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Shakespeare’s skull may have been removed from grave, documentary finds

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In 1879, an unconfirmed report in the press claimed that William Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his shallow grave by trophy hunters 85 years earlier. Now, a high-tech radar investigation into the Bard’s grave suggests that the story is true.

The Channel 4 documentary Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb, follows a team as they perform a ground-penetrating radar scan on the grave at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

They found evidence of “a mysterious and significant repair to the head end of William Shakespeare’s grave”.  The archaeologists’ theory is that the grave was disturbed previously, causing the floor to sink and needing repair.

Kevin Colls, the archaeologist who leads the team, says in the documentary: “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.

“It’s very very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all.”

It is not the only startling finding from the radar examination, which has discovered that  Shakespeare and his family are buried in a shallow grave under the church floor, rather than the large family vault where their bodies were thought to have been laid. The playwright, along with his wife Anne Hathaway and other members of the family are buried less than a metre below ground.

Shakespeare's tomb in Holy Trinity Church
Shakespeare’s tomb in Holy Trinity Church CREDIT: CHANNEL 4

 

Colls’ and his team also believe that The Bard and his loved ones were wrapped in winding sheets or shrouds and buried in soil, rather than in a formal coffin, as there was no evidence of metal – which would indicate the presence of coffin nails – in the area of the grave.

Two magazine articles – thought to be written by a former vicar at St Leonard’s Church, Worcester – published in 1879 and 1884, claimed that a doctor called Frank Chambers raided Shakespeare’s vault in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church and left Shakespeare’s skull in a church in Worcestershire.

St Leonard’s Church, located 15 miles north-west of Stratford in Beoley, is home to a lone skull in a sealed crypt that some have thought could be Shakespeare’s. The current vicar, Rev Paul Irving, sought permission from the Church of England’s Consistory Court to have the skull tested for DNA, but had the application rejected on a lack of firm evidence.

Barrister Chancellor Myrnors wrote that there was no “scholarly or other evidence” to support the theory, even dismissing it as a “piece of Gothic fiction”.

But, following the findings at Holy Trinity Church, archaeologists were granted permission to carry out forensic anthropological analysis on the mysterious skull at Beoley. The results showed that it did not belong to Shakespeare, but an  unknown woman who was in her seventies when she died.

Presenter Helen Castor sat next to Shakepeare's grave
Presenter Helen Castor sat next to Shakepeare’s grave CREDIT: CHANNEL 4 

 

For now, Colls maintains that the location of Shakespeare’s skull is unknown, with Colls admitting that “thinking of the findings sends shivers down my spine.”

The Rev Patrick Taylor at Holy Trinity Statford, however, maintains that Shakespeare’s skull remains under the church’s flagstones. “We are not convinced that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken,” he said in a statement.

“We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare’s wishes, and not allow it to be disturbed. We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone.”

Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb will be shown on Saturday, 26 March at 8pm on Channel 4.

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2016 by and tagged .

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