Back in November 2015, a story broke in The Telegraph – “Could Shakespeare’s skull have been found? Why Church ruling means we may never know” – and quickly spread through mainstream and social media.
Some accounts revelled in tabloid humour: “There’s been some Bard news for people who believed Shakespeare’s skull has been discovered in a Midlands town. They’re in for a winter of discontent after a court ruled the remains, in Redditch, are much ado about nothing.” Others, responding to the twittersphere, attempted to explain the decision of the Church Court. Very few relayed what was really going on.
The story was, in fact, six months old. A documentary company, working with an archaeologist from the University of Staffordshire, had initiated a somewhat arcane procedure to secure permission to remove a disarticulated human skull from a church vault so that it could be properly analysed.
The reason? The skull might be Shakespeare’s.
The Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester felt that he needed to hold a consistory court so that he could hear the evidence. A lot of evidence was not heard at that court, and some highly irrelevant evidence was. The result – no, the archaeologist and the documentary company were not allowed to remove the skull for forensic study.
Although there was nothing to stop them opening up the vault and scanning the skull in situ, which is precisely what they did last December.
Quite why this story suddenly appeared in the media, just a few weeks before filming, remains something of a mystery. As does the spin that the whole scheme to study the skull was simply a whim of the local vicar, who happens to be anything but eccentric.
No mention was made of the fact that the skull in question had appeared in a book about Shakespeare’s death and a university paper which compared portraits of the Bard with the skull.
If anything, the media took much the same line as the Shakespeare experts from Stratford-upon-Avon, who had assured the Chancellor at the consistory court that the story of the skull was nothing but lurid “Gothic fiction”, smirking and chuckling as they said it.
A detailed study of the story behind the skull, however, raises troublesome questions. The story – or the first half of it, at least – first appeared in print in October 1879, when the Argosy magazine published “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen” by “A Warwickshire Man”. The story, with its wealth of local and historical detail, described how some local ne’er-do-wells had been inspired to break into Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford and steal his skull.
It can hardly be a coincidence that Hermann Schaaffhausen, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bonn, had written a piece for the 1875 Yearbook of the German Shakespeare Society, calling for Shakespeare’s grave to be opened and his skull exhumed. Schaaffhausen’s interest was purely scientific, but his call sparked something of a furore (there’s a “curse” on Shakespeare’s grave, or so they say).
The story of “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen” challenged the notion that Shakespeare’s grave might need to be opened, suggesting that somebody had already done so.
The author of the piece – Rev. Charles Jones – had recently adopted his mother’s maiden name of Langston. Born in the nearby town of Alcester, in 1837, Langston was now Rector of Sevington in Kent. He subsequently wrote for the Argosy under his own name, “C.J. Langston”.
In 1883, the Shakespeare scholar, Clement Mansfield Ingleby, pitched into the debate with his proposal to disinter “Shakespeare’s Bones”. Ingleby referred to the tale told by “A Warwickshire Man” in his bibliography: “The vraisemblance of this narrative is amazing. But for the poverty of the concluding portion, which is totally out of keeping with the foregoing part, one might almost accept this as a narrative of fact.”
Langston responded, writing to Ingleby from “Beoley Vicarage, Redditch” on January 2nd, 1884. The vicar identified himself as the “compiler” of “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen” – a point that seems to have been lost on many commentators, who insist that the identity of “A Warwickshire Man” is unknown – and remarked that “Further revelations are in progress which will probably set at rest this much agitated question.”
Those further revelations were published privately, later that year, in a one-shilling booklet entitled, “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found”.
Rev. C.J. Langston had effectively come home, leaving Sevington in Kent for the “outlandish” parish of Beoley in Worcestershire. The incumbency could hardly have been more opportune, for it was in a private family vault under the Sheldon Chapel of the Church of St Leonard in Beoley that Langston was to find “the veritable skull of William Shakespeare”. It remains there to this day.
I feel a little sorry for Langston, who would soon be describing himself as “Formerly Vicar of Beoley”. There is no doubt that he had rigorously researched his story, drawing on local records and local gossip. One of his ancestors – Lieutenant Joseph Langston of the Royal Marines – was featured in the sequel.
Furthermore, the key grave robber, whom Langston called Tom Dyer, was a carpenter based on Alcester High Street when Langston was growing up close by, and so there is every reason to believe that the young Charles Jones had known the man he would later claim had stolen Shakespeare’s skull and squirrelled it away in the ossuary beneath the Sheldon Chapel.
None of this was mentioned at the consistory court. Neither was the fact that a research fellow in biological anthropology had superimposed a photo of the skull, taken by local journalist Richard Peach in 2009, over an image of the so-called Davenant Bust of Shakespeare, which belongs to the Garrick Club, and concluded that the proportions were such a good match that further study of the skull was absolutely necessary.
And there was no consideration of the detailed comparisons of the skull and the most familiar Shakespeare portraiture, which have revealed some remarkable similarities – including, potentially, physical evidence of the assault which resulted in Shakespeare’s death.
The problem seems to have been Langston’s story of “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found”. Taken out of context, as an entertaining but improbable sample of folklore, the story could be – and was – laughed out of court. But the context is everything.
There was an international debate at the time on the matter of whether or not Shakespeare’s skull should be exhumed from his Stratford grave. A clergyman with a wealth of local knowledge had stuck his head above the parapet, insisting that the skull wasn’t actually in Stratford, and was easily accessible.
But here we are, 132 years on, and still there has been no proper academic study of the rogue skull. Langston’s story was ignored and ridiculed – the common fate of those who dare to challenge the orthodox view of Shakespeare – not because it was “Gothic fiction”, but because it was dangerously revealing.
The man in whose funerary urn the skull was found was related to Shakespeare by marriage. He was also one of the wealthiest and most prominent Catholics in England.
How had the skull of William Shakespeare ended up in the family vault of the defiantly Catholic Sheldons? I attempted to answer this in Who Killed William Shakespeare? (The History Press, 2013) and have provided further information in my latest book, Shakespeare’s Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant (The History Press, 2016). Some background and visual comparisons of the skull with the Shakespeare portraiture can also be found in my 2014 paper, “The Faces of Shakespeare”, published by Goldsmiths, University of London.
The skull itself will be revealed in a Channel Four documentary this April. Hopefully, the 3-D laser scan made in December 2015 will answer a few questions and lead to public pressure for a fuller analysis under laboratory conditions.
Only then will we know for sure, as it were, that the skull at Beoley is indeed Shakespeare’s. But when the Shakespeare community has gone to such lengths to oppose any investigation of the skull, one has to suspect that there’s something rather big at stake here.
The skull – if it is Shakespeare’s – holds many secrets. Those secrets have been kept since Shakespeare died, 400 years ago, and attempts by a Victorian clergyman to expose them achieved next to nothing.
Surely, those secrets can’t be kept forever … can they?