Published: 22 April 2016

“Alas poor Will!” The story of Shakespeare’s lost skull


He was one of greatest brains of all time, and yet he seems to have lost his head! School of the Arts student, Heather Christian, looks at the mystery of Shakespeare’s lost skull.

If the life of William Shakespeare is cloaked in mystery, then the circumstances and status of his earthly remains is even more obscure. Having supposedly died on his fiftieth birthday, the body of William Shakespeare was laid to rest in a simple tomb in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Possibly at Shakespeare’s request, the tomb contained the following macabre warning:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, 

To dig the dust enclosed here, 

Blessed be the man that spares these stones, 

And cursed be he that moves my bones.

A recent archaeological survey, sponsored by Channel 4, suggested that Shakespeare’s skeleton, buried just three feet under the church floor, could have been removed from its resting place. In an incident eerily reminiscent of the famous scene in Hamlet, it appears somebody has exhumed the greatest playwright of all time and held his skull aloft!

This leaves us with two questions. Firstly, why is Shakespeare’s skeleton missing a skull; and secondly, where does his head rest now? For the first enquiry, there are three potential suspects:

Suspect 1: A lost love?

It has been speculated that Shakespeare’s head may owe its removal to a relative or even a lost love, whose emotional attachment transcended the ‘curse’ on his tombstone. Whilst this may sound as dramatic as something from the Bard’s own plays, there were precedents for such action which the playwright himself would have been familiar with.

The most famous example is the English Chancellor and Humanist Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded by Henry VIII. It was his devoted daughter Margaret who rescued her father’s head from a spike on London Bridge, kept it preserved and requested that she be buried with it so that she would be reunited with her father in death. Excavations of her tomb in the 1970s found the remains of a male skull, almost certainly More’s, in a niche above her coffin. Is it therefore possible a relative or love of Shakespeare’s decided to follow suit and deposited the head in with their own remains?

Suspect 2: By Royal command?

There is a chance that the removal of Shakespeare’s head may have been ordered by a higher power, possibly by King James I himself. It is no secret the King and the Bard had a good relationship. When James succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, Shakespeare, keen to gain favour with the new monarch renamed his theatre company “The King’s Men”.

Most famously it is claimed he wrote Macbeth to please the new king, who was of course Scottish and also obsessed with witchcraft. James was pleased with Shakespeare’s efforts and was keen to offer him his patronage. It is possible that on hearing of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the grateful King James decided to relocate some of the playwright’s remains to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, alongside famed contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

It is equally possible that James, always an unpopular monarch, moved the admired playwright’s skull to Westminster so that his Stuart dynasty could associate itself more closely with the greatness of Shakespeare.

Suspect 3: Tomb-Raiders?

A more plausible hypothesis has recently been put forward; that Shakespeare’s tomb was merely another victim of the 18th Century craze for “body-snatching”. With rapid increases in medical knowledge, doctors and surgeons would pay handsomely for cadavers and skeletons to dissect, encouraging multitudes of opportunists to exhume as many graves as possible in the quest for profit.

Despite having been dead for many decades, Shakespeare’s remains would have been a prime candidate. Regarded even then as a brilliant mind, physicians would have been keen to (literally) get inside Shakespeare’s head in an attempt to discover what made him such a genius. Shakespeare’s skull may ultimately have been lost in a quest to unlock the nature of intelligence.

Four centuries after his death, the location of William Shakespeare’s skull looks set to remain a mystery. Recent claims that his head was buried in St Leonard’s Church in Beoley were dramatically debunked in the Channel 4 programme when DNA analysis revealed the skull to be that of a female.

We have no record of any royal intervention nor any knowledge of close family who would want to keep the head for themselves. In the absence of hard evidence, we can only speculate as to the ultimate fate of Shakespeare’s lost skull. As for which theory you believe, you will have to make your own mind up…

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