Did grave diggers steal Shakespeare’s skull?

Shakespeare's grave in Photo Source: BBC
Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church.  Photo Source: BBC

DULCIE WAS MOST INTRIGUED by this outfit she had seen on social media. It was called The Mysterious Package, and if you pay to join, they will send you something mysterious, neatly packaged, by post every so often. It was sort of like a Fruit of the Month Club for the slightly odd. If she ever had the extra cash, joining was on her to-do list, for sure.

As she reached into her box at the post office and pulled out her mail, along with the unasked-for catalogs, ads and bills she found a letter from her British friend, Fitzy. My this is a fat letter. Wonder what the ol’ gal is sending me.

     After she had gotten home, and put her feet up for awhile, she opened Fitzy’s letter carefully with a genuine letter opener—usually she just ripped mail open, in a messy fashion—a habit from which she could not break herself. But this letter was different. She did not want to disturb any of the contents. She loved getting Fitzy’s letters. She loved seeing “the Royal Mail” stamped on the envelopes. She loved looking at the postage stamps. They were always impressive. This envelope had two: one was of HRH riding in an open carriage with Nelson Mandela. The other was a photo of a younger queen in a smart pink outfit with matching hat. They were both in celebration of her 90th birthday. The postmark included the words, “Hay Festival, imagine the work.”

The reason for the plumpness of the envelope, Dulcie discovered, was a sheet of newspaper from a Warwickshire publication. “Here is a mystery for you,” Fitzy had written. The title of the March 31, 2016 article was, Mystery of Shakespeare’s Skull After Radar Probes Shallow Tomb. The article had three photos to go with.

“Yes, I will enjoy this Fitzy,” Dulcie said under her breath as she jumped right into reading.

Has William Shakespeare's skull gone missing?
Has William Shakespeare’s skull gone missing?

The fascinating article went on to explain that William Shakespeare had been buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. It seems that the Shakespeare family bodies were buried in shallow graves, barely three feet deep, and they had been buried in simple shrouds, no coffins. They were covered by stone flooring at a later date. There has been a rumor that in the 1790s, a local surgeon, Frank Chambers, had paid grave robbers to break in and steal Shakespeare’s skull.

Archaeologist, Kevin Colls had always been tantalized by this rumor, but he knew it would go against the Holy Trinity’s regulations to tamper with the grave to find out. One reason for his interest was that the skulls of Mozart, Hayden and Swift had all been stolen at various times, so it was not out of the realm of possibilities. The church would allow the use of GPR, Ground Penetrating Radar. Colls and a team of archaeologists did just that. The conclusion of the GPR tests verified that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed at the head-end of the grave, and there was an attempt to repair the grave, but no record of the repair in parish records.

As it stands, it is still only a theory—until Holy Trinity allows excavation, if ever. Colls conclusion: “head probably removed.”

Another rumor went about, following the theft of head rumor. The rumor was that Chambers, who had stolen the skull to sell, was unable to do so and ordered the grave robbers to return it to Holy Trinity. The confused grave robbers returned it to the wrong place, the Sheldon family vault in Beoley. Oh what a tangled web we weave… Forensic scientists located a lone skull there, and it was the skull of a woman in her seventies.

“My, my, this is juicy. Even the Mysterious Package could not rival it, eh, Toby?” Dulcie rattled for benefit of her cat, Tobermory, who was begging for a chin-rub.

Shakespeare’s own words appear on a plaque in Holy Trinity, upon his grave. It says: “Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, to digg the dust enclosed heare, blest be the man that spares thes stones, and curst be he that moves my bones.”

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of stories about the unknown and unexplained.

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