The Future of History

Sunday, 27 March 2016

History Repeats Itself

At the start of Who Killed William Shakespeare? (the contract for which I signed four years ago today) I tried to explain how, in the second half of the 18th century, a metropolitan elite - or what we might now call "The Establishment" - seized control of Shakespeare's memory, rudely dismissing what the locals knew and creating their own version of events.

Significantly, they achieved this partly by losing as much evidence as possible and ignoring or misrepresenting the rest.

Well, old habits die hard, and the net result of last night's Channel 4 documentary seems to have been as damaging, hopeless and borderline-farcical as David Garrick's infamous Shakespeare "Jubilee" of 1769.  Back then, hordes of educated sophisticates descended on Stratford-upon-Avon, much to the alarm and consternation of the natives, who were abused and mocked by the visitors.  Then Garrick went home and produced his own show, which made out that only he and his supporters really knew or cared about Shakespeare, and the locals up in Warwickshire were rustic clowns with no idea about Stratford's most famous son.

Shakespeare's Tomb spent an awful lot of its time showing us pretty pictures of Stratford.  For some reason, a man who had conspired to try to prevent the documentary team from investigating the Beoley skull was given a prominent part in the programme as the authority on all things Shakespearean.

The programme stuck to the party line about the story published by the Rev C.J. Langston in 1879 and 1884 concerning the theft of Shakespeare's skull and its discovery at Beoley.  Even though the programme makers had been given abundant evidence that the Vicar of Beoley had identified himself as the author of the story, and that a surprising number of details in the story are verifiable, that was all ignored.

The skull at Beoley was scanned and then Dr Helen Castor and Kevin Colls sat with Dr Caroline Wilkinson, who showed them the scan on her screen.  The conversation went something like this:

Wilkinson: "This little bit here suggests that it might be dark greyish."

Castor: "So you're saying it's black?"

Wilkinson: "Well, we have to be cautious ..."

Castor: "No - you're saying it's black!"

Cue press release: "Skull is black."

I've altered the wording slightly.  But when an osteoarchaeologist/biological anthropologist tweets: "I'm intrigued #ShakespearesTomb - how did you come to the conclusion it was a 70yr old woman?! Magic new ageing techniques?!" you do have to ask how conclusive the results really were.

And the answer appears to be, not conclusive at all.  But right there, on screen, the expert was cornered and forced to make a definitive statement which, as she had tried to point out, couldn't really be made.  This instantly became a Truth Universally Acknowledged.

Of course, if the programme-makers had bothered to explore the existing research into the similarities between the skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, as well as Rev C.J. Langston and his skull story, we'd have got something more nuanced.  But they didn't want that.  They didn't even want any suggestions from the one and only witness called.  They wanted an Unequivocal Statement indicating that the skull is of no interest whatsoever, so we can all move on.

In the meantime, the folks at Beoley seem to be up in arms over the way they've been treated (see comment under previous blog post).  A geologist informs me that anyone who started a university paper claiming that Shakespeare's skull was stolen from the grave, based on the evidence shown in the programme, would be in very big trouble.  And now I hear from somebody else who helped out with the documentary, but who went unpaid and uncredited.

So what happened - apart from two years wasted (in my case)?

The best I can suggest is that, for a good long while, as the documentary project was being developed, it was all in the hands of an intelligent and amicable person who worked hard to bring all the relevant parties together and to lay the foundations for a genuinely interesting, and potentially startling, investigative programme.

Then a director was hired, along with a couple of producers.  The development producer stepped aside.  From that point on, things quickly began to unravel.

It was as if the "metropolitan elite" had come to town, determined to put the locals back in their place.  Yes, use them for as long as they're useful.  Then dump them.  They're not important.  Their local knowledge and their research are irrelevant.  They might as well be on zero-hours contracts.  We don't need to worry about them.

But the POSH people, the ones who've been on TV before, THEY'RE important.  Better still, they can (by and large) be trusted not to stray from the script.

Remember, we're not here to rock any boats, folks.  Langston's story is anonymous - got it?  The skull at Beoley?  Pah!  Who cares?  Skull, no skull, what's the difference?  Let's have some nice shots of Stratford, talk to some nice people, then back to London as quick as we can.

And if an expert isn't being quite as emphatic as we'd like in denying a very promising lead, we can force her - Inquisition-like - to say what we want her to say, and we can do it on camera, just in case anybody else feels like being properly scientific about all this.  No one will notice.  The press release will already have told everybody what we want them to think.  Now, where's my BAFTA?

It's shocking to realise how much hard work and good will was completely and utterly trashed in such a short space of time, by people who were new to the project, and what an unashamedly wasted opportunity the programme turned out to be.  Our knowledge of Shakespeare and the fate of his skull wasn't advanced one iota.  If anything, we've gone backwards.  And the programme-makers are surely patting themselves on the back for stirring up much ado about nothing and making a very pretty looking documentary that avoided upsetting their sophisticated metropolitan friends.

Meanwhile, the rest of us continue the ongoing work of trying to find out and publicise what really happened to Shakespeare and his skull.

By the way - that subsidence in the chancel at Holy Trinity Church, under Shakespeare's gravestone?  That's Will Shakespeare turning in his grave.


  1. There are two points of fact I would like to make in support of what you say:-
    1. I was present at the Beoley Court Hearing when Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells did all they could to 'rubbish' the Beoley Skull story and give the Chancellor the 'gothic tale' argument that he used as the only basis for his ruling that the skull could not be removed and examined. So, I too was very surprised to see Edmondson wheeled-out as the programme expert.

    2. During breaks in filming at Beoley (and there were many that day, as the director had somehow got it into her head that the film crew could catch some ancient disease from spending too long in the Sheldon Crypt), I tried to enter into conversation with Dr Helen Castor about the Beoley Skull, using your book 'Who Killed William Shakespeare', to show her the 'coincidences' between the skull and the portraits/death mask etc. She frequently resisted looking at the book and made it clear she did not want to discuss the subject with me, which at the time I found strange, considering she was presenting a programme on this subject. At the time, I put it down to her 'professional superiority' (who was I but a 'pleb' from the sticks trying to tell her how to do her job - little did she know I held a degree in Art History from Goldsmiths' College!).

    1. Paul, once again I can only thank you for adding your insights and insider knowledge of these matters to my posts. As you may know, I wasn't invited to attend or give evidence at the Beoley Court Hearing, and it was only much later (when the story was leaked to the press last November) that I discovered how much damage had been done to our case by the appearance of Messers Wells and Edmondson at the court. Incidentally, it's a curious coincidence that the press was informed of the failure to secure permission to remove the skull for analysis at the very time that I was being written out of the documentary, and I suspect it was done to "plant" the idea that the whole skull story is nonsense - even though they had no way of proving that at that stage - in readiness for the documentary.

      VERY interesting to read what you say about the filming at Beoley. From Dr Helen Castor's behaviour and responses to Dr Caroline Wilkinson, I felt I detected an instinctive resistance to any suggestion that the skull might actually be Shakespeare's. Your information goes some way to confirming my suspicions there.

      I'm very grateful to you for attempting to draw the presenter's attention to my book and the graphic illustrations showing the points of similarity between the skull and the Shakespeare portraits (I've found one or two more correspondences since the book was published). I can only guess that my evidence, if we can call it that, was too challenging or threatening to the narrative they were determined to follow in their programme.

      I'm not sure yet when I shall be over Beoley way again - my wife and I do try to get to events at St Leonard's whenever we can. It would be very good to meet up, if the opportunity presents itself, as some sort of plan for a way forwards would be a good thing to work on.

      I hope you are well, and again, many thanks for your supportive words and informative comments.