Horace Walpole, grave-robber; Simon Andrew Stirling’s ‘Who killed William Shakespeare…?’ part 1

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.

3 thoughts on “Horace Walpole, grave-robber; Simon Andrew Stirling’s ‘Who killed William Shakespeare…?’ part 1

  1. Greetings! And thank you for the mention. I’m happy to say that the crypt at Beoley church will be opened up, later this year, as part of the quinquennial inspection of the church. A research fellow in biological anthropology has expressed a desire to be on hand, to measure and photograph the skull, because he was able to match the proportions of the skull to images of Shakespeare – not to mention the various injuries and distinctive features of the skull, which correspond to identical features in the portraiture of Shakespeare. So we should know, before too long, exactly how closely the skull corresponds to the known images of the Bard.

    Incidentally, in my book “Who Killed William Shakespeare?” I follow up on Horace Walpole’s connections to Beoley, especially via his intimate friend and “wife”, Lady Browne, who was born in Beoley. It is in her family’s vault that the skull now rests.

    The “conspiracy theory” argument works both ways. If we should discover that the skull, identified by Rev C.J. Langston in the 19th century as the “veritable skull of William Shakespeare”, and which undoubtedly displays the same pathological features as the portraits and busts of Shakespeare, is indeed Shakespeare’s, then the “Establishment” will have to explain what it was doing in the vault of a defiantly Catholic family, and specifically in the funerary urn belonging to one of the wealthiest Catholics in the region, Ralph Sheldon, who was in fact related to Shakespeare. The “Establishment” has been so keen to deny the possibility that Shakespeare himself was a Catholic, or at least a Catholic sympathiser, that the revelation might well come as a bit of an embarrassment.

    For now, I would merely draw your attention to the oval-shaped depression near the top of the frontal bone (which can also be seen on the Shakespeare bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, and the so-called Davenant Bust of Shakespeare at the Garrick Club) and the jagged burrs of bone poking out from the outside corner of the left eye socket, which match the pronounced swelling in the same place on the Droeshout engraving and Chandos portraits of Shakespeare. Remarkable coincidences?

    Very best,

    Simon Stirling

    1. My pleasure!

      I haven’t had time yet to read your book (which I look forward to doing) so I’m not sure whether you are suggesting that the pathological features in the skull/portraits/bust relate to disease (as Prof Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel has suggested) or trauma. I’m cautious of using portraits as forensic evidence of either, though, without categoric proof that they are life studies. The Davenant bust at the Garrick is by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702 – 1765).

      The Catholic question is an interesting one. I wouldn’t be so surprised if Shakespeare was – in some sense at least – a Catholic sympathiser. The tract found in the thatch at the Birthplace and belonging to John Shakespeare is considered a genuine document, apart from the missing first page which Malone (I think) is said to have ‘reconstructed.’ But John Shakespeare was born in 1530, and England was re-Catholicised until he was 28 years old. We are better these days at understanding that people cannot be made to change their religion at the flick of a legislative switch. (I remember being taught years ago that the Pilgrimage of Grace was as a question of centralised vs local government!).

      Aubrey says that Shakespeare ‘died a Catholic’. Some stories about Shakespeare must have a kernel of real truth in them. Others must be topoi that have been clagged on to his memory. You know the one that says, Shakespeare was a butcher’s apprentice, he would put on a garland and make a speech when slaughtering? I’m sure that’s an invention because it’s straight from Theophrastus’s ‘Characters’ – the petty-ambitious man ‘when he makes a sacrifice he puts on a wreath and makes a speech. At dinner he always makes sure he sits right next to the host, etc’ Theophrastus was popular in the 1610s, and Sir Thomas Overbury did a translation.

      Davenant is an interesting subject, I’m glad you’re writing about him. Who was it who says, if only Davenant’s nose hadn’t rotted off with the pox we might have seen if he looked like Shakespeare?

      Thank you again for your comment – it is much appreciated. I look forward to hearing how you get on with the skull.

      Very best wishes,


  2. Dear James,

    Many thanks for your response.

    I’m unconvinced by the attribution of the Davenant Bust to Louis Francois Roubillac. The bust was rescued from the Duke of York’s Playhouse, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, when the old theatre building was demolished in 1848. The bust had apparently occupied a niche immediately above one of the stage doors, with a bust of Ben Jonson (destroyed by the workmen during demolition) occupying a similar position over the other stage door.

    The problem is that, for most of Roubillac’s adulthood, the Duke of York’s was no longer a working theatre. From the 1730s onwards it was used as a barracks, an auction room and a china-ware repository: none of which would really require busts of Shakespeare and Jonson. However, shortly after Sir William Davenant died in 1668 his company moved from the Duke’s Playhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to a new theatre in Dorset Gardens, Fleet Street. Davenant himself commissioned the building of this new theatre, supposedly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and the new playhouse was adorned with busts of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and other leading poets. Some of these were damaged (“With noses some, and some without”, as they were described in 1690), and so some restoration work would have been in order if these busts were later transferred to the Duke of York’s, sometime between the reopening of that theatre in 1695 and Gifford’s brief occupancy in 1735. I’m quite happy to accept that Roubillac might have carried out the restoration of the bust, but stylistically it’s always struck me as being more reminiscent of the work of Giovanni Bernini.

    You mention Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s theory of Shakespeare’s degenerative disease. Personally, I think she’s misread the damage to the left eye. For now, though, I’ll just mention one intriguing aspect.

    An expert in human remains identification drew my attention to the fact that the region of the skull immediately above the left eye socket looks “bumpier” than the corresponding region over the right. This, I was assured, would indicate the absence of fatty tissue in much of the left eyebrow (the imbalance of fatty tissue in the eyebrows is clearly visible on the Davenant Bust), which in turn points to the presence of a scar on or immediately above the eyebrow. This scar would have been present for much of the life of the skull’s owner – long enough for the skull itself to have adapted (i.e. the surface of the skull gradually became “bumpier” as it had to work harder to cling onto the skin).

    Most portraits of Shakespeare show him with a swollen or drooping left eyebrow, and one portrait in particular (which I’ll come to) shows a rather pronounced scar just above the eyebrow – sufficient, perhaps, to displace the fatty tissue and create the effect of a swollen or drooping eyebrow. A photo of the skull taken in circa 1939 shows a distinct groove or scar in exactly the same position.

    Which brings me to a portrait that I hope you’ll find interesting. I wrote about it here: http://www.historicalhoney.com/exclusive-shakespeare-dragonfly/

    With kindest regards,


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