“Alas poor William… or whoever.”
There is a local tradition that a skull in a vault in St Leonard’s Church, Beoley (which is now part of Redditch) is that of William Shakespeare. Two late Nineteenth Century articles said that Dr Frank Chambers, a local doctor, heard at a dinner at Ragley Hall in 1794 that Horace Walpole, art historian and man of letters, had offered £300 at the time of the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 to anyone who could obtain the skull of Shakespeare. Dr Chambers accordingly collected a team of three locals, and they broke into Holy Trinity Church, entered the tomb, and removed the skull.
However Dr Chambers failed to persuade Mr Walpole to buy the skull and one of the original conspirators, Mr Dyer, agreed to break into the tomb again to replace the skull. However, so it is said, Mr Dyer later told Dr Chambers that he had not put the skull back in Stratford, but instead had hidden it in the vault of a church. The author of the articles claimed that he had identified the vault, as that beneath the Sheldon chapel at Beoley.
There is undoubtedly a skull in the vault, lying on the floor, and not part of the skeletons in the ossuary. The Team Vicar and the church wardens applied for a faculty for an archaeological investigation of the skull, although the impetus came from an independent film company who wanted to make a documentary. This would have involved laser scanning and photography of the skull and the vault, anthropological analysis of the skull and then invasive investigations of the skull, involving the removal of a small bone sample of around 300mg. Radio-carbon dating and DNA analysis would be carried out. The application (Church of Beoley, St Leonard) came before the Chancellor of the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Worcester, Mr Charles Mynors. The judgment is available and it has attracted wide press coverage.
In his judgment, the Chancellor referred to the Court of Arches decision in Sevenoaks St Nicholas that ‘the test of special circumstances for exhumation is not the scale of what is proposed but the credibility of the reasons put forward for the exhumation’. In that case permission to remove remains for DNA testing to seek to establish that the petitioner’s family was descended from Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria, was refused as there was no real likelihood of a connection. Mr Mynors cited the Church Buildings Council/English Heritage Guidance for Best Practice on the Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Burial Grounds in England. He said that the Nineteenth Century story about the Beoley skull ‘reads, to use Professor Wells’s phrase, like a piece of Gothic fiction’. He found that there was ‘no scholarly or other evidence that comes anywhere near providing any support for the truth of the story’. The Chancellor concluded:
“54. It follows that the skull in the crypt at Beoley is simply that – a disarticulated human skull, of wholly unknown age and gender. There is no evidence as to when, how or why it ended up in the vault beneath the Sheldon chapel. And there is in particular nothing whatsoever to link it to William Shakespeare.
55. It follows from the above conclusion that the curiosity as to the skull at Beoley has no factual base whatsoever to justify exhumation, removal or investigation. The whole enterprise is entirely speculative. As in the Bosham case, the evidence led by the petitioners fails to come near to the standard required; and the proposed research has no realistic prospect of producing useful knowledge.”
As Mr Mynors observed, the whole story seemed surprising given the ‘curse’ above Shakespeare’s tomb:
“Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.”
Richard Harwood QC is a barrister with 39 Essex Chambers in London.
Photos: Lawrence Olivier with the skull of poor Yorick from Hamlet (1948); Shakespeare’s Tomb by Carlos Delgado CC-BY-SA.