Alas, poor Yorick- The Curious Case of Shakespeare’s missing skull

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Shakespeare’s grave Photo Credit- www.bbc.com

William Shakespeare was the celebrated poet of the Elizabethan age. (For more on his life, please read our post on him: http://www.historynaked.com/william-shakespeare/ )

However, his death was shrouded in mystery. He died at age 52, which was relatively young for a person of wealth at that time. There were theories he died of syphilis, picked up at the Southwark brothels near his theater The Globe. There have also been theories that he was murdered. The most likely explanation comes from an account written by John Ward, the Vicar of Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, fifty years after Shakespeare’s death. He writes of a drinking bout with Shakespeare, his friend Michael Drayton and his frenemy Ben Johnson, after which Shakespeare caught a fever from which he never recovered. It has been suggested this fever was typhoid as there was a ditch with filthy, smelly water in it that ran alongside where they met. Even the date is in contention as Shakespeare was supposed to have died April 23, 1616, but some sources have him as being buried April 5, 1616. Whenever it was, Shakespeare was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon under a strange epitaph. A curse laid out in rhyming couplets: “Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Bones were often removed from graves to charnel houses, a process Shakespeare described in several of his plays. It is thought the curse was to keep that from happening.

And unmoved they remained or so we thought. There was a wild rumor in Victorian times that the grave was disturbed. In 1879, The Argosy published an anonymous account of the theft of Shakespeare’s skull in 1794. The account tells of surgeon Frank Chambers, who at a dinner party was told a rich man of literary pretensions, was offering 300 guineas to anyone who could bring him the skull of William Shakespeare. That was a serious sum of money for that time, and it was written that Chambers could not let it go. As Chambers was a surgeon, he was in touch with grave robbers, who had supplied him with fresh corpses for his anatomical studies. This was highly illegal, but not unheard of at the time. Contacting these men, Chambers and three others break into Holy Trinity Church. Using only their hands, they lifted the stone marking his grave and dug with their hands until they found the skull. Then they hastily replaced the stone and escaped into the night with the skull. This account was written off as another addition to the legend of Shakespeare, and classic gothic tale written to sell magazines. Legend goes onto say that Chambers’ big fish got nervous and refused to pay up. He just wanted the skull gone and told one of the grave robbers to put it back. The grave robber didn’t want to risk getting caught in the church and chucked in a vault in the crypt of St. Leonard’s church in Beoley, Worcestershire, 15 miles away.

However recently, Kevin Colls got permission to lead an investigation into Shakespeare’s grave. The Staffordshire University archaeologist and his team used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to examine the grave without disturbing it. They found the poet was buried three feet underground wrapped in a simple shroud, but that his head was missing. At the head end of the grave is what he described as “a very strange brick structure”. There is also evidence of repair to the chancel floor near by. This does not automatically validate the grave robbing story in The Argosy, however. It was not unusual for body parts to be kept or buried with other relatives at that time. Famously, Margaret Roper, daughter of Sir. Thomas Moore, buried her father’s head with her. The team also studied the skull in the crypt of St. Leonard’s church. After a forensic study, they found found it belonged to a 70 year old woman.

There is no conclusive evidence that proves or disproves the grave robbing story. The magazine story did know the grave was shallow, where most people would assume there was a vault or a coffin. That is certainly suggestive. However, if the skull was taken, I would not want to be the one with it. A curse in rhyming couplets means business.

ER

Sources available on request