On 30 May 1593, Christopher Marlowe, illustrious author of such plays as Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Tamburlaine, walked into the Deptford house of the widow Eleanor Bull. There, he encountered three men: Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, and Nicholas Skeres. Marlowe never left the place alive: a knife wound in the eye dispatched him presently to the afterlife.
The question that has been buggering Elizabethan historians is, why?
The assassination of Marlowe has spawned countless hypotheses, many conspiratorial. What they teach in high schools is that Marlowe was murdered in a bar fight. However, closer analysis of events suggests that Marlowe’s death may have had to do with a little more than simply an excessive bar tab.
Historians such as A. D. Wraight in his book In Search of Christopher Marlowe and Curtis C. Breight in Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era have investigated the mystery behind one of literature’s greatest dramatists.
First, the witnesses.
The three men called to the witness box during the trial were all gentlemen. Robert Poley was a secret agent of some repute in the service of Queen Elizabeth. Nicholas Skeres served as a court messenger and was likely also an agent, having played a major part in the disclosure of the Babington Plot, which led to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. Ingram Frizer was a retainer in the service of Sir Thomas Walsingham II, before becoming joined to his son, also named Thomas, who was Marlowe’s patron. It was Ingram knife that was found lodged in Marlowe’s skull.
The evening seems to have begun pleasantly enough. They had dinner and walked in the garden, making business conversation. After their 6:00 supper, the coroner Willian Banby remarks that Ingram and Marlowe became involved in an inflamed argument “about the payment of the sum of pence, that is, le recknynge” (qtd. in Wreight 293).
Marlowe, lying on a bed in the room where they had supped, then drew a dagger and rushed at Ingram, whose back was against him as he sat at the table and the other men. Marlowe struck two wounds in Ingram’s head, an inch long and a quarter inch deep.
Ingram struggled against Marlowe to save his own life and, in the fight, reclaimed the dagger. The wound he inflicted in Marlowe’s right eye went in two inches, supposedly killing Marlowe instantly.
Mr. Banby’s story proves that Ingram acted “in the defense and saving of his own life” (293). Queen Elizabeth eventually pardoned Igram for his crime.
However, Wraight notes how unsatisfactory the testimony has been to scholars, ever since Dr. Hotson’s observation that Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres may have lied to save the life of Ingram Frizer. What, after all, could explain how Marlowe, with the advantage of surprise, only managed to inflict two cuts to Ingram’s skull? Did Skeres and Poley merely stand back and watch? There is even medical evidence that says “a knife thrust two inches in depth into the brain would not result in instantaneous death, or necessarily death at all”! (296)
Furthermore, upon his release from prison, Frizier immediately re-entered the Walsinghams’ employment. Such forgiveness on the part of patrons was exceptional; other men, whether servants or gentlemen, found no such forgiveness after becoming prisoners of the state.
Marlowe was also supposed to appear before the Privy Council—he may or may not have actually done so—on 20 May 1593, ten days before his death. The charges he was supposed to answer for included blasphemy. He later made his fatal journey to Deptford. The connection, or absence of connection, between his murder and these charges has never been proved.
Naturally, such anecdotes give rise to all kinds of theories.
Perhaps the juiciest theory is advanced by Dr. S. A. Tannenbaum, who claims that Sir Walter Raleigh had Marlowe silenced out of fear that he would confess to the atheism of those involved in the fabled School of Night. A face-saving gesture by a Machiavellian hermeticist.
A secret society speculated to have existed, the School of Night was centred around Raleigh and consisted of scientists, courtiers, and poets such as George Chapman, Thomas Harriot, and Marlowe. However, all other evidence seems to acquit Raleigh of conspiracy to commit murder. His noble personality and his lack of caring about his public image, Wraight says, suggests he would not stoop to whacking Marlowe, or using him as a scapegoat.
But could the assassination still have had a political motive?
There is convincing evidence to support the theory that Marlowe was a spy. In 1587, the Privy Council awarded Marlowe an MA from the University of Cambridge as a reward for serving his country in certain secret affairs. Waight says he might have been a spy since 1585. Later on, reports of Marlowe’s shady dealings include an attempt to falsify coinage in Flanders in 1592, where he was briefly arrested. He was suspected of siding with Catholics, but may have been attempting to penetrate the group associated with the Catholic plotter William Stanley as a double agent.
Might he have fallen in with Catholics again, shortly before his death?
Perhaps Marlowe’s patron Thomas Walsingham involved the trio of secret agents in a great conspiracy to eliminate the poet, and have each other pardoned according to a pre-arranged giving of false testimony. Or, we may imagine with a smile Marlowe’s hasty burial in the Deptford parish church as evidence that Walsingham had his agents replace Marlowe’s body with another corpse! Of course, Marlowe would have had to disappear, if he was going to write Shakespeare’s plays in total secrecy…
These conspiracy theories have a way of fogging the real evidence. Elizabethan England’s witch hunts, Puritan hearsay, and paranoia about Catholics, atheists, and “Machievels” played their part to create a paranoid society. Curtis C. Breight describes how Sir William Cecil, the Secretary of State, maintained a police state reminiscent of the McCarthy era, if the use of twentieth-century anachronism can be forgiven.
Similarities between both eras of Elizabethan espionage (including that of our present Queen) have also been drawn: James Bond’s MI6 origins had their origins under Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil’s intelligence networks. When spies are behind every corner, you have to careful what you say about your political or religious beliefs. And Queen Elizabeth, as ahead of the Church of England, represented both State and Church.
Cecilian England gives rise to one final theory about Christopher Marlowe’s death, one that may be as incredible as the others. It says that Cecil gave the order, because of Marlowe’s Catholic sympathies.
At the time, England was supporting the French king Henri IV against the radical Catholic League. The war was unpopular, necessitating the use of Protestant propaganda. Christopher Marlowe wrote a play called The Massacre at Paris, which told the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. On 23 August 1572, King Charles IX ordered the assassination of Huguenot (French Protestant) leaders in Paris, resulting in the deaths of anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 souls. However, some scholars have argued that the play, told from the perspective of the Catholic Duke of Guise and Catherine de Medici, who act as Machiavellian characters, depicts the Protestants as no better than their Catholic foes.
Might it be likely that Marlowe was considered too much of a intellectual rebel?
Perhaps. We may never know, after all, what really happened to Christopher Marlowe after that supper in Deptford. What historians do confirm is that history is arguable. Whether we might personally believe in the conspiracies, or adopt a more grounded understanding of what happened, we each construct a narrative of events that may or may not represent the true course of history.
If one thing is certain about Marlowe’s death, it is that his disappearance has spawned many stories to fill the void of his absence. It is only human nature, after all, to find meaning to the unexplainable.