… but scientific analysis proved the Beoley churchwarden to be correct
April 23rd marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and in addition to the many commemorative events seeking to capitalize on the occasion, there has been renewed interest in his burial in the church of Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon. In our post Shakespeare’s Skull – Church court rejects Gothic fiction we considered the case of Re St Leonard Beoley  Worcester Const Ct relating to a church about 15 miles from Stratford; this concerned the unsuccessful petition for the exhumation a skull for examination, which some accounts had suggested was that of the bard. The story has now moved on, Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity has been examined using Ground-Penetrating Radar, (GPR), and the “Beoley skull” has been subject to a laser scan and forensic examination. Whilst some questions have been answered other intriguing ones remain.
Staffordshire University examination
The investigation of the Holy Trinity grave was undertaken by archaeologist Kevin Colls and geophysicist Erica Utsi, who concluded:
‘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.”
The Press Release issued by the University’s Centre of Archaeology summarized the key findings of the Stratford investigation:
- There is evidence of a mysterious and significant repair to the head end of William Shakespeare’s grave, leading to Kevin Colls’ theory that this localised repair was needed to correct a sinking of the floor possibly caused by a previous disturbance to the grave.
- Kevin Colls believes these findings give new credence to a story published in The Argosy magazine in 1879, hitherto dismissed as fiction, which claimed that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his shallow grave by trophy hunters in 1794.
- The GPR survey found that William Shakespeare, his wife Anne Hathaway and other members of the family whose ledger (grave) stones lie beside his, were not buried in a large family vault deep underground, as has long been thought, but in shallow graves beneath the church floor. William Shakespeare’s and Anne Hathaway’s graves are less than a metre deep.
- William Shakespeare’s grave was found to be significantly longer than his short stone – extending west towards the head end, making it the same size as, and in line with, the other family graves. (Anne’s grave is also longer than her stone suggests.)
- The GPR also found no evidence of metal in the area of the grave, such as coffin nails. This suggests Shakespeare and his family were not buried in coffins but simply wrapped in winding sheets, or shrouds, and buried in soil.
and in relation to the Beoley skull:
“The investigation at Holy Trinity led the team to another Church, St Leonard’s, in the Worcestershire village of Beoley, 15 miles from Stratford … 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.
One certainty resulting from the recent work is the support given to the assessment of the former churchwarden of St Leonard’s of the skull in the vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel : “I thought the skull small. It seemed to be more for a teenager or possibly a woman.” Likewise, the consistory court was correct in its rejection of the evidence that suggested the skull in the Beoley crypt might be that of William Shakespeare. However, in the light of new evidence, some might now suggest that more credence should be placed on the accounts that Shakespeare’s skull was removed from Holy Trinity, Stratford.
In Re St Leonard Beoley the Chancellor accepted that the skull has not been “buried” in the conventional sense of that term  and noted :
“ … even if the deposit of the skull were not considered to be analogous to the burial of a full body, so as to bring into play the requirement for a faculty to be obtained for its temporary removal, the faculty jurisdiction also operates to protect at least some objects … deposited in a church”.
However, the term “exhumation” under Rule 2.2 of the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 includes: “the removal of a body (or part of a body) or of cremated human remains from a catacomb, mausoleum, vault or columbarium”. Furthermore, the revised rules no longer permit the use of “additional matters orders” for “the exhumation or other disturbance of human remains” inter alia. Neither of the recent investigations in Stratford or Beoley involved “exhumation” even under this extended definition. But to what extent could they be considered as constituting “disturbance of human remains”, either in ecclesiastical law or under the provisions of Shakespeare’s 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.”
Commenting on the findings, the Rev. Patrick Taylor, Holy Trinity Stratford said:
“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.”
Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb was made for Channel 4 by Arrow Media and is scheduled to be broadcast on at 8pm on 26 March. Full project details will appear on the University’s web page on 27 March 2016.