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Village History

‘Curst be he who moves my bones…’

Posted on September 15 2009 at 3:50:04 0 comments

In an account of dark deeds on eerie, windswept nights, “A Warwickshire Man” tells how Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave and hidden in a place not far from here…

How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found was first published as a complete account in 1884 and tells of a young surgeon-to-be in search of adventure.

Frank Chambers had already witnessed first-hand the ructions in France and been forced by the Revolution to return to the quiet life of Alcester.

Told in the form of the recollections of a “Mr M”, a nephew of Chambers who had since died, to the author, this heavily abridged version begins in the autumn of 1794 when Chambers found himself enjoying a dinner at Ragley Hall.

There, the conversation turned to the Stratford Jubilee and one guest, a Captain John Fortescue, wondered if the image of Shakespeare in the old church (Holy Trinity, Stratford) “was really like him”.

Another guest, the Rev Samuel Parr, the curate in charge at Hatton, remarked: “You had best dig him up, John Fortescue.”

At which Squire Moore, presumably one of the neighbouring gentry, revealed that Horace Walpole, son of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, had offered after the Jubilee to give the MP George Selwyn 300 guineas if he could secure Shakespeare’s head.

Chambers was eager for some adventure, and this would also have been a very large amount of money for a young doctor, so one night soon after the dinner, he met three men in the Golden Cup inn, Alcester: Harry Cull, Tom Dyer and another rough type called Hawtin.

After discussion of his previous use of bodies taken from churchyards in neighbouring parishes to further the interests of medical science, Chambers turned to the task he had in mind: “It’s not for that I want you, but to get at the skull of a chap who has been dead nearly 200 years.”

He promised them three pounds a man and as much as they could drink after the job was done, but not a drop before.

One the dark night of the deed, Chambers was late because of a medical emergency and when he arrived, the men were already busy.

“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?”  he asked.

“Why, you see,” answered Dyer, “we warn’t agoing to wait here all night; and this ‘are’s your mon, I reckon.”

But they were digging over the remains of William Shakespeare Payton, a man well known in Stratford, who had died a year or two before. “Put the soil back,” Chambers told them. “This is not the man; didn’t I tell you he was inside, and 200 years old.”

So they broke into the church, leaving Hawtin outside on guard. Between them they lifted the stone covering the grave and started digging, finding human bones and even a bronze ring as they went.

Eventually, about three feet down, Chambers recalled that the “peculiar humid state – smell I can hardly call it” meant he knew they were nearing “where the body had formerly mouldered”.

“No shovels but the hands,” he whispered, “and feel for a skull.”

Eventually Tom Dyer pulled it out and Chambers recalled: “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.”

After the grave was restored, Chambers paid the men and a few hours later paid for nine quarts of ale at the Globe, “so that they seemed well satisfied with the night’s adventure”.

He then contacted Walpole, who wrote back saying he “would give all the skulls of his living relatives to possess that of the deceased bard”.
But he didn’t offer any money.

Walpole asked Chambers to take it to London for him to see but Chambers refused, at which point Walpole arranged for a “confidant to treat with me for the treasure”.

The man was called Mr Kirgall and they met at the Bear Inn, Alcester. He asked Chambers to lend the skull to Walpole but Chambers only wanted a sale – even at a reduced price. There was no deal to be done, however, and Kirgall returned to London.

An increasingly desperate Chambers then tried to see if Rev Parr might be interested in buying the skull “if it were to have been removed”.

But Parr dismissed him angrily, quoting from the curse on the grave: “And curst be he that moves my bones.”

At this, Chambers resolved to return the skull and paid Tom Dyer to do the deed one night in January. He only paid up after Dyer took an oath that he had buried the skull and left no trace.

The following Sunday, Chambers visited the church and saw an “ominous crack right across the slab”. He tracked Dyer down to the Four Alls, where he was “drinking like a fish”. Dyer admitted that the stone was heavy and had started to crack and to prevent further damage he had laid it down again.

But he declared: “The old chap was there beneath, as safe as a door-nail.”

It isn’t clear that Chambers fully believed him, because when asked by his nephew if he thought the skull had been restored, he “quoted its owner for about the first time in his life: ‘Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.’”

The account then turns to how the skull was found and is told by the “Warwickshire Man” himself.

Chambers had a close friend called Lieutenant J L, from Alcester,  with whom he enjoyed a three or four-year correspondence until Lt J L was fatally wounded in 1804 aboard the Goliath during an attack on a French brig.

A packet of letters came into the hands of the Warwickshire Man, as the lieutenant’s direct descendant.. ”by which I am enabled, after much difficulty, to solve this startling mystery”.

Among these letters were several sheets of manuscript in Chambers’ hand, out of which “dropt a small piece of bone. I handled it reverently, for somehow I felt convinced that I should now clear up the mystery of Shakespeare’s skull,” writes the Warwickshire Man.

The letters contained an account by Chambers of “a cruelly cold night in December” when he had been sent for to visit an “outlandish parish” to treat a scalded woman.

As he arrived, he found Tom Dyer who offered to pay him “ansum” if he “doctors to” his sister, his accomplice’s wife – and pointed up to a church where they were hiding out. Dyer also threatened Chambers, who was more intrigued than fearful.

Behind a gorse bush he discovered an irregular hole in the wall of the church through which he scrambled, to find himself in a vault.

“For a moment I was completely dazed by what I saw. Huge coffins partly covered with tattered cloth, and massive shields still bright, and on them grim helmets, gauntlets, and swords with glittering hilts, and crucifixes curiously wrought; whilst the near-hand niches were resplendent with costly urns, oval in shape, and richly chased.”

Before he could explore further, he treated the woman, who was badly burned on the legs from spilled boiling liquid.

“I leant over, and any doubt as to the occupation of my companions was dispelled. On a square block of wood I saw a heap of dies and discs; and near them rough counters, such as were formerly used as checks or passes in theatres; clippers and iron bolts, with three or four packages like cornsamples neatly tied. I pretended to be too intent on the bandages to notice anything.”

Forging coins was in those days a crime dealt with by certain death.

Having treated the woman with a salve, he persuaded Tom to return with him to the surgery to take back a palliative for burns.

“In the gig we spoke very little; but when we were slowly passing an old hall once belonging to our family, Tom, who had warmed with the liquor, began confidentially: ’One good turn deserves another, doctor, and now I don’t mind a-telling you as how I was druv away in a fright from Stratford Church before I could bury that old skull.

“So, thinks I, as Master Chambers seems so uncommon particular to have him under cover, I’ll just pop him into one of them wessels in this ere vault. And that I did, I’ll swear, last night; clipping this bit out on him to leave a kind of mark, d’ye see, for you to tell him by when you next comes to see my mate’s missus.”

Chambers was furious, but resisted the temptation to throw Dyer out of the trap and took the fragment of bone. But here Chambers’ manuscript ends, leaving the Warwickshire Man with a mystery.

He began searching for the church with the vault, looking first in Studley, then Ipsley, then one day the Warwickshire Man’s horse lost a shoe, just opposite the “quaint mansion half-way up Gorcott Hill”, near Beoley. Chatting to a man there, he discovers that a Chambers family did once live there.

“I was delighted with the discovery: for this must be the old hall alluded to by the doctor, and I was on the right track at last.

“I continued my journey, and leaving the main road at the Bowling Green Inn, I found myself, one quarter of an hour later, close to a venerable church, placed at an elevation commanding most extensive views of the country around.

“I hurriedly passed through the tower to the end of the north aisle, and I found myself in a remarkable mortuary chapel, surrounded by magnificent tombs under canopies, and costly tablets of the once notable Sheldons.”

The Warwickshire Man then makes his way down into the vault beneath the chapel: “The lanterns threw a ghastly gleam on the numerous open coffins, and I noticed, terror-struck, that some had struggled in their sleep; and some were half-raised; and some, perfect in outline, were swathed tightly in cerecloth, looking as if they had turned to marble from so long waiting with affright in the awful darkness.”

Looking more closely, he sees the lids had been removed for their rich emblazonry, the leaden shells melted by the coiners, helmets and swords had disappeared.

He finds a narrow opening into another chamber . . . “It had long been used as an ossuary; and all that I could at first see, when I had squeezed half my body through the slit, was a heap of gigantic bones, which, when padded with sinew and flesh, must have cracked many a skull on Bosworth Field.

“Oh rapture! Resting on these was an undersized skull, with a prominent forehead marred by a jagged hole. Over that hole I placed the fragment I had brought with me: it fitted exactly.

“The veritable skull of William Shakespeare was there!”

A ‘veritable skull’ or work of fiction?

The curse inscribed on Shakespeare’s grave alone should have deterred the stoutest of thieves:

Good friend for Jesus sake forebear
To dig the dust enclosed here
Blest be the man who spares these stones
And curst be he who moves my bones.

But these were days when men of learning were quite capable of rummaging in churchyards under a full moon.

And so many other elements of this account ring true or are confirmed by circumstantial evidence. All of the characters are thought to have existed, although the Alcester doctor, Thomas Chambers, is harder to identify. 

There was, however, a Chambers family who lived at Gorcott Hall from 1662-1854. Perhaps the name and location were changed to avoid linking a well-to-do family with the deed?

A lot of other elements fit, too. For example, if you go to “Shakespeare’s Church” in Stratford, there is the grave of William Shakespeare Payton in the churchyard where the ruffians mistakenly began digging.

And from our own visit to the vault and the Sheldon Chapel above it at St Leonard’s, Beoley, the descriptions are remarkably accurate.

The publication of the first part of the story in a magazine in 1879 came shortly before a major restoration of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, was proposed, possibly disturbing Shakespeare’s tomb.

A Shakespeare expert of the day, CM Ingleby, published an article Shakespeare’s Bones:the Proposal to disinter them in 1883, in which he said that in How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Stolen: “The vraisemblance of the narrative is amazing. But for the poverty of the concluding portion… one might almost accept this as a narrative of fact.”

It was soon after this that the section about the skull being found in Beoley was added and the whole published as a one-shilling book.

But who could have been “A Warwickshire Man”? According to Alcester and District Local History Society it is thought to be the work of Rev CL Langston, Vicar of Beoley, in the latter part of the 19th century.

If so, it would have been a novel way to drum up funds for his church.

But was it all a figment of his imagination – or is the skull that once contained one of the finest brains in history resting in a church just down the road?

Well, maybe. When we inspected the skull, it appeared to be the same as the one seen by Morris Jephcott 70 years ago, and indeed it had a jagged hole left by a missing fragment of bone.

Alas, the hole was on the bottom of the skull . . . the forehead was intact.

If Village readers have any other ideas, please let us know.


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