According to folklore on the Warwickshire-Worcestershire border William Shakespeare’s skull doesn’t rest in his grave in Holy Trinity Stratford, but in a vault in the village church at Beoley thirteen miles to the East.
Shakespeare’s skull, allegedly (c). The Village, Beoley Parish Magazine
It was published by Rev Charles Langston Vicar of Beoley in 1884 as the work of ‘A Warwickshire Gentleman.’ In the previous century – according to the story – Horace Walpole had said he would give £300 to own the skull of Shakespeare, and some local men took him at his word. They opened the grave at Stratford and removed Shakespeare’s skull, but Walpole was horrified and refused to accept it. The men tried to replace the skull in Shakespeare’s grave but couldn’t get the slab up again – cracking it in one corner in the process – and the skull ended up being left in the vault at Beoley.
Horace Walpole crops up so frequently in these posts – like King Charles I’s head in anything that Mr Dick tried to write. Wherever you go in art, architecture and history, Horace Walpole will inevitably have been there first. As an art historian you are used to imagining him in the bright-lit Palladian halls of Reason, a man of Drawing-Rooms and Academy Exhibitions. But he’s a creature of the Gothick as well. He built Strawberry Hill as a sort of fantasy haunted monastery, and he wrote the Castle of Otranto, the first English Gothic novel. And alongside Cardinal Wolsey’s hat and Dr John Dee’s spirit-mirror, Shakespeare’s skull might have fitted into his collection very well. The Goth in him might even have said that he would give £300 to own it. But the Augustan would never steal it.
Interestingly, Beoley is just next to Ragley where Walpole’s cousin the 1st Marquess of Hertford lived, so Walpole, who was a regular visitor, would have been in the area. Was he overheard to make the remark? It sounds like him – ‘I would give £300 to see it’ – just as at Ham House he said, ‘the house is full of ghosts; ghosts I would not give sixpence to see…’
Simon Andrew Stirling, author of Who killed William Shakespeare, the murderer, the motive, the means 2013 (of which more later) believes literally in the truth of the 1884 story, and uses the skull itself as forensic evidence that Shakespeare died from being stabbed in the eye.
It’s an interesting idea, with only one pitfall. There’s no evidence whatsoever that the skull is Shakespeare’s.
The skull itself in the photograph doesn’t even appear to belong to an adult.
It was later said that Mr Langston made the story up in the 1880s to raise money for the Church roof. Mr Stirling rejects this as an example of ‘them’ – the Shakespearean Establishment – squashing an inconvenient heretical truth that gets in the way of the comfortable orthodox Shakespeare story.
This is circular reasoning; anything that contradicts a favoured theory must be a cover-up; this cover-up then becomes proof of whatever the theorist has already decided to find.
So what do we take from this? I always like to find some truth at the heart of old folk stories, and I am willing to believe that the story is older than 1884. Perhaps Walpole did indeed say he would give £300 for Shakespeare’s skull, and was known locally for saying it. That’s interesting enough for me, that a casual remark might be embroidered into a folktale that’s still living three hundred years later. But without any evidence that the skull is Shakespeare’s (or of the right period, or even an adult’s) it must remain just a story.