Who Killed William Shakespeare?
The Church of St Leonard sits on a hillside, away from the road. Through the porch and the heavy oak door, you enter a well-kept space with all the usual oddities of an old English church.
To the left of the east-facing chancel, a short flight of concrete steps leads up to a pair of iron gates which open into a side chapel, filled with memorials to members of the Sheldon family. Carved effigies occupy the space between this chapel and the chancel.
Every five years, two of the steps leading up to the chapel are removed. More steps, never seen by the public, lead downwards into a small crypt. Old coffins lie side-by-side in this musty space. Sometime in the past, these coffins were broken into by thieves who wanted to steal the lead linings surrounding the bodies.
There is a hole in the wall, beyond which lies an ossuary filled with large bones. The ossuary also contains a bucket-like urn which once held the viscera of Ralph Sheldon. He died in 1613.
But the skull which rests in the urn is not Ralph Sheldon’s.
The skull is not complete. The lower jaw and cheek bones are missing, and there are no teeth. Deep scratches are scored into the right forehead. The eye sockets are broken, with a sharp burr of bone jutting out at the edge of the left eyebrow.
A new vicar arrived at the Church of St Leonard in 1883. His name was Rev Charles Jones Langston. In October 1879, he had published an astonishing story in the “Argosy” magazine. It was entitled, “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen”.
Langston’s tale of grave-robbing was filled with incidental detail. It appeared just as an international debate on whether or not to open up the grave of William Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, was hotting up. When the Shakespeare expert C.M. Ingleby wrote his “Shakespeare’s Bones: A Proposal to Disinter Them” in 1883, he mentioned Langston’s extraordinary tale. Rev Langston responded by publishing the second half of his story under the title, “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found”.
His new account described how the skull had been hidden away in the ossuary beneath the Sheldon chapel in the Church of St Leonard by the very thieves who had broken into the crypt and smashed up the coffins to get at the valuable lead inside them.
Langston claimed to have discovered the church almost by accident. He was shown into the crypt by the churchwarden. There, by the light of a lantern, surrounded by the mouldering remains of generations of the Sheldon family, he had reached into the bone-house, pulled out the funerary urn, and found the missing skull of William Shakespeare.
It took me several years to track down the Rev Langston’s story, and months of trawling through old census records to find out if the people he mentioned in his tale had really existed. I had been researching William Shakespeare for more than twenty years, and little by little I had come to the conclusion that the world’s most famous writer had been murdered by his greatest rival.
What struck me most about Rev Langston’s story was that his description of the skull matched what I had figured out about Shakespeare’s violent death. And the fact that the skull was found beneath the private chapel belonging to the wealthy Sheldons, a family of devout Catholics who were related to Shakespeare by marriage.
But when I started writing Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means – published this summer by The History Press – I had no idea if the skull existed. Langston’s story was incredibly detailed but not entirely believable.
Then I came across a magazine piece from 2009. A local journalist had managed to get into the crypt beneath the Sheldon chapel and take photographs of the skull. He’d certainly been uneasy about handling this strange, damaged skull. But his photos were invaluable.
They showed me how Shakespeare died. The point of a dagger had been thrust into his eye socket. This had damaged the inner wall of the eye socket (the wounds are visible on the skull) but it did not kill him straightaway. And so there were more stabs to the face and head, deep scratches etched into the skull’s forehead, and finally the hefty blows which shattered the eye sockets and the upper jaw, snapping the cheek bones.
The crypt will be opened up again next year, very briefly, for a regular inspection. Maybe then I’ll get the chance to compare the skull with a plaster of Paris death mask, which is now in Darmstadt Castle, Germany. At about the same time as Rev Charles Jones Langston, vicar of Beoley, was writing his tale about the theft and discovery of Shakespeare’s skull, various experts were proclaiming that the death mask was that of William Shakespeare, made within a day or two of his sudden death.
It was, in fact, the reason why so many scholars were anxious to open up the grave in Stratford-upon-Avon, so that they could unearth Shakespeare’s skull and compare it with the death mask.
That’s why Rev Langston wrote the second half of his story: to show the world that the skull was not in Stratford. It was twelve miles away, in the bone-house underneath the Sheldon chapel at Beoley.
And it’s still there today.
William Shakespeare lived in violent times; his death passed without comment. By the time he was adopted as the national poet of England the details of his life had been concealed. He had become an invisible man, the humble Warwickshire lad who entertained royalty and then faded into obscurity. But his story has been carefully manipulated. In reality, he was a dissident whose works were highly critical of the regimes of Elizabeth I and James I.
Who Killed William Shakespeare? examines the means, the motive and the opportunity that led to his murder, and explains why Will Shakespeare had to be ‘stopped’. From forensic analysis of his death mask to the hunt for his missing skull, the circumstances of Shakespeare’s death are reconstructed and his life reconsidered in the light of fresh discoveries. What emerges is a portrait of a genius who spoke his mind and was silenced by his greatest literary rival.
|Simon Andrew Stirling|
Simon Andrew Stirling grew up near Stratford-upon-Avon and trained as an actor at LAMDA. He has written drama scripts for television, winning a Writers' Guild Award in 1995, and one of his commissions was performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1991. Simon has been studying the life and works of William Shakespeare for more than twenty-five years and is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy (The History Press, 2012).