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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Stratford Shakespeare’s Undersized Grave

Standard Citation: Purdy, Gilbert Wesley. “Stratford Shakespeare’s Undersized Grave”. Virtual Grub Street, [state date accessed].

Previously in this series on the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Monument:

4) Stratford Shakespeare’s Undersized Grave

This series of short articles on the Stratford Shakespeare Monument began by analyzing the claim, by Dr. Jonathan Bate that the existence of the monument, as we know it now, was recorded within a year or two of the Stratford Shakspere’s death. [Link]  Having made clear that the claim was not supported by verifiable evidence, the second installment began to address whether the figure in the Stratford Monument could possibly depict Shakspere of Stratford’s father, John. [Link]

The remaining evidence concerning John, however, will have to wait.  Another persistent area of Monument conspiracy theory has been momentarily revived, I note, in response to my raising the subject.  This reminded me that I’d promised myself to look into it.

It has long been known that the purported grave of the playwright William Shakespeare in the floor of the chancel at Holy Trinity, Stratford, is much too short for an adult occupant.  As with all quirks in the historical record surrounding the works of Shakespeare, and their context, this has led to one or more radical theories in one or another quarter.  Those radical theories have branched off into new radical theories necessary in order for the first theory to prove out.

It has taken a good bit of time to run down enough pieces of legitimate evidence in order to address a few of these theories.  First with myself and now with the world.

We learn from the Stratford Vestry Book,

The 24th of October, 1617.
xs. viij d. js. vj d. Item, we were scited to Worcester because the Church and Belles were out of order... [1]

A History of the County of Warwick, provides essential context:

The church suffered many vicissitudes after the Reformation, when the rood, the chantry-chapels, &c., were abolished and many of the carvings were mutilated and glass destroyed. The chancel was boarded off from the rest of the church and it was in a bad condition at the end of the 16th century. The corporation in 1593 petitioned Lord Burleigh to use his influence for its repair, but apparently without success as it was pronounced 'ruinous' in 1618 (two years after Shakespeare's burial in the chancel). Some repairs were executed in 1621–2, the walls 'mended' and painted and the windows glazed.[2]
The chancel in which the bones of Shakspere, of Stratford, repose was a wreck.  Quite possibly, it was used as little more than a mausoleum.

Following notice of the citation,  the Vestry-Book shows over three months of entries recording payment for repairs to the church and its appurtenances.  No repairs are shown for the Chancel, which may well have remained boarded up.

The first mention I have found of the Chancel, from one of the town council books, is dated  4 December, 1618”:

At this Hall yt is agreed that the  chamberleynes shall dischardge Mr. Rodgers from receyveing any more benefite by burials in the Chansell, and that the Chamberleynes shalle receyve it from henceforth towardes the repair of the Chansell, the High Churche, and also to demand of Mr. Rogers so much as he haith receyved within this last year.[3]

Discharging Mr. Rogers was but a single step toward a daunting task.  Another step is recorded in the Vestry-Book, under the 17 of March, 1619:

The Decayes of the Parish Church of Stratford uppon Avon was vewed by William Combe Eſq., etc.,... Churchwardens, and they have apoynted theis thinges hereafter mencioned to be done.[4]

Among the items in the list of repairs that follows is “Item, the seates in the Chancell to be repayred.”  The second round of repairs clearly involved the chancel in something of a major way.

While I have yet to find a specific order to extend out the apron around the altar, there are a number of indications that this was included along with the repairs.  For example, Shakspere’s was not the only short grave.  A recent Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) scan showed that his wife Anne’s grave was also longer than her gravestone.[5]  All indications are that none of the other graves along the step up to the apron are truncated.

Anne Shakspere died on August 6, 1623.  The date could easily have fallen during the work on the chancel.  By all indications it must have.  The others buried along the apron edge died between 1633 and 1704, long after the work on the chancel had been completed.  Therefore they were buried with their heads at the step of the new extended apron and their gravestones were intact across the full lengths of their bodies.

The radar scan, it turns out, found other evidence. 

Kevin Colls, the archaeologist who led the team, said the grave was not as they had expected. “We came across this very odd, strange thing at the head end. It was very obvious, within all the data we were getting, that there was something different going on at that particular spot. We have concluded it is signs of disturbance, of material being dug out and put back again.”

There is also “a very strange brick structure” that cuts across the head end of the grave, he said.[6]

Mr. Coll’s considers this evidence to support an old rumor that Shakspere’s head had been stolen in 1794.  But I submit that he is merely making his observation based upon a coincidence.

These findings are in exactly the location where the new, thick stone edge was installed.  There is much more basis to suggest that the weight of the construction caused the head of the grave to cave in causing damage to the head. The repair crew built a protective brick cowl over the head in order to hold up the heavy apron and protect the head of the grave from caving in again and doing more damage to the corpse.

But what about the theory that the floor grave doesn't even belong to the Shakespeare Monument? [Next>>>

[1] Extracts Taken from the Vestry-Book of the Church of the Holy Trinity, At Stratford-upon-Avon (1865), ed. Halliwell, J. O. 19. 
[2] 'The borough of Stratford-upon-Avon: Churches and charities', in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred, ed. Philip Styles (London, 1945), pp. 269-282. British History Online [accessed 22 July 2018].
[3] Times of The Shakespeares, Illustrated by Extracts from the Council Books of the Corporation. London. ed. Halliwell, J. O. Adlard & Close, 1864. 115.
[4] Vestry-Book, 27.
[5] “Secret History: Shakespeare's Tomb”, 23 Mar 2016. Channel Four Television Corporation.  London.
[6] Brown, Mark. “Shakespeare's skull probably stolen by grave robbers, study finds.”  26 Mar. 2016.  The Guardian.  U.S. Edition.

  • Let the sky rain potatoes! December 16, 2017. "In fact, the sweet potato had only just begun to be a delicacy within the reach of splurging poets and playwrights and members of the middle classes at the time that The Merry Wives of Windsor (the play from which Falstaff is quoted) was written.  The old soldier liked to keep abreast of the new fads."

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