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‘Shakespeare’s skull’ to stay in vault

06 November 2015

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Man of mystery: the “Ashbourne Portrait” was once thought to be of William Shakespeare, but is now the subject of debate, and is believed to depict Sir Hugh Hamersley

Man of mystery: the “Ashbourne Portrait” was once thought to be of William Shakespeare, but is now the subject of debate, and is believed to depict Si...

THE Chancellor of the diocese of Worcester has refused the Team Vicar and two churchwardens of St Leonard’s, Beoley, in Worcestershire, their petition for a faculty to permit the temporary removal from the vault under the Sheldon chapel of a skull.

The skull is possibly that of William Shakespeare, and its removal would enable detailed archaeological investigation to be carried out — including laser scanning, radio-carbon dating, and an anthropological assessment — and the subsequent return of the skull to its present place.

A preliminary question arose as to whether the faculty jurisdiction of the Consistory Court was engaged at all, in the light of evidence that the skull had previously been removed from the vault and photographed. The Chancellor of Worcester, Charles Mynors, said that the fact that the skull had been informally removed on previous occasions did not, of itself, justify a further removal, albeit on a temporary basis.

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 operated to protect at least some objects associated with a church and deposited in a church.

The skull was clearly neither part of the church building nor fixed to it, and it was not a work of art. Nevertheless, it was of historical interest, if only because of the curious circumstances alleged to have given rise to its presence in the crypt.

There was a local tradition that the skull in the vault was that of Shakespeare. This was surprising, given the “curse” above his tomb in Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, some 15 miles away:

 

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To digg the dust encloased heare.

Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,

And curst be he that moves my bones.

 

The story was told in two articles published in 1879 and 1884 in the magazine Argosy, by an author writing under the nom-de-plume “A Warwickshire Man”. The first article explained how Frank Chambers, a local doctor, heard at a dinner in Ragley Hall, in 1794, that Horace Walpole had offered £300 at the time of the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 to anyone who could obtain Shakespeare’s skull.

Chambers collected a team of three local men, and broke into Holy Trinity and removed the skull. He failed to persuade Walpole to purchase the skull, nor was he able to sell it. He therefore persuaded one of the original conspirators, Dyer, to break open the tomb again and replace the skull.

The second article related how Dr Chambers subsequently met Dyer, who explained that he had not replaced the skull in the tomb at Stratford, but had hidden it in the vault of a church, and that was the vault beneath the Sheldon chapel at Beoley. “A Warwickshire Man” was thought to have been the Revd C. J. Langston, Vicar of Beoley from 1881 to 1889. The story in the 1884 article was summarised in the guide to St Leonard’s in 1970 by the then vicar.

The impetus for seeking the faculty came from Arrow Media, an independent film company which, with the University of Staffordshire, was proposing to fund the investigation under the terms of a draft agreement with the Team Vicar and churchwardens.

The intention was to produce a 60-90 minute film, which would be broadcast during 2016, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In parallel to the proposal to investigate the skull at Beoley, a petition was submitted to the Coventry Consistory Court to authorise the investigation of Shakespeare’s tomb at Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon. A faculty was granted for the carrying out of certain works, and a preliminary report was published in March 2015.

Although there was some evidence that there had been post-burial activity and disturbance in the vicinity of the traditional burial place at Stratford, there was no evidence indicating an incomplete skeleton, or anything of that nature. The Vicar and churchwardens at Holy Trinity were not interested in the skull at Beoley, considering the story as without foundation.

The Chancellor said that there was no scholarly or other evidence that came anywhere near providing any support for the truth of the story by “A Warwickshire Man”. It was variously described as “a piece of Gothic fiction”, and “lurid fiction”, although one could not discount the possibility that there was a grain of truth in it. But that was, perhaps, the lowest possible standard of proof, just above something being classified as complete fabrication.

The story by “A Warwickshire Man” was written about a century after the events that it purported to relate. Merely because many of the circumstantial details were accurate proved nothing, the Chancellor said: “The same could no doubt be said of any half-competent historical novel.”

It followed that the skull in the crypt at Beoley was simply that: a disarticulated human skull of wholly unknown age and gender. There was no evidence to show when, how, or why it had ended up in the vault. And there was nothing to link it to Shakespeare.

The curiosity about the skull had no factual basis whatsoever to justify exhumation, removal, or investigation, the Chancellor ruled. The whole enterprise was entirely speculative, and the proposed research had no realistic prospect of producing useful knowledge. Accordingly, the petition failed.

The court costs, including the correspondence fees of the registrar, were ordered to be paid by the petitioners (i.e. the Team Vicar and churchwardens) on the assumption that those costs would be met on their behalf by Staffordshire University and Arrow Media.

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