The Grave Robbers of Beoley, Worcestershire Braved Shakespeare's Curse
PUBLISHED: 17:34 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013
Shakespeare's grave in Stratford-upon-Avon is inscribed with a chilling curse on anyone who dares to tamper with the Bard's bones. A group of grave robbers from the Worcestershire village of Beoley braved the curse.
Shakespeare's grave in Stratford-upon-Avon is inscribed with a chilling curse on anyone who dares to tamper with the Bard's bones. A group of grave robbers from the Worcestershire village of Beoley braved the curse. Chris Mowbray tells the tale.
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare
To dig the dust enclosed heare;
Blest be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
So runs one of the most famous curses of all time. It is to be found on the grave of William Shakespeare, England's greatest playwright, in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and was put there shortly after he died on St George's Day, 1616 - his 52nd birthday. Its aim was to deter grave robbers and he has lain there undisturbed ever since.
Or has he? That is open to debate because this year sees the 130th anniversary of an allegation, now largely forgotten, which scandalised Victorian literary society and sent shockwaves as far as Germany and America.
The astonishing claim was that 85 years earlier, in the Autumn of 1794, grave robbers stole the Bard's skull from his grave, tried in vain to sell it to one of the leading literary figures of the day and then hid it in a Worcestershire church where it remained for the next 50 years.
The story first surfaced publicly in a magazine attributed to an unnamed 'Warwickshire Man' who claimed to have heard it from a relative of the mastermind behind the plot. That ringleader was Frank Chambers, an assistant doctor in Alcester who was known to have a wild streak and had fallen in with a fast set of country gentry surrounding Lord Hertford of Ragley Hall. During one hard drinking session at the Hall, talk got round to the recent Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford.
This prompted the local Squire to mention that Horace Walpole, the son of the great Parliamentarian, Sir Robert Walpole, had once been heard to say that he would pay 300 guineas for the Bard's skull. This could well have been simply bravado because Walpole, a playwright and novelist, felt he had a macabre image to keep up. He had invented the genre of the Gothic novel and his mansion at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, had been so remodelled that it resembled a set for a Hammer Horror movie.
Frank Chambers, however, took this information entirely at face value and started dreaming up a scheme for seizing the skull and claiming the 300 guineas. In addition to the money, which would have been a fortune for a country doctor, he relished the adventure and he had also previously dealt with body snatchers in the furtherance of medical research, a practice common among 18th century doctors.
Chambers invited three men round to his lodgings for a drink, but they were the most unlikely companions for a professional man who mixed socially with local aristocracy. Harry Cull, Tom Dyer and a man called Hawtin were dubious characters who dabbled in a variety of work, much of it outside the law. He told them he wanted to take a particular skull from a church at Stratford and offered them three pounds each if they would help him.
A few nights later, the four conspirators met outside Holy Trinity Church. Dyer, who had once worked in a smithy, broke in through a door and then he and Cull set about opening the grave. At first, they started work on the wrong one because they were illiterate and could not read the name on the tombstone, but Chambers directed them to the right one and they carefully removed the mortar between the stones so there would be as little damage as possible. Chambers was anxious that no-one should ever realise the grave had been tampered with so that the theft would always remain undetected. It took several hours to complete the work and Hawtin, who had been the least keen on the venture, acted as lookout.
Once he had Shakespeare's skull in his hand, however, Chambers felt strangely disappointed. Many years later, when he was an old man, he recalled: "It was smaller than I expected and in formation not much like what I remembered of the effigy above our heads."
Nonetheless, this was the only skull in Shakespeare's grave and was presumably the genuine article. The men replaced the stones on the tomb and inserted old mortar they had specially brought with them, then they smeared it with dust from the church so that it would look as if nothing had been disturbed. On the way back to Alcester, Chambers paid the men their money, bought them nine quarts of ale in a pub - ironically named The Globe after Shakespeare's theatre - and left them there while he took home his prize.
But when he tried to sell the skull to Horace Walpole, the literary man declined to pay him for it even though Chambers reminded him of the offer he had expressed years before. Walpole agreed that he had once made such an offer, but still refused to part with any money and even sent an intermediary from London to Alcester to try and trick Chambers into parting with the skull for nothing.
So Chambers paid Dyer more money to take it back to Stratford and replace it in the Bard's grave. Dyer assured him that he had done so, but when Chambers visited the tomb some weeks later, he saw a new crack across the gravestone and realised that his accomplice had failed in his attempt to re-open the grave. When questioned, Dyer admitted that he had been unable to lift the stone without it breaking in half and had hidden the skull instead in a church over the county boundary in Worcestershire.
Several years later, Chambers was called out by Dyer to tend a woman who had been badly burned while helping him to melt down the lead linings of coffins in St Leonard's Church at Beoley, near Redditch, to make counterfeit coinage. The church was temporarily without a priest and Dyer and his gang had actually moved into a den there to carry out their highly illegal trade. It was while tending to his patient that Chambers discovered St Leonard's was the church where Shakespeare's skull was hidden.
The secret of the stolen skull went with the doctor to the grave, but 50 years after it had been taken, 'A Warwickshire Man' claimed to have discovered that secret by investigating clues left behind in Chambers' papers. He retrieved the skull, returned it to its rightful resting place and did not reveal the story for another 35 years when everyone connected with the scandal had died.
So was the story true? Did it really happen or was it the inventive product of a hack writer on the make? Experts at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford are ambivalent.
"We don't know because no-one has ever officially looked inside the grave and no-one has ever officially opened it," said Marie Macdonald, head of local collections at the Shakespeare Centre.
"A sexton once broke in accidentally during maintenance work and reported simply that there were bones inside, but it was left undisturbed and sealed up again. A Warwickshire Man's story is full of circumstantial evidence, but nothing more. People were just as inventive in the 19th century as they are today, but we just don't know."