Playwright and Wunderkind Christopher Marlowe and his short life, ended as mysteriously as it was lived. Philip Rowe of the History of European Theatre podcasts is here to tell you more – and let you know about his podcast
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The Strange Life and death of Christopher Marlow
Hello everyone. My name is Philip and I produce The History of European Theatre Podcast, a more or less chronological history of the development of theatre. Theatre had its formal start in the crucible of the Theatre of Dionysus in ancient Athens some three millennia ago and it hasn’t stopped developing since. By looking at the plays and the people who created then, the theatres and other performance spaces, and the people who came to see plays and the society they lived in I believe we can get a better understanding of what the theatrical art meant to people, how it was changed by them and how, at some very special moments, it changed then. That is my grand aim for the podcast.
So far I have discussed the ancient Greeks with their love of dark, brooding tragedy, bloody revenge and fickle gods. Those original tragedies have influenced theatre and storytelling ever since and the poets of that age, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides still tower over western culture. I have covered the sharp social satires and comedies by Aristophanes and Menander, written in the days when democracy was getting established and there was no concern for the niceties of slander and libel laws. Currently the Romans are centre stage as I follow how theatre survived and then thrived against the other, better known, popular Roman entertainments in the Circus and at the games. Coming up in my third season will be how drama survived the fall of the Roman Empire and developed in the Medieval period. So if you have an interest in theatre and some history please do come and join me at The History Of European Theatre Podcast.
For now I have shifted my gaze to Elizabethan England, one of the most exciting times in the history of Theatre, but not as you might expect to Shakespeare, but to his contemporary Christopher Marlow. The story of his short life and mysterious death gives us a fascinating glimpse into the highest and lowest elements of Elizabethan society and the way in which that society was changing, changes that were driven by religion, education, and not a little ambition.
- Introduction: A portrait of Kit Marlow
You have probably heard of Christopher Marlow, perhaps in the shortened form Kit Marlow, in the Elizabethan way. If you have then you probably only know two things about him – that he was a playwright, but not as well-known as Shakespeare, and that he was killed in a tavern brawl. If you know a little more it is probably that there is a portrait of him. At least some of that is true.
He was a playwright, but in his time regarded by many as something of a wunderkind and way ahead of the fledgeling Shakespeare. He was killed at a young age in mysterious circumstances, but it was not in a tavern or a street brawl as some later stories retold. There is a portrait that is said to be of him and there is a good chance that it is, but we can’t be certain. That painting was discovered in 1953 in a pile of junk in the master’s lodge of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Marlow was a student there from 1580 to 1587 and the painting carries an inscription suggesting the sitter is aged twenty-one and the year was 1585, so the dates fit. Having your portrait painted as a student was common practice, many of them from the period line the walls of the college to this day, but it was not an insignificant financial outlay and Marlow, the son of a shoemaker, was attending the college on a scholarship, so such expense seems a bit odd. In the picture the young man is wearing a sumptuous velvet doublet that surely would have broken the rules about wearing ‘excessive apparel’ that the poorer classes were subject to at the Elizabethan university.
So, there is much to suggest this isn’t Marlow and yet I can’t resist the idea that it is. His arms are folded, suggesting concealment and his eyes are focussed slightly to the left with a look of confidence, maybe even arrogance, that suggests this was a young man on the make. A man who thought he knew where he was going. It’s not evidence for sure and the Latin text on the painting doesn’t help. It says ‘that which feeds me destroys me’, which is so prescient that you have to think it was added later, however contemporary it looks. However, the fact that the painting was removed from public view and forgotten about works in favour of the idea that it is Marlow. Even before his death his reputation outside of his plays was not that good and the official version of the events around his death and the popular story that was generated only helped it to sink lower. It’s therefore quite plausible that the removal of the portrait was a cleansing act by the college master, erasing the memory of a fallen former student. The biggest surprise is perhaps that it was not destroyed completely.
Marlow’s short life and violent death were perhaps not typical of an Elizabethan life, but it does tell us a lot about Elizabethan society and how amongst the governing class politics, religion and deception went hand in hand. And how does playwright and shoemaker’s son Kit Marlow fit into that? In answering that we also get a glimpse of the underbelly of Elizabethan society and an idea of how closely it was involved with the grandest people of the day.
In this case the best place to start is at the end of the story. The setting is Deptford, a town on the Thames outside the city of London. The date is Wednesday 30th May 1593.
- The death of a Playwright
Deptford was a thriving little place with shipbuilding and oyster netting providing most of the employment in the area. Lodging houses also proved a lucrative trade for some, especially in 1593 when the plague was raging in the city. In May alone that year there were two thousand recorded plague deaths in the city of London so the less crowded, fresher areas outside the walls were preferred by those who could afford it and arrange the move. The linear town of Deptford sitting between the river and open fields offered sanctuary from the miasma in the city where you could see people dying in the street, hear of friends dead before you knew they were ill and know that in houses in your own street your neighbour’s bodies could be rotting away unattended, denied even decent burial rites.
The official report by the coroner, completed two days after Marlow’s death, is in the public record and is brief and functional. The coroner in question was William Danby, coroner to the Royal Household. The stabbing would have been considered a fairly routine incident but for its location. The queen’s palace at Greenwich was only a mile away, placing the incident officially ‘within the verge’, a term that meant within 12 miles of the body of the queen, and as such Danby was obliged to handle the legal investigation. For the inquest a jury of sixteen local men were gathered at the site of the incident and the victim’s body was present.
As recounted by the coroner the events on the day of the incident were as follows. In the mid-morning four men met in a house in Deptford. They held private conversation in a room until midday where they then took some lunch. In the afternoon they walked in the garden of the house and continued their conversation away from the earshot of others. Later, about six o’clock, they came back to the room and took some supper. After eating Marlow laid on the only bed in the room while the other three men sat at the table on a bench. Then an argument started up about the quote ‘sum of pence owed’ for the food and drink, with Marlow and one of the other men Ingram Frizer exchanging quote ‘malicious words’. Frizer was sitting between his two companions, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, with his back to Marlow. As Marlow suddenly leapt from the bed Frizer was unable to move, wedged as he was between his companions. Marlow grabbed Frizer’s dagger from his belt and hit him around the head with it. The coroner notes two slashing flesh wounds more than two inches long and half an inch deep on Frizer’s head. The implication is that these wounds were inflicted with the pummel of the dagger, not the blade, so intended to hurt, not kill. Frizer, according to this account, tried to defend himself but was still hampered by the bulk of Skeres and Poley on either side. In the words of the inquest:
‘And so, it befell in that affray, that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of twelve pence, gave the said Christopher a mortal wound above his right eye, of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch’
The coroners final note is that Marlow died instantly. A dagger through the eye and into the brain tends to have that effect.
Frizer, Skeres and Poley did not flee the scene and were present at the inquest. A murderer could be sure of the death penalty in Elizabethan England, unless self-defence could be proved. The fact that all three stayed to be arrested suggests that they were confident that they could prove self-defence. With two witnesses this was probably a safe enough bet. Any investigation of the circumstances of a crime was not primarily evidenced based at the time but would have given weight to the evidence of those present as the events unfolded.
The jury came to the almost inevitable conclusion that Frizer had killed Marlow in self-defence. Marlow’s body was buried in an unmarked grave in the local churchyard later the same day. Hopefully some of his London based friends had heard the news and were present at his internment. Frizer was held in prison until the formal wheels turned and the conclusion of the inquest was confirmed. At the end of June, a formal pardon was issued by the queen on the basis of self-defence and Frizer was a free man.
And to the Elizabethan eye that was that. An event not so strange in the boisterous and sometimes brutal world of the young man about town. And if there were such a thing as an investigative journalist in Elizabethan London, they would have uncovered a previous knife fight incident involving Marlow that took place not so long ago. He might have been called a hothead, some might even hint at rumoured unnatural practices, some at his Catholic sympathies, but they would have been repeating hearsay and inuendo. His recent success as a playwright didn’t put him in high regard either. Records pertaining to him refer to him as a scholar, not a playwright.
We have to remember that the modern theatre was only just establishing itself. The first theatre, The Red Lion, was built in Whitechapel just east of the city of London in 1567. At the time Whitechapel was mostly open farmland and the theatre, however purpose built, was little more than a high stage with trap doors, a tower, and an enclosing wall, set in a field. Although it seems it was commercially successful it was away from the city and probably struggled to attract a winter audience when similar entertainment could be seen in the slightly more comfortable setting of the courtyard of Inns in the city, presented by the many troupes of travelling players.
The first permeant playhouse, simply called The Theatre, was built in Shoreditch in 1576. Laws to curb the plague forbade theatre buildings in the city, hence the construction of The Theatre outside the walls, even if the cheaper rents in Shoreditch were not enough of an attraction. Shoreditch was known for its gambling dens and brothels but became London’s first theatre district when The Curtain theatre was built nearby the following year. The Theatre had a turbulent history from the start thanks to constant disputes between its two owners until in 1598 they fell into a serious quarrel with their landlord. Their solution was to dismantle The Theatre and use the timbers to build a new theatre on a site they had found next to the Thames near the old Bridewell Palace, then being used as an orphanage and home for fallen women. The site was still outside of the city, in an area with a not dissimilar reputation to Shoreditch. They named their reconstructed theatre The Globe.
The story of the early Elizabethan theatres is a fascination one that I will be covering on The History of European Theatre Podcast, when I get to that period, but for now, in the story of Marlow it just serves to show how young the established, permanent theatre was. Marlow’s first play, Dido Queen of Carthage, based on his first great literary love, Ovid, was written sometime between 1584 and 1587, with his much more successful efforts coming hard on its heels. The dates are a little uncertain but there was ‘Tamburlaine’ in about 1587 and, due to its popularity, a hastily written sequel in 1588. Then ‘The Jew of Malta’ in 1589, ‘Dr Faustus’ in 1591, ‘Edward 2nd’ in 1592 and ‘The Massacre of Paris’ in 1593. The first play, Dido Queen of Carthage, which was co-written with Thomas Nashe, was first performed by the Children of The Chapel, a troupe of boy actors. All the subsequent plays are recorded with performances at the growing number of London theatres in the years before his death and after. However, playwrighting was not considered a profession and theatre generally battled a reputation that was conflated with the lowest rungs of Elizabethan society in stark contrast to the high-flown ambitions of the best of the playwrights. Marlow was certainly one of those, credited as he is with being the turning point of Elizabethan drama by introducing blank verse, intricate plots and nuanced characters with psychological depth. But this playwright is a slippery character to get hold of. How can this scholarly, thoughtful young genius be reconciled with the manner of his death and the other accusations levelled against him? My imagined journalist would only have had to scratch the surface to get a feeling that something was going on there and if we just keep digging, we might find the sort of story that sells a few newspapers.
- The Friends You Keep
Even in the bland coroners account there is an air of mystery. The behaviour of Marlow and his companions is furtive. The question of what this group of men were doing on that day is not addressed, not even asked, at the inquest. Doesn’t it seem strange that Frizer was arguing with Marlow while seated with his companions? It seems that such questions were an irrelevance to the matter as far as the coroner was concerned, but the value of the murder weapon was somehow significant. So, who were Marlow’s companions? Forensic work in the national archives by biographers and scholars in the subsequent years have given us some answers, even if sometimes they have to be teased out of obscure records. If we are looking for some indication of the character of the witnesses, then an incident involving Skeres and Frizer at exactly the same time is interesting.
The two were involved in a money lending scheme that bordered on the fraudulent. In 1572 the statute of usury fixed interest rates on loans at a maximum of 10%. To get around this a lender would not lend money, but some goods that the recipient could then sell on. These schemes were common and not strictly illegal, but they did rely on the desperation or gullibility of those in need of some money. In this case Skeres was approached by a friend for a loan but claiming to have no spare cash he introduced him to Frizer. He also said he had no ready money to spare but had a number of guns that he had stored on Tower Hill and were ready for sale, valued at £60. The young friend of Skeres’ signed a bond for £60 and shook hands on the deal. Conveniently, Frizer also offered to find a buyer for the guns, which he did, but then said they had only realised £30. So now Frizer had loaned £30 and had a signed bond for £60 – a nice 100% interest rate and he quite probably still had the guns as well! Skeres then persuaded the friend to help him out with a smaller debt to Frizer of £4, and he signed a bond for this. In an attempt to get himself out of this increasing debt the young man then borrowed £200 from a ‘gent of good worship’. The new debt was of a type that allowed for any default to chased and paid for by seizure of the debtor’s goods.
So now we can see Skeres and Frizer in a less than favourable light and it’s clear that they were in a sort of business relationship and well known to each other. No surprise then that they backed each other up when describing events around the death of Marlow. In addition, that ‘gent of good worship’, who was no doubt recommended to the unfortunate friend by Skeres or Frizer, was Thomas Walsingham, cousin of the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. Frizer was in the employ of Thomas at the time and Thomas was also a patron of Marlow, who had been at his house in the weeks before his death. All of a sudden, we can see connections that were not addressed at the inquest. The role of Skeres in this case seems subservient to Frizer, but he had history too. There is a possible mention of him as a fencer of stolen goods and with more certainty as a law student he was caught in a similar loan scam and only just avoided censure for it. That incident puts him in the company of Mathew Roydon, a law student and poet and Roydon was a close associate of Marlow, so it seems that Skeres, budding crook, also moved on the fringes of the London literary set.
We know Marlow was at the home of Thomas Walsingham in May 1593 because on the 18th the Privy Council issued a warrant for him to appear before them and they sent a Queen’s messenger to collect him from the Walsingham house in Kent. Two days later the council records show that he appeared as requested, was given bail and instructed to be available for daily attendance, if requested.
The council’s interest in Marlow had been bubbling away for some time. It was not his fame as a dramatist that interested them, but his reputation as an outspoken atheist. Comments on his views had already appeared in print and were about the be enlarged on by government informers and others, most notably his former roommate and fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd.
The late 1580s and early 1590s were a fractious and worrying time in London. Not only were there regular visitations of the plague that exacerbated unemployment and inflation at home, but abroad the war in the Low Countries was dragging on and the threat from Spain was ever present. In oft repeated fashion the blame for the hard times was lobbed at London’s immigrant community that had recently grown thanks to the unrest on the continent. They still only made up about 2% of the city population but were concentrated in particular areas and perceived by struggling merchants and shopkeepers as the cause of their problems. On the other hand, the government saw them as genuine refugees, bolstering the protestant ranks in the London population and then Parliament voted to extend their resident alien privileges. There was only one dissenting voice in that debate, the voice of Sir Walter Raleigh – and that is not the last time he comes into this story. The populace were not pleased and at Easter 1593 a placard calling for apprentices to rise up against the immigrants was nailed up. Others followed and the threat of violence unrest was taken so seriously that a commission, including two of Sir Francis Walsingham’s agents, was set up to determine the authorship of the incendiary placards.
On the 5th May another placard appeared, this time in Broad Street on the wall of the Dutch Churchyard. The content was a comic but vitriolic poem with a catchy last couple of lines – the kind of thing that could be turned into a chant at a demonstration. It was signed ‘Tamburlaine’. That, and lines in the poem that referred to ‘Machiavellian Merchants’ and ‘Like the Jews you eat all the bread’ brought Marlow’s well-known play and the recent ‘Jew Of Malta’ into the minds of the commission. A reference to the Paris massacre, where French Protestants had been slaughtered less than a year earlier and which Marlow had brought to the stage in lurid fashion, sealed the privy council’s interest. It seemed to point to Marlow being the author, but he was not their only concern. A wide-ranging edict was issued authorising for any suspects to be rounded up, have papers seized and be questioned. If necessary, such questioning could include the use torture.
It’s not clear why Thomas Kyd was targeted and picked up. He was known for his play ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ and the connection to Marlow may just have been enough of an excuse. No other details suggest he held controversial views, but he was charged as author of the Dutch Churchyard poem. In later letters he told of how he was tortured and subjected to quote “many sufferings”. Later he believed that he was the victim of an informer. Under torture he protested that he was true to the queen and would tell all he knew about the unrest, if he knew anything, but he did not. While under interrogation Kyd’s papers were reviewed and amongst them was found a three-page handwritten document that Kyd described as fragments of a disputation, authored by Marlow. The council saw them as writings that denied the divinity of Christ and Marlow’s name had come up again. At the time the council saw such views at atheistic, a serious charge, whereas later scholars now think they were actually quotations from an earlier work that was arguing against the unitarian heresy that denied the trinity. In the course of that repudiation large parts of the original heresy are quoted. Kyd protested that they were Marlow’s papers that had become mixed with his and he was believed.
Perhaps someone on the council remembered that Marlow had been accused of atheistic views a few years before in a pamphlet penned by Robert Greene as he was dying. Greene is now best remembered for his jibe at Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ but was a well-known essayist, playwright and poet in his day. In any event the council dug into Marlow further and called on professional informer Richard Chomeley for evidence. He is quoted as saying that Marlow
‘…is able to show more sound reasons for atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity…’
and that Marlow had read such atheistic tracts to Sir Walter Raleigh in the company of others. Kyd then added to this picture, perhaps picking up on what his interrogators wanted to hear, saying Marlow was always happy to argue about God’s divinity and the human failings of Christ. That was enough for the council to call for Marlow’s presence before them.
As Marlow waited in London another government informer, Richard Baines, wrote a report on Marlow for the council which painted a picture of Marlow as a man only too willing to broadcast his heretical thoughts, concluding that quote ‘so dangerous a mouth should be stopped’.
So why were these government informers interested in painting Marlow in such a bad light?
- Plots and Counter Plots
To get to that question we have to understand something about the period in general and Marlow’s lifetime, short as it was, is a useful focus in this respect. He was born in February 1564, just two months before William Shakespeare – they were actually baptised on the same day. Elizabeth was only five and a half years into her reign but had moved quickly to reverse the religious policies of her half-sister, whose attempts to bring the country back to Catholicism earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Elizabeth espoused tolerance while establishing the Church of England with the act of uniformity in the first full year of her reign. Tolerance meant she realised that there were powerful noble families, especially in the midlands of England, who still held deep seated feelings for the Catholic cause. She tried to balance this with the Protestantism that she encouraged, which was of a Calvinistic bent, not quite the puritanism of later years, but unforgiving, nevertheless.
Attending church of Sunday was obligatory and failure to do so could result in fines and social stigma. Catholic priests were still hunted and tried and executed if caught, their promotion of the Catholic religion being an act of treason under the Elizabethan regime where politics and religion were closely intertwined. For many the conversion to Protestantism was a show and private Catholic masses were held in secret. The problem for the Catholic was that the persecution and therefore shortage of priests meant that they could not practice their faith fully and when they could it was at huge personal risk to all concerned.
And just to think for a moment on what this meant for the ordinary people. Under Elizabeth’s father, Henry 8th they had gone willingly or been persuaded, cajoled and forced into the new Protestant religion focussed mainly on the break from Rome. That had been maintained in the short reign of his son Edward and the even shorter reign of his chosen successor Lady Jane Grey, but supressed with vigour by Mary, when the population was commanded to return to the Catholic fold. Elizabeth’s reversal of all that Mary stood for was expected, but at the time who could be sure it would last? No one knew Elizabeth would reign for nearly fifty years and given events since the death of Henry all bets for any such longevity must have been off. Who could say that in a few years’ time all of this wouldn’t be reversed again, perhaps when the country was under the rule of France or Spain? For the vast majority of the population compliance in body if not in mind was the order of the day with the increasingly theological arguments about the nature of English Protestantism being of little concern to them. For most the overriding concern of life was where the next meal was coming from, or how good the harvest would be this year, not what flavour of God you worshipped. These were turbulent years when what you thought and believed could cost you your liberty and even your life.
In the uncertain times of the transfer of power to the new monarch and particularly at that time with a woman as head of state, it’s perhaps no surprise that it was a time of deep suspicion. Oh, and there was always the threat of plague every summer. Plague that could take your loved ones off with no notice and decimate families, streets, even towns and villages in a few short weeks. That, of course, was interpreted as retribution from God for some lack of piety and the population was exhorted to double down on their religious observance to keep the pestilence from their doors.
- Marlow’s early life
It was in that milieux that Christopher’s father, John, had come to Canterbury from Kent, searching to be engaged as an apprentice to a shoemaker. He arrived at a town in a state of trauma. As the seat of the religious head of the Church in England Canterbury had taken the brunt of religious reforms and counter-reforms. Henry had trashed the shrine of Thomas a Beckett and closed the Abbeys. Mary had burnt protestants in the city with enthusiasm, and disease was always present. Plague and influenza had reduced many city populations so much in recent years that rules on the movement of apprentices were relaxed. Marlow senior may have chosen Canterbury just as a religious centre, or maybe because there were distant relations in the area. Marlow and its variants were common names in those parts and relations, however distant, might provide a local support network for those living in a state close to poverty.
Having established himself as apprentice to a shoemaker he found his acceptance to the guild accelerated when his master died of the plague four years later. He had married and his wife Katherine bore children every couple of years for the next decade and a half. The expanding family somehow scraped by. There are local court records showing John was involved in chasing debts and was being chased for debt, but they kept their heads above water one way and another with the grind of daily work and child rearing broken only by the grief of children who died at alarmingly frequent intervals. By the age of four all Christopher’s older siblings had died and he was the only boy in the family.
Marlow senior only ever employed one apprentice, who did not last long, suggesting either that his business was not thriving or that he was a difficult boss, maybe both. He started to take on legal clerical work to supplement his income, acting as a scribe and witness to legal matters. There was a growing trade in lower-level legal practice as the growing sub-class of literate craftsmen turned to the law for satisfaction more and more and John now had good reason and enough ambition to make sure his only surviving son had a good education.
Christopher would have started that process in the local school aged six and learnt the basics of reading and writing. Schools like his were housed in whatever suitable building was available and most likely taught by the local parish priest. Learning was by rote and based on a syllabus established by Henry 8th and confirmed by Elizabeth. The ABC focussed on alphabets, vowels and basic reading with other learning coming from a catechism and the book of private prayer. Following completion of the elementary school Marlow went to the local grammar school where some of his fees at least were paid in kind by his father. The headmaster seems to have had several arrangements with the fathers of his pupils to take part payment in the goods of their trade.
There, young Christopher studied Latin and more Grammar and Catechism, but now this was based on approved works of more recent authorship that avoided the Catholicism inherent in the elementary school primers that were written before the reformation. Marlow was in the first generation that used these new works focussed on Roman usage, so rather than the works of St Thomas Aquinas they introduced the young scholar to Cicero, Ovid and the comic plays of Terrence, which were preferred for their straightforward style of Latin. The students were expected to rote learn passages from classical literature, Latin verb forms and grammatical constructions, but not to think deeply about their content. The routine was both intense and probably mind-numbingly boring. It was designed to instil obedience, deference to those in authority and respect for elders and betters, but as a life like Marlow’s was to show this education for some at least resulted in the desired outward show of obedience, but it did not curtail free thought entirely.
By the fifth form the students were learning the principles of Roman oratory and poetry, taking their models from Ovid, Cicero, and Virgil with poetry being part of the teaching of grammar and oratory teaching the basics of constructing and responding to an argument. Marlow’s school in Canterbury had a tradition of sending the best pupils to Oxford or Cambridge university, where these basic skills for learning were considered essential.
In 1580 Marlow went to Cambridge on a Parker scholarship. This had been established by Archbishop Parker some years earlier and supported three years of the four-year BA course. He left Canterbury in December, making the seventy-mile journey in about three days by hitching rides on farm and merchants’ vehicles from town to town. His lodgings were in the college quadrangle along with the master’s lodge, hall, kitchens and the buttery. It is the buttery records of eating expenses that give us the pattern of Marlow’s behaviours at college. He had arrived at university early, probably to try to get ahead with learning and had not yet received his allowance for attendance under the scholarship. His first meal cost him a frugal one penny, but later in the month he was spending three shillings a week on food and drink. It’s not clear how he funded this, but one suggestion is that he was one of the many students who assisted workmen building the new college chapel.
The college regime was rigorous. Early prayers six days a week were followed by lectures on logic and philosophy. In the afternoon Greek grammar and translation was followed by rhetoric and training in the construction and defence of a thesis. Lectures and lessons went on well into the evenings. As his degree studies progressed the focus became more on disputation and argument, culminating in an exam period where four disputations had to be performed in front of examiners.
Marlow achieved his BA in the middle ranks of his year, which may have had more to do with his social class than his skills, but it did open the option of continuing to study for an MA degree under the scholarship programme. But there was a glitch. Initially the award of Marlow’s degree was withheld by the college authorities. During his BA Marlow’s attendance records shows some gapes. This was not unusual in itself; scholars often took time out from studies for financial or other reasons and were allowed to return as long as they had proof from a suitable person that they had continued to study during their absence from college. Marlow was away for several weeks in the summer of 1585 and the spring of 1586 and these absences appear to have resulted in his name being mentioned to the Privy Council.
The Master at Cambridge had learned of a rumour that Marlow was ‘determined to go beyond the seas to Rheims’. This referred to the English College at Rheims that was the centre of Catholic opposition to the English throne. It was the favoured destination of young Catholics as a place to complete their studies, receive ordination, and potentially to return to England as missionaries. It was also the place that gave birth to plots of more direct action on the state and the queen herself. To be labelled as ‘going to Rheims’ was a serious charge. It seems that it was this rumour that held up the awarding of Marlow’s degree. It’s not clear how the involvement of the council was requested, but presumably it came from Marlow himself or his handler. The issue was resolved when the council informed the master that Marlow quote ‘had done her majesty good service in matters touching the benefit of the country’ and that he had never intended to remain on the continent. That overt message, the increased spending on his return to college and the company he kept post-graduation all suggest that the theory that he was involved in some clandestine work for the government that paid well is a sound one.
Monitoring the college at Rheims and other expatriate Catholics was considered essential work for the government of the time. There was, after all, real threats from Spain and France and papal bulls that were being interoperated as giving permission for regicide if it led to the restoration of the Catholic faith in England. Elizabeth had established the first English secret service under Sir Francis Walsingham and records show its budget increased year on year as agents and handlers were sent to the continent and into the great houses of Catholic families at home. In addition, the great men of state, Lords Essex, Burghley, Raleigh and others ran their own networks of informers and spies to varying degrees. Mary, the queen’s cousin, was a serious rival to the throne. She was held under house arrest since fleeing to England from Scotland, but was still the centre of plots against Elisabeth, intentionally or otherwise and Walsingham was determined to see her removed.
A young, educated man who could be plausibly presented on the continent as a sympathetic Catholic could be very useful as a plant to entice information out of those engaged in plotting against the queen. What results from the official records is a very confused picture where operatives worked on the edge of the law, sometimes without explicit authority for the actions they took, so who was the genuine Catholic plotting against the state and who was a spy working to undermine those plans becomes very confusing, to our view at least and probably at the time too.
And it is at the college in Rheims that we find Richard Baines, the informer who would later corroborate the view that Marlow was an outspoken atheist. Baines had entered the college in 1579 after completing an MA at Cambridge. His time at Rheims coincided with a period where the Privy Council had asked for the entire college to be expelled. The king of France had refused and it’s likely that a more covert strategy was devised as a result. Baines was eventually uncovered as a spy and under torture declared that he had only turned against the college during his studies there, but letters in the records suggest he was in touch with Walsingham from early on, so it seems likely he was sent to infiltrate the college. The confession Baines made is on the record and the various doctrines he rails against, confirming what his captors wanted to hear about his non-conforming sentiments, bear a striking similarity to the views he ascribes to Marlow a few years later. Once the college had a confession Baines was of little further use. The text in Latin was printed and copies smuggled into England to bolster the Catholic cause against the monarchy. Baines was eventually freed to turn up again later as Marlow’s accuser.
Eventually Walsingham’s infiltration of the Catholic networks on the continent paid off. His spies got wind of a plan to assassinate the queen. A missionary cleric, John Ballard, living disguised in London as a returned soldier visited Yorkshire and got acquainted with Anthony Babington, scion of a committed northern Catholic family and gathered support from him and other like-minded locals. Unfortunately for all concerned one of these locals, Bernard Maude, was working for Walsingham so when Ballard needed a passport to return to France Maude was able to supply it, with Walsingham happy to let the conspiracy grow and capture as many Papist traitors as possible when the time came. It seems clear that Walsingham’s intent was to let the plot run until Mary was implicated so that the threat of her presence could be permanently removed. Ballard returned from the continent with an exaggerated report of support for a plan to free Mary and raise the English Catholics in rebellion.
Babington was persuaded to lead the plot, but keen as he was in his faith, he was more reluctant when it came to regicide. He stalled and then decided he needed to go abroad to confirm the support being offered. To do this he needed a passport authorised by the Queen and to get that he needed the support of someone at court. He turned to Robert Poley, who was officially employed by Walsingham’s daughter. Poley encouraged him and in a rush of enthusiasm Babington foolishly wrote to Mary with details of the plot. The letter was intercepted, and Walsingham’s trap was sprung. The Babington Plot led directly to the trial and execution of Mary.
- Essex and Raleigh
This is the world of espionage, plot and counter plot, and exaggerated and manufactured fear and uncertainty that it is thought Marlow became involved with. A university man with some catholic background was an obvious choice for some undercover work. They had some level of skill with language and were trained to be quick thinking in an argument. An approach to a poor student with an offer of decent payment for some time out from study and travel was, we can imagine, very enticing.
In April 1590 Francis Walsingham died, leaving a power vacuum within government, and in the intelligence service in particular. Candidates to take Walsingham’s position and establish or reinforce a closeness with the queen jockeyed for position. Lord Burghley, the elder statesman was a strong candidate, with the work being done by his younger son Robert Cecil. The Earl of Essex, representing the younger faction and already in control of a large intelligence network also fancied the position, as did Sir Thomas Heneage, Vice Chamberlin and Walsingham’s former number two. The names of Poley, Skeres and others turn up as they try to establish allegiances and work for new potential employers. About the same time the focus of intelligence work was moving from France to the Low Countries, feeding off the ongoing military campaign there.
A letter discovered as late as 1976 shows that Marlow was in Vlissingen, then the English possession of Flushing, in 1592. The details are never as clear as we would like, but it’s possible that Marlow was there and roomed with Richard Baines, the spy from the episode in the college at Rhimes. As Baines told it to the authorities Marlow had persuaded a goldsmith, Gilbert, to counterfeit coins and was planning to defect to the catholic side. Under arrest Marlow protested that he was only testing the goldsmith’s skills and accused Baines as being equally involved. The three are transported back to England, but only Marlow and Gilbert were prisoners. Marlow was interviewed by Lord Burghley. Counterfeiting was a treasonable offence and Burghley treated these matters harshly – the death penalty could be expected. We don’t have the detail of their conversation, but Marlow was freed without censure. What that implies is that either he was in the low countries on government work for Burghley or A N Other, or Burghley saw him as a useful man to have in his debt. Unfortunately, we will probably never untangle to plays and counter-plays in this shady world.
There is one other significant relationship that feeds into Marlow’s story. Sir Walter Raleigh was certainly known to Marlow as a fellow poet at least. Marlow directly replies to a Raleigh poem in one of his own and they shared many friends in the literary set. Those who later accuse Marlow over his apparent atheism place him in Raleigh’s company, as part of his circle, and reading atheist tracts to him in the company of others. As this was expected to be believed we can assume there was some sort of known association. Raleigh was known for his unconventional views on religious freedoms and had been accused of atheism by others. He was also known to be interested in the occult and had entertained magicians and mystics at his home. By this time, he was no longer the queen’s favourite, having married one of her ladies in waiting without permission and they had spent a spell in the tower of London for their trouble. After their release he returned to public life, not at court but as a member of parliament in 1593. So he was still a political operator at a high level, but his star had waned, and he was disliked by the likes of Essex and Burghley.
When parliament debated the extension on immigrant rights it was only Raleigh who stood up in descent as the body of parliament approved the motion. Placards calling for insurrection were then posted in the city and as the authorities investigated, Kyd’s papers implicated Marlow and bring the question of atheism to the fore. Baines, Kyd, Chomley and others then build on that concern and mention the connection to Raleigh, possibly at the prompting of their interrogators working for the council, but possibly also for Essex or Burghley, both in the anti-Raleigh camp. After Marlow’s death Chomley was arrested and there are letters from Essex to various of his supporters thanking them for interceding for Chomley’s release. It seems unequivocal that Chomley was an Essex man.
There is little or no firm evidence, but it has been suggested that what we can see there is the building of a case against Raleigh based on suspicion and inuendo – and in the circle of the Elizabethan court that was all that was needed sometimes to bring a rival down. By playing up Raleigh’s propertied atheism and linking that with an interest in the occult at the very least he might be forced further out of the Queen’s orbit and away from meaningful power and at best he may end up out of the picture permanently, sans head. Marlow may have been a pawn in this great game of the Elizabethan lords, councillors and spymasters.
So, can we draw firm conclusions about the circumstances of Marlow’s death from this patchwork of information, half-truths and outright lies? In all honestly probably not. Al least nothing absolutely conclusive.
Firstly, it is quite possible that he was killed in a fight over a bill for food and drink. Perhaps there had been more drinking during that day than was admitted at the inquest and tempers got heated because of some perceived unfairness in the division of the costs, or some other personal matter between these men. It’s possible, but that explanation leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
The alternative possibility presented through the tireless study of obscure Elizabethan records by scholars to whom we owe much is that these men were known to each other through the Elizabethan spy networks. It is suggested as probable that they met that day to persuade Marlow to assist in their plans, which were probably plans to discredit Walter Raleigh and force him out of any power. If the plan had been for Marlow to take the blame for the Dutch church placards and to take Raleigh down with him, then something had gone wrong, or looked like it was about to go wrong. The men he was with were Essex men, so was it that Essex was concerned he was about to become implicated in a plot, or that his men thought this was likely? One suggestion is that it was Chomley, working for Essex, who wrote the Dutch churchyard poem that drew Marlow firmly into the conspiracy.
If, after the day long discussions, Marlow remained unpersuaded to help, perhaps because of commitments made to Burghley, and this was going to go badly for Essex, is it possible that the men had instruction from Essex to tie up this loose end permanently, or maybe that was their decision as the day progressed? Perhaps there is a combination of truths here where frustration with Marlow boiled over and in the heat of the moment the dagger worth twelve pence was drawn and thrust into Marlow’s eye. Men like Poley and Frizer were undoubtedly experienced and ruthless and quite capable of such an act and Essex would certainly be looking for plausible deniability if his involvement in such sordid business ever became known.
There may be other explanations too. As we were not in the room we will never know for sure and this tale, interesting as it is, is not the reason we should or do remember Marlow. We remember him as a poet and playwright and the manner and reasons for his death are merely footnotes. What is important is the plays. Tamburlaine, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta and the Massacre at Paris stand up in their own right some four hundred years later. Next time you fancy some Elizabethan drama, don’t just think of Shakespeare, try a Marlow, but go with a strong stomach, his plays are visceral and hard hitting, but they do also have moments of beautiful poetry and striking imagery. Maybe they are not quite as clever and diverse and as beautifully crafted as Shakespeare, but the great man did acknowledge his debt to Marlow.
In summer 1599, six years after Marlow’s death, the Bishop of London publicly burnt copies of Marlow’s translations of Ovid’s Elegies. Shakespeare was writing As You Like It at the time and it seems that the event reminded him of his predecessor and their connection through Ovid. Shakespeare included the couplet in his play:
‘Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of night
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?’
This quotes a well-known Marlow poem, making Marlow the dead shepherd, who’s saying ‘Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight’ is now understood. Later in the play Touchstone, the fool, says:
‘When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with that forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room’
The ‘reckoning in a little room’ not only echoes a line in the Jew Of Malta but directly references the wording of the coroner’s report into Marlow’s death. As ever with Shakespeare there are layers of understanding and the reference will have passed over the heads of many in his audience without recognition, but for those with some knowledge of Marlow and the circumstances of his death it would have resonated. He was not forgotten by Shakespeare or his literary contemporises and the greatest playwright of the age, maybe the greatest of all time, acknowledged his debt to Marlow the playwright, the poet, the spy in perhaps the most fitting way – hidden in a play.
My thanks to David for asking me to come on and share that story with you. Please do join us at The History of European Theatre Podcast to discover more about how the Roman playwrights and poets influenced the Elizabethan dramatists. As part of the Theatre Of Rome season I already have an episode out that looks particularly at how the works of Plautus, one of comic playwrights from towards the end of the Republican period, survived the end of antiquity and came to influence Shakespeare and other renaissance playwrights. If you fancy starting right at the beginning you can also find out about theatre in it’s very earliest forms, even before it got properly started in Ancient Greece, which is a history that involves animist rituals, mystic shaman, and Egyptian pageants. You can find us on Apple podcasts, Youtube, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts from. We are also on facebook and on twitter @THOETP. If you have any questions of comments you can also always find me by email on firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening and now I’ll hand you back to David.