Someone, it seems, has stolen William Shakespeare’s skull.
According to the results of the first ever archaeological investigation of the writer’s grave in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Kevin Colls, the specialist who led the investigation has concluded that his head quite probably is missing.
“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,” Colls said. “It’s very very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all.”
Staffordshire University academic Colls, who conducted the first ever scan of the tomb with leading geophysicist Erica Utsi, added that he believes these findings give new credence to a story published in The Argosy magazine in 1879, which claimed that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his shallow grave by trophy hunters in 1794.
The investigation also found no evidence of metal in the area of the grave, such as coffin nails. This suggests Shakespeare was not buried in a coffin but simply wrapped in a winding sheet or shroud and buried in soil.
These and other findings will be revealed in a documentary Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb, which will be shown on Channel 4 on Saturday 26 March at 8pm and presented by the Cambridge historian Dr Helen Castor.
The programme will also show the results of another investigation at another church, St Leonard’s, in the Worcestershire village of Beoley, 15 miles from Stratford. Here, in a dark, sealed crypt lies a mysterious skull which legend records is the skull of William Shakespeare.
The team were granted access to the crypt to laser scan the skull and carry out a forensic anthropological analysis. The results revealed that this skull belonged to an unknown woman who was in her seventies when she died.
So the whereabouts of Shakespeare’s skull remains a mystery.
For decades, all requests to perform archaeology at the writer’s grave have been turned down by Holy Trinity Church authorities. But, in a world first, they have allowed this scan, which enables investigation below ground-level without disturbing the site.
Historians and archaeologists have long argued over Shakespeare’s final resting place, questioning the size of the stone, which is far too short for an adult burial, and which carries no name, only a chilling curse:
“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.”
Colls said, “It was a great honour to be the first researcher to be given permission to undertake non-invasive archaeological investigations at the grave of William Shakespeare. With projects such as this, you never really know what you might find, and of course there are so many contradictory myths and legends about the tomb of the Bard.
“The amazing project team, using state-of-the-art equipment, has produced astonishing results which are much better than I dared hoped for, and 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.”
The Rev Patrick Taylor, vicar of Holy Trinity Stratford, added, “Holy Trinity Church were pleased to be able to cooperate with this non-intrusive research into Shakespeare’s grave. We now know much more about how Shakespeare was buried and the structure that lies underneath his ledger stone. We are not convinced, however, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken.
“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.”