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The Mystery of Shakespeare’s Missing Head

Wherefore art though, William Shakespeare’s skull? Archaeologists are shaking their heads after using ground-penetrating radar at his gravesite and concluding that this critical part of the Bard’s anatomy is missing.

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Shakespeare is buried next to his wife, Ann Hathaway in a shallow grave only 3 feet (a metre) below the floor of the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. For decades, Holy Trinity Church turned down requests from archaeologists to study the grave. Kevin Colls, an archaeologist from Staffordshire University with leading geophysicist Erica Utsi were the first people ever allowed to scan the grave, since their methods were non-intrusive.

Colls says,

It was a great honor to be the first to be given permission to undertake non-invasive archaeological investigation at the grave of William Shakespeare. 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.

The story of the missing skull has been a mystery throughout the ages, yet until now no one has proven it to be gone. The story of the missing head first appeared in 1879 in the magazine The Argosy. The removal, suspected to have occurred in 1794, was blamed on grave robbers or trophy hunters, who were prevalent at the time. Skulls were often collected because genius was thought to remain within and skulls were studied for evidence of this trait. The fact that Hamlet held a skull while musing about death is thought to have also played a role.

One circulating tale is that Orville Owen Bacon murdered Shakespeare in a rage, cut off his head and buried it along with his manuscripts. It was said that the embalmed head was stored in a leaden box somewhere in England. Another story tells of the Bard’s head being hidden in a sealed crypt in Saint Leonard’s Church, 15 miles (24km) from Stratford in the village of Boley in Worcestershire. Upon investigation and analysis, however, it was determined that the skull in question actually belonged to a woman who had died in her 70’s.

Yet, until recently, no one knew if the skull was actually missing. Colls believes he has solved the mystery,

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.
The amazing project team, using state-of-the-art equipment, has produced astonishing results which are much better than I dared hoped for, and these results will undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories for years to come. Even now, thinking about the findings sends shivers down my spine.

The scan has also revealed another unknown fact about Shakespeare’s burial. No metal was detected, indicating that the body was wrapped in a shroud and not buried in a coffin.

Of course, the mysteries could be solved once and for all if the grave was opened and the body exhumed but that is unlikely. Patrick Taylor, vicar at Holy Trinity says,

Holy Trinity Church was 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 of the structure that lies underneath his ledger stone. We are not convinced, however, that this 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 live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone.

The Grave of William Shakespeare with the Curse

The Grave of William Shakespeare with the Curse

Historians and archaeologists will continue to argue over the stone that carries no name, but only a curse,

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones. And curse be he that moves my bones.

With this warning, perhaps the vicar is right to leave the grave untouched. Whoever stole the skull may have paid a hefty price for doing so.

Famed Actor Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, 1948

Famed Actor Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, 1948

The mystery continues. To be or not to be, that is the question.