Secret History: Shakespeare's Tomb


Ahead of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, Channel 4 will broadcast the results of the first ever archaeological investigation of his grave. The Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) scan reveals, for the first time, what lies beneath the mysterious-looking gravestone, which has been the subject of rumour and intrigue for centuries.

The documentary SECRET HISTORY: SHAKESPEARE'S TOMB, which will be shown on Saturday, 26 March at 8pm, is presented by the Cambridge historian Dr Helen Castor.

For decades, all requests to perform archaeology at the grave have been turned down by Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. But, in a world first, they have allowed this scan, which enables investigation below ground-level without disturbing the hallowed site.

Historians and archaeologists have long argued over Shakespeare's final resting place, questioning the size of the stone, which is far too short for an adult burial, and which carries no name, only a chilling curse:

“Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

The investigation of the grave was led by archaeologist Kevin Colls of Staffordshire University, and leading geophysicist Erica Utsi. They made a number of important discoveries (summarised below) which together with Kevin Colls’ wider investigations have led him to conclude:

"We have Shakespeare's burial with an odd disturbance at the head end and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history someone's come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare. It's very very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all."

Key findings:

There is evidence of a mysterious and significant repair to the head end of William Shakespeare's grave, leading to Kevin Colls' theory that this localised repair was needed to correct a sinking of the floor possibly caused by a previous disturbance to the grave.

Kevin Colls believes these findings give new credence to a story published in The Argosy magazine in 1879, hitherto dismissed as fiction, which claimed that Shakespeare's skull was stolen from his shallow grave by trophy hunters in 1794.

The GPR survey found that William Shakespeare, his wife Anne Hathaway and other members of the family whose ledger (grave) stones lie beside his, were not buried in a large family vault deep underground, as has long been thought, but in shallow graves beneath the church floor. William Shakespeare's and Anne Hathaway's graves are less than a metre deep.

William Shakespeare's grave was found to be significantly longer than his short stone – extending west towards the head end, making it the same size as, and in line with, the other family graves. (Anne's grave is also longer than her stone suggests.)

The GPR also found no evidence of metal in the area of the grave, such as coffin nails. This suggests Shakespeare and his family were not buried in coffins but simply wrapped in winding sheets, or shrouds, and buried in soil.

The Beoley Skull Investigation

The investigation at Holy Trinity led the team to another church, St Leonard's, in the Worcestershire village of Beoley, 15 miles from Stratford. Here, in a dark, sealed crypt lies a mysterious skull which legend records is the skull of William Shakespeare. The team were granted access to the crypt to laser scan the skull and carry out a forensic anthropological analysis. The results revealed that this skull belonged to an unknown woman who was in her seventies when she died.

Kevin Colls, Archaeological Project Manager, Staffordshire University: ‘It was a great honour to be the first researcher to be given permission to undertake non-invasive archaeological investigations at the grave of William Shakespeare. With projects such as this, you never really know what you might find, and of course there are so many contradictory myths and legends about the tomb of the Bard. The amazing project team, using state of the art equipment, has produced astonishing results which are much better than I dared hoped for, and these results will undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories for years to come. Even now, thinking of the findings sends shivers down my spine.’

The Rev. Patrick Taylor, Holy Trinity Stratford: “Holy Trinity Church were pleased to be able to cooperate with this non-intrusive research into Shakespeare's grave. We now know much more about how Shakespeare was buried and the structure that lies underneath his ledger stone. We are not convinced, however, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken. We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare's wishes, and not allow it to be disturbed. We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone."

SECRET HISTORY: SHAKESPEARE'S TOMB has been made for Channel 4 by Arrow Media.

Notes to Editors

Permission to carry out the investigation was granted by Holy Trinity Church, Stratford and the Diocese of Coventry. The investigation is a joint collaboration between Staffordshire University and Arrow Media. The archaeological fieldwork carried out at Holy Trinity was part of a wider programme led by Kevin Colls which included archival and documentary research into the grave and laser scanning at the site.

Previously Kevin Colls led the recent archaeological excavation at New Place, the site of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. This hugely important dig, commissioned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, found the remains of what would have been the town's biggest family residence. As well as finds including an oven, a chimney hearth, and a brew house, the dig revealed the house, purchased by Shakespeare in 1597, would have had as many as 30 rooms, a great chamber and gallery, as well as evidence of grand feasting: tantalising glimpses into the playwright at the height of his success.

Geophysicist Erica Utsi is an internationally recognised expert in Ground Penetrating Radar, and a Member of the International Advisory Board for GPR 2016. She worked on a major GPR survey of Westminster Abbey, locating long lost graves beneath the floor, including that of Edward the Confessor’s.

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