“Almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheisme, willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both God and His ministers.”
Playwright, poet, genius… he was the leading literary figure of his day. Until his violent death… In the late 1580s and early ‘90s, he had established a reputation as late Elizabethan England’s most original and influential playwright. At the height of his fame, aged only 29, Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford on 30 May 1593.
After his death, and building up in the subsequent centuries, a web of myth and legend has grown up around Marlowe, and his death. According to most historical opinion, he had worked for the state as a spy (recruited when he was at Cambridge: a cliché that would run and run); he was accused, a few days before his death, of holding atheistical opinions, and, it was hinted, he was homosexual. After his death, this picture of him was quickly promulgated, and used to blacken his name (and clear his killers).
Various theories have been put forward as to the circumstances of his death, with suggestions that he was caught up in the power struggles of the Elizabethan secret state, or that he was a freethinker, linked to a network of atheists and proto-enlightenment figures… or both of the above.
Marlowe had been arrested on Sunday 20th May 1593, on a charge of atheism, which was heresy, a serious crime for which the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake. Despite the seriousness of the charge, however, he was not immediately imprisoned or tortured on the rack, as his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd had been. He was granted bail on condition he reported daily to an officer of the Court. But he was killed just a few days later.
Marlowe was stabbed to death in a room that had been hired for a private meeting in a respectable house in Deptford (not in a tavern as the story usually goes), owned by Dame Eleanor Bull, a lady with Court connections. Besides Marlowe three men were said to have been present; Robert Poley: longtime government agent, who carried the Queen’s most secret and important letters in post to and from the courts of Europe; Ingram Frizer, personal servant and business agent of Marlowe’s patron, the wealthy Thomas Walsingham, (cousin of the recently deceased Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who had created the espionage service which protected Queen Elizabeth’s life from the on-going Catholic assassination plots. Thomas Walsingham had assisted his illustrious cousin as his right-hand man and was himself a master-spy); and Nicholas Skeres: also part of the Walsingham spy machine.
Since Marlowe also enjoyed both the friendship and the patronage of Thomas Walsingham, (at whose estate, Scadbury in Kent, he was staying at the time of his arrest, having gone there to escape the plague in London), Walsingham therefore can be seen to be connected with all four of these men.
The official Coroner’s Report reveals what was supposed to have happened, but at the time it was not released to the ‘public’. Marlowe was rumoured to have been killed in a tavern brawl: the story was that Marlowe and the others quarrelled about the bill, Marlowe attacked Frizer, and Frizer stabbed him in self-defence.
“… after supper the said Ingram & Christopher Morley were in speech & uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not be at one nor agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is le recknynge, there; & the said Christopher Morley then lying upon a bed in the room where they supped, & moved with anger against the said Ingram ffrysar upon the words aforesaid spoken between them, and the said Ingram then & there sitting in the room aforesaid with his back towards the bed where the said Christopher Morley was then lying, sitting near the bed, that is, nere the bed, & with the front part of his body towards the table & the aforesaid Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley sitting on either side of the said Ingram in such a manner that the same Ingram ffrysar in no wise could take flight; it so befell that the said Christopher Morley on a sudden & of his malice towards the said Ingram aforethought, then & there maliciously drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger the said Christopher Morley then & there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches & of the depth of a quarter of an inch; where-upon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, & sitting in the manner aforesaid between the said Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley so that he could not in any wise get away, in his own defence & for the saving of his life, then & there struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid; in which affray the same Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley; & so it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d, gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died; & so the Jurors aforesaid say upon their oath that the said Ingram killed & slew Christopher Morley aforesaid on the thirtieth day of May in the thirtyfifth year named above at Detford Strand aforesaid within the verge in the room aforesaid within the verge in the manner and form aforesaid in the defence and saving of his own life, against the peace of our said lady the Queen, her now crown & dignity…”
With his death now officially recorded, the body of Christopher Marlowe was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas churchyard, Deptford. Ingram Frizer went to prison to await the Queen’s pardon, which arrived with brutal efficiency just twenty-eight days later. On his release, Frizer immediately returned to the service of his master,Thomas Walsingham, in whose service of Walsingham for the rest of his life.
If the whole story seems like a whitewash, well yeah, maybe it was… Three connected spies supported each other’s stories and an official cover-up follows… That wouldn’t happen these days though, eh? Although it is possible that they really did fight over a bill. But, if Marlowe was targeted for assassination, why?
It seems likely that his death, if it was planned murder, was connected to either his alleged work as a spy, or his supposed heretical views on religion, and links to a nebulous group of freethinking intellectuals. Perhaps he was killed because, already under threat of arrest and torture, the secret service who had employed him feared he might reveal something incriminating.
But Thomas Walsingham, to who all four present had close ties, is thought himself to have had links with the circle of freethinkers that grouped themselves around Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Percy (the “Wizard” Earl of Northumberland), and Ferdinando, Lord Strange, which is labelled today The School of Night. Rumours of atheism, heresy, and black magic came to be associated with this group. In reality, they were, more prosaically, a band of advanced thinking noblemen, courtiers and educated commoners, including mathematicians, astronomers, voyagers who had explored the New World, geographers, philosophers and poets.
They had to meet behind closed doors, and were stigmatised as atheists and magicians, because the Ecclesiastical Authorities feared the spread of interest in scientific discovery, which was undermining accepted teaching, such as about Earth being at the centre of the universe. A most important member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle was the advanced thinker, brilliant mathematician and astronomer,Thomas Hariot. He was in the patronage of both Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland, the latter nicknamed the “Wizard Earl” for his love of experimenting with chemistry for which he had laboratories built into all his houses. These Free Thinkers discussed a wide range of subjects and were avid in their pursuit of all knowledge. Such men, in the eyes of the church, were dangerous. The Earl of Northumberland had at an early age dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge. He was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James I for almost sixteen years on a charge of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot; Sir Walter Raleigh was also eventually jailed, charged, also by King James, with conspiring with the Spaniards. In fact, King James had a paranoid fear of these brilliant men because he suspected them of exercising magical powers, which the superstitious King held in terror. Both were accused of the “vile heresy” of Atheism.
Connection to this group may have led Marlowe to his downfall. He was arrested in May 1593, because he was implicated by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Kyd had himself been picked up on the orders of the dreaded Star Chamber (the high court which dealt with matters of heresy and was the English equivalent of the Holy Roman Inquisition. The only court empowered to use torture to obtain confessions, and operated without a jury, it was the all-powerful legal arm of the most reactionary elements of Church and State), as he had been involved in writing the collaborative play Sir Thomas More, recently rejected by the censor because it contained scenes of riots considered to be inciting, (in the light of apprentices riots that year). Among Kyd’s papers they found incriminating evidence in the form of a treatise discussing the Holy Trinity, which was immediately labelled as “Atheism”. Kyd was racked – under this torture he stuck to his original claim of innocence and claimed this paper belonged to Marlowe, who had been writing in the same room with him and had left it there, and it had got mixed up with Kyd’s own papers “unbeknown to him.”
Kyd was released, a broken man – he died a year later, but not before further blackening Marlowe’s name in an attempt to clear himself, regain this own reputation, and save himself from destitution. Since by then Marlowe was already dead, he was free to slag him off without fear of reply, as a man who was “intemperate and of a cruel heart, the very contraries to which my greatest enemies will say by me”.
After Marlowe’s death Richard Baines, an informer, recounted in a note to the Privy Council blasphemous statements he alleged Marlowe to have uttered, implicating him in the capital crimes of scorning Scripture and the Church, of homosexuality, and of coining (forging coins). According to Baines, Marlowe attacked religion itself, took the piss out of Christ, Moses and other major biblical figures; hinted at a sexual love of men…
Read the full Baines note here – it’s a cracking list which we find it hard to disagree with…
But did Marlowe really say any of it? It is tempting for us, as modern-day atheists, with all our sexual fluidity, to celebrate this image of Marlowe, the gay wit, the freethinking rebel. But most of the beliefs credited to him could just as easily be fabricated, since the only evidence emanates from his enemies. Piling on the accusations is a classic tactic – it is impossible to know how much of it represents what he might have really thought.
On the other hand, we like the sound of him arguing “that the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe.” A remarkably clear statement. Some of the other sayings Baines attributes to him really do smack of someone arguing pissed over a few pints: “Moyses was but a Jugler, & that one Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man can do more then he… Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest… That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.”
There is of course, also the inevitable theory, a modern creation, (though pre-dating the internet) that the whole killing was a fake, set up by elements in the secret service, and that Marlowe in fact escaped abroad, to continue spying, and – some say – to write any number of works generally credited to Shakespeare. In the same way as Jim Morrison and Elvis are sometimes still knocking around in secrecy.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online