Death of Christopher Marlowe?
Peter Farey presents what he believes to be the most relevant facts surrounding Marlowe's supposed death, and asks our readers seriously to consider just what conclusions they would arrive at in these circumstances, and what explanations they would have for doing so.
Wednesday 30th May 1593
The home of Eleanor Bull, Deptford Strand, on the Thames about 4 miles downstream from London Bridge.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
• Born the son of a Canterbury shoemaker in February 1564. At university for six and a half years being educated to M.A. level. At 29, currently England's greatest playwright.
• Socially on familiar terms with many of the country's top aristocrats, statesmen, writers, scientists, philosophers and other thinkers.
• Occasional secret intelligence agent on behalf of the Privy Council, most probably for Lord Burghley. Possibly involved for him right now in secret matters touching the Queen's succession, a topic about which she has forbidden any discussion.
• Has apparently been staying with his friend Thomas Walsingham, close relative and former high-ranking employee of the late spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.
• Arrested and brought to be questioned by the Privy Council ten days ago after an accusation of heresy arising from papers alleged to be his having been discovered in the home of fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Their Lordships knew that he might be found at Thomas Walsingham's home in Kent.
• Released on condition he reports to them every day. There is no record of whether he actually did so or not.
• Far more serious accusations now with them will almost inevitably lead to his torture, trial and execution.
• About ten years older than Marlowe. Cambridge educated but took no degree.
• Former agent provocateur for spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, is known to be an expert liar, prepared to perjure himself if necessary. In 1585/6 he was apparently "placed with" Sir Francis Walsingham's daughter Frances, and "by that means ordinarily in his house." In 1590 the widowed Frances married the Earl of Essex, who joined the Privy Council three months ago.
• Poley is now regularly employed as an intelligence agent and messenger for the Privy Council, particularly Vice-Chamberlain Thomas Heneage and Lord Burghley.
• Has recently been undertaking frequent missions to Scotland and the Netherlands. Departed for The Hague on 8th May, and is on his way back from there right now with urgent and important letters for the Privy Council.
• He will delay delivering these for another nine days, however, when his warrant will (uniquely) say that he has been "on her Majesty's service" all of this time.
• 30 years old. Another of Sir Francis Walsingham's former agents provocateurs, and with the ability to lie with complete plausibility that this implies (and see below, concerning his duplicitous role in loan sharking).
• Had done occasional work soldiering for the Earl of Essex and as a courier for him to and from Walsingham (although, given the above, could have been planted on Essex as a spy?)
• Still calling the Earl his "lord and master" only a month ago at the Court of Star Chamber but evidence suggests that by doing this he may have offended Essex, and therefore lost the chance of further employment, at least for some time, as a result.
• The Star Chamber appearance was to do with his luring potentially wealthy men into the clutches of a predatory loan shark.
• Currently involved in similar confidence trickery with Ingram Frizer (below) in a "hustle" just coming to fruition.
• Age 31? First heard of when he bought and resold the Angel Inn, Basingstoke, in 1589. Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning, 2002, p.27) describes him in 1593 as “a property speculator, a commodity broker, a fixer for gentlemen of worship, ... a racker of young fools.”
• Financial adviser to Thomas Walsingham, with whom Marlowe was apparently staying at the time of his Privy Council appearance. Has probably been with Walsingham since (and resulting from?) Thomas’s brief imprisonment for "outlawry," or debt, in May 1590.
• Loan shark in partnership with Skeres, currently heavily engaged in a "hustle" (the victim a young man called Drew Woodleff) from which Thomas Walsingham, whether knowingly or not, stands to benefit.
• A distant relative of Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil, via her "cousin" the late Blanche Parry, Chief Lady of the Queen's Bedchamber.
• The widow for some three years now of George Bull, sub-bailiff for the Lord of the Manor of Deptford, Christopher Browne (who was also Clerk of the Green Cloth - a sort of "internal auditor" for the Queen's household). It seems that they had no children.
• She now apparently provides (for payment) a room and refreshment for private gatherings such as this. Whether this is available to all or just to certain "intelligence service" clients is unknown.
BEHIND THE SCENES
• His father was a first cousin of Sir Francis, for whom he had worked until 1589.
• During that time he had been a case officer on the unmasking of the so-called Babington Plot against the Queen, with Poley (certainly) and Skeres (probably) among his operatives.
• In 1589 he inherited the family estates - including his home at Scadbury, near Chislehurst in Kent - upon the death of his elder brother Edmund. Described as "lately of London" as well as of Chislehurst when released from prison in May 1590.
• He gave up intelligence work (Sir Francis also died in 1590) and is apparently now settled into the life of a landowner and patron of the arts, although he will also be on record as residing in London (Tower Street ward) in 1595. This is probably in Sir Francis's former home in Seething Lane, now owned by Thomas’s second cousin Frances, wife of the Earl of Essex.
• Among those patronized is his friend Christopher Marlowe, whom he may have known from their "spying" days.
• Frizer is working with him as a sort of financial agent, a role which he will continue to occupy (in particular for Walsingham's wife Audrey) for many years.
• William Cecil, the Queen's right-hand man since her accession 35 years ago.
• There are two occasions in the past when he apparently got Marlowe out of a mess resulting from something Marlowe was doing on behalf of the Privy Council.
• His son Sir Robert Cecil has now joined him on the Privy Council and is helping him (also in secret) over the unmentionable "succession problem," possibly with some involvement by Marlowe.
• He tried, without success, to save the religious dissidents Barrow, Greenwood and Penry from execution, all of whom have been hanged within the past few weeks.
The Archbishop of Canterbury
• John Whitgift, in his early sixties, a leading member of the Privy Council, and the Queen's greatest (and apparent favourite) defender against threats to her position as head of the Church in England, whether it comes from Catholics, Presbyterians, Puritans or Atheists.
• Supported by fellow Council member John Puckering, fifty-year-old Keeper of the Great Seal, who is the apparent stimulus for - and recipient of - the several accusations of Marlowe's blasphemies, heresy and outspoken atheism.
• Whitgift is backed by the arguments of his leading adviser, Richard Cosin, who explains that against "a grievous crime" such as heresy, a judge has the power to proceed against the accused, even without evidence.
• Marlowe, Poley, Skeres and Frizer meet here at Dame Bull's house in Deptford Strand at 10 a.m.
• They spend some time privately in their room.
• They take lunch there.
• They spend most of the afternoon strolling quietly around the garden.
• At about 6 p.m. they return to the room and take supper.
• Some time later either Poley or Skeres (presumably) emerges from the room claiming that the man they identify as Marlowe is dead, having attacked Frizer, who has fatally stabbed him in self defence.
• The blood pouring from Frizer's scalp seems to confirm their story.
Assuming these facts to be true, what would you consider the most logical explanation for the meeting of these particular people, and no others, in Deptford Strand of all places at this particular time? What possible reasons might there have been for their meeting, and what arguments are there for and against each of them?
Friday 1st June 1593
Again the home of Eleanor Bull, Deptford Strand.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
Frizer, Poley, Skeres and maybe Eleanor Bull
• Coroner of the Queen’s Household, whose responsibility it is to attend inquests on violent deaths occurring within "The Verge" - the area within twelve (Tudor) miles of wherever the Queen happens to be. Deptford Strand is just within the Verge, being slightly under twelve (Tudor) miles from Nonsuch in Surrey, where the Queen is currently residing.
• For the inquest to be legal it should be run by a local county coroner and Danby, which is not in fact how this one is done. The only way in which he can legally run it on his own is if he is also a county coroner. This is in fact quite likely (his predecessor filled two such roles and Danby apparently lives only a few miles away in Woolwich, also in Kent) but no Kentish records allowing us to check this have survived, and if he is he must report it in the record of the inquest to make it legal – which he doesn’t.
• Danby studied law at Lincoln’s Inn back in the 1540s, an exact contemporary there of Thomas Walsingham’s father, and at the same time as William Cecil (Burghley) was at Grays Inn. As Queen’s Coroner, which he has been for the past four years, he must be well-known to Burghley and the rest of the Privy Council.
• It would have been Danby’s responsibility to authorize what happened to the body of John Penry - of much the same age as Marlowe - who was hanged for subversion about two miles away from Deptford on the evening before the Deptford meeting.
• First on the list of jurors and one of only two "gentlemen" jurymen listed, so very probably the foreman of the jury.
• Jury members are usually selected by the coroner from a group of suitably qualified local men summoned by the bailiff of the hundred. Yet Draper does not come from the relevant hundred (Blackheath), but lives seven miles away in the parish right next to Chislehurst, where Thomas Walsingham lives. That they are both gentlemen therefore makes it highly likely that they already know each other.
The Rest of the Jury
• Other than Thomas Batt, yeoman, who also comes from Bromley, where Draper lives, the jury consists of men from Deptford, Greenwich and Lewisham.
• There is one other gentleman (Wolstan Randall), together with a miller, two bakers, a grocer, a carpenter, a husbandman, the yeoman (a superior grade servant) and seven others whose occupations are unknown.
According to Danby’s report of the Inquest, in Leslie Hotson’s translation but stripped of most of the repetition and legalisms, this is what the witnesses claim happened behind that closed door.
After supper Ingram Frizer and Christopher Morley uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is le recknynge; and Christopher Morley then lying upon a bed, and moved with anger against Ingram Frizer upon the words spoken between them, and Ingram sitting with his back towards the bed, and with the front part of his body towards the table, and Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley sitting on either side of him in such a manner that he in no wise could take flight; it so befell that Christopher Morley on a sudden and of his malice towards Ingram aforethought, maliciously drew Ingram’s dagger which was at his back, and with the same dagger Christopher Morley maliciously gave Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches and of the depth of a quarter of an inch; whereupon Ingram, in fear of being slain, in his own defence and for the saving of his life, struggled with Christopher Morley to get back his dagger; in which affray Ingram could not get away from Christopher Morley; and Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger gave Christopher a mortal wound over his right eye; of which Christopher Morley instantly died.
Given what we now know of the background, what in your opinion would really be the most logical verdict, and why?
• It was indeed self-defence as the witnesses claimed.
They were lying, because (if you had to say what you thoughtreally happened):
• It was a planned murder.
• It was an unplanned murder.
• It wasn't Marlowe's body, but a substitute, allowing him to escape.
© Peter Farey, March 2011
Peter Farey has been manning the Marlovian barricades on the internet for the past 13 years or so. His Marlowe Page is one of the most respected sites about Marlowe on the web. He is a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society.
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