The Mystery of the Stratford Monument

Pauline Montagna
11 min readJun 7, 2022


Does the Stratford Monument really pay homage to William Shakespeare, a gentleman of that parish, or does it conceal the answers to the Great Authorship Debate?

One of the compulsory stops on a tour of Stratford-upon-Avon is the medieval Holy Trinity Church on the banks of the river Avon. Possibly England’s most famous parish church, it receives over 200,000 visitors a year, pilgrims to the tomb of a secular saint, William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is buried in pride of place right in front of the altar. Beside him are buried his wife Anne Hathaway, his father, John Shakespeare and his son-in-law John Hall.

On the wall overlooking the tombs is the famous Stratford Monument to Shakespeare containing a bust of the poet in middle age, quill in hand. (Apparently, the quill is replaced with a fresh one every year on his birthday.) Together with the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio, this bust is one of only two recognised contemporary portraits of the playwright. (see Is this a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?) Beneath the Monument is a plaque with a poetic epitath exhorting passers-by to think about the poet.

In their dedicatory poems in Shakespeare’s First Folio both Leonard Digges and Ben Jonson mention the Monument. Digges writes:

…when that stone is rent,
And Time dissolves thy Stratford Monument,
Here we alive shall view thee soon.

While Jonson writes:

Thou art a Monument, without a tomb,
And art alive still, while thy Book doth live.

These references inextricably link the First Folio to the Monument and also provide evidence that the Monument was raised before the Folio’s publication in 1623.

However, a trip to Holy Trinity Church may be disappointing for anyone who venerates William Shakespeare as a poetic genius and the greatest writer of all time. And for those with any doubts as to his authorship of the plays, it will raise more questions than it resolves on a number of points. (see Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? Debunking the Usual Suspects)

Doubts and Questions

Point One: the parish register does not record William Shakespeare as a Poet, as one might expect (the term ‘playwright’ was not in general usage at the time), but simply as ‘Gent’ implying he was a man of property.

Photograph of Shakespeare’s grave
Shakespeare’s grave

Point Two: except for a sign put there for the benefit of visitors, there is no name on Shakespeare’s tomb, while those of the rest of his family are engraved with their names. And while Anne’s tomb bears a fulsome epitaph in Latin, possibly written by her son-in-law John Hall, all that we can read on William’s tomb is not even a quote from his own extensive writings, but a stanza of superstitious doggerel, certainly not worthy of him.


Or in modern English:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here,
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Point Three: the bust is a very disappointing portrait. The man we see depicted is not the dreamy poet we might expect, but a portly, self-satisfied businessman. If it were not for the quill in his right hand and the sheet of paper under his left, one would never know it was meant to depict a writer, though given his hands rest not on a desk, but a cushion or sack of produce, it might just as well be his accounts he is writing up as a poem. Nor does the bust in any way resemble the Droeshout engraving.

Point Four: the epitaph on the plaque seems to contain errors of fact: that Shakespeare is buried within the Monument rather then beneath it, and that his name is on the tomb. Furthermore its wording is awkward and ambiguous.


Or in modern English:

Stay, passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read, if thou canst, whom envious Death hath placed
Within this monument. Shakespeare with whom
Quick nature died, whose name doth deck this tomb
Far more than cost sith (ie since) all that he hath writ
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his wit.

Not only do the above points feed into the Shakespearean Authorship Debate, but those who dig deeper find even more ammunition to cast doubts on Shakespeare.

Point Five: there is no record of who commissioned or paid for the Monument, or who built it. All that is known is that it was not the Shakespeare family nor the Stratford-upon-Avon corporation. Neither do we know who raised the plaque or who composed the epitaph.

Point Six: illustrations made of the Monument over time suggest that it has changed in appearance since it was first erected.

Answers and more questions

The question as to why William Shakespeare was buried as a ‘gent’ rather than a poet, can be easily dealt with. By the time of Shakespeare’s death, his profession as playwright and player would have been anathema in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1603 the town’s puritan aldermen banned the performance of any plays in the town and even visits by players. In such an environment, it is perfectly understandable that the Shakespeares would not want to admit to William’s theatrical history, nor the vicar to refer to it.

However, the other questions are not so easy to answer. Take the verse of doggerel, for example. Anyone of a conspiratorial disposition might ask why was William of all his family the only one protected by such a curse. Was it to ensure no one ever tried to find out who or what, if anything, was really buried there? Was it because William Shakespeare was not there at all?

Ben Jonson’s dedicatory verse in itself might also lead us to ask the same questions. He writes:

Thou art a Monument, without a tomb,
And art alive still,

Was he actually saying that Shakespeare had a Monument, but no tomb because he was still alive? Was he hinting, therefore, that whoever was buried in Holy Trinity Church was not the author of the contents of the First Folio?

It was not until recently that some of these questions could be answered. Until then one might have believed that the verse had done its work well in preventing the opening of the tomb. In our much less superstitious times, as recently as 2008, when restoration work was done on the church, disturbing the tomb was carefully avoided. Even the archaeologists who examined it in 2015 did so using ground penetrating radar only.

Their examination proved that there was indeed a body buried beneath the gravestone, but the body’s skull was missing, probably stolen, most likely at the end of the eighteenth century. No such robbery was reported by the parish, but given Shakespeare’s fame, it would not have been in their interests to do so. A grave theft does, however, leave two possibilities. The current gravestone has a strange cut across the head end, suggesting that part of it may have been removed by the graverobbers and later replaced. Alternatively, it could well be that the current gravestone was not the original, which may have been engraved with Shakespeare’s name, but when broken by the graverobbers, was replaced with a plain stone and a curse to deter future relic hunters.

The errors of fact in the plaque underneath the Monument, and the awkward wording of the verse, have also raised questions and disparate answers. One possible explanation is that the verse is not a straightforward epitaph, but a riddle or cryptogram.

One possible interpretation is given by Peter Farey, a Marlovian who believes that Christopher Marlowe wrote the plays from his exile in Europe and sent them back to England to be produced under Shakespeare’s name. (see Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare) In his article The Riddle of the Monument, he reads it as a riddle which points to a partnership between Shakespeare and Marlowe that had to end with Shakespeare’s death. His reading of the epitaph is:

Stay, traveller, why go by so fast?
Work out, if you can, whom envious Death has placed
with, in this monument, Shakespeare — with whom
living capacity died. ‘Christ- [ie IESVS (Jesus), the name on the tomb]
ofer Marley’.[anagram of FAR MORE + COST =lay] He is [SIEH] returned, nevertheless. That he did the writing
leaves Art alive, without a ‘page’ to dish up his wit.

Our third point is that the appearance of the bust is not what one might expect. Not only does it not suggest a poet, it is completely different from the other ‘official’ portrait — the Droeshout engraving. This in itself raises questions, but even further questions come up when we learn that over the centuries several sketches and engravings have been made of the Monument all of which are different.

The secret history of the Monument

Extract from Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire with etching of the Shakespeare monument in 1634
Dugdale engraving 1634

The first sketch of the Monument was made by the antiquarian Sir William Dugdale in 1634 and reproduced by Wenceslas Holler as an engraving in his Antiquities of Warwickshire published in 1656. The sketch depicts a figure very different to the one we see now. His face is thinner, his moustache droops over his down-turned mouth and, rather than holding a quill and paper, he is clutching a plump and lumpy sack, the symbol of a wool merchant. Even the architectural details of the monument are very different.

Those who do not believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays, have leapt on all these discrepancies, claiming that the original bust proclaimed Shakespeare not a poet, but a successful businessman. Those who champion Frances Bacon as the real Shakespeare claim that the woolsack was a covert reference to Bacon who, at the time, was Lord Chancellor whose symbol was the Woolsack. (see Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? The Authorship Contenders)

Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s supporters have tried to explain the discrepancies away, firstly by claiming the gloomy image was of a sick and dying Shakespeare, then by repudiating Dugdale’s illustration altogether, claiming it must be inaccurate, and citing other examples of Dugdale’s errors. However, unbiased art historians have praised the integrity and scrupulous accuracy of Dugdale’s work and have found that his mistakes were few and immaterial. At the same time, Holler, his engraver, has been described as ‘a master of precise and detailed rendering.’

Engraving of Shakespeare Monument used in Nicholas Rowe’s biography of Shakespeare in 1709
Rowe engraving 1709

The illustration’s accuracy can also be attested by the fact that it was retained unedited in Dugdale’s second, ‘corrected’ edition of his work. Half a century later, in 1709 and again in 1714, Nicholas Rowe used a very similar illustration in his biography of Shakespeare. It follows Dugdale’s except that his Shakespeare sports a curly full beard but still has no quill while holding what may be a woolsack or a cushion.

George Virtue’s engraving of Shakespeare monument in 1725
Virtue engraving 1725

It was not until 1725 that the bust was depicted with a quill and paper in George Vertue’s engraving for Alexander Pope’s edition of Shakespeare’s works. While it is usually asserted that Vertue based this engraving on the Chandos portrait and his own sketch of the Monument, there is no record of either he or Pope visiting Stratford before the publication. It was not until 1737 that Vertue is known to have visited Holy Trinity, but his sketch is different even from his own earlier engraving. It depicts the bust as that of a slim young man and was drawn from memory after the visit.

Sketch by George Virtue depicting himself viewing the Shakespeare monument in 1737
Virtue’s sketch 1737

The curate who showed Vertue around the church would have been Joseph Greene, an outspoken young man of letters with an interest in Shakespeare. Given his close association with Alexander Pope, Vertue may have told him of the poet’s plans to build a statue of Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey which was inaugurated in 1740.

Perhaps in response to the competition from Westminster Abbey, in 1746 Greene began raising funds for the purpose of ‘repairing and beautifying’ the Stratford Monument which had become ‘much impaired and decayed’. The repairs were entrusted to a local craftsman, John Hall, a ‘limner’ or painter. Contemporary records are adamant no changes were made to the bust except to repair and paint it. However, the monument itself was renovated, its decayed alabaster architrave being replaced with marble.

Not once, but four times, did Joseph Greene declare that he had not tampered with the bust, but one might believe the curate ‘doth protest too much’ for amongst the records is the mention of ‘Heath the carver.’ Furthermore, descriptions of the bust thereafter refer constantly to its ‘cheerful’ countenance. Thomas Gainsborough called it ‘a silly, smiling thing.’ Compare this description to the gloomy image depicted by Dugdale.

However, with the rise of Bardolatory, this cheerful countenance was considered undignified, and under instructions from Edmond Malone, in 1793, the monument was whitewashed. In 1814 the bust was taken down at the behest of John Britton, a London antiquarian who commissioned the sculptor George Bullock to make a plaster cast of the bust. Again it was found to be badly decayed and a one day job stretched to four, suggesting more work was done than merely taking a cast. Perhaps it was on this occasion, or when it was taken down again in 1836, that the bust lost its cheerfulness and took on the more sober aspect we see today.


One interesting theory is put forward by Richard Kennedy, a supporter of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the real Shakespeare. His thesis is that the original bust was not of William Shakespeare, but of his father John Shakespeare who had made his fortune trading in wool and died in his seventies.

One might speculate that the Monument was actually raised for him by John Shakespeare’s friends, and that the plaque with William’s epitaph was commissioned after his death by parties unknown. Perhaps they meant the plaque to be placed on the grave rather than the wall and did not return to Stratford to see the results of their commission. Or perhaps the family would not allow the gravestone to be replaced by the plaque and so insisted it should be placed in the wall instead. However it happened, as a result, over time, the distinction between the subject of the epitaph and the subject of the bust may have been forgotten.

However, this scenario does leave one open question. Did the commissioners of the plaque expect the wording of the epitaph to be taken at face value, or did they deliberately embed in there a deeper, secret story?

© Pauline Montagna 2017

Read more about Shakespeare and his World


Who Wrote Shakespeare? by John Michell, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

The Stratford Bust: A monumental fraud by Richard F. Whalen, The Oxfordian, Volume VIII, 2005

The Riddle of the Monument by Peter Farey, Journal of Marlovian Research Volume 1, October 2009

The Woolpack Man: John Shakspeare’s Monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon by Richard J. Kennedy, Shakespeare Matters, Winter 2005/6, Page 4

Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb, Channel Four

Originally published at



Pauline Montagna

Writer and Self-Publisher. Author of The Slave, Suburban Terrors and Not Wisely but Too Well. You’ll find my books on Smashwords and me on Facebook and Twitter.