn't going to be able to sell the skull without revealing it had been pinched from the grave!! So he had a word with Tom Dyer and another man to put the skull back.
I think he convinced them if the skull was found and linked to them they would be publicly whipped as the vicar of Hatton suggested.
But as the story reveals Tom was left to do it on his own. He claimed it was put back. But somebody went back to the Church to check on if the stone had been put back right, on the pretence of just going to the normal service. But what he saw was a large crack at the top end of the Shakespeare stone.
When Dyer was pressed he said that while he was lifting the stone he cracked it. But he said he had put the skull back. I don't think they believed him.
But did he put the skull back and if he didn't what did he do with it?
Colls and Castor answered that question too. It seems shortly after that publication a second book came out called Shakespeare's Skull Found. PDF below.
At St Leonard’s, Beoley, in Worcestershire a strange skull was found in a family vault of the Sheldon family. All of the family skulls were accounted for. This skull was the odd one out!
It seems Tom Dyer was working at that church carrying out repairs. According to the above book Tom couldn't lift the stone of Shakespeare on his own and so put the skull into the Sheldon vault at Beoley. Hoping no-one would notice. I can testify to the weight of any gravestone, they are extremely heavy. I tried to lift one myself, investigating a grave yard in a run down cemetery. I couldn't shift it an inch or fore that matter at all!
The author of the book above known only as “A Warwickshire Man” was thought to have been the Revd C. J. Langston, Vicar of Beoley from 1881 to 1889. He had had found in the possessions of Frank Chambers a piece of bone wrapped up very carefully. Finding a connection to the Shakespeare's skull story he took the bone and went into the Sheldon vault and found the mystery skull. He was able to put the piece of bone back into the skull precisely.
He thus found Shakespeare's skull.
Only he hadn't...
In 2016 the present vicar of Beoley arranged with Kevin Colls to have the skull scanned and photographed, as long as they didn't touch the bones or skull in the vault. So they did scan it.
Caroline Wilkinson, very famous for her re-creation of faces on many archaeology TV shows as well as working with the police on unidentified skulls. Was brought in to recreate the face of the person from the evidence of the scans and the images. She could however tell straight away that it was a woman, plus an old one at that, round about 70 years old. The reconstructed face is shown below.
So it wasn't William Shakespeare. But even so the head end of Shakespeare's grave had been disturbed and the stone was sinking because of it, needing repair. For if you take soil out, of any hole you dig, even if you manage to get it all back, it will sink later on, needing either more earth adding to fill the hole, or if a slab is on it, to be raised up again. I'm certain that you will have come across the faulty paving slabs in the street, up and down, so you trip over them. So Shakespeare's stone would need to be repaired.
However the Vicar of Stratford wasn't convinced that the grave had been broken into, especially as the skull turned out to be a woman. So wouldn't let Colls and his team investigate the head end further. So if Chambers and Tom Dyer had broken into the tomb and taken his skull, the question remains did he put it back, or is William Shakespeare skull out there in the world still.
The Tale of the missing head....
The story however does not stop with the TV show. For when the image of the woman face appeared on the screen, I got hairs standing up right down the back of my head as well as a few expletives! For the sake of protecting someone, I can't say why that happened, but all will become clear.
Supposing Chambers did indeed break into the tomb of William Shakespeare and Tom Dyer didn't put the skull back, but into the Sheldon Vault as the book's suggest. But it wasn't Shakespeare's skull they had taken, but somebody else! Who could that skull be at Beoley? A woman around 70 is all we know. But there was a woman around 70 in that set of graves. Anne Shakespeare (Hathaway) his wife was 67 years old when she died. So that could fit our mystery woman's skull age. But it is clear they dug up Shakespeare's grave, not Anne's which is next to the wall. But when Chambers looked at skull he said it was small. Was that because it was a woman's skull he was looking at? But Chambers was a medical man, surely he could spot the difference between a man and woman's skull. Well yes he could, but he wasn't thinking that under the tomb of William Shakespeare was buried a woman aged around 67. So he just assumed it was William's Skull!
Now before some of you go rushing off thinking that Anne Shakespeare wrote the Works of Shakespeare, hence why she is under the tomb of her husband, think back to the bit that wasn't mentioned on the TV show, that Frank Chambers dug to find a modern grave by the name of Ashwin first. Clearly somebody had lifted the stones up prior to Chambers. There are indeed Ashwin members being married at the Stratford church as these printed registers show.
I couldn't find the burials of the same people, due to the fact they haven't been published. The IGI records are also generally lacking burial records, so they don't crop up in that. But I am certain that these Ashwin's were buried in Stratford. It's likely that sometime prior to 1790 the Ashwin family gave the vicar of Stratford a great deal of money to be buried under the Shakespeare tombs. Completely on the side. With no record being kept. Chambers was unaware of this when he then dug up the tomb of what he thought was Shakespeare and was in fact the burial spot of Anne Shakespeare.
So why is Anne under Shakespeare stone?
Well if you look at this plan of the graves you can see that the first four burials on the right are not in the order of the dates of their deaths.
In order for them to do that the grave diggers would have to leave a space between the wall of the church and then dig Shakespeare's grave! And the same for the rest of the other two. But I can't see them doing that. I think that William, who died first, would have been put against the wall, then Anne next to him, Susanna Hall next to Anne and then John Hall and the rest as they are...
This plan shows the full church layout.
You can see that the Charnel House (demolished) is next to the Shakespeare tombs. But it wasn't demolished when Chambers dug the tomb, so there was no need to move the stones for that.
Shakespeare paid £440 pounds in 1605 for a share in the tax privileges, this gave him the right to be buried in the Chancel, since it was including in the rights of the tax. A considerable amount of money back then.
So it seems that the first four stones of the Shakespeare's were all lifted up prior to 1790 and my betting is when they put them back down they didn't put them back in the same place. As I said tomb stones that size are really heavy brutes. And If the people that lifted them were like some of the workman that I have known in the past, they didn't give a monkeys what order they were in, even if they could read the inscriptions. Which at that date seems quite possible that they couldn't read. In fact some of the men Chambers employed couldn't read. He had to stop them digging up an outside grave because of it!
The vicar might have noticed it, but he would have got the reply from the men, "you put them back right then!"
So William Shakespeare skull is safely buried with him under Anne's tomb and the Shakespeare "cursed" stone currently has a headless skeleton of Anne Shakespeare. And the Beoley Skull is the wife of William Shakespeare - or Anne Hathaway.