Christopher Marlowe (26 February 1564 (baptized) – 30 May 1593) (Christofer Marley by his own signature) wrote the The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus the first major English Faust story, written as a play.
He was a major Elizabethan-era dramatist and poet; perversely the creator and master of “Shakespearean” blank verse. An intelligent, well-educated and combative young man, he has a reputation for being a contentious free-thinker at a time when having contrary opinions could get a prominent person imprisoned and executed for treason.
“I count religion but a childish toy and hold there is no sin but ignorance.”
The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe
He was variously accused of liking grown men and little boys, of being an atheist, a spy, a traitor, and a heretic. His scandalous reputation denied him the literary immortality he was entitled to for hundreds of years.
He was, they had said, killed at the age of twenty-nine in a drunken brawl in a tavern by a servant over some woman. At least that’s what they said for centuries. It was only relatively recently that more of the story came out. Now some say that he was extra-judicially executed or that his murder was staged and that he lived on to write plays under the name “Shakespeare.”
Christopher Marlowe was born and raised in Canterbury, England. His father was a shoemaker. Although the family was poor, Marlowe ascended to a Masters degree at Cambridge on a scholarship endowed from the estate of the former Archbishop Parker, presumably being thought sufficiently morally and religiously fit and promising at the time.
As a boy, Marlowe received a scholarship to attend the King’s School in Canterbury, and then a scholarship sponsored by the past Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, to study divinity at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584 at the age of 20, and then his Masters degree in July 1587 when he was 23.
While reading at Cambridge he translated Greek and Latin poetry, including Ovid’s erotic poetry. Around this time he probably wrote the romantic poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” which provoked a charming response poem ostensibly by Sir Walter Raleigh entitled “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.”
During his Masters years Marlowe had some well-documented lengthy absences from school.
One of his absences correspond to the appearance of Giordano Bruno at Oxford, and people like to think that he went there to see and hear the great astronomer, philosopher, and doomed heretic lecture. Some absences correspond to family visits.
Other absences led to rumours that he had secretly (and treasonously) gone over to the English School (then at Rheims, France) to convert to Catholicism. Because Catholicism was outlawed in England (but was still home to many faithful Catholics), the English School was set up in France by the Catholic Church to train English priests, many of whom were infiltrated back into England as spies and subversives, tending to Catholics and converting Protestants.
Going to the Catholics was a serious act of treason. The Pope had said that the Queen was illegitimate and that no Catholic should obey her or suffer her to remain on the throne on pain of excommunication. Logically, Catholicism (particularly among the ruling class) was equivalent to treason.
Such absences amid rumours of Catholicism may have inclined the college toward withholding his Masters degree because there is a note from the Queen’s Privy Council explaining that Marlowe had been away working on the nation’s business and that rumours of going over were not just false, they were unfair.
This letter has invited historians to speculate about what kind of business it was that Marlowe was engaged in. A popular and not unreasonable suspicion is that it was some sort of espionage-related duty for the government. This speculation was reinforced in the twentieth century with the discovery that all of the witnesses in the room with him when he was killed had strong ties to the secret service formed by Francis Walsingham. In fact, sometimes it seems like everyone Marlowe associated with had ties to the secret service.
Graduates to London
Apparently reassured by the Privy Council letter, the college awarded Christopher Marlowe his degree in 1587, and Marlowe moved to London to write several works which were performed around that time.
Around 1857 Marlowe wrote, co-wrote, or is presumed to have written: Tamburlaine, Tamburlaine II, The Massacre at Paris, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, Dido Queen of Carthage, and possibly Doctor Faustus, though that may have been written later. With Tamburlaine, Marlowe created the first play written in blank verse, and it was a sensation in London. However, while many of his works were performed in theatres during his lifetime, nothing unequivocally by Marlowe was published in Marlowe’s lifetime. Writers working to produce plays for theatres often collaborated and contributed to each other’s work, and not all works popularly attributed to famous writers are necessarily entirely by that author.
Marlowe was a member of an elite literary cadre of university educated playwrights, poets and writers of the era described as the University Wits. Together they shared not only their superior education, but their ability to mix among England’s upper ranks – and among England’s lowest ranks, too, making them well placed as potential spies.
Fights & Arrests
There are several records of arrest showing Marlowe had a combative side. One wonders how much of Marlowe’s work was written in jail.
Thomas Watson was a friend and mentor of Marlowe’s. Older than Marlowe, he was a well-regarded playwright himself. Watson had been in Paris with Thomas Walsingham, distant cousin to the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, when Sir Francis was ambassador there and Watson (or an associate of both Walsinghams, Nicholas Faunt) may have introduced Marlowe to espionage. Thomas Walsingham was also a friend and sponsor of Marlowe.
For a while, Marlowe lived in Norton Folgate, near Burbage’s playhouse The Theatre on Curtain Road in Shoreditch. Shoreditch was outside of the bounds of London at the time, and free of the ordinances of that community, was a place where the playhouses operated with less interference, but which in consequence was a notoriously rowdy and dissolute place.
In 1589 (18 Sept) Marlowe fought a William Bradley who owed money to the manager of The Theatre. This happened in Hog Lane, on the short walk between The Theatre and Marlowe’s dwelling at the time. While the fight began with Marlowe fighting Bradley, Thomas Watson then came along and a new fight broke out between Watson and Bradley. Bradley was killed by Watson’s sword, and Marlowe and Watson were both arrested and jailed. Marlowe was shortly released and after some time, Watson, who had claimed self-defence, was also released.
Then, less than three years later, in early May of 1592, Marlowe was arrested again for making “threats against constables” on Holywell St in Shoreditch, near the home of Burbage and the Admiral’s Men’s playhouse, The Theatre, just as or before the playhouses were closed due to an outbreak of the plague.
In September of 1592, home for the plague, Marlowe was arrested in his home-town of Canterbury accused of assaulting William Corkyn. Marlowe commenced a suit against Corkyn on the same charge, which was dismissed in October.
Counterfeiting & Arrest
About 1592, Marlowe, then around 27, was arrested in Holland/Netherlands in the company of two men, one a goldsmith named “Gifford Gilbert”, and the other, Richard Baines, Marlowe’s accomplice in what looked like an effort to learn how to counterfeit coins. According to governor Sir Robert Sidney, whose letter accompanied his prisoners back to England, the goldsmith, appeared to be innocent and was released, while the other two accused each other of crimes from intending to counterfeit to intending to go over to the Catholic side.
Less than innocent, Richard Baines was also a Walsingham man and the name of the innocent goldsmith “Gifford Gilbert” was similar to that of Gilbert Gifford (died 1590!) (and may have been a relative), a double or triple agent who had been instrumental in the uncovering of the Babington Plot to assassinate the Queen. At the time Baines and Marlowe were sharing rooms and Baines was working as a spy in the English College at Rheims, looking for Catholics plotting against England. The English probably had a lot of spies at the English College.
Were they two spies caught in each other’s web? Two spies being extricated and publicly returned to England with newly-minted notoriety and anti-governmental credentials? Or just two guys looking to make some extra money?
Neither of the participants in Flushing seem to have been prosecuted for anything once returned to England.
Ultimately no friend to Marlowe, Baines would go on to accuse him of a list of blasphemies in a letter to the Privy Council just days before Marlowe’s killing. At the time, Marlowe was under orders to present himself to the Privy Council daily.
Baines, a Rector under Whitgift since ’87, may have switched to spying for Essex’s private service before his informing on Marlowe. Essex (though later executed for treason) was the Queen’s favourite and Whitgift’s power was growing. It would be difficult to extricate Marlowe and protect Walter Raleigh.
School of Night
Marlowe is associated with a group of Elizabethan elites including Sir Walter Raleigh called (by others), the School of Atheism, now better known as the much more exotic-sounding School of Night. Atheism, not believing in God, implied one was without morals, and certainly meant one who could never be trusted.
Whether or not Marlowe with Raleigh and his friends met in secret and discussed forbidden topics, we don’t know. These were inquisitive times, and knowledge was power. Faust-like, some were thirsty for forbidden knowledge. People like Raleigh and his scientist friend Thomas Harriot were particularly inquisitive and particularly well-placed for the art and necessity of thinking-for-one’s-self and finding-out-for-one’s-self. In their jobs, it was a prerequisite and a responsibility, and this was true of Marlowe, too.
So we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that independently-minded like-minded men and women of the time would be in possession of literature that made the authorities nervous, or that they would seeks to find like-minded companions. Perhaps they considered themselves above the law, but a law that controls people’s speech and thought breaks the social covenant.
Christians believed all humans were born in sin and required God’s moral guidance to progress in life. Atheists lacked faith and moral guidance, and they lacked a fear of Divine Judgement.
By the definition of the time, atheism had a broader meaning including tendencies that might lead to atheism. In the most prejudiced view, that could mean any views that differed from one’s own.
Would such people really be impressed by the Queen’s claim to a divine right to rule, or would they be like the Catholics and try to take over? Any concentration of power was a threat.
How many actual, literal atheists there were by modern standards of “atheism” is debatable. Presumably very, very few. For many, the idea was inconceivable and unlikely, but it made a dangerous insult and kept people in line. Powerful people like Walter Raleigh were always targets (for good reason), and their weaker associates were routes to them.
See also Thomas Kyd’s letters
In 1593 Marlowe’s friend, colleague and one-time roommate, Thomas Kyd was arrested on suspicion of heresy and Kyd’s rooms were searched. The reason for searching Kyd’s rooms was that tracts were being posted in London threatening foreign Protestants. References to Marlowe’s work were in the tract.
A document (“vile, heretical conceits denying the divinity of Jesus…”) was discovered which Kyd said (and Marlowe admitted) had belonged to Marlowe. The document may have been schoolwork left over from his Cambridge days.
Atheism was treason. The punishments for treason included hanging, drawing and quartering, which involved being dragged to a place of execution behind a horse, hanged until near death, and then having your intestines drawn out and your body cut into pieces. If they really didn’t like you, and you lived through the hanging, they’d let you watch the disembowelling part – so Marlowe might have been a bit nervous.
Marlowe was summoned before the Privy Council and was instructed to report to them every day until further notice. Marlowe was on a short rope. Possibly soon to be a literal one.
It wouldn’t have helped Marlowe’s situation that Richard Baines intruded (or was intruded by others) into Marlowe’s life again by the aforementioned letter delivered to the Privy Council accusing Marlowe of crimes and offences against the Queen and her religion. The Baines letter arrived on May 27th, a Sunday.
Perhaps it didn’t matter to Marlowe – just to his reputation – because he’d be dead in a few days.
But before we consider Marlowe’s passing – the giant in whose footsteps Shakespeare immediately stepped, we might also consider the passing of one of the Elizabethan era’s great satirists, the now mostly unknown Martin Marprelate (active 1588 and 1589).
“Martin Marprelate” was the pseudonym of the author of a series of Puritan tracts that nipped and bit at the Church’s heels for several years, ending in 1589. Who he was is not been known for sure, and Marlowe’s name has been speculated as at least an associate polemicist. But the connection in this story is the Welsh martyr, John Penry.
The business of printing was strictly controlled by the Church, so the Puritans used a clandestine movable press, hidden in various locations throughout the country to print out their polemics. The Pilgrim Press was operated by John Penry, who had once been imprisoned for complaining that there weren’t enough Bibles available to Welsh parishes. The agents of the dread nasty Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, closed in. The printing press on which both Penry and Martin Marprelate’s works had been printed was discovered in early 1590, but Penry vanished to Scotland.
After years of avoiding capture, John Penry was caught and arrested in March 1593. Tried on a slim pretext, he was convicted on the 21st of May and sentenced to death. Appeals were launched which gave some slim hope to his wife and four little daughters.
Then, suddenly, eight days later, on the last Tuesday of the month (by the Julian calendar), May 29, 1593, he was abruptly told to get ready, carted off to the place of execution and hanged. It was unexpected and unusual to rush a hanging like that, though the sympathies of the crowd in such a case were uncertain. Was John Whitgift anxious to ensure his devout Puritan printer wouldn’t be released?
Perhaps this was on Marlowe’s (and his associates’) mind when they rented meeting space at Eleanor Bull’s private house the next day, not more than four miles away. Penry was a puritan sympathizer and activist. Marlowe by accounts was inclined that way too.
They say John Penry’s body was not seen again, and no known marker exists for the body of the famous Welsh martyr. In the case of treason, the body of the executed person was at the King’s disposal.
The next day, Wednesday, May 30, 1593 (by the Julian Calendar), Marlowe was in a day-long meeting in a rented room at a private house in Deptford with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. According to the testimony of the three, uncovered in 1925 in the coroner’s report, there was a late afternoon argument about the bill and Marlowe attacked Ingram Frizer.
Marlowe grabbed the dagger of Ingram Frizer and struck him about the head with it. Frizer, defending himself, fought back and Marlowe was accidentally stabbed, pierced over the right eye (presumably through the socket). According to the testimony, Marlowe died instantly. Their argument about the bill is famously called “the reckoning.”
For the many students of Christopher Marlowe who believe Marlowe had been, or was in the Secret Service at the time, the fact that his companions that day were Secret Service/old Walsingham colleagues; that Marlowe had just been placed under probation by the Privy Council for suspicion of heresy; that he was killed in a house operated by a woman with likely connections to the Queen; and the fact that the inquest was done by the Queen’s own coroner, meant the official coroner’s explanation can be suspected of being incomplete.
There are theories about why the four had been meeting all day, and there’s a good chance what was mostly on Marlowe’s mind was that he was about to be charged with atheism and like Penry was going to be thrown in prison and quickly hanged; or even worse, slowly hanged. Marlowe’s companions might have been worried about what he would say or write to get out of it.
Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was murder. You’d like to think professionals don’t have accidents, but surely that’s not true. As it was, Marlowe was a known brawler, and Frizer was known to be particular with money. It’s entirely possible that Frizer the tired, drunken loan shark pissed off Marlowe the tired, drunken hothead, or it might have been the other way around.
Even if it was an accident, they might have had a lack of remorse about it. If he really was anything like the fey, gay, godless reprobate, heretic, and traitor he’s been accused of being, or the arrogant-but-seductive dreamy-eyed poet depicted in the famous-but-unattributed Cambridge portrait, he could have an irritating pain in the ass to most of the men in that room. Perhaps he was having an affair with one of the Walsinghams, and was murdered. But none of these men, despite their careers, are known to have been killers.
Some say that he didn’t die, that the body which was presented to the coroner was that of John Penry, suddenly hanged the previous day for the very sort of thing Marlowe was being accused of. The body of John Penry was the property of the state. The coroner – some say – could have covered it all up.
If anybody on that sceptred isle was capable of making someone vanish, those same men were surely up in the top echelon. Poley was known for being able to pass into Scotland undetected. It would be nice to just disappear. Perhaps they helped him escape to Europe, and substituted Penry’s body for Marlowe, though the Coroner would presumably notice Penry had been hanged. Was it just luck that Marlowe was killed near the current residence of the Queen, necessitating a special inquest?
Anyway, the government didn’t seem to mind. The Coroner found self defence and the Queen pardoned Frizer next month. Frizer continued to work for, or with, Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s good friend, and later on in life got some benefits from the new King, arranged for by Walsingham’s wife, who was also tight with that crowd.
In France several decades later a man claimed to his landlord that he had been Christopher Marlowe. It is said that when that man died his literary collection included source materials for Shakespeare’s works. When Shakespeare died it is said he left behind no library at all.
Some say that Marlowe escaped and renewed himself under the name of Shakespeare, whose very first published plays were to appear only weeks after Marlowe’s death, and that the man known as Shakespeare was a front for the (figuratively) underground Marlowe.
Even the styles of the two famous writers are similar. Marlowe has been called the originator of Shakespearean blank verse. As one stepped out, the other immediately stepped in, with little discernible discontinuity. Shakespeare, who didn’t go to higher education, even seems to have inherited Marlowe’s Cambridge education….
Where is Marlowe’s Body?
Marlowe’s body was autopsied and then taken to the nearby Saint Nicholas churchyard and buried without a marker, among the plague victims of the time. If one were to go looking, perhaps one could find a young man with a mortal wound above the eye, but who wants to dig up bodies in old plague pits?
Marlowe was the foremost playwright of the time, and he was eulogized, but also held up as a sinner who had lived a dissolute life, and who had died rightly damned by God – apparently unrepentant and unforgiven, like his own Faustus. Until 1925 when the coroner’s report was discovered by Leslie Hotson, all that was known about how Marlowe died came from comments by contemporaries or near-contemporaries who said that he had died in an unseemly way – in a drunken fight; in a tavern; over a man or a woman; and killed by a “serving man.”
Because the killing happened near to where the Queen was staying (known as “within the verge”), the investigation was handled specially by the Queen’s Coroner, rather than the usual local coroner (coincidentally?). A jury of sixteen concluded they were satisfied that Marlowe had been killed by Ingram Frizer in self-defence.
After his death Marlowe began to be forgotten. Several of his works were published over the next few decades, but the public turned its attention to other players. Marlowe remained largely forgotten for several hundred years, only regaining some attention in the late nineteenth century. Still, people maintained reservations about Marlowe based on his reputation.
Significantly or not, three weeks after Christopher Marlowe was killed, Shakespeare’s name appeared for the first time on a work in a printer’s office. It’s nice to think that Marlowe got away: poor Penry’s body offered up as Marlowe’s; Marlowe spirited away on the next ship to Calais to a new life as his own successor. But is it just wishful thinking, and a love of mystery that invites speculation?
Thomas Kyd lost his job and reputation, and died soon after. As an associate of Marlowe, he suffered far more than Ingram Frizer did. Frizer continued to work for or with Thomas Walsingham, and Walsingham’s wife used her considerable influence at court to find him honours later in life. Out of sympathy? In thanks? We can only conclude he was good at his job.
Books by Marlowe at Amazon
Marlowe at the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society.
Documents “This is intended to provide an easy access point for transcripts of texts and documents relevant to Marlowe’s biography.”
Second Selves: Marlowe’s Cambridge and London Friendships, p 86ff. by Constance Kuriyama in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, Volume 14. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 2001. By John Pitcher