The Future of History

Friday, 4 December 2015

Shakespeare's Skull - Latest

Working through the proofs of my Davenant book, "Shakespeare's Bastard", due out in February, and coming to the sections which deal with St Leonard's Church, Beoley, the Sheldon Chapel, and the "veritable skull of William Shakespeare" ...

It's been an interesting week, as far as "Shakespeare's Skull" goes.  The crypt in which it resides was opened up, this Tuesday, and the skull scanned by archaeologists from the University of Staffordshire.  All this was filmed for a Channel 4 documentary, due to be aired in April.

I didn't get to see the crypt, pictured above in a photo from circa 1939, so I didn't get to see the skull either.  But here I am, going through the passages on Beoley and the skull in Shakespeare's Bastard, and I turn to an endnote I made about Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian who wrote about Sir William Davenant.

Anthony Wood's close friend and benefactor was "The Great Sheldon", Ralph (1623-84), whose grandfather (also called Ralph) built the Sheldon Chapel alongside the chancel of Beoley church.  It was in the elder Ralph Sheldon's funerary urn, deposited in a small ossuary adjoining the vault underneath the Sheldon Chapel, that the Reverend C.J. Langston apparently found the "veritable skull of William Shakespeare" in about 1884.

Wood attended the burial of his patron, "The Great Sheldon", which took place "in a vault situate & being under the Chappell of our Lady joining to St Leonards Church of Beoly".  Presumably, then, Anthony Wood saw the crypt, under the Sheldon Chapel, in which Ralph Sheldon was laid to rest.  Maybe he also saw Shakespeare's skull in there.

Although the Sheldon Chapel itself was built by the elder Ralph Sheldon in 1580, there is little to indicate when the crypt underneath it was constructed.  The assumption tends to be that the chapel came first, and at a later date - before 1684, the year in which "The Great Sheldon" was buried in it - the crypt was constructed underneath the chapel.  But is that necessarily the case?

The elder Ralph Sheldon appears to have built the Sheldon Chapel (or Chapel of Our Lady, as Anthony Wood seems to have thought of it) strictly for the use of his own family.  It was invisible from the road but accessible from the Sheldons' manor house nearby.  The Sheldons were Catholic, and no doubt wanted a chapel to worship in (the black marble altar table in the Sheldon Chapel was reputedly blessed by Pope Gregory XIII).  However, the law required everyone to attend a Church of England place of worship.  Cunningly, Ralph Sheldon created a chapel which would allow his Catholic family to appear to be attending an Anglican church, as the law required, without actually setting foot in an Anglican church.  They attended, rather, their own Catholic chapel, alongside the Anglican chancel.  Clever, eh?

But what if a priest had been celebrating Mass in the Sheldon Chapel?  What if the family had been in attendance?  Where would they hide in the event of a government raid?

The obvious answer would be - under the chapel.  Access to the crypt is by removing a couple of steps which lead up to the Sheldon Chapel (the chapel, like the adjacent chancel, being a fair deal higher than the body of the church).  Today, concrete steps lead up to the chapel, and these had to be removed to allow Arrow Media to film the skull inside the crypt this week.  Previously, the steps would have been stone or, more probably, wood.

Examples exist of priest-holes which were accessed via "false" steps in staircases.  A step or two would be removed, or swung on a hinge, to open up the secret entrance to the hiding place.  Steps would also have to have been installed to connect the main body of the church to the Sheldon Chapel, and so it would be reasonable to expect that these stairs could have been designed to "open up", allowing access to the secret vault underneath the chapel to those who knew about it.

So, if the G-Men suddenly appeared, surrounding the church and its Catholic chapel, any priest or celebrant in the Catholic chapel could quickly disappear into the vault beneath the chapel, and the pursuivants would find the chapel empty.

The vault is large enough to hold a number of people, possibly for quite some length of time.  It would need to have been somewhat more capacious than the average priest-hole if it might have to accommodate several celebrants, plus a priest, all at once.  Only later did the readymade crypt become a handy burial vault for the family that built it.

A gap in the wall of the crypt opens into the little ossuary adjoining it - the "bone-house" in which the skull which looks suspiciously like it might be Shakespeare's was "found".  This can be thought of as an additional hiding place - a cramped "priest-hole" of last resort, in which a small priest could hide if the entrance to the vault was discovered.  It could also have been a repository for all that Catholic paraphernalia (rosaries, vestments, prayer books, candles, etc.) which could not be safely hidden anywhere else.  Everything needed for an illicit Catholic Mass in the Sheldon Chapel would be stored directly underneath it, and if it all went wrong, the priest - and some of his flock - could hide in the vault till the priest-hunters had gone.

I suspect, then, that the crypt and the ossuary were constructed at the same time as the chapel above, but not as a burial vault.  They were hiding places.

Shakespeare's head, collected after his sudden death - probably by his first love, Anne Whately, whose relatives were supported by the Sheldons of Beoley, and whose family name appears in various parts of the church, including on a churchwardens' chest in the Sheldon Chapel - would have been taken to Beoley church because there was a safe hiding place under the Sheldon Chapel.  It would have joined those priestly items necessary to hold a Mass in the chapel above.

There could have been no safer or more sacred a place for such an extraordinary relic as the head of the Catholic martyr, William Shakespeare.


  1. What great work you've done Simon. If the skull can be proven to be Mr. Shakespeare, there will be rejoicing among those of us who care about him; the greatest writer in the history of the English language.

    1. Thank you, Julia.

      The process may take a little while yet. The archaeologists were only able to laser scan the skull in the crypt - we were denied permission to take the skull away for comprehensive forensic testing - and so what we're really hoping is that the TV documentary will reveal enough to up the ante somewhat.

      Realistically, the experts and the programme makers wouldn't have gone this far if they didn't have some grounds to think that the skull might indeed be Shakespeare's, largely because of the evidence I presented in "Who Killed William Shakespeare?" ("We wouldn't have a programme if we didn't have reason to suspect [that the skull might be his]", is what the assistant producer told me. So we just have to hope that a new application to the diocese, submitted after the documentary has raised awareness of the skull, might be successful and we can actually carry out DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating.

      Still, it's a start, and I do hope there will be rejoicing before too long.

      Very best wishes,