Who was Christopher Marlowe
Born two months before William Shakespeare in 1564, Christopher Marlowe (aka Kit Marlowe) was the eldest son of John Marlowe, a strong-minded and argumentative and disputatious shoemaker from Canterbury. Christopher Marlowe was an English playwright, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. He is among the most famous of the Elizabethan playwrights. Based upon the “many imitations” of his play Tamburlaine, modern scholars consider him to have been the foremost dramatist in London in the years just before his mysterious early and violent death. Being strong-minded, argumentive and disputatiouswas something Christopher Marlow shared with his father.
After scholarships to prestigious schools, he earned his B.A. from Cambridge in 1584. Whilst at Corpus Christi College, he wrote Dido Queen of Carthage. His literary career lasted less than six years. By age 29, he was dead. The unsolved mystery of his death lingers on to the present day. The British Library says:
“Christopher Marlowe’s short but active life, the rumours of ‘Diabolicall Atheisme’ swirling around him and his violent death have prompted comparisons with his most infamous dramatic creations: the blaspheming John Faustus of Doctor Faustus, the Machiavellian Barabas of The Jew of Malta, and the homosexual Edward of Edward II. In reality, however, we don’t know what Marlowe’s life has to do with his works, although the comparisons are irresistible.”
After 1587, Marlowe was in London, writing for the theatres, occasionally and perhaps too often, getting into hot water because of his violent and disreputable behaviour, but probably also spending time in government service. The Privy Council did not specify the nature of that service, but there was speculation that Marlowe had become a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence service in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Spy, counter-spy, atheist, homosexual and government critic, Marlowe was feted for his plays, including Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Edward II and Dr Faustus. He also published a translation of Ovid’s Elegies and the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia from Latin. Beyond his writing, evidence suggests that he was also a heretic and a counterfeiter (of what and why is uncertain). He was the first to achieve critical notoriety for his use of what was called blank verse (poetry written with regular metrical but unrhymed lines, almost always in iambic pentameter).
Events on 30th May 1593
On 30th May 1593, Christopher Marlowe went to a respectable house in Deptford, a naval port at that time, on the Thames just outside London. He met with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. In one account of Marlowe’s death, it was described as the result of a brawl in the streets of London in which he was killed by his own dagger. Other accounts suggest the brawl took place “in a house used as a tavern.” The Deptford house was owned by Dame Eleanor Bull. It was not a tavern as is frequently alleged. Dame Bull had Court connections. Her sister, Blanche, was the god-daughter of Blanche Parry, who had been the much-loved nanny of the infant Elizabeth (later Queen) and was a “cousin” of Lord Burghley. The widowed Dame Bull offered rooms for hire and served meals, but her house was no tavern. It was likely that her home was a safe haven for Government Agents.
Picture Credit: [Cropped] Unknown 21-year-old man, supposed to be Christopher Marlowe – British School, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Mystery of Marlowe’s Death
Historians have claimed that Marlowe’s death was either an accident or a premeditated killing designed to protect a high-ranking member of the Elizabethan government. Some have even said the killing was faked to allow Marlowe to escape his political enemies. What seems to be undisputed is that Marlowe and his three companions had been drinking for several hours. When the time came to pay up, an argument erupted, and the other two witnesses claimed that Marlowe grabbed Ingram Frizer’s knife, Frizer retrieved it, and (he claimed, in self-defence) plunged it into Marlowe’s head just above his right eye. It pierced his brain, and the writer died instantly.
At first glance, it appears to be a bar fight, a stupid disagreement escalated to an irrational level by a long day of drinking. But is that what really happened? Perhaps not.
In the official version of his death, Marlowe was murdered in 1593 after spending the day smoking, drinking and playing backgammon with three ‘colleagues’ – Frizer, Keres and Poley in Deptford, London. The Public Record Office notes that they “spent the day at the lodging house, where they passed the time together, walked in the garden, and, in company, dined.”
The Guardian (here) reported (in 2001) that new research affirms the theory that Marlowe’s death was ordered by the higher echelons of Elizabethan society – and claims to reveal the secret behind it.
There were constant rumours about Marlowe’s religious proclivities. His former roommate, Thomas Kyd, also a playwright, was arrested for heresy, or atheism – a crime punishable by being burnt at the stake. Earlier in May 1593, Kyd was arrested and tortured for treason. He told authorities that “heretical” papers found in his room were not his but belonged to Marlowe, who was subsequently arrested but released on bail. While he was on bail, Marlowe became involved in the fight with Frizer and was stabbed to death.
Marlowe had embraced atheism and had been getting quite vocal and polemic about his belief in trying to convince others. It was a rather stupid thing to do at that time in Elizabethan England, and some believe the Queen herself gave orders to silence Marlowe. If she did, it adds credence to the suggestion that Queen Elizabeth I pardoned Marlowe’s murderer about four weeks after the heinous crime was committed.
Traditionally, Marlowe’s death has been blamed on a long list of conjectures – a bar-room fight, blasphemous libel against the church, homosexual intrigue, and betrayal by another playwright, as well as espionage at the highest level in the land.
A Tudor Tragedy
In 1925, scholar Dr Leslie Hotson first identified a document relating to Christopher Marlowe’s death at the age of 29. The copy of the inquisition into the death of ‘Christopher Morley’ (sic) on 30th May 1593 said Marlowe had quarrelled with his companion Ingram Frysar (sic) over the bill in a Deptford tavern. ‘Morley’ was said to have attacked Frysar with a dagger; in the scuffle, Frysar got hold of the knife and ‘gave the said Christopher there and then a mortal wound over the right eye of the depth of two inches and the width of one inch’. The successful young author of Doctor Faustus is widely believed to have been involved in the espionage network led by Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster to Elizabeth I, with evidence suggesting he may have been recruited while still a student at Cambridge. His involvement in the shadowy world of Tudor espionage has led to much debate as to the circumstances of his death and whether it was, indeed, simply the result of a moment of drunken violence.
The strange circumstances of Marlowe’s murder in that room at Deptford have been the subject of endless debate and conflicting theories ever since it happened.
Marlowe, the Spy
Marlowe is alleged to have been a government spy. Park Honan and Charles Nicholl speculate that this was the case and suggest that Marlowe’s recruitment occurred when he was at Cambridge. In 1587, when the Privy Council ordered the University of Cambridge to award Marlowe his degree as Master of Arts, it denied rumours that he intended to go to the English Catholic college in Rheims, saying instead that he had been engaged in unspecified “affaires” on “matters touching the benefit of his country”.
Surviving college records from the period also indicate that in the academic year 1584–1585, Marlowe had had a series of unusually lengthy absences from the university, which violated university regulations. Surviving college buttery (shop) accounts, which records student purchases for personal provisions, show that Marlowe began spending lavishly on food and drink during the periods he was in attendance; the amount was more than he could have afforded on his known scholarship income.
Arrest and Death
In early May 1593, several bills were posted about London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands who had settled in the city. One of these, the “Dutch church libel“, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe’s plays and was signed, Tamburlaine. On 11th May 1593, the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels. The next day, Marlowe’s colleague Thomas Kyd was arrested, his lodgings were searched, and a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found. In a letter to Sir John Puckering, Kyd asserted that it had belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had been writing “in one chamber” some two years earlier. In a second letter, Kyd described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and “intemperate and of a cruel hart”. They had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange.
A warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was issued on 18th May 1593 when the Privy Council apparently knew that he might be found staying with Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary in the 1580s and a man more deeply involved in state espionage than any other member of the Privy Council. Marlowe duly presented himself on 20th May but, as there apparently being no Privy Council meeting on that day, was instructed to “give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary”. Although arrested on such a serious charge as heresy, Marlowe was released as long as he reported to an officer of the court each day. Ten days later, on 30th May, Marlowe was killed.
Possible Murder Culprits and the Marlovian Theory
Those who may have wanted Marlowe silenced include:
- Sir Walter Raleigh who was worried about being implicated during Marlowe’s inquisition.
- Sir Robert Cecil who believed Marlowe’s plays contained Catholic propaganda.
- Audrey Walsingham, whose spymaster husband Sir Francis Walsingham employed Marlowe, was said to have been jealous of her husband’s relationship with the playwright.
- William Shakespeare: At the time of his death, Marlowe was known both as a notorious blasphemer and England’s greatest playwright – surpassing even that written by Shakespeare. But there is no evidence that the two ever met face-to-face.
Mental Floss (here) suggest another thought for the conspiracy theorists: People who subscribe to Marlovian Theory believe that Marlowe faked his death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition. Once he was safe, the playwright continued to produce, and sent his works back to England to be performed. Naturally, those plays couldn’t be attributed to Christopher Marlowe, who was supposed to be dead, so someone else had to take credit. That man was none other than William Shakespeare. Marlovians (those who subscribe to the theory) base their argument on supposed anomalies surrounding Marlowe’s reported death and on the significant influence which, according to most scholars, Marlowe’s works had on those of Shakespeare.
Evidence suggests that Marlowe was a spy for the government of Queen Elizabeth, that he was a heretic, a counterfeiter, a homosexual, and an atheist. His involvement in the shadowy world of Tudor espionage led to much debate as to the circumstances of his death and whether it was, indeed, simply the result of a moment of drunken violence. The Guardian article of 1st July 2001 suggests otherwise: Mei Trow, scholar and author of Who Killed Kit Marlowe? says it didn’t happen as a result of a drunken brawl. All of it was fiction, an elaborate fabrication to cover up the murder. The truth, Trow maintains, was discovered in a document found among the Harleian manuscripts in the British Museum, indicating that members of the Queen’s Privy Council, the highest court in the land, were atheists – a heresy in Elizabethan law that was punishable with execution.
For more information about Christopher’s Marlowe’s death, you might like to read the source material listed below. Also recommended are Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, David Riggs’ The World of Christopher Marlowe and The Marlowe Papers (published in 2012) by Ros Barber.
- Here: https://www.bl.uk/people/christopher-marlowe ↑
- See explanation of Blank verse at: https://www.britannica.com/art/blank-verse ↑
- Found in the archives of the Public Records Office, London. Source: http://www.marlowe-society.org/christopher-marlowe/life/death-in-deptford/ ↑
- See: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/779/779-h/779-h.htm and https://mthoyibi.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/doctor-faustus_christopher-marlowe.pdf ↑
- Source: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/authors-in-the-archives/ ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Marlowe ↑
- Source: Honan, Park (2005). Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198186959. ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Park_Honan ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Nicholl_(author) ↑
- Sources: Honan, Park (2005). Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198186959 and Nicholl, Charles
- Source: A document dated 29 June 1587, from the National Archives – Acts of Privy Council. ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Marlowe ↑
- Tamburlaine the Great is a play in two parts by Christopher Marlowe. loosely based on the life of the Central Asian emperor Timur (Tamerlane/Timur the Lame, d. 1405). Written in 1587 or 1588, the play is a milestone in Elizabethan public drama; it marks a turning away from the clumsy language and loose
plotting of the earlier Tudor dramatists, and a new interest in fresh and vivid language, memorable action, and intellectual complexity. Along with Thomas Kyd‘s The Spanish Tragedy, it may be considered the first popular success of London’s public stage. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Marlowe ↑
- Source: Haynes, Alan. The Elizabethan Secret Service. London: Sutton, 2005. ↑
- Source: https://www.squaducation.com/blog/death-christopher-marlowe ↑
- See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/jul/01/books.humanities ↑