What Happened to Shakespeare's Skull

skull in hamlet

Vasiliki Varvaki / Getty Images

An examination of William Shakespeare’s grave in March 2016 suggested that the body is missing its head and that Shakespeare’s skull may have been removed by trophy hunters some 200 years ago. However, this is just one interpretation of the evidence found in this excavation. What really happened to Shakespeare's skull is still up for debate, but we do now have some important evidence concerning the famous playwright's grave.

Shakespeare’s Grave

For four centuries, William Shakespeare’s grave sat undisturbed underneath the chancel floor of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. But a new investigation conducted in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, has finally revealed what lies beneath.

The church has never allowed an excavation of the grave—despite many appeals from researchers over the centuries—because they wanted to abide by Shakespeare’s wishes. His wishes were made crystal clear in the inscription carved into the ledger stone above his grave:

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare, To digg the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."

But the curse is not the only unusual thing about Shakespeare’s grave. Two more curious facts have bothered researches for hundreds of years:

  1. No name: Of the family members buried side by side, William Shakespeare’s ledger stone is the only one that doesn’t carry a name.
  2. Short grave: The stone itself is too short for a grave. At less than a meter in length, William’s ledger stone is shorter than the others, including that of his wife, Anne Hathaway.

What Lies Beneath Shakespeare’s Tombstone?

The year 2016 saw the first archaeological investigation of Shakespeare’s grave using GPR scanning to produce images of what lies beneath the ledger stones without the need to disturb the grave itself.

The results have disproved some firmly held beliefs about Shakespeare’s burial. These break down into four areas:

  1. Shallow graves: It has long been asserted that the Shakespeare ledger stones covered a family tomb or vault beneath. No such structure exists. Rather there is nothing more than a series of five shallow graves, each aligned with the corresponding ledger stone in the chancel floor of the church.
  2. No coffin: Shakespeare was not buried in a coffin. Rather, the family members were buried simply in winding sheets or a similar material.
  3. Disruption at the head: Shakespeare’s mysteriously short ledger stone corresponds to a repair that has been made underneath the stone floor to support it. Experts suggest that this is due to disturbance at the head end of the grave which has caused significantly more subsidence than elsewhere.
  4. Interference: The tests conclusively proved that Shakespeare’s grave is not in its original state.

Stealing Shakespeare's Skull

The findings correspond to a rather incredulous tale first published in an 1879 edition of the Argosy Magazine. In the story, Frank Chambers agrees to steal Shakespeare’s skull for a wealthy collector for the sum of 300 guineas. He hires a gang of grave robbers to assist him.

The story has always been disregarded because of the (presumed) inaccurate details of the actual digging of the grave in 1794:

"The men had dug to the depth of three feet, and I now watched narrowly, for, by the clogging of the darker earth, and that peculiar humid state–small I can hardly call it... I know we were nearing the level where the body had formerly mouldered.
'No shovels but the hands,' I whispered, 'and feel for a skull.'
There was a long pause as the fellows, sinking in the loose mould, slid their horny palms over fragments of bone. Presently, 'I got him,' said Cull; 'but he’s fine and heavy.'”

In light of the new GPR evidence, the details above suddenly seemed remarkably accurate. The established theory up until 2016 was that Shakespeare was buried in a tomb in a coffin. So the following specifics in this story have piqued the interest of archaeologists:

  • Details of the shallow three-foot grave
  • Details of the body buried directly in the earth with no coffin
  • Details of soil disruption at the head end of the grave

Where Is Shakespeare's Skull Today?

So if there is truth in this story, then where is Shakespeare’s skull now?

A follow-up story suggests that Chambers panicked and attempted to hide the skull in St. Leonard's Church in Beoley. As part of the 2016 investigation, the so-called “Beoley skull” was examined and “on the balance of probability” was thought to be the skull of a 70-year old woman.

Somewhere out there, the skull of William Shakespeare, if it has actually disappeared, may still exist. But where?

With intensified archaeological interest sparked by the 2016 GPR scans, this has become one of the big historical mysteries and the hunt for Shakespeare’s skull is now well and truly on.

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Jamieson, Lee. "What Happened to Shakespeare's Skull." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-happened-to-shakespeares-skull-4019536. Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 26). What Happened to Shakespeare's Skull. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-happened-to-shakespeares-skull-4019536 Jamieson, Lee. "What Happened to Shakespeare's Skull." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-happened-to-shakespeares-skull-4019536 (accessed June 8, 2023).