How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Stolen is a rather titillating story, first published in 1879, by a literary magazine called The Argosy. The story takes place circa 1794, some 178 years after William Shakespeare’s death. It was published anonymously by someone simply calling himself a Warwickshire man.
The story centers around a man named Frank Chambers, who hears that a collector once offered 300 guineas for the skull. Though Shakespeare’s grave is marked with a curse, Chambers decides to steal the skull anyway.
Translated into today’s english, it reads:
Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man who spares these stones,
And cursed be he who moves my bones
History buffs, scholars and Shakespeare lovers have been debating whether this is a true story or complete fiction since its appearance in 1879. Here’s the story, as it was originally published:
The Origin Of The Plot
I seldom pass the sleepy-looking “Bear” Inn, originally the “Bear and Ragged Staff” (the cognizance of a branch of the Warwick family, who lived at Beauchamp’s Court near here), in the town of Alcester, without calling to mind a remarkable interview which took place some eighty years ago in connection with the front room on the right-hand side of that quaint Jacobean entrance. And now that Mr. M., the only person likely to be affected by this disclosure, has passed away at the age of 75, I no longer feel hesitation in transcribing from rough notes and memoranda made and collected by him, a series of facts which may startle all those who, like myself, reverence the very dust of the immortal bard.
That Shakespeare’s skull was stolen admits, I think, of very little doubt; yet I must not anticipate, but endeavour to trace “this strange eventful history” from its beginning.
The uncle of the late Mr. M., a youth who bore the name of Frank Chambers, was placed with a medical man (the only one practising in Alcester) about the year 1787. He was a wild, rather dashing young fellow; not bad looking, if a portrait taken in after years be evidence; and, coming straight from attendance at a London hospital, found the exclusive society of a small town uncongenial, and its restraints irksome. Owing to a certain mild escapade– the manuscript alleges that it was nothing more heinous than a practical joke upon the curate in charge at the tumble-down old rectory– he found it convenient to leave Alcester and to go abroad; and as Englishmen did not then dream of a trip to America or to Australia, his wanderings were confined to France. The heart of the French nation was then beginning to throb with the feverish heat of revolution, and “gentlemen of the pave” had already defined liberty on the “lucus a non lucendo” principle.
Frank Chambers, like Arthur Young, was a strict observer of the national moral bankruptcy, and three of his letters from Rheims show that he was not deceived, like some greater minds among his own countrymen, by the tendency of thought and action in France at that remarkable period. When one hundred thousand Frenchmen were compelled by the murderous hatred of an ignorant mob, and by the destruction of their stately chateaux, to flee in haste, there was “no room of safety” for a son of perfide Albion. Frank returned to England, during what year I know not, but in a letter written from London, without date, he mentions the exceptional severity of the winter, which probably was that of 1791.
Again he came to Alcester, and, assisting his former employer, was well known in the neighborhood as a jovial, light-hearted fellow.
Two or three years pass without record, until he mentions the arrival of Lord William Seymour on a visit to his brother, Lord Hertford, at Ragley Hall, a splendid mansion overlooking, like a haughty custodian, the quiet little town.
Frank Chambers became acquainted with Lord William, although there could be little fellowship between the harsh, penurious, and eccentric habits of his lordship and those of the incipient surgeon. But the intimacy was of this advantage to the latter: that it proved the introduction to the excellent and sometimes notable company which the newly-created marquis gathered round him at rare intervals at his Warwickshire seat. It also leads to that startling adventure which until now has been as secret as the grave.
I have more than once questioned the late Mr. M. as to its precise date, but he assured me that, although his uncle kept a rough diary at intervals, half professional, half domestic– extracts from which are before me, wherein even such trivial matters are entered as: “Aug. 4th. Rode over to the ‘Love Cup,’ at Alne, where I had a quart of Barlum perry. Saw Jim Morris; he has a fine colt at the Mill pasture.” “March 8th. Drove the doctor to a consultation with Dr. Brandis at Hinley” (query, Henley-in-Arden)– the year is seldom given, or even the month.
He seems, however, to have taken some pains in recording observations made by men of mark at Lord Hertford’s table, and found especial pleasure in describing the good things with which that table was furnished, mixing, as in Tom Hood’s sonnet, sauce and sentiment with concise impartiality. Thus he writes: “When Garrick was at Ragley, some years ago, Lord Hertford says that he gave a comical performance in the steward’s room for the amusement of the servants and others; and he told his host afterwards that one of the audience was as _____ hard to unlace as the old Speaker_____ (the name is illegible), for when the folks were shaking with laughter ‘Hob-nail’ grunted out, ‘Didst ever th’ see Jack Murrel grin through a horse-collar at the “Barley Mow,” Stoodley, eh?’ ”
Then follows a minute description of the viands at that day’s dinner, with the remark, “The popular dish, macaroni, as served by the Duke of York’s chef de cuisine– delicious!”
Also, “My lord told Mr. William Throckmorton, in my hearing, that when Hume and Lord Lyttleton (this must have been Thomas, the second baron, better known as the wicked Lord Lyttleton) were at the Hall they had a violent quarrel, in consequence of which ‘a meeting’ was arranged at the kennels; ‘but,’ said he, ‘Nugent smoothed Tom’s ruffled feathers, and his honour was carried to Halesowen that night, whilst I “satisfied” Hume next day by letting him contradict everybody round the table.’ We had stewed eels, Severn lampreys, with a haunch of mutton wrapt in paste, boiled turkey, ham, and pastry, with cheese to follow.”
I now come to the careful entry in the diary which seems to have suggested the extraordinary expedition of Frank Chambers. Mark me, there is no date; but from the two entries immediately preceding– “Received a brace of pheasants from John Wilcox, of Wixford: first this season,” and “Lord Hertford tells me of the serious illness of Mr. Millar, his son’s old tutor” — we may reasonably fix the autumn of 1794. “Sent to Ragley Hall to converse with the Abbe Latour, who had just arrived from France with dismal accounts of the provinces. Fearful scenes, which I was able to confirm from my experience. Found that the Abbe knew Edgworth, Gardel, Rancourt, and Bertini among former acquaintances of mine. We dined at six o’clock: everything pretty good, but not so well served as usual. Had to wait for hermitage. Besides Lord Hertford and the ladies, met the Rev. Samuel Parr, two Mr. Conways, Mr. Ingram, also Captain Fortescue, Mr. Knight, Mr. Rudge, Joshua Jennings, and other neighboring gentry. Dr. Parr very glum: sate with a large napkin under his chin, heeding nobody, and feeding as if the fellow had kept right off all the fasts in the calendar… After dinner the conversation somehow turned upon the ‘Stratford Jubilee,’ and Captain Fortescue wondered if Shakespeare’s image in the old church, especially the head, was really like him. ‘You had besth dig him up, John Fortescue,’ said Dr. Parr (who lisped, and called the poet Thackspear); ‘may I be there to thee.’ Then Squire Moore mentioned that old Horace Walpole had offered, after the Jubilee, to give George Selwyn three hundred guineas if he could secure Shakespeare’s head. Whereupon Parr remarked, ‘If he cuth theal away hith brainth, that were theap to him, thir.’ Afterwards I walked home beside the doctor’s pony to Bartlam’s. He was near being split opposite Griffith’s at Arrow.”
Here we leave the diary for a time, and I quote from notes made after conversation with the late Mr. M., who often begged the recital of this singular exploit from his Uncle Chambers, and who himself transcribed in full some salient features of it. From which it appears that, upon returning home after the above dinner at Ragley, Frank Chambers pondered well how he could gratify his old inclination for adventure and the liberal curiosity of the well-known curioso of Strawberry Hill. He then lodged at the surgery, a comely-looking house still standing at the corner of Malt Mill Lane, Alcester. It was built during the reign of Queen Anne by a branch of the Boteler family, whose arms– a chevron between three cups, as seen in the great east window of the chantry chapel attached to St. Milburge’s at Wixford– were, until the door was renewed some fifty years ago, carved on an oval shield within the scroll pediment over the entrance.
Here, in a room on the first floor, still, I think, bearing traces of old adornment, three men joined Chambers one night in the autumn of 1794. Their names were Cull, Dyer and Hawtin, and they were supposed to call for some medicine for their wives. The only bottles on the table were, however, supplied by the near-hand “Golden Cup,” and the medicines were of an extremely comfortable and exhilarating nature. Frank Chambers had some professional dealings with the men previously; and he used laughingly to regret that, with a large churchyard within a few feet of his own door, even then full to repletion, he had been obliged to further the interests of science at the expense of the disused humanity of a neighbouring parish, Alcester churchyard being too public for nocturnal visitations.
“It is not for that I want you,” he said, “but to get at the skull of a chap who has been dead nearly 200 years.”
“Why, you’ve got one as looks a thousan’ year old already,” interposed Mr. Hawtin. There was a somewhat grim article of the kind nibbling the hard ledge of the high mantelpiece.
“That’s it, Jim; I want another to bear him company; the poor fellow finds it unked here o’ nights since he was swinging free and easy on Mappleborough Green.”
“Well, young master,” exclaimed Harry Cull, “I are game, so be these; where’s the dig, and what’s the shot?”
“Stratford Church, and three pounds apiece for the job.”
“With laps,” put in Hawtin, who had at first hesitated about joining, and whose bibulous propensities were notorious.
“Any quantity after it is over; not a drop before,” said Chambers.
“I met these fellows at Stratford Church” (writes the late Mr. M., from Frank Chambers’ dictation). “It is so long ago that I forget the exact date, yet I remember uncommonly well it was a near thing about getting there at all; for just when I ought to have been setting off, old Grafton down the street took it into his head to have a fit, and as he was a capital patient, I had to remain by the bedside until the doctor returned from seeing Sarah Wilcox of More Hall. It was very dark, too; and in my haste I pitched head-foremost over a footstone near the west door and cut my nose. To my surprise I found Cull and Tom Dyer already hard on, whilst Hawtin scouted, shovelling the earth from the base of a new square tomb on the south side of the chancel, about ten yards from the small door.
” ‘What the deuce are you at?’ said I.
” ‘Why, you see,’ answered Dyer, ‘we warn’t a going to wait here all night; and this ‘ere’s your mon, I reckon.’
“What could the idiots be dreaming about? Their mistake was afterwards thus explained. I had mentioned to Hawtin (it must have been when I was top-heavy) that the skull I wished to secure at Stratford was that of one William Shakespeare. Now, Hawtin was sweet on a Stratford lass named Esther White, who lived in service at Parson Davenport’s, and went courting every Sunday. Like a fool, he told her our intention. He would have worked the oracle to better purpose could he had obtained the keys of the church. Hawtin, who was rather scared at the adventure, asked Esther if she knew anything about William Shakespeare. At first she could only call to mind an inn bearing that name; but at length she remembered a man asking to see master about a tomb to William Shakespeare, and she showed Hawtin where it was.
“The maid’s memory was defective, and neither she nor Hawtin could read, or another name would have appeared, the tomb being really built over the remains of William Shakespeare Payton, a man well known in Stratford, who died in the autumn a year or two before. Hawtin’s hesitation about the adventure had turned to eagerness when he conceived that this tomb would be the centre of our operations; and he was taken aback when I whispered to him that he had set his mates on the wrong scent.
” ‘Put the soil back,’ I said, ‘this is not the man; didn’t I tell you he was inside, and 200 years old.’
” ‘Yes!’ answered one, ‘but we thought that that was only your gammon.’
” ‘So you wished to gammon me in return; but now, my lads,’ I continued, ‘sharp’s the word; we have lost two hours already, and Battersbee, with his bull’s-eye, looks round sometimes.’
“I thought we never should get inside that church. The windows were far above our heads, and well protected by stout stanchions. Dyer, who had served in a smithy, worked with a will at the lock of the chancel door, using the tools I had brought; but those confounded old locks have a way of keeping close, and it would not yield. Further down on the same side was a larger door of ribbed oak, and here Tom was making way when Hawtin scattered us with the caution, ‘Men among the trees.’
“I crept round towards the porch, and, resting on a mound, I plainly heard footsteps on the broad flags in the avenue. I crept nearer. The overhanging boughs, with remnants of leaves, made it too dark to distinguish any form. I doubt if I could have seen a ghost; but I was within a few feet of the heavy tread of a man, multiplied by Hawtin’s fears– a man, as shown by the voice, which was low and husky. He paced to and fro, the whole length of the avenue; sometimes hurriedly, and then he would pause. Likely enough he had just
left the public-house, for his speech was sometimes incoherent and sometimes sadly too plain. He gave vent to a deep trouble. His daughter, for he called passionately upon his child, had been buried here. A great wrong had been done, by whom I could not make out; but he shook the gates angrily, and muttered three times, ‘I will– yes, I will!’ Long afterwards I discovered that his anger had been justly caused by a lamentable occurrence at Bidford Grange. At length (it seemed an hour) he moved rapidly away; and having reassured my companions, we returned to the charge. The door was soon opened, and, tinder box in hand, we groped our way to the great chancel, and with considerable difficulty, for the letters were much worn, I singled out the slab, then about three feet by seven feet, which covers the remains of Shakespeare.
“Hawtin waited on the outside, to throw a list ball against the windows in case of alarm, whilst Dyer and Cull, by the dim light of two curiously contrived lanterns, began to pick out the mortar dividing that slab from Thomas Nashe’s. Great care was necessary, that no trace of our search might remain.
“As the men stealthily worked, the gloomy silence was quite chilling. Several times the wood-work in the high pews went off with a bang like a gum tree; and once I could almost have sworn that I heard a rumbling in the Clopton Chapel. When the stone was raised and placed on one side, there was very little masonry beneath, chiefly a thick layer of fine brown mould, mixed with woody fibre and fragments of glass, which had been subject to the action of fire. There was evidence also of previous disturbance, for, in addition to a circular piece of metal the size of a guinea, having on one side two crowns and a fleur-de-lis, and on the other a shield bearing three trees, and the name Ashwin beneath, we turned up a thigh bone and finger joints near the surface, and afterwards several teeth, with a knot of oak and a few attenuated nails with square heads.
“But the most curious discovery was that of a ring, or fillet, probably of bronze, very much worn and indented, in which an inscription had been traced, the only legible part being, as I afterwards found, the half Roman letters, GU-LM-S (then follows a device like a sword), and a rude monogram, H.S. or I.H.S.
“The men had dug to the depth of three feet, and I now watched narrowly, for, by the clogging of the darker earth, and that peculiar humid state– smell I can hardly call it– which sextons and earthgrubbers so well understand, I knew we were nearing the level where the body had formerly mouldered.
” ‘No shovels but the hands,’ I whispered, ‘and feel for a skull.’
“There was a long pause as the fellows, sinking in the loose mould, slid their horny palms over fragments of bone. Presently, ‘I got him,’ said Cull; ‘but he’s fine and heavy.’
“Delving to the arm-pits with both hands, he tugged for some seconds, and then brought up a huge grey
stone like that with which the church is built.
“I began to be sceptical, when Tom Dyer, who was groping some two feet away from where the skull ought to have been, according to the position of the slab, came upon it, and lifted it out, diving again for the jaw.
“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. At home I made a minute examination, the particulars of which, with other memoranda, were lent to Dr. Booker, of Alcester, and subsequently lost, much to my regret.
“Then my men most carefully replaced the earth and stone, ramming all interstices with fragments of old mortar brought for the purpose. This, with a liberal sprinkling of dust, plentiful in the old church at that time, effectually concealed our depredations. My men were surprised at the care which I bestowed upon the venerable article. ‘Any skull from the charnel house close by,’ they remarked, ‘would have answered fully as well, without the labour.’ ‘Every man has his fancy,’ I replied, ‘this is mine.’
“When we reached Oversley Bridge, I gave them their money, and more; and a few hours afterwards paid for nine quarts of ale at the ‘Globe,’ so that they seemed well satisfied with the night’s adventure.
“My next step,” continues Frank Chambers, “was to write in strict confidence to the much-talked-of Mr. Walpole, now Lord Orford. He had been lately staying with Marshal Conway during the latter’s illness, at Park Place, in Oxfordshire, and my letter followed him, and was answered from Berkeley Square.
“He remembered the expression of his former keen interest in Shakespeare, politely appreciated my confidence and labours, and ‘would give all the skulls of his living relatives,’ so he wrote, ‘to possess that of the deceased bard;’ but he offered no terms. Again I wrote. He replied that he had been ill, was worn to a skeleton, and at nearly four score could not meet me in Warwickshire. Would I oblige him by coming to Strawberry Hill, and then all could be arranged.
“Believing that he was shuffling, and desirous of peeping without paying for the show, I stated my inability to comply with his request, and, reminding him of his old offer of 300 guineas for Shakespeare’s skull, begged to know if he were still anxious to possess it.
“There was further delay. At length he arranged to send down a confidant to treat with me for the treasure, and late one evening in December a message was left at my rooms from a Mr. Kirgall, or some such a name,
requesting to see me at the ‘Bear Inn.’ (Then comes the interview, to which reference has been made.)
“Upon entering the low-pitched room, a middle-aged man came forward, dressed in a manner antiquated even for those days. He was rather short, had weak eyes, and was deferential almost to timidity. He had been in Alcester, he said, many years before, and remembered as a lad taking down some figures with reference to a new church under the direction of his present employer and Colonel Conway; and had copied a design for a tower somewhere near. He was now sent to express his lordship’s pleasure and cordial congratulations at my success in securing the veritable skull of Shakespeare. Might he be allowed to inspect?
“I fetched it. Mr. Kirgall was in raptures. His lordship, who had kept our correspondence a profound secret, known only to two maiden ladies and the dear Duchess of Gloucester, would indeed rejoice to possess– the loan of it. Would I entrust it to his keeping? ‘At one price,’ I rejoined, eventually reducing that price considerably.
“The gentleman still dallied; and, soon seeing that his errand was merely to obtain an unconditional loan of the article, I prepared to leave the room. He sought to detain me. Did I consider the risk of having a stolen skull? The Earl did not wish to retain it for his own pleasure, but to show it to other people; ‘besides,’ he added, forgetting his diffidence, ‘it might not be genuine.’ Here I stopped him. Finding that I was firm, and further parley on Lord Orford’s behalf useless, Mr. Kirgall sought to do a little business on his own account. Examining the skull and the jaw, which I had attached, he noticed that, whilst the molars had disappeared, there were several front teeth in a fair state of preservation, although loose from exposure. Might he extract one, only one? he would fee me handsomely.
” ‘All, or none,’ I replied; and, taking up the skull, I abruptly wished him a good-night.
“Putting my head out of the window early next morning to answer a call, I saw my dear friend holding the open door of the London coach opposite the ‘Angel,’ and peering up and down the street. Perhaps he thought I should consider the matter more favourably at the last moment. He was mistaken. The coach rattled off, and Mr. Kirgall reached Berkeley Square on the morrow, minus one parcel.
“The Reverend Samuel Parr, curate in charge of Hatton, had shown the utmost reverence for the memory of Shakespeare; and a quaint drawing of New Place, Stratford, was entrusted to his care by Mr. Colmore, of Birmingham, after the recent riots. This I saw being framed at Twamley’s, in Warwick, a few days after the interview with Kirgall; and I suddenly decided, being so near Hatton, to sound the doctor about purchasing so rare a memento of his idol. My excuse must be, youth and innocence, and a scantily-furnished pocket.
“Leaving Pritchard to drive the hired gig back to Stratford, I had a brisk walk to Hatton, the moon just showing the hoar frost on the ground. Thinking that the vicarage would be handy to the church, I made my way there, but could see no house. There was a faint light from the tower, for the men were ringing to call Christmas. I well remember listening beneath the belfry window, an unusually lofty one; and presently, when they paused, one man struck up the chorus of a carol which my old uncle sang at Studley when I was a child:
‘But Christmas then is Christmas now, though altered are the times,
When we sate up at midnight to hear the merry chimes.’
“In a few minutes I found myself at the back of the vicarage. ‘This door will do was well as any other,’ thought I; and I gave a sturdy rap. ‘Come in– come in,’ from a shrill voice, which I recognised, to my surprise, as the doctor’s.
“Somewhat abashed at my intrusion, I entered the kitchen. There, on one side of the wide hearth, sat the little great man in a well-padded library chair, with his right leg resting on a settle, at the extreme end of which was a wiry old man, in brown velvet waistcoat and nankeen breeches and gaiters, polishing a chain, evidently the man-of-all-work. On the opposite side were seated two gaunt female servants, not the least in awe of their learned master. The visitors were, a clergyman, not known, but I think from Tamworth, and my old acquaintance, John Bartlam.
“Dr. Parr, who resembled a short-horned bull, wore a shabby skull cap, which, being much too large, now and then slipped forwards and rested on his bushy eyebrows. He had no whiskers, and the eyes were very searching. He wore a loose coat with large buttons, black breeches, and ribbed worsted stockings, with broad buckles to his shoes. He looked what he desired to be– the old fashioned country parson.
“Laying down his pipe, he greeted me somewhat stiffly, but offered a bed. Waiting until the servants and the Tamworth visitor had retired, leaving the doctor and Mr. Bartlam over their grog, I ventured to hint at the object of my visit. Recalling a former conversation, I cautiously felt my way. If such an article could be procured, would Dr. Parr like to possess Shakespeare’s skull? ‘How could he possess it?’ he interposed, testily; ‘it was in the grave, if anywhere.’
“I continued: ‘If you, sir, would make it worth the risk, I happen to know–‘
” ‘Know what?’ he shouted. ‘Has that fellow Garrick left it to his wife? He declared he would steal it at the jubilee.’
” ‘Oh, no!’ I rejoined; ‘it is there– that is–‘ (with hesitation).
” ‘Well then, sir, there let it be’ (rolling out pompously). ‘ “And curst be he that moves my bones.” ‘ Afterwards he added, severely, ‘Jack Bartlam, I would have any man whipt at the cart’s tail who violated the
sanctity of that grave: it would be worse than Malone or sacrilege.’
“Seeing that I was utterly mistaken in my man, I changed the subject, and was relieved to get off to bed.
“In the morning, as I was leaving, Mr. Bartlam walked a little way with me. He said: ‘Chambers, you have that skull!’ There was something about John Bartlam which forbade subterfuge. He was genial and kind, and, withal, loved a joke; so I told him. He became, however, very grave during the recital, and blamed me somewhat harshly, I then thought. He made me solemnly promise that the skull should be restored; and I (cursing my ill-luck more than my folly) walked on to Teddy’s Easthorpe’s, at Stratford, who drove me home.”
“I repeatedly pressed my uncle,” writes the late Mr. M., “to tell me whether the skull was ever really restored, and gleaned from him the following particulars.
“After waiting for the waning of that month’s moon, he had arranged with Tom Dyer to replace it one night in January, but was obliged to accompany his employer to Mr. Wilks’, at Coughton, to a case of compound fracture, whereupon Master Tom declared he could manage it all by himself, as he knew a way of getting into the church through the bone-house. The next day Dyer was paid, after taking an oath that he had buried the skull and made it all square, leaving no trace.
“On the following Sunday afternoon my uncle attended service at Stratford Church, on purpose to inspect the slab. There were no marks of a second upheaval, but there was an ominous crack right across the slab, about two feet from the end near the communion rails, and this might not long escape observation. To see Dyer was my uncle’s first impulse, and he sought him early the next morning. He had gone to do some repairs at Welford Mill; and, later in the day, my uncle, after calling upon a cousin (at Clifford, I believe), traced Dyer to the little front parlour of the ‘Four Alls,’ near the bridge crossing the Avon.
“Tom, who was alone and drinking like a fish, at first protested that there was nothing up with the stone. After considerable evasion, he admitted that it was ‘a mighty dale heavier than he thought: that he had just lifted one end half an inch or so when it began to snap; and to prevent further mischief he laid it down again.’
” ‘You rascal! Then you never buried the skull!’
“Tom declared, however, that the old chap was there beneath, as safe as a door nail.
“Again I asked my uncle, ‘Do you think that the skull was ever really restored?’ He was silent for a minute, and then quoted its owner for about the first time in his life:
‘Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.’ “