SHAKESPEARE was buried in a shallow grave without a coffin and his skull has probably been stolen.
That was the conclusion following a hi-tech archaeological examination of the playwright’s grave in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church – revealed in Channel 4 documentary Shakespeare’s Tomb.
The grave has been the source of much speculation down the years. It is the only one of the five Shakespeare family stones without a name – bearing only the Bard’s famous curse warning against moving his bones.
Church authorities have long refused permission to excavate but grave permission for the ground penetrating radar (GPR) examination – as often seen used on popular TV show Time Team – as it would not disturb the grave in any way..
The project was undertaken by archaeologist Kevn Colls, who previously carried out research at Shakespeare’s final Stratford home New Place, and Erica Utsi, a world expert in GPR, whose previous work has included finding long lost tombs under Westminster Abbey, including that of Edward the Confessor.
It was believed the Shakespeare family stones in the church were above a family vault. The GPR findings quickly discovered there was no such vault, and the bodies had each been buried in graves only a metre (three feet) in depth. There was also no evidence of metal from coffins showing they were laid to rest in simple shrouds.
The discovery of the shallow graves led Mr Colls to look more closely at a story published in an 19th century magazine telling of how local surgeon Frank Chambers had hired grave-robbers to break into Holy Trinity and steal Shakespeare’s skull in the 1790s. The one point of the story which intrigued Mr Colls was the mention of the grave being three feet deep. It was too much of a coincidence – when all thought the Shakespeares were buried in a vault – for him not to believe there was some real truth to the story and it was not just another Shakespeare myth.
He also pointed to the period being a time when trophy hunters regularly stole the skulls of famous men – Mozart, Haydn and Jonathan Swift all suffering the fate.
The story also led the team to finally put to bed a story that Chambers had been unable to sell the skull and ordered one of the grave-robbers to put it back in Holy Trinity, but had instead placed it in the Sheldon family vault at nearby Beoley. A forensic examination of the lone skull in that vault concluded it was that of a woman in her 70s.
Further GPR analysis showed that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed at some time at the head end, and also repaired, although no there is no record of any repair to the grave in parish records.
Mr Colls concluded: “We have William Shakespeare’s burial with a very odd disturbance at the head end, and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history someone has come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare.
“It all ties in quite nicely. It’s very very convincing to me that his skull is no longer at Holy Trinity at all.”
But church authorities have no plans to excavate the grave any time soon to once and for all establish whether the skull was stolen.
Vicar of Holy Trinity, Rev Patrick Taylor, said: “The results of the survey are compelling in showing the structure at the head of the grave.
“But it is still only a theory that the repair was done due to the removal of some of his remains – the removal of his skull.
“And Shakespeare’s wishes are made quite clear on the inscription on his tombstone, and it is our intention to respect his wishes.
“At this time the church has no intention to open up the grave.
“So I think we just have to live with that sense of mystery.”
Shakespeare’s Tomb can be seen on All 4 Catch Up.