The Future of History

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Shakespeare's Skull - Setting the Record Straight

The news broke on Sunday evening.  Could Shakespeare's skull have been found? Why Church ruling means we may never know ran the headline in The Telegraph.  Since then, the story has gone around the globe.

It came as a surprise, partly because those of us involved in the story have been keeping pretty quiet about how it's all going (hence the lack of blogging in recent months) and partly because it is, in fact, old news.

I was informed - by a TV producer - back in March that the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester had turned down our application for a faculty to remove the rogue skull in the ossuary beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley for forensic analysis.  That judgement came after a consistory court hearing, paid for by the TV production company and held as a sort of appeal against the Chancellor's previous ruling, made some six months before, that we had no real grounds to justify the exhumation of the skull.

I'll come back to the Chancellor and his rulings in a minute.  The first question, I guess, is: why did the news suddenly break this weekend, when the decision to deny us the faculty was made months ago?

I can only suggest that it's because a TV documentary is about to go into production, with the story of the Beoley skull playing a part in that forthcoming documentary.  And, I suspect, somebody is out to scupper that documentary, and its findings, before the camera even starts rolling.

Some background: I first picked up a hint that Shakespeare's skull might not be in Stratford ten years ago.  After a while, I tracked down the story - and I've been working on it, one way or another, ever since.

Charles Jones was born in Alcester, Warwickshire, in 1837, the son of an attorney.  He grew up in Alcester, and the neighbouring parish of Wixford, and studied theology in Birmingham before taking holy orders.  By the 1870s, he was Rector of the small parish of Sevington, close to Ashford in Kent.

It was while he was in Sevington that, in 1879, he did two interesting things.  First, according to The Times of 26 September 1879, he changed his name, adopting his mother's maiden name of Langston.  Secondly, he published a story in the Argosy magazine, that October, under the nom de plume of "A Warwickshire Man".

Langston's extraordinary tale was entitled, "How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen".  It described how a local doctor had been inspired by a conversation around the dinner table at Ragley Hall to steal Shakespeare's skull from the grave in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford.  This was apparently because Horace Walpole, the antiquarian, had offered George Selwyn MP 300 guineas if the latter could acquire the skull of Will Shakespeare for him during David Garrick's farcical Shakespeare "Jubilee" in 1769.  According to Langston, Dr Frank Chambers recruited three local ne'er-do-wells and stole the skull, but could not agree terms with Horace Walpole.  Chambers arranged for the skull to be returned to its grave, although the story ended with some doubt in the air as to whether this had actually happened.

Langston's story did not come out of nowhere.  There was something of an international debate raging at the time, initiated in part by Hermann Schaaffhausen, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bonn, who in 1875 published a piece calling for Shakespeare's skull to be exhumed.  Others were equally keen to examine the skull of the Bard, principally to know what he looked like and to compare the skull with the supposed death mask of Shakespeare, which is now in the library at Darmstadt Castle.  Langston's story appears to have been a deliberate attempt to attract attention to the possibility that Shakespeare's skull was not in the grave at Holy Trinity Church after all.

Rev. C.J. Langston had to wait a few years before someone took the bait.  Then, in 1883, the Shakespeare scholar Clement Mansfield Ingleby published his own proposal to disinter Shakespeare's Bones.  In a footnote, Ingleby praised How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen by "A Warwickshire Man" for its amazing "vraisemblance" - its likelihood, or believability.  All bar the concluding part of the story which, Ingleby felt, wasn't up to scratch.

C.M. Ingleby was rewarded with a letter from Rev. C.J. Langston, sent from the Vicarage at Beoley, Worcestershire, and dated 2 January 1884.  In this letter - a copy of which I have received from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. - Langston identified himself as the "compiler" of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen (thereby undermining the claims that "A Warwickshire Man" has never been identified) and added, "Further revelations are in progress which will probably set at rest this much agitated question."  That question being, should Shakespeare's skull be exhumed from his Stratford grave?

Langston was as good as his word.  Later that year - 1884 - he published an engaging booklet, price one shilling, which he entitled, "How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found".  The first part was merely a reprint of the story he had published in the Argosy, five years earlier.  The second part described how the narrator had finally tracked "THE VERITABLE SKULL OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE" down to a private family vault beneath a chapel in an "outlandish parish".  That chapel was the Sheldon Chapel, built in about 1580 by Ralph Sheldon on the side of St Leonard's Church, Beoley - the very church of which Langston was now the Vicar.

Langston's story is without doubt intriguing.  There were two important aspects, in particular, which struck me when I first read it.  They chimed with my own research into Shakespeare.  And so I resolved to dig a little deeper.

After several weeks spent combing through census records and the like, I had discovered that most of the individuals named in Langston's remarkably detailed accounts had been real people and were in the area during the period in which Langston's story was set.  These included some extremely obscure local personages - like the grave-robbers recruited by Dr Frank Chambers - and an ancestor of Langston's, Lieutenant Joseph Langston of the Royal Marines, who appears to have been a close friend of Frank Chambers's.  The places were real, and the people were real ... so could the story have been true?

Well, no.  I doubted it very much - and Langston himself was cagey about how much of his story was fact and how much was fiction.  All the same, a Church of England clergyman had, over the space of five years, published two halves of a minutely detailed and meticulously researched account of how Shakespeare's skull had been tracked down to the funerary urn which once held the viscera of Ralph Sheldon.  Ralph Sheldon, a wealthy Catholic, died three years before Shakespeare and was related to him by marriage, via the Sheldon-Throckmorton-Arden nexus of Catholic families in the Midlands.

It was only after I had started putting together the manuscript for Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means (The History Press, 2013) that I discovered, to my surprise, that there is a spare skull in the ossuary beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley.  Better still, that skull had been photographed by Richard Peach for The Village, a local magazine, in September 2009.  Peach had been put onto the story by Morris Jephcott, a villager who now lies buried in Beoley churchyard.  Like others in the village, Jephcott believed the story of the skull to be substantially true.

When I first saw Richard Peach's excellent photos, my eye was drawn to two parts of the skull.  My research had already suggested that there should be some sort of damage or discoloration to Shakespeare's right forehead, just above the eye.  And then there is the evidence of the Droeshout and Chandos portraits of Shakespeare, which both show a distinct swelling on the outside edge of the left eyebrow.

Startlingly, there was an area of actual damage and discoloration clearly visible on the right side of the skull, above the right eye, and on the outside edge of the left eyebrow, where the bone is broken, jagged burrs poke out in the exact same spot where, in the Droeshout and Chandos images, there is clear evidence of a noticeable swelling or injury.

Over the next nine months, while I wrote Who Killed William Shakespeare?, I went back to the photos of the skull time and time again, comparing them with the death mask and portraits of Shakespeare.  I met Richard Peach and studied the photos he had taken of the skull in as much detail as I could.  Little by little, I spotted more distinguishing features and anomalies, linking the skull to the Shakespeare images, which I graphically illustrated in my book:

Such as the thin scar across the bridge of the nose on the death mask, which seems to correspond to a couple of small, triangular puncture wounds on the inside of the left eye socket.  It would appear that a sharp pointed weapon - a poniard - was driven into the eye socket here, forcing the left eyeball forward (hence the "wall-eye" look in the Shakespeare portraits);

Or the distinctive depression, high up on the forehead, very near the top of the frontal bone, which looks a bit like a crater on the skull and is clearly visible in the Shakespeare portraiture (including the so-called Davenant Bust of Shakespeare, which belongs to the Garrick Club, and the half-length effigy of Shakespeare in his funerary monument in Holy Trinity, Stratford, not to mention the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio, which replicates the depression very faithfully);

Or the strange jagged lines running down and across the cheeks of the death mask and the Chandos portrait (National Portrait Gallery), amongst others, which appear to show the damage to the cheekbones and maxilla (upper jaw) instantly visible on the skull;

And so on.  In March 2014, I was invited to give a paper on these matters, which I entitled, "The Faces of Shakespeare", at Goldsmiths, University of London.  That paper was later published in the university's GLITS online journal.

By then, I already knew that a television documentary company was looking into all of this, with a great deal of willing help and co-operation from the Vicar and churchwardens of St Leonard's, Beoley.  Plans were drawn up to extricate the skull and subject it to a range of scientific examinations, including radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis.  The application was submitted to the Diocese, with the full support of the church, for a faculty to remove the skull for laboratory tests.

Sadly, although the advisers to the Chancellor (chief legal officer) of the Diocese were rather in favour of the project, Sir Charles Mynors - the Chancellor himself - was sceptical.  As such, he was only doing his job, and I believe he did so as assiduously as anyone could want.  It would have been natural and proper for him to have sought the opinions and advice of leading Shakespeare experts.  And I have no doubt whatsoever that they gravely misled him.

I know of no one who has looked into Langston's story, researched it, and followed it through to an analysis of the skull identified by Langston as Shakespeare's.  No one.  Until, that is, I undertook that research myself, publishing the results in Who Killed William Shakespeare? and The Faces of Shakespeare (plus, I might add, in my forthcoming biography of Sir William Davenant, due out next February).  No one has ever looked into this.  Nobody from Stratford, to the best of my knowledge, has ever shown the slightest interest in Langston and his story or been moved - by curiosity, if nothing else - to inspect the skull.  No one.

Rather, the line coming out of Stratford has been consistent.  The experts don't want to believe the story, so they rubbish it.  They pretend that it's "folklore" (which it isn't), that the skull was returned to Stratford (which it wasn't), and that Langston only published his story to raise money for the restoration of the church (which doesn't stand up to reasonable scrutiny).  Indeed, there are reasons for believing that Langston made little if any impact with or money from his publication, and certainly not enough to repair his church, if a rather forlorn and desperate letter he sent to James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips in 1887 is anything to go by (I have a copy of that letter too - again, Langston identifies himself as the author of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen, only now he is living in Bath and looking for someone who will actually pay him for an article he has written entitled, Shakespeare in his cups.)

The point needs to be made: the Shakespeare experts have gone to quite extraordinary lengths to bury the story of Shakespeare's skull, written by a local clergyman with local knowledge.  It doesn't fit in with their idea of Shakespeare, so it must be ignored, ridiculed, rejected out of hand.  They have refused to look into it and they certainly don't want anybody else to go delving.  The very subject is taboo.

And I'm pretty sure that when Sir Charles Mynors, in all good faith, approached them for their expert opinion, they just showered him with their prejudices.  Which is not, in fact, expert opinion.  Truth be told, they've never bothered to research or investigate the story at all.  Ever.

And now, shortly before filming starts on the TV documentary, a story mysteriously appears out of nowhere in The Telegraph, and then all across the world, rubbishing the very idea that the story of the skull is anything other than "Gothic Fiction".  Sir Charles Mynors had found no evidence to link Shakespeare to the skull.  Of course he hadn't.  Because the Shakespeare fraternity had absolutely no idea that such evidence exists, and if they did, they certainly weren't going to let Sir Charles know about it.

The last thing they want is for someone actually to study the skull, forensically, and compare the idiosyncrasies of the skull - all those dinks and dents and breakages - with the portraits of Shakespeare.  Still less to compare the skull's DNA with a sample taken from one of the descendants of Shakespeare's sister.  You'd think, if they were so sure of themselves, they'd say, "Why not?  Go ahead!  You'll be proven wrong."  But that's not what they've done.  Rather, they've tried to obstruct a legitimate investigation.

There is evidence linking Shakespeare to the skull, be it Langston's painstakingly researched (if somewhat fictionalised) accounts, the visible similarities between the skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, or the links between Shakespeare and the Sheldons, whose funerary vault his skull apparently shares.

Or how about this?  The story began, so Langston claimed, with Horace Walpole's offer to George Selwyn MP of 300 guineas in return for the skull.  Horace Walpole was in a better position than most to know that Shakespeare's skull was not in Stratford but underneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley.  Walpole's "intimate friend" and neighbour in Twickenham - he jokingly called her his "wife" - was Lady Browne, born Frances Sheldon, in Beoley.

There is also the matter of why Rev. Charles Jones chose to change his name to Charles Jones Langston just as his first instalment of the story was going to press.  Could it have had something to do with the fact that, shortly after Shakespeare died in 1616, his "cousin", Thomas Greene, promptly resigned his post as steward and town clerk of Stratford-upon-Avon?  The man elected to replace Greene as town clerk was one Anthony Langston.  On 18 August 1619, this same Anthony Langston witnessed a deed by which Shakespeare's old friend and colleague, Henry Condell, conveyed some property in Worcestershire to Edward Sheldon of Beoley.  Was Rev. C.J. Langston seeking to highlight his ancestral link to Anthony Langston, town clerk of Stratford and a man who had a connection with both the co-editor of the First Folio and the son of Ralph Sheldon, in whose funerary urn Shakespeare's skull was allegedly found?

The Chancellor's judgement that no evidence exists to justify the proper forensic examination of the Beoley skull was wrong.  Not his fault, though.  He was misinformed or misguided by those very experts he had turned to for advice.

The same experts who, I suspect, are now trying to undermine the TV documentary about these things by letting the world know that we have been debarred from running DNA tests on the skull and so the case might well never be proven.

One really needs to ask - what are they so afraid of?

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