Wild goose chase
April is Shakespeare month here at Footprints of London as we launch a special series of walks to mark the 400th anniversary of The Bard’s death. To get us all in the mood, Neil Sinclair recounts the fascinating story of a potential mystery involving Shakespeare’s head.
William Shakespeare’s heart was always in Stratford upon Avon where he was born and also where he died 400 years ago on 23rd April 1616. But his head, figuratively speaking, was always in London where he found fame and fortune as both an actor and playwright.
Where his actual skull may now rest is, however, a matter for much speculation following an archaeological investigation of the Bard’s grave in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire.
The investigation, led by archaeologist Kevin Colls from Staffordshire University, may support persistent rumours that William’s skull was removed in the late 18th century by grave robbers in defiance of the doom-laden warning on his gravestone.
Colls and his team took no chances. In strict accordance with permission granted by the Church of England, they didn’t disturb Shakespeare’s bones but used non-invasive ground penetrating radar to examine the ground beneath the gravestone.
“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,” said Colls.
“It’s very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all.”
But neither, as another legend claims, is it hidden in a crypt at St Leonard’s Church at Beoley, in the neighbouring county of Worcestershire.
The Colls team was given permission to survey this crypt using a laser scan. The findings were subjected to forensic anthropological analysis that revealed the skull was of an unidentified woman aged about 70 at the time of her death.
As Emilia, attendant to Desdemona, said in Shakespeare’s Othello: “Tis neither here nor there.”
There may, of course, be a prosaic and almost entirely uncontroversial reason for the significant repair to the head end of Shakespeare’s grave; subsidence of the floor in the chancel of Holy Trinity triggered not by unscrupulous trophy hunters but by natural causes.
Patrick Taylor of Holy Trinity isn’t convinced that the evidence unearthed by Colls is sufficient to support the theory that Shakespeare’s skull is missing. And he adds that the Bard’s wishes for his bones to be undisturbed will be respected.
The full story of the archaeological survey of Shakespeare’s grave can be seen in a Channel 4 television documentary entitled Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb due to be broadcast on Easter Saturday at 8pm. But permit me a spoiler: as the survey proved, Shakespeare was not buried in a tomb but in a shallow (about one metre deep) grave.
You won’t need to do any digging to discover the stories of Shakespeare’s London with the month-long Footprints of London festival of Shakespeare walks that kicks off on Saturday 2nd April with Shakespeare in Shoreditch. Check our April schedule for the full programme of over 30 walks.