"His skull isn't there at all": Archaeologists say spine-shivering radar results show Shakespeare's head was taken from grave

By Ben Miller | 23 March 2016

Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon grave will never be revealed - but his skull is unlikely to be buried inside, say archaeologists

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
The first ever ground-penetrating radar survey of William Shakespeare's grave - the smaller square stone to the right of the yellow tape measure in this picture© Arrow Media
In 1879, a British magazine called The Argosy ran a story claiming that William Shakespeare’s skull had been swiped from his shallow grave in 1794. The idea had been dismissed by historians believing that Shakespeare’s family, including his wife, Anne Hathaway, were buried together (and fully intact) in a large vault deep beneath the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
The grave of Thomas Nash, the first husband of William Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth Barnard, is in the foreground of this picture, with Shakespeare's grave behind© Arrow Media
The first ever granting of archaeological permission at the church might verify the theoretical theft: ground-penetrating radars have shown that Shakespeare and Hathaway’s graves are less than a metre deep, and there was no evidence of nails in them, potentially making the work of grave-robbers easy on a set of bodies wrapped only in sheets and submerged in soil.

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
Archaeologist Kevin Colls reading the curse on Shakespeare's grave© Arrow Media
Fifteen miles away, in the Worcestershire village of Beoley, Kevin Colls and a team from Staffordshire University have laser-scanned and carried out forensic anthropological analysis on a skull in a sealed crypt which was rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s. It turned out to belong to an unknown woman who died in her 70s, leaving the location of the missing head a mystery.

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
Kevin Colls and his team created a 3D virtual model of the Beoley skull before a crime scene photographer took close-up images© Arrow Media
“Even now, thinking of the findings sends shivers down my spine,” he says. "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.

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
An overhead photo of the Holy Trinity graves© Arrow Media
“It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all. 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.”

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
The words on Shakespeare's grave curse anyone who moves his bones© Arrow Media
Those chills are partly caused by the curse on Shakespeare’s grave: “cursed be he that moves my bones”, reads the final line. Archaeologists have long known that the stone is too short for an adult burial, but radar tests of the Holy Trinity floor have shown Shakespeare’s grave to be “significantly” longer, extending west towards the head end.

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
Helen Castor will present a documentary on the findings on Channel 4© Arrow Media
Colls thinks it was repaired after a previous disturbance to it caused the floor to sink. “These results will undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories for years to come,” he says. “The amazing project team, using state of the art equipment, has produced astonishing results which are much better than I dared hoped for.”

A photo of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon
© Arrow Media
The church allowed the investigation to take place because of its non-intrusive technology, but Reverend Patrick Taylor says the suspense will last forever. “We are not convinced that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken,” he cautions.

“We now know much more about how Shakespeare was buried and the structure that lies underneath his ledger stone. 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."


What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three Shakespeare sites to see

Shakespeare's Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an independent charity that cares for Shakespeare's heritage. It owns five Shakespeare Houses in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, all directly linked to Shakespeare. The Trust also cares for Harvard House.

Shakespeare's Globe, London
As well as performances, the faithfully reconstructed Globe Theatre hosts an extensive exhibition about Shakespeare and the theatre of his day.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Shottery
The cottage was the childhood home of Shakespeare's wife, Anne, the daughter of a yeoman farmer, Richard Hathaway. Set in a hamlet within the parish of Stratford but just over a mile from the town centre.
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