Marlowe’s 16th Century

Religion and Censorship

It’s not easy to be a playwright in oppressive times – and Christopher Marlowe’s 1580-90’s were times of both political and religious turmoil suppressed by the combined Church of England and the state, their being joined at the Queen.

In Marlowe’s time religion was a particularly sensitive topic as the conflict between Protestants and Catholics roiled in England.

…And so it had been for decades before Marlowe was born in 1564, the result of Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church starting about 1532. Failure to respect the constraints on free speech and expression could lead to imprisonment, as happened to Marlowe, or death, as happened to many of his colleagues. Free-thinking, opinionated writers were clearly endangered, and it was all made worse by the fact that your particular brand of Christian faith would be interpreted as your opinion about whether the Queen was an usurping bastard who should have her head cut off or not.

Religious Warfare

Religion in England had recently been a bit confusing, alternating between classic Roman Catholicism and a home-grown Catholicism spiced with factional radical Protestantism.

The country had been Roman Catholic for nearly a thousand years until Henry VIII who reigned from 1509 until his death in 1547. The Church in England – the Anglican church – recognized the Pope in Rome as the head of the Church. The nation was Roman Catholic, and the Pope ruled everyone from the peasant to the King.

Around 1533 Henry began to separate the Church of England from Rome. Divorcing Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Protestant-leaning Anne Boleyn, future mother of Marlowe’s Queen Elizabeth was only one of the reasons for the split. Like many European heads of state, Henry simply didn’t like being told what to do by a bunch of foreigners and didn’t like seeing so much money leaving the country and into their purses in Rome. Under Henry, the Church remained Catholic for the time being, but with a new head and with a newly appointed and re-confirmed clergy.

The nation was still Catholic, but it wasn’t Roman Catholic anymore.

Brief Protestantism

Edward VI of England was Henry VIII’s successor. His reign was brief and he died in 1553, aged only fifteen, never having actually governed as a regency council acted in his stead. Under the guidance of reformer Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had previously been Anne Boleyn’s family’s chaplain, the Church of England became more Protestant.

Consequently, the people became more Protestant, too – like it or not – for those many Roman Catholics who sincerely believed that their eternal souls were tied to the nature of their worship, this was a supreme test of their devotion and their worthiness.

Bloody Mary

When Queen Mary I took the throne in 15531 she returned the Church of England straight back to Roman Catholicism with a vengeance. Although her reign was only five years, it was time enough to burn Archbishop Cranmer and many others at the stake, and to drive about eight hundred others to exile in Europe.

With Mary, then, the people became Roman Catholic again.

Elizabeth and Continuity

In 1558 Henry and Protestant Ann Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth became monarch, and reigning for 44 years as Queen Elizabeth I, put the Church of England on a stable course toward a compromise middle road of non-Roman Anglican Catholicism and Protestant reformed traditions – the via media. Henry – dad – had had her mom murdered. She had suffered too. Mary had been executed and Jane Grey had been executed, and her own life expectancy wasn’t good as long as the religious strife continued.2

Reinstating Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1559, Elizabeth separated the Church of England from Rome once again, and made herself the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This happened about 4 years before Marlowe was born.

The Via Media

Since the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1559, the law now required Christians to go to church every week or be fined twelve pence. While church may sound like a punishment that only the faithful should have to bear, actual atheism was unheard of. The Church of England was designed to be inclusive in following what is termed the “via media,” a middle path that incorporated different ideas of Christianity, to become a church for everybody. Still, the Catholics thought they went too far, and the Puritans, not far enough.

While the Church of England sought to consolidate religious following, seeking uniformity and harmony, factions within the Church of England pressed for their own brand of Christianity.

So the “threat” to God and nation included not just Catholics who continued to resist conversion, but also dissenters within the Church of England, and the more fundamental and radical Puritan or Presbyterian side was gaining ground among the clergy.

Roman Revenge

The Queen’s separation from Rome didn’t please the remaining Roman Catholic states which had their own problems holding things together, and Rome, France and Spain plotted to undercut Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots who would return the nation to the Roman Catholic fold.

Rome claimed (reasonably) that Elizabeth wasn’t the legitimate Queen because she was illegitimate by birth. By Roman Catholic standards, her father, Henry VIII, had not been legally married when Elizabeth was conceived because he had not been legally divorced from his previous wife. According to Roman Catholic law and the Pope, Queen Elizabeth I was a bastard.

Catholic sympathizers thought they should “remove” Elizabeth so that Mary would become Queen by right of succession, and England could return to Catholicism. If not that, then perhaps Elizabeth could be induced to marry a Catholic King who would outrank her to become King – or perhaps France or Spain could just invade England and set Mary in place.

After plotting Roman Catholic nobles in Northern England failed to depose Queen Elizabeth I of England and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots,3 the Roman Catholic Church Papal Bull Regnans in Excelsis arrived announcing to her Catholic subjects that since Elizabeth wasn’t the legitimate queen, they didn’t have to obey her – in fact, if they did, they’d be excommunicated.4

The response of the realm was (also very reasonably) that it then became an act of treason punishable by death to attempt to convert anybody to Roman Catholicism so as to break their allegiance to Elizabeth. During Elizabeth’s reign Rome sent hundreds of Roman Catholic priests to England ostensibly to tend to the flock, but with the efforts to depose her, the State’s compassion toward Roman Catholics (clergy particularly) soured, and many sincere and devout men and women were imprisoned and executed, becoming Catholic saints and martyrs. It is indeed a twisted form of Christianity that purifies itself by murder and assassination, but purity was essential to keeping open the line back to Jesus, and evil had to be purged.

Ridolfi Plot and Walsingham’s Secret Service

Marlowe was a 6 year-old boy in Canterbury in 1570 when government agent and future spymaster Francis Walsingham began to investigate an assassination plot against the Queen planned in concert with a Spanish invasion. Over the following years, Walsingham built up England’s first secret service, using a number of agents, including his own nephew, Thomas Walsingham.

In time, Marlowe would become friends with that same Thomas, and Thomas Walsingham would become both Marlowe’s literary patron and the long-time employer of Marlowe’s eventual killer, Ingraham (or Ingram) Frizer.

The Massacre at Paris – The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Marlowe would have noticed in 1572 at about the age of eight when Canterbury filled up with refuges after Catholic mobs massacred Protestants in France. All Europe was astounded at the bloody massacre of Christians by fellow Christians – over Christianity! Marlowe’s city of Canterbury became a destination for French Protestant (Huguenot) refugees.5

Francis Walsingham certainly noticed because he was there – in Paris – as Ambassador during the riots, watching his own house fill with refugees. He barely escaped back to England himself. He had already been one of the approximately eight hundred Protestants who had been forced to flee England for Europe back during Roman Catholic Mary’s reign. That’s how he had ended up studying for his law degree in Padua.

Thomas was there, in Paris, too – working for his cousin Francis6 as usual. Alongside Thomas was the poet Thomas Watson who would later also come to be a friend and mentor of Marlowe. Years later this Thomas would kill William Bradley when he came across Christopher Marlowe fighting him in the streets of Shoreditch.

Protecting the Queen by Eliminating Mary

In 1583, Walsingham uncovered a Roman Catholic plot (the Throckmorton Plot) to murder Elizabeth. Financed by the Spanish, an invasion led by the French Henry I, Duke of Guise coincident with a local Catholic uprising was intended to put Mary on the throne.

The state had to remove some of the incentive for assassinating the Queen.

In 1584, Elizabeth authorized the “Bond of Association” which asserted that anyone in the line of succession to her throne would be executed if they stood to benefit by any plot against her, whether they were directly involved in it or not.

…And Her Friends, Too

In 1585 Parliament followed up with the “Act of Association” that allowed for the execution of anyone else who stood to benefit from a plot against the life of the Queen.

Of course these acts were directed at Mary, who since 1568 had been in the custody of the Queen, and at her supporters. To protect the crown, a pretext had been found to justify the execution of Mary, and all that was now needed was to find evidence of Mary’s sedition. Francis Walsingham, head of Elizabeth’s secret service, set out to find that evidence.

Babington Plot

In 1585 (Marlowe would have been twenty-one) Walsingham infiltrated a network plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and rescue Mary. Walsingham intercepted communications carried by double agent Gilbert Gifford to Mary in her close confinement. Using evidence partly forged by one of Walsingham’s men, the government accused Mary of treason, and she was executed.

Curiously, Robert Poley, a Walsingham spy who was instrumental in uncovering what became known as the Babington plot, was one of Marlowe’s three sole companions on the day he was murdered. Gilbert Gifford, a Catholic, acting as a double agent for Sir Francis Walsingham carried communications to Mary.7)

Fourteen Babington co-conspirators were found guilty of treason, and the first of them were hanged until almost dead. Then their intestines were cut out and shown to them as they died. Their bodies were cut into sections and distributed about the city for exhibition. Although this was so upsetting for the gathered crowd that the remainder were allowed to die on the noose before being disemboweled, this was the brutal treatment that traitors could expect, and a vivid demonstration of the dangers of dissent in Elizabethan England.

With the death of Mary the Roman Catholic threat did not disappear. It went underground and retreated to Europe into English Roman Catholic enclaves like Douai and Rheims, France where the English College provided a Catholic seminary for English Catholic priests, many of whom destined to infiltrate back to England’s shore and martyrdom.

Marlowe Recruited at Cambridge?

By this time, Marlowe was a young man at Cambridge – twenty-two in 1586, and starting work on his master’s degree.

It has been speculated that Marlowe might have been recruited into the Secret Service by Walsingham at Cambridge. Cambridge was Walsingham’s old school, and the long-time Chancellor of Cambridge was his political colleague William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, who inherited Walsingham’s position as Lord Privy Seal in 1590, and had been (what we now call) Secretary of State before Walsingham. If not Walsingham directly, it might have been Nicholas Faunt, in the employ of Walsingham. In truth, we don’t know the extent of Marlowe’s involvement in the secret service, if any, but it seems like most of his recorded acquaintances had ties to Walsingham’s service.


Since 1583 there had been a new leader of the Church of England, an adamantly anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury (Marlowe’s home town) named John Whitgift, who decided about 15868 that to control the Puritan influence he had to control the printing presses; censor all books and pamphlets; and require printers to obtain licenses to print specific works.9


Subsequently working as a playwright in London Marlowe was limited by censorship laws controlling his work and also by local controls over the operation of theatres revolving around a variety of justifications such as morals and plague outbreaks. To get around London ordinances, the theatres moved to outlying areas such as Shoreditch.

Martin Marprelate

Defiant Puritans and others fought back against Whitgift with polemics directed at the Church, printed on secret, underground presses. A series of popular satirical works appeared in 1588-1589 written under the pseudonym of Martin Marprelate, and printed on the clandestine roaming press of John Penry. At this time Marlowe would have been about twenty-four years of age, and a few years out of school.

Whitgift and the Church were sensitive to the effect of such works on the mind of the people, and fought back against Marprelate by hiring writers from among the ranks of Marlowe’s fellow playwrights. None have been attributed to him, and we imagine his sympathies and interests lay elsewhere.

Marlowe’s Religion

Although nominally Church of England, Marlowe has had a reputation for uncertain religious attachments. This, despite his extended scholarship, which was given to boys headed for studies in divinity at Cambridge, and who would then proceed to Holy Orders (ordination). On the surface, his scholarship and training suggest at least an initial sincere personal religious interest.

They say Christopher Marlowe’s master’s degree was held up because he was rumoured to have gone to Rheims to see about converting to Catholicism.

However, there exists a letter directly from the Queen’s Privy Council (signed by Burghley, Walsingham and Whitgift among others) to Marlowe’s college at Cambridge, recommending that those rumours be ignored as Marlowe had done service to the nation. This contributed to the romantic speculation that Marlowe was working for the government as a spy, but also provides evidence that even if Marlowe wasn’t a heretic, some thought him to be convincing enough for the role.

Marlow was also accused of being “atheist,” to which, as an educated man and a free-thinker, he may well have been inclined, but the term was meant more as an insult, implying “godlessness” rather than a true lack of belief. His writings bear out his willingness to be critical of religion, and to give voice to the inner thoughts of others.

Either way, insufficient-belief, wrong-belief, iconoclasm, or foolish tricksterism was pretty much the same thing to the Church of England because with the Queen as head, and divinely ordained, the church and the state were mutually dependent. If you didn’t follow the Church of England then you didn’t – couldn’t – accept the divine right and authority of the Queen, which was treasonous as well as heretical.

Church and State

Henry VIII had objected to religion (Rome) dictating to the state (himself), but the state still dictated religion to the nation. In time, as the state became defined by the nation of people, the people would demand they both mind their own business, and the state would come to see the wisdom of leaving bigotry to the people.

But in Marlowe’s time it was not the case. Religious tyranny forced people into false worship and hypocrisy. People were prevented from worshiping freely, from freedom of expression – but in Marlowe’s time, those beliefs could be truly dangerous.

England would continue with her precarious via media well past Marlowe’s and Elizabeth’s lifetimes, until the negotiated settlement making William of Orange king in 1689 guaranteed the religious rights of most Protestants, rights which were eventually largely extended to Roman Catholics and others – with the exception of the British monarch, who to this day, as head of the Church of England, is ironically one person without the religious freedom to choose to be Roman Catholic.

  1. Lady Jane Grey (1536/1537 – 1554), was briefly monarch of England in 1553. []
  2. With so many devout Christians, vying to be the best Christians they could be, you would have thought Christendom would be like paradise, but somehow it was all killings and imprisonment and torture – and Faust was the Satanic one? “Kill thy neighbour who is unlike thyself” seems to be a long-lost commandment. []
  3. Rising of the North. []
  4. “…the number of the ungodly has so much grown in power that there is no place left in the world which they have not tried to corrupt with their most wicked doctrines; and among others, Elizabeth, the pretended queen of England and the servant of crime, has assisted in this, with whom as in a sanctuary the most pernicious of all have found refuge. This very woman, having seized the crown and monstrously usurped the place of supreme head of the Church in all England to gather with the chief authority and jurisdiction belonging to it, has once again reduced this same kingdom- which had already been restored to the Catholic faith and to good fruits- to a miserable ruin. […] …we do out of the fullness of our apostolic power declare the foresaid Elizabeth to be a heretic and favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid to have incurred the sentence of excommunication and to be cut off from the unity of the body of Christ. […]

    …And moreover (we declare) her to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.

    …And also (declare) the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm and all others who have in any way sworn oaths to her, to be forever absolved from such an oath and from any duty arising from lordship. fealty and obedience; and we do, by authority of these presents, so absolve them and so deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended title to the crown and all other the above said matters. We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.”

    The Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, issued on 25 February 1570 by Pope Pius V. []

  5. Marlowe’s last play, The Massacre at Paris (1593), illustrates the belief that the incident had been a cruel Machiavellian plot masterminded by French Catholic leaders. []
  6. First cousin once removed. []
  7. A few years later Marlowe would be arrested in the company of a Gifford Gilbert, conjectured by some to be the same man (despite reportedly dying in 1590) or a relative. (Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines: Journeys Through the Elizabethan Underground. By Roy Kendall. []
  8. []
  9. []