Christopher Marlowe’s demise – a continuing mystery

Christopher Marlowe’s demise – a continuing mystery


NB For the original talk when given at the Birmingham and Midland Institute on 16 10 17 the audience were given a full copy of the coroner’s report and the statement on Marlowe from the Royal Shakespeare Company website. The key sections of the Coroner’s report were broken down into three subsections, A B and C for the purposes of the talk. Sections in italics in this expanded paper are the talk as given at the BMI. Future talks will follow this format without the RSC documents. Appendix A is a later addition.


The disappearance of Christopher Marlowe on May 30th 1593 is a mystery that is not likely to be solved in the current state of play. Indeed, while it was not unusual for playwrights of this era to disappear without trace – the young men writing for Elizabethan theatre tended to live fast and die young while NOT leaving a beautiful corpse –  Marlowe’s demise left enough clues to provoke investigation without there being enough to provide a satisfactory conclusion. Ros Barber’s prize winning verse novel on  Marlowe’s career (2013) is a recent attempt to probe what happened, albeit fictional – successfully keeping the Marlowe mystery in the public eye (1)


Most of those who vanished without trace did so leaving little sign they existed. This is not the case with Marlowe, but the sketchy evidence has proved endlessly controversial.  Marlowe’s disappearance happened at a time when he was a  relatively well known figure  in London’s literary world and among religious pamphleteers, the pamphleteers focussing on his ambiguous religious views . The mystery has sparked a great research effort  especially in the last ninety odd years. The search has not however resolved the issues, resulting in a lack of a consensus among experts on what happened to Marlowe that pose  unique problems  in the history of  post Renaissance English Literature.


There are two challenges which Marlowe’s disappearance pose for historians. Firstly, though it is now a well established urban myth that he was killed in a brawl in a tavern, more than four centuries of study have failed to provide clinching evidence. This leads to the second challenge,  understanding why it is difficult to do this. Why has it not been possible to establish an uncontentious account of  what happened to him?


 Marlowe allegedly  died from a stab wound in a drunken fight in a tavern owned by a Mrs Eleanor Bull in Deptford, on the River Thames. But close examination of the coroner’s report, which we will look at in some detail as it is the only hard evidence on what happened, has generated more questions than answers. To take simplest problem with the urban myth,  the property of Mrs Bull was not a conventional tavern and there is no evidence that the alleged fight was a drunken affair. As you can see from section A,  the inquest report only talks of “the house of a certain Eleanor Bull, widow:”. The allegation of drunkenness predated the inquest  (2), remaining a core assumption to the present day,  but the actual inquest wording  only  mentions that Marlowe  was one of a party of four men – Ingram Frizer, Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres and Marlowe, which had dinner, and that they later supped, making no suggestion they were drinking to excess.


It is reasonable to assume they were drinking some alcohol. They  probably drank the ‘small beer’ which was normal with meals at the time, with low alcohol content but sterilised though boiling as there was little fresh clean water. The coroner’s report suggests this was a quiet meeting of over 8 hours duration. Why then did this end – according to the report – in lethal violence? And why did the inquest report not lead to public discussion of what had happened? Admittedly there were no public media, and the report was written in obscure legal latin, but Marlowe despite vanishing from public view as so many did in that plague year,  was never forgotten. His plays began to be published with his name displayed, with his poetry equally successful. Yet in the aftermath of Deptford there was a profound silence from those who knew him. Marlowe’s friends, who included the writers known at the ‘University wits”, (3) said nothing about his demise. There were  no obituaries and no memorials though a rumour mill began to produce stories about his passing.


 The rumours only provided oblique and ambiguous comments, some suggesting  that he died in Deptford.  There was no solid evidence until in 1820 a researcher discovered a note in the Deptford church records that Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard, killed by a named person. But there was no trial for murder that anyone could find despite searches for the named person. The name, we now know, was written down wrongly, leading researchers down a blind alley for over a century.


It was three and a quarter centuries after his disappearance, that the Harvard historian Leslie Hotson discovered legal documents giving apparently solid  evidence on what happened to Marlowe explaining why there was no public trial of his killer.


Hotson’s brilliance was to recognise the name in the church records was wrong and to step back from searching for a murder trial to look for a Coroner’s report which could pre-empt a murder trial.  He discovered this in the Public Record Office and as this concluded  that the killing was self defence, there was no trial for murder and no public comment. The killing was stated to have been carried out by one Ingram Frizer who was “in fear of being slain”. The legal verdict   was confirmed when Hotson found a Royal Pardon which he published, exonerating Frizer from any criminal charge as Marlowe was the allegedly the instigator of the violence.  Frizer had been set free without the need to face trial. As far as Elizabeth’s government was concerned, the case was closed. 


Despite the brilliance of Hotson’s research, which he published early in 1925,  this did not mean the solution was satisfactory. Indeed, the discoveries triggered intensive research which has produced three major theories of what happened, only one of which supports the inquest verdict. All three are elaborated differently by different writers.  And on October 17th 2017 BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcast a 45 minute play on what happened in Deptford, advertised as being about “the mystery surrounding the unsolved killing (my  emphasis) of playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1593. An innovative drama starring Paul Rhys”.


 Marlowe has achieved a kind of posthumous celebrity status, but the more we learn, the less we know.   Marlowe studies look increasingly like an exercise in Post Modernism – the stories are different, and become a pick and mix exercise of a limited range of  evidence which has survived and been unearthed in fragments, ad hoc.


However as I am a fairly conventional historian, my view is that post modernism does not work. There was only one outcome for Marlowe in 1593. Marlowe only lived one life and had only one death. There must be a narrative which explains all the known facts, and this has eluded historians .  Why this so is what I want to discuss in this talk, looking at the key piece of evidence, the Coroner’s report.




Three main theories  have entered the popular culture, as the Royal Shakespeare Company website showed at the time of their production of Marlowe’s  play  Dido Queen of Carthage this autumn.  The RSC writer made the assumption that Marlowe left little evidence on his life, and that this is not unusual. I  agree. The RSC is right to say that little is known about the playwrights of the era.  The Roaring Boys, as the playwrights were known, did not leave much evidence behind, even for the University wits (3).


Playwrights were  poorly paid, low status, and attracted little attention.  Marlowe’s literary career is not unusual in being largely unrecorded. None of Marlowe’s plays were published under his name in his lifetime. His reputation, largely in London, was as a writer who became  a freethinker contributing to the religious unrest of the time.


Establishing links between Elizabethan plays and who wrote them is a herculean task, made more so by the current belief in multiple authorship – which while throwing a useful curve ball against the idea that plays were the product of solitary inspiration has opened the pandora’s box of computer analysis.  For Shakespeare, the lack of clinching evidence is sometimes held to be proof he did not write the work under his name. However he worked as part of a company which owned  his playscripts, did not take documents back to Stratford when he retired,  and the First Folio of his plays published in 1623, seven years after his death, came from scripts held by his former colleagues in London. Marlowe also did not own his own scripts, but was more obscure as not part of a company, but probably  was part of a network of writers, operating incognito  – though for Dido, Thomas Nashe is credited on the title page of the 1595 edition as contributor.  


 Marlowe was however not merely a literary figure and his extra-curricular activities gave him 

 high visibility at certain points, especially in his  final weeks. It is difficult to substantiate the rumour he was a spy, spies do not advertise, and he attracted attention in ways which were not ideal for espionage. Politicians were watching Marlowe and the record of Marlowe’s  life is filled in for the last weeks before May 30th with a considerable amount of detail in government records (4)


The reasons we know much about those weeks is because he was summoned to be interrogated by the Privy Council over suspect religious views. The Council  tracked him down in the house of Thomas Walsingham, a  friend with whom he was staying in Scadbury in Kent. He was in serious trouble, which Hotson did not examine, under scrutiny by the highest authorities in the land. From Scadbury he went to Deptford, meeting the three men who were to claim he died that day. The Council was then meeting at Nonesuch palace near Greenwich, making Deptford inside the Verge  (5), the crucial legal phrase repeated four times in the coroner’s report and giving the legal reason for a court official being the coroner. The Verge, and not the fact Marlowe was under investigation by the Privy Council, is the legal  reason Sir William Danby ran the inquest. Danby was an experienced political and legal operator, but produced a curious Coroner’s report,  particularly as only the three men in the room spoke –  no one else was called to give evidence, least of all Mrs Bull herself.




But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The RSC report sees Marlowe as a Secret Agent,  A Heretic, and a Brawler – the writer seeing these as the key aspects of his character.   Marlowe  as a Brawler  defines him as aggressive and pugnacious. It is certainly true  that he had several brushes with the law, and indeed was arrested on a murder charge after a killing in Hog Lane. However he was discharged without trial and the killer, his close friend Thomas Watson pleaded self defence and was set free. Marlowe was never convicted of violence.


The comment that the final meeting was with “three government agents who were paid assassins”  is astonishingly inaccurate. None was known to be violent, though Poley had been in prison, and there is no evidence any of the three were paid assassins.  Of the three, Robert Poley was certainly an intelligence operative on government service, but Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer  were employed by Thomas Walsingham – Skeres had also for a decade worked for money lender John Wolfall (see note 3), and  Walsingham was host to Marlowe that week. Neither Frizer nor Skeres  had intelligence links though Walsingham did – through being cousin of spymaster Francis Walsingham, and he was Frizer’s employer and Frizer worked financial tricks with Skeres. No links have been found between Poley and any of the men meeting at Deptford and no involvement with Thomas Walsingham or Marlowe has  been established to explain why Poley was in attendance. There was nothing in the Coroner’s report about what had brought the four men to Mrs Bull’s House. Seeking  links  between the four men meeting at Mrs Bull’s house has led to much inconclusive speculation, but Hotson – as with the inquest – asked no questions even of Poley, who research later found to be on a government mission that day to travel to the continent.


However the RSC note merely echoes a garbled version of the urban myth of the Deptford incident. This is rooted in Hotson’s analysis of evidence in the Coroner’s report, which gave no support to the idea there was any link to the state.  Hotson did not probe any such link, assuming the killing to be a random act of violence over who paid the bill, despite having  reasons enough to  mull over possible links with high politics- he knew Poley had been a key player in exposing the Babbington Plot to free Mary Queen Of Scots (pp51-52) for example.


Hotson’s failure to explore the political connection is puzzling as he discovered that  Marlowe was known to the Privy Council at Cambridge in 1587 having found the letter to the University certifying absences were due to his being on government service, stating he behaved “orderlie and discreetelie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service”, (p58) Hotson sees this  only as a certificate of good character (p62), though later writers speculate that he was engaged in espionage, which the letter unsuprisingly does not mention. Although Marlowe was  known to the Privy Council six years before Deptford, Hotson naming Lord Burghley as one of the signatories. Hotson  makes no connection with the  Council investigation of 1593, seeing  even the letter of 1587 to Corpus Christi as having no relevance to what had happened.  


 Marlowe may not have been in government employment in 1593. Other political factors could  undermine the assumption made at the time of the inquest, and which Hotson embraced that there was no political motive for the killing, the argument being purely commercial –  ie who paid for a meal – which is the core assumption of the lawful killing verdict.  Seeing Marlowe as prone to violence is unhistorical but helps pigeonhole him as a brawler – which  has some scholarly support in the comment of Marlowe biographer Constance Brown Kuriyama in an essay published in 2015  that discoveries in Canterbury suggested that Marlowe can be seen as “a brawler who was somehow connected with intelligence work” (6). The caricature has certainly seeped into the sketches of writers on the fringe of the Marlowe debate, as the RSC document shows, but  while sketchy and inadequately researched  the RSC document does state the three main theories about what happened at Deptford.  They are


Theory 1. Justifiable homicide.  Marlowe was in a house of assignation in Deptford and ate two meals, following which he was  killed by one Ingram Frizer in self defence because Marlowe started an argument over who paid the Bill. This is the theory  which has entered urban folklore. The two witnesses who both supported Frizer, were Skeres and Poley.  While Hotson was prepared to admit that it was possible that the three men “concocted a lying account of Marlowe’s behaviour, to which they swore at the inquest, and with which they decieved the jury” (p40) he rejected this. Hotson prefered to believe that the men “Had been drinking deep” and drunkeness was the cause of the argument. This is mere guesswork, but Hotson was impressed by the fact that the legal documents gave a full and plausible account of a killing.


The Royal Pardon said little that was not in the inquest report, but proved  that  Frizer’s  claim he acted in self defence was accepted and Frizer was released with remarkable speed, certainly compared to Watson’s months behind bars after his acquittal for the Hog Lane  brawl. Officially the killing was a response to Marlowe’s attack, and  the lethal blow dealt to Marlowe was not planned. Hotson accepted the documents at face value.


However the historical documents were queried within weeks of their being published by Hotson. One immediate problem for the validity of the official account was that Marlowe did not have a weapon. He was killed by Frizer’s dagger. How this could happen is an issue we will examine, but it has to be stressed that Marlowe was unarmed as a casual implication that he had a weapon creeps into historical accounts (7).   The fact that an unarmed man was killed by a man who had come to the meeting with a dagger is used to support the second theory, which is that Marlowe was murdered.


Theory 2.  The accusation is of deliberate homicide. The killing was not self defence, but a planned and intentional killing, the argument over who paid the bill for a meal  an excuse, or an invention (8) – the case given by the RSC  is the Queen had him murdered but this is only one version (9)  there are others all of which suggest that in some way the killing was intentional. There are so  many versions of the murder theory it is a a specialist topic too detailed for examination today.


The RSC statement suggests that Marlowe was meeting with ‘paid assassins’  but while this is not true, Marlowe was certainly  outnumbered three to one and  the explanation of why the three men could not stop his alleged attack is a major weakness of theory 1.  The murder theory is butressed by the fact that Marlowe did not come to the meeting with a weapon. It is accepted that  that he was unarmed, though in the fatal incident involving Thomas Watson, Marlowe had a sword and defended himself with it, though it was Watson who struck the fatal blow.  The fact he was unarmed indicates he was not expecting trouble. Given that he was under interrogation by the Privy Council however he was facing an uncertain future which could be resolved by his death, real or staged, leading to:


Theory 3 Which alleges that Marlowe survived and escaped , his death was faked . The ramifications of this theory involve others and usually  court intrigue or a complex government conspiracy, as it is obvious that Marlowe alone could hardly produce a scenario that would convincingly suggest he was dead when he was alive.


The  most obvious objection is  that a body was buried in the churchyard as the church records  prove, and this was named as being that of Marlowe. However the body was not identified by anyone who was not involved in the coroner’s report, and this raises questions as to whether the report stands up to forensic examination of its content and procedures.


It is this key question that I examine in my pamphlet MARLOWE’S LAST BOW  and it is this that I will discuss in the last part of this talk. Only the inquest report and the pardon, which repeats the inquest, have survived. If Danby made notes of his interrogation – he worked alone – they have not been discovered.


As we can see from the Coroners’s report, the account of what happened goes through 3 stages. In the first (Section A),  the meeting is not a noisy or boistrous affair:  the men were together 8 hours, according to the coroner’s words  “in quiet sort”. The account notes that they spent time  walking in the garden. However they ate two meals, so were waited upon, but only the three men in the room were called to give evidence.  This was never checked and there is no independent evidence for their stories.   Mrs Bull should certainly have given evidence.  Although Hotson did not know her significance, it has emerged that Mrs Bull was not a run of the mill hostess. She was connected to the court, being a cousin of Blanche Parry, confidante of Elizabeth 1. She is also said to have had a distant family connection with Lord Burghley, the Secretary of State who was a member of the Privy Council and knew that Marlowe was being called before the Council.  Danby could hardly have been unaware of these factors.


However even without linking to Court politics, it was a strange feature of the inquest that witnesses to the day’s events from the household were not called to give evidence. Critics sometimes query Danby’s role, though legally sound,  being ‘within the verge’ meant the role of a court official was accepted practice. However he did not involve a local judge as the law required, and though this appears to have been a common practice he was certainly a political animal, and had been to school with Burghley and was part of the same circle around the Queen. That Danby was involved at this moment in Marlowe’s increasingly precarious career  set up more questions than Hotson saw, but to be fair to Hotson he knew little about the fringe characters and criticism of his analysis rests on factors B and C.


Section B describes an argument between Frizer and Marlowe over who pays the bill, the other two men being entirely passive as the following  scenario develops: Marlowe was lying on or sitting near the bed, with the phrase ‘near the bed’ repeated: Marlowe is said to be on  the bed twice. An argument breaks out with Frizer, Poley and Skeres all having their back to Marlowe. The argument does not involve Skeres and Poley but their bodies trap  Frizer “in such a matter that the same Ingram ffrysar could not take flight” according to the report.


Section C follows with Marlowe taking Frizer’s dagger from ‘his back’ – possibly his belt – and striking him two blows, giving head wounds – the hilt of the dagger possibly being used as the blade could inflict fatal damage so fighters often held the knife blade upward to strike with the hilt to avoid killing  – and if so this would not be an attempt to inflict a fatal injury. However if Frizer  could not turn round he  would not know that  the knife was being used to injure not kill. But why could he not turn round?


The wounds appear to be superficial and slight in extent such as the handle would produce. This suggests the dagger was pointing upwards which fits the rest of the report. While the report is plausible,  and the head wounds would be visible to the  jury, it is possible that the head wounds could have been produced after the event to fake an attack by Marlowe, Hotson accepted this was possible, but dismissed this view of the evidence  because he accepted the verdict.


The most controversial aspect of the inquest report is the  statement that Frizer was “sitting in the manner aforesaid” ie pinioned between Poley and Skeres, who are not moving and pressing Frizer so he cannot stand up and turn round.  Frizer gave Marlowe  “then and there a mortal wound over his right eye” which instantly killed Marlowe. The statement that  Poley and Skeres pinioned Frizer so he couldnot move is repeated again with the phrase “the same Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley”;  a point now made three times.

It is this claim that Poley and Skeres remained seated with their backs to Marlowe and pinioning Frizer so he could not stand up or turn round – but could still struggle with Marlowe, get his dagger back and strike a fatal wound with one blow
 – that made criticism of the report inevitable.  The report would have been more credible had the dagger gone into Marlowe’s eye socket, but it is explicitly stated that the knife went through the forehead – a very tough piece of bone.


The credibility of the  whole account has become central to the dispute over what happened at Deptford. It is  bizarre  that it is alleged that Frizer was held by the other two men who remained facing away from Marlowe while the struggle developed, as was Frizer, yet Frizer could grasp the dagger and strike a single fatal blow apparently without turning round. There has been some discussion as to whether a blow through the forehead could be instantly fatal, but the bigger issue is how Frizer could have delivered a blow accurately and with force if he had his back to Marlowe. This account despite a superficial plausibility contains too many  inconsistencies to be satisfactory, even without looking at the wider issues of what brought Marlowe to Deptford to meet these three men.


A  key question, which the inquest was not required to investigate but Hotson felt, rightly, needed comment , is what brought the four men to Deptford, notably the fact that both Skeres and Frizer had financial dealings  with Thomas Walsingham. Hotson grasped that the link was important, making the assumption that Marlowe was  a servant and that the three men knew each other via working at Scadbury for Thomas Walsingham.  Hotson discovered that Frizer and Skeres were money sharpers on the basis of court evidence, notably with a case for a young man called Woodleff, (notably Appendix  p69-73 giving court documents, and the detailed study of Frizer pp41-51 and the shorter note on Skeres on page 51, but casually  assumed (p42)on the basis of no evidence at all that Frizer and Marlowe were both servants – “in all probability, Frizer was just as much a serving man as Christopher Marlowe, and that they both served the same master”. 


It was a bizarre misconception.  Marlowe was a Cambridge graduate and hence gentleman, and was not at Scadbury as a servant – but while Hotson did correctly assess the relationship between the two (p49) – “Thomas Walsingham of Chistlehurst, is the patron of Christopher Marlowe, and Ingram Frizer’s master”, on the same page he argued “Everything then points to an association between Marlow and Frizer at Scadbury as dependants of the same wealthy gentleman”. In fact nothing points to such an association, Marlowe was not a dependant of Walsingham and there is no evidence he had met Frizer before May 30th 1593. Hotson’s  assumptions were not firmly based.




The dispute over Hotson’s discovery began immediately he published in 1925. On  May 21st 1925 a Cambridge researcher, Eugenie de Kalb, published a critical review in the Times Literary Supplement which assessed the value of Hotson’s research and was particularly critical of the Coroner’s Report . Her key statement describes the fight  as follows:

“Friser, Poley and Skeres are seated at a table, all close together. Frizer, between the other two, faces the table with his back to Marlowe, who is lying on a bed just behind.
This does not strike one as any ordinary position in which any two men would conduct a dispute over a reckoning  (my emphasis -)  .. is it concievable that any man in mortal earnest would recline on a bed to hack at an antagonist who is sitting upright  and certain to retaliate? Frizer… is able to grapple with Marlowe… to struggle with him for the dagger, and to give him a mortal wound – and this without interference from the other two men who (apparently) waited passive…” (para 13).


While Marlowe was lying on the bed initially he is more likely to have risen to attack Frizer, the report has not excluded this and it would make more sense for him to have stood up. But the rest of De Kalb’s  critique is sound.

The immobility of Skeres and Poley is inexplicable. Even if frightened they would have stood up and turned round, to find out what Marlowe was doing and to defend themselves. If they were deliberately holding Frizer down they had to use their arms and to do so would mean that they were aiding Marlowe – which makes no sense at all. And in this case how could Frizer have taken the dagger and hit Marlowe? Even if the two men were scared to move, stopping Frizer moving meant he could not take the dagger.  The inconsistencies of the account make it implausible.  This line of thought contributes to the Second theory by default: de Kalb suggests that the wounds Frizer undoubtedly showed the jury were “such insignificant cuts… as might be self inflicted to corroborate a put-up story” (para 13). De Kalb claimed with less validity that the scenario  is rooted in three of the four men working for  ‘the hidden political machinery of Elizabeth’s reign” (para 9), but only Marlowe and Poley were centrally involved, though she has found Skeres working for the Earl of Essex. She initiated a current of criticism which was to flow abundantly, though she came to no conclusion on how Marlowe was killed.  But by 1929 Frederick Boas concluded surveying then recent scholarship “there is a prevailing impression that he was deliberately murdered” (10). That view has never gone away.


 Hotson’s belief that he had solved the problem was supported by the introduction of Professor George Kitteredge of Harvard, who claimed that “the mystery of Marlowe’s death… is now cleared up for good and all on the authority of public records of complete authenticity and gratifying fulness” (11) but far from resolving the problem Hotson had compounded it. The three theories of what happened to Marlowe germinated from the time of his research publication. The murder theory has predominated and the faked death theory has not attracted as much notice, becoming unfortunately linked with  unhistorical speculation that Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare.


The historical problems are both that the orthodox theory remains recycled with little acknowledgement in academia that they exist (12) and that in part because of this, outside specialist studies and fiction  the problems remain unsolved and all three theories remain in circulation. Marlowe occupies an unquiet grave.  Marlowe, a historical figure, becomes a shape shifter after May 30th 1593. We cannot get the real Christopher Marlowe into focus. Marlovian scholarship no longer simply poses the question of how to establish what happened to him. That is a big enough question. But the bigger  issue is the failure to move forward. The Hotson-de Kalb exchange was 1925, 92 years ago. There is no resolution of this historical question. Why is this still the case in 2017?




Appendix A. Marlowe and Espionage


The assertion that Marlowe was a spy has become particularly controversial, notably in the essay by

Constance Brown Kuriyama (notes 6 and 12 below). Kuriyama is prepared to accept that Marlowe had some intelligence role, suggesting “the government employed Marlowe in some capacity related to intelligence, beginning in 1587 and continuing until his death”, (2015 p332), but denies that he was in a major league of operatives such as Robert Poley (2015 p332), who was clearly a double agent. Kuriyama argues that  “the probability that he was involved in sensitive covert operations is low” (2015 -332), but she ignores  Flushing. However as Marlowe’s apparent attempt at a covert operation ended in disaster and imprisonment, the outcome of Flushing supports  Kuriyama’s position. He was not a seasoned intelligence operative, and calling him a spy overstates his work for the state.


However as the RSC document of 2017 has shown, the view that Marlowe was a spy has become as deeply embedded as the proposition he was killed in Deptford. Marlowe lacked the qualities needed for espionage, but was probably an efficient courier. However the inflation of his reputation and the glamour of espionage and is an aspect of the shape shifting persona which makes him seem a major player in the political turmoil of his age.  This  factor  now affects even  studies of late Elizabethan espionage which seemingly must now contain obligatory, innaccurate references to Marlowe as a spy.
This is most clearly shown by the  2012 volume THE QUEEN’S AGENT by John Cooper (Pegasus 2012), devoted to Sir Francis Walsingham, which contains a short summary of Marlowe as spy, (pp178-9) and gives more attention to him than the clearly more significant  players RIchard Baines and Robert Poley.  Cooper cannot resist painting Marlowe as a fighter, stating that Marlowe was involved in the violent incident in Hog Lane, in which Watson intervened “to save the life of Christopher Marlowe”, for which “he served a term in Newgate Prison for manslaughter” (p325) Neither statement is true: Watson was acting in self defence and was acquitted, but image is all.


Cooper  knows that the evidence base is thin and makes this very clear, stating,  “We know that Marlowe’s time as a spy was brief: a few months while reading for his MA at Corpus Christi in 1584-85, and a reprise in the Dutch port of Flushing in 1592”. He only comments on the Cambridge period, sketchily, and ignores his own reference to Marlowe in Flushing. However even dealing with Cambridge the likelihood Marlowe was engaged in espionage is weak, the absences suggest at best be was a courier. It is even less likely that he had catholic sypathies.  The note from the Privy Council   dated 29th June 1587  clearly relates to a rumour that he was to go to Rheims after he graduated, not during his college studies. Cooper rightly says Rheims was “Cardinal Allen’s college for missionary priests” (p179)  indicating the College Authorities suspected Marlowe after gaining his MA would travel to France to become a Catholic priest. The Privy Council deny this, but leave obscure what caused his absences. There is no evidence Marlowe went to Europe while at Cambridge.


Cooper states that “he reported to Lord Burghley on occasion” (p179), and that “there is circumstantial evidence that Francis Walsingham was his principal paymaster”, but gives  no source. Cooper implies the source is Thomas Walsingham, who as second cousin of the spymaster Francis was a courier “between England and France in the early 1580s”. However there is a substantial time gap before he appears as Marlowe’s host in May 1593 and there is no evidence he was Marlowe’s link. The key sentence (p179) is “If Thomas recruited Marlowe, then he may also have been his handler at Seething Lane” (p179), ie Walsingham’s HQ. This is, alas, the school of “might have been” and underlines that we do not have any evidence on Marlowe’s work for the state while at Cambridge. Thomas Walsingham was known to Marlowe, but we do not have any evidence on an intelligence link.


Kuriyama had suggested that Marlowe was probably recruited by Nicholas Faunt, Francis Walsingham’s secretary and a Cambridge man, but in her 2015 essay (p336) follows Irata Ide in thinking Thomas Harris, Marlowe’s tutor and an ex-room mate of Faunt, as the link, but this is speculation. There is no solid  evidence for why Marlowe was known to the PRivy Council by 1587.


We are on stronger ground with Marlowe’s relationship with Thomas Walsingham in 1593, but Cooper exceeds the known facts even here. It is true Marlowe was under a Privy Council interdict in May 1593, and was  found at Walsingham’s Scadbury manor in Kent, but Cooper is in error in arguing  “Within the month, Thomas was one of the mourners at Marlowe’s funeral” (p179). The funeral never took place,  Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave unknown till 1820, and while Walsingham’s role may be linked to the event at Deptford,  the silence from Scadbury when Marlowe disappeared tells its own story. Walsingham said and did nothing  after Marlowe left his house that would link him to Marlowe.  Why Cooper thinks Walsingham attended a nonexistent funeral is puzzling.


Alas neither clinching evidence nor consistency is obligatory where Marlowe is concerned. Cooper, by no means the most inaccurate writer about Marlowe’s extra literary activities, concludes that Marlowe has two sides – “atheist and spy” – that he is also seen as a brawler is relegated to the footnote on page 367 – until – on the same page (180)  Cooper asserts that “Dogged by rumours of homosexuality and Crypto Catholicism,   Marlowe lay at one end of a spectrum ofagents employed by Walsingham”, (ie Francis).  These rumours have no real substance. Aethist? Cryto-Catholic? Spy? Homosexual? where is the evidence? Cooper defines him  two ways in one page of writing.


Cooper uses a small range of literary evidence for his short two page summary of Marlowe’s ‘career’ as a spy (13) and the section is little more than colour for a wider discussion of how Walsingham operated to gain intelligence, without bringing the minor players into focus – an issue that historians need to consider, given the importance even minor characters played in an era of shifting loyalties and few available players.  Cooper has a short section on Richard Baines on p180, (14) but does not grasp his career as a double agent and does not cite Roy Kendall’s work in the text, though he does cite an essay by Kendall in his footnotes – see note (14) below . Cooper dismisses  Baines as ‘a fraud from the start’ (p187), a curious comment to make on  one of the great double agents of the period, rivalling Poley in the Babington Plot.


Poley, as is usual, only plays a bit role with only four marginal comments noted in the index.  Poley was critical to breaking the Babbington plot, making him far more important historically than Marlowe who was marginal to  the Catholic-Protestant battle which marked Elizabeth’s reign.  Poley was undoubtedly a spy, but having no later celebrity has not gained recognition. Poley was crucial to exposing the Babbington Plot and probably did earn his living from working for the government.  Marlowe’s role remains unknown, but it did not constitute a full time occupation.  We can conclude  some employment for the government in intelligence work is supported by evidence, but it was not his main business. The lack of evidence is not just a function of espionage being  a secret world, though it is that, but also points up that evidence is perishable.  Cooper is right to point to the way Walsingham privately financed his network, noting the difficulties of tracking more formal payments as “a fire in 1619 consumed many of the privy seal warrants” (p182), and no evidence on Marlowe’s payments if any have survived. But they have survived for Poley in 1593.


Marlowe was always a freelance, but others could not be described so loosely. For at least two key characters who knew Marlowe, Richard Baines and Poley, involvement with the state was a career choice, for Poley as a main source of income apparently, for Baines driven by a religious and nationalist agenda. In both cases they were double agents, Baines being a person who did go to Rheims – and was a double agent in the Catholic seminary, while  Poley seems to have played the role of Crypto Catholic in luring Babbington to make his final moves in the Plot to trigger a Catholic uprising.


Nevertheless, Marlowe, Baines and Poley were marginal players in the Great Game Walsingham was engaged in before his death in 1590.  Cooper knows that Walsingham does not have a professional, well trained group of operatives. He writes, with only a degree of overstatement, that


“Francis Walsingham was not the founding father of MI5 and 6. The Elizabethan secret service was less a formal structure than a web of relationships. Walsingham turned his household into a seat of government, as Thomas Cromwell had done before him. His agents were his own servants and clients, operating as individuals rather than as cogs in a departmental machine. The gathering of intelligence was lubricated by patronage and profit…. Success or failure depended on his ability to…. spot the connections in the avalanche of information and to keep his people loyal.” (15)


The opening three sentences are certainly true, and his house in Seething Lane was crucial. But there was an element of system and  while Walsingham financed much activity and lost a fortune due to the penny pinching of the Queen, there were bureaucratic systems in place and we know that Poley was on duty on the day Marlowe disappeared – three years after Francis Walsingham’s death – because state records show what he was paid and when he was paid from the Treasury. Others are less well evidenced, and all occupy a shadowy world. Spies do not advertise.


For Cooper and others writing about the world of espionage it is  Marlowe who was significant.

Paradoxically, by giving him more attention than Baines and Poley, Cooper exaggerates Marlowe’s importance in the espionage network, and downgrades that of the other two, both of whom had some role at Deptford – Baines indirectly, Poley directly.   By treating Marlowe as a proven spy – without defining what he means by that description – he clouds the issues. Marlowe was on the fringe of Francis Walsingham’s circle, though known to the Secretary of State, Burghley. He was probably an  efficient courier and had earned some degree of protection from Burghley and possibly Burghley’s son Robert. But how much is  again  speculation.


We cannot make progress in understanding what happened to Marlowe without studying what was happening in Court circles around the Privy Council. Focussing  on Marlowe as an intelligence operative ignores what was really happening. Marlowe was part of a religious struggle which encompassed Francis Walsingham but went on after his death in 1590, drawing in Marlowe and those who he knew most closely. The challenge is to see Marlowe not as a spy – whatever that means in the late Elizabethan period – but a man who was not an espionage agent but knew men who were. Marlowe himself had earned some credit from men in power as his treatment shows. But what had led to that we are no nearer telling. Implying that it was as a player in the great espionage game that makes him significant  pushes the evidence beyond what it can reasonably bear.  Marlowe cannot be meaningfully seen as a spy. The issues which led to his disappearance lie outside his limited involvement in the secret world, and the limited evidence available does not yet explain what role he played in the religious struggles which set the context. In this as in so much else, Marlowe remains mysterious.



Lesley Hotson published his researches as Death of Christopher Marlowe, London, the Nonesuch Press, Cambridge, Harvard University Press 1925. My edition is the facsimile published by Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Mystical reprints,


(1) Ros Barber The Marlowe Papers, Sceptre 2012. Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013, Joint Winner Author’s club Best First Novel, longlisted Women’s Fiction prize (formerly Orange Prize).  


(2) Before Hotson’s discovery Le Gay Brereton talked of a “tavern in Deptford…the kind of place where they sell bad beer” and this was quoted by Hotson (p19) who went on to allege drunkeness on Marlowe’s part, alleging that the argument  “roused Marlowe’s intoxicated feelings… leaping from the bed, he took the nearest way to stop Frizer’s mouth” (p40)

(3) Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy (Oxford 2005),names the following as University Wits, ie university educated writers of the late Elizabethan period, in addition to Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Tom Watson, George Peele, John Lyly, Robert Greene and Matthew Roydon. The latter was in 1582 fleeced by Nicholas Skeres and John Wolfall in a money lending scam. as Skeres confessed to Star Chamber, in April 1593, a month before Deptford.  – See Honan p347and the index entry on University Wits.


(4) These are partly government minutes, and reports from informers. Notably there is a note in government records for early June 1593  which reports Marlowe’s death – with a muddled date – which allegedly went to the Queen herself, contributing to the rumour she ordered Marlowe’s death.


(5) The ‘Verge’  was an imaginary circle around the Queen, twelve (Tudor) miles from her person, within  which the court officials could investigate serious crime. The aim was to protect the monarch from assassination plots.


(6) Constance Brown Kuriyama Marlowe Biography IN Christopher Marlowe at 450, Ed Sara Munson Deats, and Roberta A Logan, Ashgate 2015, p 329. This section   suggests the image of Marlowe is “at best as a daring iconoclast, at worst as a sociopath with violent tendencies who associated with shady characters engaged in espionage, double dealing, and usury. He operated as a spy and an agent and an agent provocateur, and his death was part of a nefarious plot devised by someone or other, probably as a consequence of his knowing too much about something or other. The coroner’s report was either a deliberate cover up or a reflection of the coroner’s naivety. An endemic twentieth century suspicion of state power underlay many of these freewheeling elaborations of the evidence, along with a taste for melodrama. In defense of Marlowe’s more imaginative biographers, we might concede that biography is always fictitious to some degree….”


All quotes p329. The sketch is a deliberate caricature of the modern use of evidence, a polemic against  the tendency to see Marlowe as a heteredox character which makes some valid points. But these are dubious assumptions from an orthodox thinker who in this essay glides over the Hotson pamphlet and its controversial handling of evidence without subjecting it to the same treatment as handed out to more recent Marlovians. Professor  Kuriyama wrote a book of total orthodoxy in 2002, accepting the self defence thesis uncritically.  See note (12) below.  


(7) for example, in Thomas Healy’s essay Marlowe’s biography IN Emily C Bartels & Emma Smith Christopher Marlowe In Context, Cambridge 2013, he suggests “a quarrel broke when it came to paying the bill. Daggers were employed, and Frizer killed Marlowe…”. The use of the plural creeps in almost without thought.


(8) for example, it is a legal weakness that  no evidence was called from the inhabitants of the house as to whether they heard a quarrel: or to identify the body as that of Marlowe


(9)  this theory was put forward  by Professor David Riggs, a Princeton historian  in The World of Christopher Marlowe, Faber and Faber 2005


(10) Frederick Boas Christopher Marlowe and his circle Oxford University Press, 1929 p15. 


(11) Death of Christopher Marlowe, op cit p7. The bulk of the pamphlet is Hotson and the author attribution for J Leslie Hotson and G L Kittredge is misleading.


(12) The two major essay collections of recent years both contain essays which accept that Marlowe was killed in Deptford, for example in the Thomas Healy essay cited in (7) above, though Healy sits on the fence on what the killing amounted to but does state “Marlowe … seems to have died instantly”. The scandalously inadequate biographical sketch the prefaces the collection however, calmly accepts that Marlowe was “Murdered by Ingram Frizer after a fight in a Deptford eating house” (pxvi) which accepts theory 2 but has the killing after the fight, not instantaneously as the inquest report states. Do editors read what their writers are saying?
Constance Brown Kuriyama, in the essay mentioned above (6), in an influential essay collection more likely to be read than her 2002 book,  features extensive critiques of work appearing since her book was written, notably Honan 2005, Roy Kendall (2003) and David Riggs (2005), and extensively the 2002 version of Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, and Irate Ide (1966 appeared before any of the above but seems to have been missed by them – see Kuriyama p336). However Kuriyama makes no attempt to consider the critiques of Hotson made since 1925. The only comment on Hotson, after praising his skills in paleography, is that “The discovery of these two errors soon led Hotson to Ingram Frizer’s pardon and the coroner’s report” (328).  In that order, apparently. The issues critics have raised, notably by de Kalb in 1925, are not mentioned.


Defenders of the orthodox position must do better than this, by addressing the critiques of Hotson made since 1925.


(13) Cooper has no bibliography, but his footnotes give two sets of sources for his statements: the Chapter 5 on Security Services has two notes, #23 and #24 both on page 343: # 23 cites Park Honan 2005 pp 84-5 on the buttery books at Corpus Christi, the Privy council letter, and David Riggs 2004 on Marlowe and Burghley, p181. Honan is cited pp128-32 for the relationship with THomas Walsingham,and the DNB for Thomas Walsingham himself.


(14) #24 cites a 1993 version of Nicholl’s THE RECKONING – Cooper does not seem to know there was a later 2002 version which abandons the earlier thesis – and an essay by Roy Kendall in the journal English Literary History (24)  from 1994, but not the book length study by Kendall published by the Farleigh Dickinson University in 2003 which was available to study when Cooper wrote.


(15) John Cooper The Queen’s Agent Pegasus 2012, p1636


15th November 2017


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