Under the cover of night, the three men crept toward the dusty chancel of the church, carrying dimmed lanterns and an assortment of tools. It took them a few, breathless moments to find the right headstone in the darkness. Ignoring the threat engraved upon it — “cursed be he that moves my bones” — they lifted the heavy slab and began to dig up the grave beneath.
At last, one of the men uncovered what they’d been looking for: a small, aged skull. Their ringleader grabbed it. He held in his hands the bones of one of the most brilliant writers ever to have lived, the pride of England and the bane of a million freshman literature students: William Shakespeare.
At any rate, that’s how the story goes, if you believe the anonymous author, who heard it from a guy, who heard it from his uncle Frank, who claimed to be the grave robber himself. Very few people did — but maybe they should have.
Four hundred years after Shakespeare died and was interred at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, and more than two hundred years after his bones allegedly were snatched from it, researchers were allowed to scan his grave with ground-penetrating radar in search of signs of a disturbance. And they found it.
“We have Shakespeare’s burial with an odd disturbance at the head end and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history someone’s come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare,” archaeologist Kevin Colls told the BBC. “It’s very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all.”
The investigation was carried out to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, and the full findings will be aired in a documentary for Britain’s Channel 4 this weekend.
The discovery will likely do little to dispel the endless myths and conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s true identity. (“Of course Shakespeare’s skull wouldn’t be in the Stratford church — they should be looking for Christopher Marlowe!”) But it does seem to give some credence to the story anonymously published in the magazine the Argosy in 1879.
According to the story, quoting the nephew of a Stratford doctor named Frank Chambers — the nephew himself goes only by “Mr. M” — Chambers was inspired to search for the skull after member of parliament and man of letters Horace Walpole promised 300 guineas to any man who could find it for him. It was an unnervingly common practice at the time — those were the early years of phrenology, the pseudoscience that claimed you could understand a person’s intellect by measuring their head.
Chambers — who it seemed had an overdeveloped sense of intrigue and an inclination toward the morbid — recruited a few local men to help him and set off for Holy Trinity Church. Just a few feet below Shakespeare’s headstone, which bore the warning “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” — he found the playwright’s remains.
Chambers did not then begin talking to the skull — “Alas, poor Shakespeare!” Instead, he set off to write to Walpole and tell him what he’d done.
But to the doctor’s dismay, Walpole refused to pay up the promised 300 guineas. And when he tried to find another buyer, Chambers instead got a telling-off from a friend who made him promise to return the skull to its rightful resting place. So he gave it to one of the men who helped him, Tom Dyer, with orders to place it back in the grave.
The next week at Church, Chambers noticed there was a crack in the stone slab covering Shakespeare’s grave. He confronted Dyer about it, and after much evasion the man admitted the stone had been “a mighty dale heavier than he thought.” Dyer claimed he returned the skull, but Chambers wasn’t sure he believed him.
The results of the radar scan seem to back up much of that story. According to the BBC, the researchers found evidence of significant repair to the head end of the grave, and also that Shakespeare’s and his relatives’ graves were relatively shallow; both details match the Argosy story.
While they were at it, Colls and his colleagues also investigated a mysterious skull found in a sealed crypt at a church 15 miles away in Worcester. That skull has long been rumored to belong to Shakespeare, but forensic analysis showed skull belonged to an unknown woman who was in her 70s when she died, according to Reuters.
“There are so many contradictory myths and legends about the tomb of the Bard,” Colls said in a statement to the news agency. “These results will undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories for years to come. Even now, thinking of the findings sends shivers down my spine.”
At least one person is less convinced. Speaking to the BBC, Reverend Patrick Taylor of Holy Trinity Church said there is insufficient evidence that Shakespeare’s bones had been removed, and he wasn’t going to allow the graves to be disturbed further.
“We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone,” he said.
As for Chambers, the man allegedly responsible for all this intrigue? In the Argosy story, his nephew asks him whether he thinks the skull was ever restored. But in the manner of infuriating uncles everywhere, Chambers would only quote Shakespeare back at him: “Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.”