Who Killed William Shakespeare?
Simon Stirling
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

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.
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.

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
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).

3 thoughts on “SHAKESPEARE’S SKULL

  1. Thanks Jane, and to Simon for the article. I'd heard about the murder a year ago but not sure if it's been proven.

    The book will make interesting reading, that's for sure.


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