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  • Diana Wells

The Question of Alexander Pope’s Skull

Alexander Pope died in 1744 and was buried in St Mary’s by the chancel step, probably below a square stone incised “P”, for a fee of One Guinea. In his will he had requested to be buried “near the monument of my dear parents” and indeed, although at some distance, the stone is within sight of the memorial to Alexander Pope senior and his mother in the north gallery. In 2015 Anthony Beckles Willson, former St Mary’s archivist and champion of Pope’s Grotto, wrote Paper 169 for the Borough of Twickenham Local History Society, based on 19th century publications and 20th century original letters.


The stone marked P and the brass plaque laid beside it in 1962 when a group of academics from Yale felt that something more significant should be installed.


R.S. Cobbett, St Mary’s curate 1866-1872, in his Memorials of Twickenham (1872), wrote: “Some writers declare that Pope’s head was abstracted during some repairs of the church, and by a bribe to the sexton of the time, possession of the skull was obtained for a night” on payment of £50 and a skull “now figures in the collection of Mr Holm of Highgate and was frequently exhibited by him in his lectures”. Cobbett quotes Canon Proby, Vicar 1818-1859, as stating that, when Pope’s vault was opened in 1818 and the coffin broken, “a cast of the skull was taken with my permission” and the skull then replaced under the supervision of the curate; his memory of the details of the event 40 years earlier, however, may not have been completely accurate. 


In 1826 a vault was opened for the burial of Richard Burnett near that of Pope when “a coffin in a very decayed state was discovered which an old inhabitant declared to be the coffin of Pope”, the roof of the coffin said to be “strewn with ashes, a ceremony customary with Roman Catholics.”  This account (from a letter in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 10 July 1826) suggests that the coffin had not been moved previously as the ashes were still in place


A letter of 1927 is in St Mary’s archives from Sir Arthur Keith, Professor of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, to Dr J.R. Leeson, local G.P. and Charter Mayor of Twickenham, enquiring about the possible removal of Pope’s skull in 1818 and its use by the phrenologist, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim. It had come later into the keeping of Mr E.W. Wetherell, who presented it to the Royal College of Surgeons’ Museum. Keith concluded that “it is impossible to harmonise the profile of the skull with the facial outline of authentic busts and drawings of Pope’s head”. He considered that it looked “intensely feminine”, perhaps being in fact the skull of Pope’s mother who died aged 93, eleven years before her son.


In 1957 the Vicar, Rev. John Davies, wrote an article in the Richmond and Twickenham Times about the story, which prompted Professor A.J.E. Cave of the Department of Anatomy, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College, to write a letter saying “the whole affair is full of uncertainties. It is always possible that the Vicar of the time was deceived by unscrupulous phrenologists, a pest of the century, but it is equally possible that phrenologists themselves were the dupes of their agents. Much of the history seems to have been no more than hearsay” and “it is most extraordinary that this relic was never catalogued and was unknown to me during my College (of Surgeons) years. It might have been destroyed with so many other crania during the war, but it was not among those transferred to the British Museum. I think it highly likely, at the least, that Pope’s skull never left Twickenham Church”.


Anthony Beckles Willson’s own final view was that “It is to be hoped that beneath this stone Alexander can remain at rest undisturbed, protected for all time from any further archaeological curiosity or intervention, whatever the nature of future work in St Mary’s Church”.


(Photographs Christopher Williams)



The memorial to Pope’s parents erected by him with a space left for the later insertion of et sibi, i.e. for himself . He had not wanted there to be a grand memorial to himself but after his death others took the matter into their own hands!


In 1761 William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, a friend and admirer of Pope, arranged for this memorial to be installed in the north gallery. See The memorials and ledgerstones, Anthony Beckles Willson, 2015.



The memorial erected by Pope to his nurse is situated on the exterior north-east wall of the church



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