The Future of History

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Beoley or Not Beoley

To the lovely church at Beoley, yesterday morning, on a beautiful day, to film a piece for BBC local news.

And what a piece!  Video-journalist Ben Sidwell did us proud, and the editorial team at BBC Midlands Today introduced the piece with a neat little summary of Shakespeare facts.  Naturally, BBC balance had to insist on words like "alleged" a lot, but they gave us a fantastic hearing, and I can't complain.  Very chuffed with it.  (And a big shout out to Lucy from BBC Hereford and Worcester local radio, who also came along for an interview!)

Why Beoley?  Well, because there's a spare skull down there in the crypt beneath the Sheldon family chapel at Beoley church.  And in the 1880s, the local vicar published a very detailed and descriptive story explaining that this extra skull is William Shakespeare's.

Understandably, perhaps, the Old Guard sought to puncture the story.  I don't know what was said at the interview in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, but the bit that made it into yesterday's news item was essentially this:

The vicar of Beoley in the 1880s - one Rev Charles Jones Langston - only made up his story about Shakespeare's skull because he wanted to raise money to refurbish his church.  It's a good story, but it isn't true: it was just a fundraising exercise.

We'll briefly pass over any questions of the integrity and honesty of 19th century clergymen (even though the excuse given by the Shakespeare cogniscenti does seem to cast grave aspersions on Rev Langston's honesty) and take a quick look at the facts.

Langston's story, How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found, was published in 1884.  The following year, he oversaw the restoration of his church at Beoley.  And then he effectively retired, moving to Bath and referring to himself as "formerly Vicar of Beoley".  So he certainly did have a hand in the refurbishment of Beoley Church, although he didn't hang around afterwards to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

Now - Langston's story was privately published and sold for one shilling a copy.  I've not been able to determine how many copies he managed to shift, or what the initial overheads might have been, but I doubt he made enough profit to pay for the costs of a major church restoration.  He might have raised a bit, but there are currently no indications that he had hit on a real moneyspinner.

More importantly, though, Langston published the first half of his story (entitled How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen) in October 1879, when he was nowhere near Beoley.  He was based in Kent at the time.

In other words, FIVE YEARS before he published the second half of his story, describing the discovery of the "VERITABLE SKULL OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE" in the crypt at Beoley, he published the whole set up - the supposed theft of Shakespeare's skull from its Stratford grave and the failure of the conspirators to return it.

It's stretching credulity just a little to argue that Rev C.J. Langston only published his story to raise money for Beoley church when he published the first half of that story five years earlier, at a time when he was the rector of another parish in a totally different part of the country!

We might also note that at no point in his finished story does Rev Langston mention Beoley by name.  His story - detailed as it is - merely drops heavy hints.  And he avoided identifying himself as the author, describing himself simply as "A Warwickshire Man".

He had gone to an awful lot of trouble - both before and after he moved to Beoley - to weave an intricate and intriguing tale about the theft and discovery of Shakespeare's skull, but then neglected to name the church or the parish in which it was found or the fact that he was now the vicar of that church and desperately needed money to refurbish the place.  None of that was immediately apparent from his published pamphlet.

Is that the best way to raise money for your church?  And would the sale of some privately-printed pamphlets at one shilling each make much of a dent in the refurbishment bill?  Especially if you forgot to mention the name or location of the church or that you were the vicar?

The fact is, nothing points to the Stratford mob having considered Langston's remarkable story at all.  Ever.  They've never looked.  They told themselves, "Oh, he was just trying to raise some money for Beoley church", and left it at that.

Even though the likelihood that he raised much money is pretty small;

Even though he'd already published the first part of his story five years earlier, when he lived in another part of the country;

Even though he never mentioned Beoley in his story;

Even though it would have been - ooh, what's the word? - a little bit morally reprehensible to go around inventing stories about missing skulls turning up in your church just to raise a few quid.  Not really what we would expect of a pillar of the Victorian establishment.

No: the claim that Langston only told his story about Shakespeare's skull because he wanted to raise a bit of money is very lazy thinking.  It's yer typical "we're not prepared to consider or investigate this, so here's a pat and not very well-thought-out reason to believe that we're right and everyone else is wrong" fob off.  To which the only real response is: "Must try harder."

Meanwhile, plugging Who Killed William Shakespeare? on bestofstratforduponavon website, the local view of Shakespeare manages to poke through the blanket of obfuscation and denial imposed on it by outsiders (who consider themselves Shakespeareans).  I quote:

Born in Stratford upon Avon and considered to be one of the world's greatest writers there has long been hints of controversy and conspiracy surrounding the Bard's death.  Stirling's book sets out to answer some of these questions and perhaps offer a few different explanations!

That's from no press release that I know of.  The remarks are essentially those of the local community - the people of Stratford - who have always known that the standard accounts of Shakespeare's death don't stack up.

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