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Skull-Duggery: The Battle for William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s skull may have been discovered, and not in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Simon Stirling believes it’s in the burial vault at St. Leonard’s Church, Beoley, in Worcestershire.

Stirling is an author and college lecturer who lives in Worcestershire, England.

3809738-3x2-700x467Since Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, his fifty-second birthday, the Western world has believed Mr. Shakespeare was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, his hometown.

But according to an account published by a Victorian clergyman, the skull was stolen from the Stratford grave in 1794.

Stirling tried to persuade the church wardens to let him in the vault, accompanied by experts who can measure the skull and make a plaster cast for reconstructing the face, as well as possible DNA experts, and others who can discover if the skull belongs to Mr. Shakespeare.

The church was willing, but other parties blocked access to the vault. 

The Beoley Vault, with skull lying in center
  The church vault

In the meantime, a documentary company read about Stirling’s discovery and intends to broadcast a documentary in April–without including Stirling.

Stirling has agreed to an interview with me, perhaps the first since this controversy began.

Robb:  When and where did you come across the story of the skull?

STIRLING: It was about ten years ago, now, in a book about the folklore of Worcestershire. There was a very brief mention of the tale–basically, a trainee surgeon had hired three local youths to help him break into Shakespeare’s grave. 

The surgeon had been inspired to do so when he heard that Horace Walpole, the antiquarian and Gothic novelist, had once offered 300 guineas for the skull. The men had stolen the skull but the deal with Walpole fell through, so one of the grave robbers hid the skull at Beoley (St. Leonard’s) when he and his companions were stealing lead from the coffins in the Sheldon vault to turn into coins. 

St Leonards Beoley church
St. Leonard’s church

This was in December 1799, apparently: five years after the skull was supposedly stolen.

ROBB: How well known is the skull story, and what were your first thoughts when you read it?

STIRLING: The story wasn’t very well known at all. Even people from the village of Beoley – which is a fairly small, out-of-the-way place – had never heard of it, and hardly anyone outside the local area had come across the story.

Back in the 1880s, when the story first appeared in print, it attracted some attention, but that seems to have waned pretty quickly. A few local history websites mentioned it (most of them claiming – wrongly! – that the skull was returned to Stratford) but that’s about all.

The story was treated as an amusing but harmless piece of nonsense – I had come across it in a book of “folklore”, and that’s how it’s usually referred to: part of the “folklore” of Worcestershire, as if folklore is something to be scoffed at. In reality, what we call “folklore” is often local memory and shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand.

But my first thoughts were really, “Well, that’s a bit odd.” And then I kind of put it out of my mind until I started researching Shakespeare’s death a couple of years later.

How Shakespeare's SkullROBB:  What can you tell us about the person who wrote and published the skull story?

STIRLING: He’s an intriguing guy. His name was Charles Jones, and he was born into a respectable family in the nearby town of Alcester in 1837. He studied theology and took holy orders, becoming the rector of the tiny parish of Sevington in Kent. It was while he was there that he ventured into print. The first part of the skull story was published in the Argosy magazine, in October 1879, as “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen,” by “A Warwickshire Man.” At the same time as the Argosy piece was published, Rev. Charles Jones changed his names to Charles Jones Langston.

It’s important to realise that the story didn’t just appear out of the blue.

Some years earlier, a plaster of Paris death mask had been discovered in Germany. It was believed – not without reason – that this was the death mask of Shakespeare.

A possible Shakespeare death mask
A possible Shakespeare death mask

In 1875, Hermann Schaaffhausen, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bonn, published an article arguing that Shakespeare’s skull should be exhumed from his grave in Stratford so that it could be compared with the death mask.

Of course, this caused something of an outcry, not least of all because of the infamous “curse” on Shakespeare’s gravestone. Langston’s article, I believe, was an attempt to raise the possibility that Shakespeare’s skull was not in Stratford after all, so there was no need to brave the curse.

A few years later, in 1883, a Shakespeare scholar called Clement Mansfield Ingleby published his proposal to disinter “Shakespeare’s Bones”. He mentioned Langston’s article in a footnote. At the beginning of 1884, Langston wrote to C.M. Ingleby from the vicarage at Beoley – he was now Vicar of St Leonard’s Church – identifying himself as the “compiler” of “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen” and adding that “further revelations are in progress which might set at rest this much agitated question” – the question being whether to open Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford to extract his skull.

Langston was as good as his word. Later that same year – 1884 – he privately published “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found.” The first part of the story, which he reprinted, explained how the skull was supposedly stolen from Stratford. The second part described how he had managed to track it down to the Sheldon vault under his church at Beoley.

A year or two later, Rev. C.J. Langston retired – under something of a cloud, it seems. He died in 1912.

One odd thing: by changing his name to Langston (his mother’s maiden name) he had made it easier to identify some of the individuals mentioned in his story. One, at least, was his own ancestor. And growing up in Alcester, he would have seen, and probably known, Tom Dyer, the carpenter who allegedly stole the skull from Stratford and hid it in the burial vault at Beoley.

ROBB: Did you include the skull story in your 2013 book, Who Killed William Shakespeare?

who killed shakespeare 87250.inddSTIRLING: I did. I had tracked down a copy of Langston’s story. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting – certainly, it is wrong to dismiss it as “folklore,” there’s far too much incidental detail and local information included. And this is what mystified me.

So I spent weeks combing through census records and Victorian trade directories to find out how many of the individuals and places mentioned in Langston’s story had really existed. Remarkably, most of them had. The story was nothing if not painstakingly researched.

By then, I already had my suspicions that William Shakespeare had met a violent end, partly because he was an outspoken Catholic at a time of vicious sectarian persecution.

Langston’s story seemed to confirm some of this: the skull was allegedly deposited in a funerary urn belonging to Ralph Sheldon, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and a relative by marriage, who happened to be one of the wealthiest and most prominent Catholics in England at that time.

There could hardly have been a more “Catholic” resting place for Shakespeare’s skull.

Langston also described some damage to the skull which squared with what my research had been pointing towards. So I decided that Langston’s story had to be included in Who Killed William Shakespeare? even before I discovered that the skull actually existed and is still in the vault at Beoley.

ROBB: How did you get from the story of the skull to the skull itself?

skull_webSTIRLING: I was very lucky, really. As I was writing up some old notes about Langston’s story, I discovered that a local journalist had actually been down into the crypt and had taken photos of the skull (the church has to be inspected, every five years, by an architect, which requires the crypt to be opened up; Richard Peach just happened to have phoned the church, to ask about the skull story, the day before the vault was opened in 2009, so he was able to see it for himself). 

To my surprise, I found myself staring at a couple of high-quality photos of the skull. So I got in touch with Richard Peach and met him at his office. We talked about the skull and he showed me the photos he’d taken of it.

ROBB:  When and how did you first determine that the Beoley skull might actually be Shakespeare’s?

STIRLING: To be honest, it was almost straightaway. I was staring at one of the photos Richard Peach had taken. My research had already told me that there were two parts of Shakespeare’s face and forehead that were of particular interest – the area immediately above his right eyebrow, where there ought to be some sort of damage, and the outside corner of his left eye: several portraits of Shakespeare show a distinct swelling around the end of the left eyebrow.Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

When I looked at those very places on the skull, I saw that the area above the right eyebrow was discoloured and scratched, and that the outside corner of the right eye socket was damaged, snapped off, leaving sharp burrs of bone which could have created the bulge or swelling visible in the portraits.

Of course, I didn’t trust myself at first – it all seemed too improbable – so I carried on studying the skull photos, and comparing them with the images of Shakespeare, all the time I was writing Who Killed William Shakespeare?

I decided that I needed to include graphic illustrations in the book of the damage to the skull and the corresponding features in the portraiture. It was only when I had spent weeks comparing these images in minute detail, and finding more and more evidence of unusual correspondences between the skull and the portraits, that I realised I was 99% convinced – the skull is almost certainly Shakespeare’s.

ROBB: When did you find out that a television documentary company was looking into the story of the skull?

STIRLING: Who Killed William Shakespeare? was published in August 2013. Early in January 2014, I spoke to one of the new churchwardens at Beoley – another architect’s inspection of the church was due that year and I wanted to know when it would be so that I could come along and go down into the vault.

The churchwarden told me that a TV company had visited the church, very recently, and that they were interested in the skull. So I contacted the documentary company and received a lovely email from the producer, telling me that they had my book, they’d read it, loved it, and that they would be getting in touch with me again very soon.

ROBB: How involved did you become in the research and preparations for the documentary?channel-4-uk-documentaries-4ffdf70aa90e4

STIRLING: There was a lot of contact between August 2014 and December 2015. The documentary company was working with an archaeologist, whose university department was part-funded by Channel 4, a British broadcaster. The archaeologist wanted to remove the skull from the vault for detailed analysis, which meant that the company needed permission from the diocese to “exhume” the skull.

The Chancellor (chief legal officer of the diocese) felt that he’d have to hold a special church court to hear the evidence, so I was invited along to a meeting at the church to discuss how we should present the evidence to the Chancellor (Goldsmiths, University of London, published my paper on “The Faces of Shakespeare”, which featured the skull, at about this time).

The company was refused permission to remove the skull – Shakespeare experts from Stratford-upon-Avon had mocked the skull story during the court hearing, which rather prejudiced the Chancellor’s decision. However, they were allowed to study the skull in situ.

When a director was appointed to make the documentary, I was invited to meet with the director and assistant producer at the church, after which I supplied them with a lot of fresh research whenever they had a question for me. So, over a period of about fifteen months, I spent quite a bit of time helping the documentary, one way or another. 

Sanctuary, St. Leonard's
Sanctuary, St. Leonard’s

I also called a halt to another line of research: a biological anthropologist wanted to work with me, comparing detailed measurements and photos of the skull with certain Shakespeare effigies and portraits – he’d already concluded that the similarities were such that the skull needed to be properly studied – but I chose to concentrate on helping the documentary team instead.

ROBB: Were you surprised to discover that you were not going to be taking part in the television documentary?

STIRLING: Frankly, I was stunned. Both the producer and the director had told me they wanted to film me going down into the vault to see the skull for the first time, and they’d also want me to give a potted version of Langston’s story on screen.

I did get a phone call from the director, a few weeks before filming was scheduled, in which she told me that they wouldn’t have time to cover Shakespeare’s Catholicism – just one of the areas of research I’d helped them with – but I thought nothing of it.

Then, ten days before filming, I found out that I was no longer involved with the documentary. Somebody else would be doing my bits (someone, incidentally, who doesn’t believe Langston’s story or that the skull might be Shakespeare’s).

I was taken aback, because it meant that the first TV documentary to examine the skull, and the story told by Langston, would not feature or even mention the only person who had done any real research into these matters and had published a book and a university paper about them.

That struck me as very odd, especially after I had supplied them with so much new information.

hamlet-48What really rubbed salt in the wound was when the company told me that I could pop down into the vault during a break in the filming, but I would have to sign a confidentiality agreement before I was allowed into the church.

So I was cut out of the story that I myself had broken and then told that if I wanted to see the skull I would have to sign away my right to talk about it.

ROBB: When will the TV documentary be broadcast, and what do you expect its conclusions about the skull to be?

STIRLING: It’s due out in April 2016, I believe, just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – I think they’d wanted to broadcast it sooner, but it took so long to sort out permission to access the vault.

As for conclusions, they’ll be limited by the fact that they were denied permission to remove the skull for laboratory analysis (radio-carbon dating, DNA, etc.) and could only photograph the skull and make a 3-D laser scan of it in the vault.

They should be able to determine the sex of the skull, and maybe the approximate age, and there’s a facial reconstruction expert involved who might be able to assess whether the skull matches the death mask and portraits of Shakespeare.

But I think the real aim will be to prove that there is sufficient evidence that the skull might be Shakespeare’s to justify further forensic analysis. 

Beautiful England
Beautiful England

ROBB: What further research on the skull and/or Shakespeare have you been doing since you published Who Killed William Shakespeare?

STIRLING: I’m just about to publish my latest book, Shakespeare’s Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant, which includes some new details about the skull, how Shakespeare died, his connections with the Sheldon family and how his illegitimate son responded to his death.

I was also contacted, some time back, by Steve Wadlow, whose family owns an old portrait – he wanted to know if I thought the portrait might be of Shakespeare. It’s certainly from the right period, and by using my detailed knowledge of the skull I was able to tell him that, yes, I think the Wadlow portrait (as we now call it) is probably of Shakespeare (we unveiled this portrait in my 2014 paper for Goldsmiths, University of London). 

The Wadlow Portrait
The Wadlow Portrait

I’ve done more work on Langston, proving that he was the author of “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found,” and that he published his accounts in the hope of swaying the international debate about whether or not Shakespeare’s Stratford grave should be opened and investigated – I’m sure he was trying to tell the experts that the skull was a lot easier to get hold of than they imagined!

ROBB: What, in your view, are the implications of the skull potentially being identified as William Shakespeare’s?

STIRLING: They’re huge. First of all, we’d have to explain how Shakespeare’s skull ended up in such a Catholic resting place (I don’t believe Langston’s story that it was stolen in 1794 – that might be a bit of local folklore, some gossip he heard when he was growing up – but rather, I suspect that the skull was taken to the Sheldon vault at Beoley for safe-keeping, and as a sort of holy relic, when Shakespeare died).

Then, we’d have to account for the injuries visible on the skull, which strongly suggest that Shakespeare was brutally murdered. These things will require us to revise his whole biography.

Currently, we’re given a very superficial, unrealistic narrative of Shakespeare’s life. That needs to change, and nothing is more likely to change it than the discovery of his disarticulated skull. 51Lw284fJqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

There’s also the matter of identifying what Shakespeare actually looked like. At the moment, scholars can only guess at whether a portrait is of Shakespeare or not. The skull should be able to tell us whether an image is certainly of Shakespeare.

ROBB: If the skull is proven to be Shakespeare’s, what do you think should happen to it?

STIRLING: I’m not sure, and I’m glad it won’t be up to me. But I would fight to prevent it being returned to Stratford. I think it was taken to Beoley for a reason.

Furthermore, although I love Stratford-upon-Avon – I’ve been going there my entire life, and my wife was born there – I do believe that the Shakespeare community in Stratford has actively prevented important information about Shakespeare from coming out. They have created a brand, their own version of Shakespeare, which they promote ruthlessly.

It’s a political thing: they want Shakespeare to have been something that he wasn’t, and they receive massive amounts of money to foist their imaginary Shakespeare on the public.

If anything, I’d prefer it if the skull remained at Beoley.

ROBB: How have your experiences influenced your views of the media and the Shakespeare community?

STIRLING: You’ve probably gathered that I’m not a big fan of the “Shakespeare community.” It suppresses information that doesn’t match its own very narrow set of beliefs. It’s also a clique, a sort of mafia, which rewards itself for its success in keeping Shakespeare to itself and silencing or side-lining alternative voices.

ws_parade_478I doubt that I’ll ever be able to forgive them for the “evidence” they gave to the church court, which seems to have been intended to derail the investigation.

As for the media, I’m not sure whether what happened over my involvement with the documentary was all down to a misunderstanding or whether they wanted to give the impression that nobody had ever investigated the skull until they turned up.

Either way, it’s not very impressive, and I’m saddened because up until then I’d enjoyed a very good relationship with the company. But the skull is more-or-less guaranteed to generate headlines, and I’m guessing that they want to keep the glory for themselves.

It all just goes to show what the independent researcher is up against in this game. The Shakespeare community will oppose you, and the media will want to take all the credit if you’re proven right.

It doesn’t change the fact that no one took Langston and his story seriously before I did, and nobody (since Langston) argued that the Beoley skull might well be Shakespeare’s until my book was published.

And if that helps to change history, and opens up new lines of inquiry into Shakespeare’s life, then that’s something.

Simon, in the middle
Simon Stirling, in the middle
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