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Alas, poor Shakespeare: skull controversy is much ado about nothing

Posted on: November 3, 2015 3:59 PM
"Alas, poor Yorick..." This scene from Hamlet (played here by Sarah Bernhardt) is, perhaps, the most well known Shakespearian image of a skull
Photo Credit: James Lafayette

[ACNS] A plea by an English vicar for permission to DNA-test a skull in a Worcestershire church to see if it belonged to the playwright William Shakespeare has been rejected by a Church of England judge who ruled that “no factual base whatsoever” had been put forward to “justify exhumation, removal or investigation.”

Local legend says that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave, near the altar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1794 after three local men heard of a £300 reward for it. After failing to persuade the historian to hand over the money, and not wanting to risk breaking into the grave again, the skull was placed in the vault at St Leonard’s Church in Beoley.

But apart from the local legend, which historians consider to be myth, there is no evidence to support the story or to suggest that Shakespeare’s grave had been broken into. Nor is the origin of the Beoley skull known.

Approaching next year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a television production company wanted to make a documentary which would follow Staffordshire University as they make scientific examination of the skull.

The production company wanted to remove the skull from the vault before subjecting it to laser scanning, radio carbon dating, and an anthropological assessment, before returning it to the vault. They also wanted to compare the DNA of the skull with a living descendent of Shakespeare’s sister to determine if they were related.

But C of E churches are subject to the Faculty Jurisdiction Measure – a law which says that permission from a diocesan chancellor – the judge of the consistory court – must be obtained before works can be carried out on churches or the historic items contained within them.

The vicar, the Revd Paul Irving, told the court that “This is not a fishing expedition; there is a real issue to be determined, which is not just whether the skull might be that of William Shakespeare, but whose skull it is, how old it is, and what we can find out about whoever this person was.

“Whilst it is understandable to apply twenty-first century scepticism to nineteenth-century storytelling, it would be helpful to sort the matter out once and for all by using the best modern scientific techniques. And any information as to other crypts or vaults, acquired as part of the present investigation, would greatly enhance knowledge of the building.”

But the judge at the Diocese of Worcester's Consistory Court, Chancellor Charles Mynors, deferred to the evidence of a number of historians and experts who gave evidence casting doubt on the story. Rejecting the application, he said: “I have seen no scholarly or other evidence that comes anywhere near providing any support for the truth of the story.

“I have already noted that Professor [Stanley] Wells [one of the foremost Shakespearian scholars, and a former chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust] concluded that that one could not discount the possibility that there is a grain of truth in it; but that is perhaps the lowest possible standard of proof, just above something being classified as complete fabrication.

“It follows that the skull in the crypt at Beoley is simply that – a disarticulated human skull, of wholly unknown age and gender. There is no evidence as to when, how or why it ended up in the vault. . . And there is in particular nothing whatsoever to link it to William Shakespeare.”

He said that “The whole enterprise is entirely speculative. . . The evidence led by the petitioners fails to come near to the standard required; and the proposed research has no realistic prospect of producing useful knowledge.”

Each year, more than 200,000 people from around the world visit Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, the church were Shakespeare was baptised, where he worshipped and where he is buried. That figure is set to rise next year, the 400th anniversary of his death.