The Future of History

Friday, 8 August 2014

A Warning to the Curious ...

... or "How History Works" (Part II?).

I was flicking through this book the other day.  It's on sale at Tudor World in Stratford, where I'm currently doing the odd Shakespeare Tour and Ghost Tour (and great fun they are, too).  What's more, the "Horrible Histories" Gruesome Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon is actually dedicated to the owner, and the phantom residents of, the Tudor World property.

I admire Terry Deary's achievement.  His entertaining brand of History-Without-The-Dull-Bits appeals to young and old, no doubt to the despair and disapproval of the more academic types out there.  And he does a good job of digging up those obscure facts and stories which tend to be omitted from the standard accounts.  In that respect, his Gruesome Guide to Stratford is probably a helluva lot more interesting than the typical guidebook.

He even includes the story of Shakespeare's skull!  Yes, the local "legend" which I spent months researching for Who Killed William Shakespeare?  So, extra marks there for Mr Deary.  Except that he concludes his short account of Shakespeare's missing skull with the information that the skull was safely returned to the Stratford grave.

Almost every account I read of the legend of Shakespeare's skull, as originally recounted by "A Warwickshire Man" (Rev. Charles Jones Langston) in his 1884 publication, How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found, ends with the information that the missing skull was returned to Stratford.

This recurring "fact" intrigued me while I was researching the story.  You see, thanks to the infamous "curse" on Shakespeare's gravestone, the town of Stratford, and Holy Trinity Church, have always been rather diffident about opening up his grave.  So how, I wondered, had they managed to get the skull back into the grave, sometime in the late 19th century, without anyone noticing, and with no record surviving of the grave having been reopened?

It puzzled me for quite a while.  And then, while I was starting work on the manuscript for Who Killed William Shakespeare? - a breakthrough!  The skull is still inside the crypt at Beoley Church.  It was NEVER returned to Stratford. 

Various photos of the skull were taken at different times in the 20th and 21st centuries - on those rare occasions when the crypt was opened up for an architect's inspection - and those photos prove that the skull stayed exactly where Rev. C.J. Langston found it: in the vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel.

Okay, so ... Why do so many accounts of the story end with "The skull was returned to Stratford", when it quite evidently wasn't?

I've never yet managed to track down the source of that little bit of historical misinformation.  I don't know who first decided that the skull had probably been returned to its owner, or who first sneaked that falsehood into the legend.  But here's the thing: ever since that bit of false information was added to the story, it has been repeated, over and over again, whenever somebody stumbles across the legend, including, of course, Terry Deary, when he included the tale in his "Gruesome Guide" to Stratford.

I'm not attacking Mr Deary.  But I am questioning the way that, once a lie has been introduced into the historical account, it tends to stay there, repeated over and over again, until it becomes a "fact".

I've blogged previously about the will which names Anne/Agnes Whateley, the woman William Shakespeare was first given a licence to marry.  Because Samuel Schoenbaum failed to find that particular will, he concluded that Anne Whateley was a clerical error: she never existed.  And because Sam Schoenbaum said that, it became "The Truth"!  Anne Whateley: the woman who never was.  But she did exist.

The case of Anne/Agnes Whateley and the case of Shakespeare's skull are somewhat similar.  In both instances, something has been introduced to the approved story of Shakespeare which doesn't suit the peddlers of that orthodox account.  Whenever that happens, it seems, the race is on to quash that little problem.  With any luck, something will quickly get sneaked into the historical record which neutralises the threat posed by that rogue story.  So, Anne Whateley, we are led to believe, "did not exist".  The skull "was returned to Stratford".  Neither statement is true, and yet both have been repeated ad infinitum.

The skull story is particularly intriguing, in this regard.  Given that Stratford has, on the whole, sought (a) to ignore the story of Shakespeare's skull - and the actual existence of that spare skull at Beoley, and (b) to rubbish the story whenever someone mentions it, you do have to wonder.  If, as the Shakespeare folks in Stratford insist, the missing skull simply could not have been Shakespeare's, then why is it so important that we all believe it was returned to Shakespeare's grave after Rev. C.J. Langston discovered and identified it?  Isn't that a case of having your cake and eating it?  If it never was Shakespeare's skull, then there's no need to put out the false rumour that it was returned to Shakespeare's grave. 

I think the claim that the skull was returned to Stratford was a deliberate attempt to "close down" the story.  An interesting legend, yes, but no need to get excited because the skull came back to Stratford anyway.  Certainly, definitely, no need to probe any further.  Like the mysterious Anne Whateley, the skull doesn't exist.  At least, it doesn't as long as you don't go looking for it.

So, someone set a hare running.  To stop anyone from really investigating the strange tale of Shakespeare's missing skull - as told by that pillar of respectability, a Victorian clergyman - somebody made up the part about the skull having been returned to Stratford.  Which it never was.  But that's what you'll keep reading is what happened.

Unless you read Who Killed William Shakespeare? of course!

Seriously, though.  History is not, or should not be, a Wikipedia entry, which anyone can alter as they see fit.  The facts matter.  Anyone who "plants" a piece of misinformation - such as "the skull was returned to Stratford" - is deliberately misleading people.  And the people who seem most easy to mislead are historians, who keep repeating the lie, if only to make sure that you don't go getting any ideas.

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