by John Shakles
The recent theft of two valuable tapestries from Beoley church reminded me of a story printed in 1884 and recently revived by the Worcestershire historian Bill Gwilliam.
The Marquess of Hertford gave a dinner party at Ragley Hall in 1794. One of the subjects of conversation was the recent announcement by Horace Walpole that he would pay 300 guineas to anyone bringing him the Bard's skull.
A. guest at Ragley was one, Dr. Frank Chambers of Alcester and hearing the large amount offered decided the reward would be his. Tempted by an offer of three pounds each and unlimited drink, three local men were persuaded by Dr. Chambers to steal the skull from Holy Trinity church at Stratford. This they did and duly claimed their reward.
However, when Dr. Chambers offered the skull to Walpole, he refused to have anything to do with it. A fellow guest at Ragley, Dr. Parr of Warwick, was then approached. He also refused the skull and threatened Dr. Chambers with exposure unless the skull was re-placed. Chambers, having no alternative, returned the skull to one of the grave robbers, with instructions to return it.
Several years later Dr. Chambers met this same man, who told him that he had been unable to return the skull to Stratford as the stone slab had broken when he attempted to lift it. He refused to say what he had done with the skull except that it was in a church crypt and gave the doctor a fragment of bone from the forehead, kept as identification.
For the rest of his life Dr. Chambers was unable to discover where the skull was. 50 years after his death the fragment of bone was passed on, with the whole story ,to 'A Warwickshire Man', as he wished to be known. He vowed to locate the skull and after years of research was convinced that it would be found in the vaults of St. Leonard's church at Beoley. Accompanied by a verger, every grave and vault in the church was searched and eventually they found a vault containing a spare skull. 'The prominent forehead', he wrote, 'was marred by a jagged hole and over this I placed the fragment of bone I had brought with me. It fitted exactly - the veritable skull of William Shakespeare was there'
The skull was taken to Stratford and re-interred with the other remains, where it still lies:-- unless you know any differently, of course.!
(Editor: the Society files contain the names of many medical men in Alcester, including the 17th century. There is, unfortunately, no documentary evidence so far of any Dr. Chambers resident in Alcester)
Summer 1990 Index
© Alcester & District Local History Society 1991