The handsome and preposterously talented English poet-playwright Christopher Marlowe was only 29 years old when he died, but he had already been
hailed as one of the greatest writers of the age.
On May 30, 1593 he went to Deptford is southeast London to drink, dine and talk with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicolas Skeres and Robert Poley, in a
house owned by the widow Eleanor Bull. The four men spent the day quietly, talking and walking in the garden, but after supper a dispute broke out
about the “recknynge”, or bill. “Malicious words” were spoken, tempers lost, and Marlowe, who had been lying down, apparently leapt up,
snatched Frizer’s dagger, and slashed twice at his head, possibly with the hilt. Frizer’s wounds were not serious, but in the ensuing struggle he
stabbed Marlowe in the right eye, killing him outright.
Popular legend has it that the incident was nothing more than a barroom brawl – a myth that conjures up a colourful vision of Elizabethan
roistering, worthy of a macho literary golden age before poets turned into daffodil-contemplating naval gazers.
Even Shakespeare was scarcely respectful of his rivals demise, punningly referring to it as “a great reckoning in a little room” in his play, As
You Like It.
The official inquest – which opened immediately, on June1 – agreed that it was all the result of a drunken fight, and found that Frizer had indeed
killed Marlowe in self defence. Less than a month later, Queen Elizabeth I granted Marlowe a posthumous pardon for charges of blasphemy that he was on
bail for at the time of his death.
Was this Elizabethan efficiency or suspicious haste to close the case and any lingering questions about it?
Was there something unusual about Marlowe that meant his death was unlikely to have been “just a pub fight”?
Was he really an atheist?
And a secret agent?
With a few variations, the writings of near – contemporaries largely bear out the official story.
Although the seventeenth – century biographer John Aubrey accused another poet – playwright, Ben Jonson, of murdering Marlowe, it was only after
1925, when J. Leslie Hotson published The Death Of Christopher Marlowe, that the vultures really began to circle Marlowes corpse.
A review article by a certain Eugenie de Kalb suggested that Aubrey Walsingham, the wife of Marlowe’s patron, had instigated the killing as part of
an elaborate plot involving the succession of the Scottish king, James VI, to the English throne.
In 1926, Samuel Tannenbaum’s The Assasination of Christopher Marlowe set out to prove that Sir Walter Raleigh had bumped Marlowe off to stop him
betraying the secret of raleigh’s atheism – a capital offence in those days.
Marlowe as atheist
But why should so many commentators have imagined that Marlowe’s death was no clear accident? The answer lies in the timing. Just ten days before
his death, Marlowe had been arrested and bailed by the privy council on charges of atheism, blasphemy and sedition. These were considered serious
crimes, tantamount to treason, and a number of witnesses – or plotters and slanderers, according to theorists – had testified against him.
The most famous evidence was given by Richard Baines, who claimed that Marlowe believed “that Moyses was but a juggler & that one Heriots, being Sir
W. Raleigh’s man, can do more then he … That the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe … That all protestants are
hypocriticall asses … That if he were put to write a new religion, he would undertake both a more excellent and admirable methode and that all the
new testament id filthily written.”
If Marlowe did even think any of this, let alone say it, or persuade others it was true – as was alleged – it was staggeringly bold of him.
Such beliefs risked undermining the whole structure of society, right up to the Queen herself; in the right hands, however, evidence of such beliefs
could bring down Marlowe and all his circle, the so-called “School of Night” and its patron, Sir Walter Raleigh.
Marlowe as secret agent
The idea of Marlowe as some kind of early-modern James Bond is widespread. He – or at least a college contemporary by the name of “Morley”,
which may be an alternative spelling of “Marlowe” – apparently went AWOL from his degree at Cambridge. While that was uncommon in those days,
what was unusual was the fact that, when he returned and found his degree in peril, he persuaded the highest powers in the land – including the
Archbishop of Cantebury – to write a letter certifying that he had “done Her Majesty good service & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful
dealing”. Some claim that he had gone undercover among Catholic students in exile in France, listening out for rumours of the Babington plot against
the queens life – a role certainly played by Robert Poley, one of the Deptford Four.
Curiously, Skeres and Frizer, the other two men present at Marlowe’s death, had links with Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster. Frizer
had also worked for Thomas Walsingham, Francis’s second cousin and a probable ( but not proven ) senior spy. In 2005, Professor Park Honan of Leeds
University found a document revealing that James VI had given land to Thomas Walsingham’s wife, perhaps in return for her husband’s court –
conspiring on behalf of James’s claim to the English throne. Mrs Walsingham in turn leased the land to Ingram Frizer, further tying him to the
controversial cause. Marlowe, meanwhile, was practically Thomas Walsinghams protégé ( and any controversy he got himself into would, therefore, risk
smearing his patron by association).
The conclusion of the conspiracists is that Marlowe was at the tavern to meet fellow agents connected to the Walsingham ring – and that he was
probably lured there to his death.
Marlowe as…… Shakespeare
One group of conspiracists believe that Marlowe never died as Deptford. Why? Because Marlowe was Shakespeare! Propounded by the Marlowe Society, this
thesis found its most articulate and commited exponents in Calvin Hoffman, who wrote The Man Who Was Shakespeare in 1955, and A.D. “Dolly”
Wraight. Hoffman believed that Thomas Walsingham was Marlowe’s lover, and that he faked the playwright’s death to save him from execution.