The Death of Christopher Marlowe - 30th May 1593
Much has been written about the life and career of Christopher Marlowe. For a man who has a stained glass window in honour of him in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, there is as much written about his non-writing career as there is about his plays and poems. So many questions remain – some fanciful, some very real. Did he work as a spy? Was his death planned? Did he fake his death and write under the name of William Shakespeare?
Born in Canterbury to a shoemaker in late February 1564 (he was baptised on February 26th) he attended King’s College and then won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He was a student here from 1580 to 1587, gaining his Bachelor of Arts in 1584. The University however hesitated to award him his Master’s degree, but the reasons why are unclear. Possible reasons put forward are his long absences and questions over his religious views. The Privy Council wrote to the University in 1587 and said that his absences were due to working “on matters benefitting his country”. He was awarded his degree.
Papers, no longer in existence, point to Marlowe spending far more on food and drink than would have been available to him on a scholarship funding. His long absences were also well beyond what would usually be allowed for a student. It is widely assumed, although there is no direct evidence, that he worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Burghley, who was, in effect, the spy master general responsible for state espionage under Queen Elizabeth I, serving as her Principal Secretary and Secretary of State. It could well be that he was recruited at Cambridge, like many more modern day spies, and continued to serve in the Elizabethan equivalent of MI5, even after he left University.
It is worth remembering what was going on at the time. Elizabeth had come to power in 1558 on the death of her half sister, Mary. Since the days of their half-brother Edward VI (1547-1553) religious life in Britain had yo-yoed from strongly Protestant to strongly Catholic to the religious tolerance seen in the first part of Elizabeth’s reign. The plots to put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne had caused Elizabeth to harden her stance and the attack, or religious crusade, by Phillip II of Spain, the Armada, in 1588 to overthrow the Protestant Elizabeth had raised security levels in the country to similar levels to those we have today in 2016.
On leaving Cambridge Marlowe moved to London and started writing his first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, which was published after his death in 1594, although some say it was written whilst he was at University. His second, Tamburlaine the Great, was the first to be written in English in blank verse. Other notable publications include Edward II, the Massacre at Paris, The Jew of Malta and, perhaps his most famous, Doctor Faustus. The ordering of these is hotly disputed by academics of his works but need not concern us here.
There were constant rumours about Marlowe’s religious proclivities. His former roommate, Thomas Kyd, also a playwright, was arrested for heresy, or atheism. This was a crime punishable by being burnt at the stake. Kyd said that the documents seized in his home belonged to Marlowe and he too was arrested on May 20th 1593. Although arrested on such a serious charge, Marlowe was released as long as he reported to an officer of the court each day.
Ten days later he was killed. He had spent the day with three friends; Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. All three of these are linked either to Sir Francis Walsingham, or his cousin, Thomas. They had been drinking in the garden of a tavern belonging to Eleanor Ball, who had strong links with the Court of Elizabeth. Her establishment was a well-known meeting place for spies. A fight broke out over the bill and Frizer stabbed Marlowe in the forehead, just above the eye. He died quickly from the wound, aged just 29. The Royal Coroner accepted Frizer’s claim of self-defence and he was pardoned, returning to work for Thomas Walsingham.
A number of theories have been put forward as to the reasons for Marlowe’s death. Sir Walter Raleigh, a close friend of Marlowe, was also said to be ‘in the frame’ for heresy, and wanted Marlowe out of the way as he threatened to expose him. Other ideas were that the establishment were concerned that Marlowe might reveal matters of state they did not want known and the security services ordered his elimination. The reason could simply be that a fight broke out and Marlowe died as a result.
The theories and intrigue will not go away. Orthodox views argue strongly against Marlowe having written the works attributed to Shakespeare. The murky world of spying in Tudor times makes it unlikely that any evidence linking the state to Marlowe’s murder will surface and we will have to rely on heresay and circumstantial evidence. Conspiracy theories will continue to be promoted. This may not be the way that Historians work but it does make it quite interesting!