Forensic Case Files: The Bard’s Missing Skull

There has been controversy for years about who Shakespeare really was. History tells us he was the son of a glove maker, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England in 1564, who grew up to be an actor, poet and playwright. But doubts were raised that someone born in a small village and living so far outside royal life would be able to write about it so eloquently, and some have proposed that Sir Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe were actually ‘The Bard’. But the man most recognize as the ‘greatest writer in the English language’ is known to have died four hundred years ago on April 23, 1616. He was laid to rest two days later in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in his beloved Stratford-upon-Avon. Later, his wife, daughter and son-in-law were buried beside him.

Two stories of a strange grave robbing surfaced roughly 250 years later, in 1879 and 1884. They describe a doctor digging up Shakespeare’s head in 1769, possibly to sell to an art dealer. There is a theory from the time that a person’s genius could be discerned from their skull alone, so Shakespeare’s skull would have had significant worth.

Recently, that tale was put to the test as researchers from Staffordshire University were allowed to come into Holy Trinity Church with ground penetrating radar equipment to scan the grave under an etched stone slab. And what they found supports those stories—the results show a disturbance at the head end of the grave showing where dirt was removed and replaced, and the skull does not appear to be present. The scans also show that Shakespeare and his family were not buried in coffins, but simply wrapped in cloth shrouds and entombed in shallow graves, which would have certainly made grave robbing an easier task.

Researchers realize their results ask more questions than they answer, but they are determined to go back to the records of the time to try and solve the mystery of Shakespeare’s missing skull. Was it truly stolen, or could it reside in another church or in a family member’s tomb instead?

An interesting side note to the theft is the epitaph chiseled on Shakespeare’s tomb, one the robbers most certainly ignored:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.


Photo credit:  Steve