“Et Tu, Frank?”: Did Dr. Frank Chambers Steal Shakespeare’s Skull?

April 25, 2016

For more than a century, rumors have spread that William Shakespeare’s skull is missing from his grave located at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. This notion has caused much skepticism since the playwright, who died April 23, 1616, requested that his grave remain untouched with the epitaph, “Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebear, To dig the dust enclosed hear, Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones." If someone had stolen the skull, how would scientists even discover this without breaking Shakespeare’s request? 

Using modern radar imaging beginning in 2014, a group of archaeologists from Staffordshire University have been able to tackle this myth while still adhering to the tombstone’s request. Led by Kevin Collins, they began their study by searching for records of disturbances that would indicate Shakespeare’s body would have been moved. According to Michelle Hackman of Vox Media, this resulted in inconclusive data and thus, with permission from a reluctant Holy Trinity Church, the team began to “bounce radio waves off contents beneath the grave to produce topographical images.” Comparing it to other graves nearby, the archaeologists discovered that the bottom half of the grave seemed untouched but the top half looked skewed, as if ages ago someone had removed contents and later put soil back in place. 

 

With a disturbed grave, the idea that Shakespeare’s skull is stolen seems likely, but this then leads to the question of who stole the skull and why. According to an Argosy magazine article written in the late 1800s, a Doctor Frank Chambers stole the skull in 1794 with three accomplices. The article, titled “How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Stolen,” details how the doctor left a dinner party one autumn night at the Ragley house during which a group of men spoke of Shakespeare’s skull, and one of whom offered three hundred guineas to another man if he could secure the skull. Coming home, Chambers decided he would do just this so as to quench his thirst for curiosity and adventure. Meeting up with Harry Cull, Tom Dyer, and Jim Hawtin at the corner of Malt Mill Lane, Alcester, Frank wished “to get to at the skull of a chap who has been dead nearly 200 years,” and he would pay them three pounds apiece for the job, as stated on page 271 of the magazine article. 

In the dark of the night, the men snuck into Holy Trinity Church, found the 3x7 feet slab, and at a depth of three feet began digging up the grave of the marveled writer. They were instructed to dig with their hands rather than shovels once they got to the level of the body, and it was Dyer who found the skull after Cull groped the body. Page 274 marks Chambers diary entry: “I handled Shakespeare’s skull at last, and gazed at it only for a moment, for time was precious. It was smaller than I expected, and in formation not much like what I remembered of the effigy above our heads”. The men then replaced the soil and concealed any evidence of an illegal entrance. According to page 274, Chambers gave the men their money and “afterwards paid for nine quarts of ale at the Globe, so that they seemed well satisfied with the night’s adventure”.

 

The scientists of Staffordshire studied the article and discovered that the accomplices, inns checked into before and after the theft, and depth to which they dug all added up correctly. Thus, this article, previously dismissed as facetious, could possibly hold much revelation about the theft. The theft also fits into the crimes of the time period, for grave robbing was a common practice which led to a nice sum of money. In addition, the study of phrenology, or the size and shape of people’s heads in comparison to their intelligence, was common.

 

Despite the evidence and clear motive, many people are still reluctant to believe the grave tampering of the English hero. Patrick Taylor, local priest of Holy Trinity, told CNN: "We are not convinced, however, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken.” And so with these two sides to this myth we are left pondering whether William Shakespeare’s skull was “to be stolen or not to be stolen, that is the question.”

 

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