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Did Shakespeare Lose His Head?

Scans of the Bard’s grave reveal that robbers may have stolen his skull two centuries ago

Epitaph on William Shakespeare's grave (Dean Conger)
smithsonian.com

William Shakespeare has never really been at peace. Since the Bard’s death in 1616, people have squabbled about his true identity, the meaning of his works, the sources of his plays and why he left his wife only their second best bed, not the good one. Now, a scan conducted on Shakespeare’s grave shows that even in death he’s found no rest. The result indicates that his skull may have been stolen, a fine way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his passing.

Archaeologist Kevin Colls from Staffordshire University and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) expert Erica Utsi conducted the scans, which will be detailed on “Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb,” a documentary airing in Great Britain over the weekend.

It’s the first time that Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon has allowed researchers to study the graves of Shakespeare and his family, including his wife Anne Hathaway, which are under the floor of the church.

The radar reveals that the graves are relatively shallow, about 3-feet deep, and the Bard’s grave shows no signs of metal, like coffin nails, indicating that he was likely buried in a shroud. But the most intriguing find is that the head of the writer’s grave seems disturbed, and looks as if it had been excavated then repaired with loose material. The scan, however, can’t identify bone, so it's not 100 percent certain that the skull is missing.

The finding does support a story that’s been circulating for over a century. According to a story in Argosy magazine from 1879, a doctor named Frank Chambers commissioned grave robbers to break into the church, lift the burial slab, and steal Shakespeare’s skull in 1794. The story had been widely dismissed as a rumor until now.

“We are confident his remains are there,” Colls tells the Independent. “[The data] suggests the skull is still missing and might be out there somewhere. There’s no documentary trail we’ve identified of where it might be. We will keep looking.”

The documentary also busts the myth that Shakespeare’s skull is kept at St. Leonard’s in Beoley, Worcestershire. According to the BBC, a forensic anthropologist who examined that skull and performed a facial reconstruction on it concluded the cranium in question was from a woman in her seventies. 

Despite the renewed interest, the mystery of Shakespeare’s skull may never be settled. According to a press release, Rev. Patrick Taylor, vicar of Holy Trinity in Stratford says the church is not interested in letting anyone open up the grave to check. “We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare's wishes,” he says. “We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone.”

He’s probably just afraid of the curse written on Shakespeare’s headstone: 

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.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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