Cemetery of the Week #114: Shakespeare’s Grave

Vintage postcard of the grave slabs set in the floor of the chancel with Shakespeare's memorial on the wall above them.

Vintage postcard of the grave slabs set in the floor of the chancel with Shakespeare’s memorial on the wall above them.

William Shakespeare’s grave
Holy Trinity Church, Old Town
Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, CV37 6BG
Telephone: 01789 266316
Email: office@stratford-upon-avon.org
Burial: 1616
Number of Interments: 5
Open: Seven days a week, but access to Shakespeare’s grave will be limited during services. Check the church’s website for the schedule.
Admission: £2 (Concessions £1, Students 50p)

It’s claimed that Christians have been worshipping on the site of Holy Trinity Church, which stands on a rise above the Avon River, for over a thousand years. Records suggest that a Saxon monastery stood on the site, but nothing of it remains. The church building itself dates from 1210.

Frommer’s calls Holy Trinity one of the most beautiful parish churches in England. The church’s own website suggests it is “probably England’s most visited parish church.” It’s estimated that up to 200,000 people visit it each year.

Glove-maker John Shakespeare’s family lived in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 16th century. No birth records were kept in those days, but William Shakespeare was recorded as baptized in Holy Trinity Church on April 26, 1564. In July, the Plague struck and nearly 70% of the children born in that decade were buried in the churchyard. Shakespeare and his parents survived.

Shakespeare finished his schooling in 1580 and married Anne Hathaway two years later, through not at Holy Trinity. Six months after that, their daughter Susannah was baptized, followed by the twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585. Hamnet died at age 11 of unknown causes. Nothing survives as a record of his short life except the record of his burial on August 11, 1596.

Shakespeare’s plays began to be performed in 1587. He was 23. Many plays later, often as many as four or five a year, Shakespeare signed his Will in 1616 with a shaky hand. He was buried on the 25th of April. The cause of his death remains a mystery.

When Henry the VIII separated the churches of England from Rome, local parishioners became responsible for paying their priests and caring for their churches. In 1605, Shakespeare purchased a share in this church, vowing to tithe for the upkeep of the chancel, the part of a church near the altar, reserved for the clergy and choir. In effect, he was purchasing burial space. His donations to the church – and not his fame – gave him the right to burial in the chancel.

Shakespeare's epitaph

Shakespeare’s epitaph: “Curse be here that moves my bones.”

A charnel house for the storage of bones stood south of the chancel until the 1790s. Graves were generally purchased for a short period of time, before their contents were exhumed and stored in the charnel house. Shakespeare wanted to lie at rest and so dictated the curse on his grave slab. Such curses were common at the time.

Shakespeare’s family inherited the right of burial in the chancel. His wife Anne, daughter Suzanna, and sons-in-law Dr. John Hall and Thomas Nash (first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth) are buried alongside him in the chancel.

During Anne’s lifetime, a memorial to Shakespeare was erected and is, because of her approval, believed to be a good likeness. “The sun-tanned countenance is said to be quite genuine,” according to the church’s website.

By 1888, fairly significant restoration had been done in the church, at least according to a letter to the London Times. The doorway from the chancel to the charnel house had been blocked up, perhaps as early as 1801. It’s likely that the remaining bones were neither removed or reburied elsewhere, but were simply sealed up inside the charnel pit and left as they were.

Around the time that the charnel house was closed, the slab over Shakespeare’s grave was replaced by a more modern one that did not match Anne’s. The original stone had probably gotten worn, since for centuries people had walked over it to see the memorial sculpture. Now a railing prevents visitors from walking on Shakespeare’s grave.

Shakespeare’s church is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The contributions that they leave help to maintain the building and pay for heat, lighting, and staffing the Church during the week.

Each year, on the Saturday closest to St. George’s Day (April 23: Shakespeare’s presumed birthday), Holy Trinity hosts a flower-laying ceremony. Thousands file through the church while the bells ring and the organ plays. A Shakespeare Service is held the following Sunday to remember Shakespeare and his contributions to the parish and England.

Useful links:

Holy Trinity Church’s website – check it for closing times:

Galley of photos of Holy Trinity

A fascinating timeline of the religious persecutions in England during Shakespeare’s life

A history of the Holy Trinity Church

A map of Stratford and the Shakespearean sites

A discussion of the closing of the charnel house and the validity of Shakespeare’s monument

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