Christopher Marlowe is remembered in modern popular culture as a dark and violent enigma who died in a drunken brawl. But is this story true and is his bad reputation deserved?
On May 30th 1593, Christopher Marlowe went to a house in Deptford, then a naval port on the Thames just outside London, and met with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. The next day a coroner’s court was convened to enquire into the death of Christopher Marlowe. Ingram Frizer was found to have killed Marlowe in self-defence. The body was buried in a nearby churchyard, and on June 28, Frizer was pardoned by the Queen and released.
Although tributes from Marlowe’s friends can be found soon after his death, it was not until 1597 that actual accounts of his death, or to be exact, of the rumours surrounding his death, were published. One account describes his death as the result of a brawl in the streets of London in which he was killed by his own dagger. Another states that he was stabbed by a ‘bawdy serving-man, a rival for his lewd love’. Within five years of his death, the consensus view was that he had died in the streets of London in a fight over a rent boy. Even today, Marlowe is generally believed to have died in a tavern brawl.
It was not until 1925 that the text of the coroner’s report was found which would finally reveal the source of all these rumours. (For the complete text of The Coroner’s Inquisition see The Marlowe Society website)
Before I summarise the coroner’s report in modern English, here it is in the original Elizabethan English:
… Indented taken at Detford Strand in the aforesaid County of Kent within the verge on the first day of June … in the presence of William Danby, Gentleman, Coroner of the household of our said lady the Queen, upon view of the body of Christopher Morley, there lying dead & slain, upon oath of [the jury] … who say [upon] their oath that Ingram ffrysar, late of London, Gentleman, and the aforesaid Christopher Morley, and Nicholas Skeres, late of London, Gentleman, and Robert Poley of London aforesaid, Gentleman, on the thirtieth of May … at … about the tenth hour before noon of the same day met together in a room in the house of a certain Eleanor Bull, widow; & there passed the time together & dined & after dinner were in quiet sort together & walked in the garden belonging to the said house until the sixth hour after noon of the same day & then returned from the said garden to the room aforesaid & there together and in company supped; & 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; whereupon 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; and 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;…
To put it briefly, the four men spent the day together at the house of a widow, Eleanor Bull. They met at ten in the morning, spent the time quietly chatting until lunch, then for the rest of the day walked about the gardens in friendly conversation. In the evening they retired to a room in the house where they had their supper. After supper, Marlowe lay down on a couch behind the other three men who were all sitting at the table next to each other with their backs to him, Frizer sitting in the middle. Marlowe and Frizer began to argue over the payment of the bill. In the course of the argument Marlowe took Frizer’s dagger from his belt and hit Frizer over the head. Frizer struggled with Marlowe, but hemmed in by his two companions, was unable to get away, and so, in fear of his life, grabbed the dagger and with it stabbed Marlowe above the eye and killed him.
This trip to Deptford occurred while Marlowe was facing serious danger as the many aspects of his complicated life were coming together. While Marlowe was known publicly as a successful playwright, the creator of several powerful characters, he also led a secret life, not only as an agent of the Secret Service, but also as a member of The School of Night, a circle of intellectuals and aristocrats who, in their quest for knowledge, skated close to heresy.
Marlowe may have been a member of the circle to satisfy his own search for knowledge, but as one of its leaders, the Earl of Northumberland was a suspected Catholic pretender to the throne, he may have joined at the behest of his spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. Since Walsingham’s death, three years earlier, the Secret Service he established had been taken over by Robert Cecil, but other powerful men, such as the Earl of Essex and the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, had set up their own competing networks of spies.
Meanwhile, London was in the throes of violent social unrest, much of it targeted at foreign tradesmen and merchants, protestant refugees who had the protection of the government. A placard had been placed outside the Dutch Church, a violent tirade in blank verse modelled rather clumsily on Marlowe’s style and signed with the name of his most famous creation, Tamburlaine. The government’s search for the culprits led them to the rooms of fellow playwright Thomas Kyd which he once shared with Marlowe. A search led to the discovery of supposedly heretical writings which, under torture, Kyd ascribed to Marlowe. (see Thomas Kyd and ‘The Spanish Tragedy’)
On May 18th Marlowe had been called up before the Privy Council and, while he was not imprisoned, a letter accusing him of heresy was drawn up by a Richard Baines, a former Secret Service agent possibly now working for Whitgift, and delivered to the Council on May 26th .
The close proximity of these events to the meeting in Deptford, has generally led to the belief that they are inextricably linked, but what the actual relationship between them is remains a mystery which extends to the exact circumstances surrounding Marlowe’s death.
Given these extenuating circumstances, should we take the coroner’s report at face value? Is there something deeper hidden behind this lively account? Was Marlowe in danger of being arrested and tortured like his friend Kyd? Did it have anything to do with his role as a spy for the Secret Service? Was he killed to stop him revealing dangerous secrets under torture? Was he killed as a result of the internecine politics of the Queen’s inner circle? Or was his death faked while he escaped?
Orthodox biographers believe that any idea that Marlowe might have escaped is entirely fanciful. They maintain that Marlowe did die in Deptford, yet cannot agree on the circumstances and as to whether he was killed in self-defence or murdered, and if murdered by whom, for whom, or why.
An alternative theory is held by the Marlovians as articulated by Peter Farey. They maintain that Marlowe did not die that day in Deptford, but, either to save him from a terrible fate, to prevent him revealing secrets under torture, or as a benign way of stopping him from spreading his heretical ideas in England, he was spirited away while his death was faked.
However, for Marlovians, the story doesn’t end here but is where Christopher Marlowe enters the Great Authorship debate. They believe that after he escaped to the Continent, Marlowe went on to write Shakespeare’s plays which were smuggled back to England.
So as not to be tarnished with this heresy, orthodox biographers refuse to even contemplate the idea that Marlowe may have survived Deptford. However, while Marlowe needed to survive in order to write the plays, he did not need to write the plays in order to have survived. It is totally feasible to examine the possibility that Marlowe survived without accepting that he wrote the plays.
The only real evidence we have as to what happened on that day is the coroner’s report itself, but just a superficial reading raises several crucial questions.
- These four men were reported to have spent all day together in calm and friendly conversation. Is it likely, then, that any argument between them would escalate to the point of physical violence, much less fatal violence?
- Why were the three men all sitting beside each other at the table with their backs to Marlowe? If supper was over, they might have been in conversation or perhaps playing at some game. Most games played at a table are played with the contestants facing each other so at most there would have been two men sitting side by side and one across the table. If they were simply at conversation, they would not be sitting with their backs to one of their number.
- Once Marlowe and Frizer began to struggle why did the other two men not move? If they were on friendly terms it would seem reasonable to expect them to intervene to stop the fight or at least help to subdue Marlowe. Even if they chose not to intervene, they would have at least moved away.
- The wound to Frizer’s skull would have been made by the hilt of the dagger rather than the blade, meaning that Marlowe was striking Frizer with the point of the blade towards himself. Would a man with any experience of fighting wield a knife in such a dangerous way? And why did Marlowe attack with Frizer’s dagger and not his own?
To my mind, whether or not one believes in Marlowe’s survival, it is obvious on face value alone that whatever events transpired on that fateful evening, they were not as they are described in the coroner’s report. Skeres and Poley must have been lying and once we take into account the rules of evidence in the coroner’s court, it becomes clear why they told this particular story.
According to these rules, participants in the events surrounding a death were not allowed to give evidence as witnesses. By denying they played any part in the fight, Skeres and Poley were able to act as witnesses and give their version of events. They were also able to forestall the need for any other witnesses to be called. But the question is not only why were they lying, but why did the coroner believe them?
To come to any conclusion as to what actually happened that day, we must begin with examining the people involved, beginning with Marlowe’s three companions, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley.
Frizer and Skeres were dubious businessmen, brokers, conmen and loan sharks. At the time they were acting as accomplices to defraud a young man of £200. Ingram Frizer had customary links to Thomas Walsingham whom he called his master. Marlowe had been staying with Walsingham at his country house, Scadbury, when he was arrested. Walsingham was not only Marlowe’s friend and possibly his patron, but also a colleague, having also been an agent of the Secret Service set up by his cousin Sir Francis Walsingham.
Even more predatory than Frizer, Nicholas Skeres was known to use his ability to entrap young men in the Secret Service and had been involved as a government plant in the Babington Plot which ensnared Mary Queen of Scots. At the time he was nominally in the service of the Earl of Essex.
But of the three, the most dangerous was Robert Poley, a major player in the Babington Plot, called by Sir Anthony Babington ‘of all two-footed creatures, the worst’. He has been called ‘the evil genius of the Elizabethan underground,’ was known for his charm which seduced and disarmed his victims, and for his ability to resist interrogation. At the time he was employed by the Queen in carrying important letters to the Netherlands.
All three men were expert liars and unlikely to waver under questioning, whatever their story.
Contrary to common belief, the house in which the incident occurred was not a common tavern, but a respectable house belonging to a widow, Eleanor Bull, who may have obtained a licence to take in lodgers and provide victuals. Mistress Bull was well-born and well connected, and a cousin of Lord Burghley’s, whose son, Robert Cecil, was at the time running the Secret Service.
So, as we can see, all the participants in this incident had a close association with the Secret Service.
Another crucial player was the coroner himself, William Danby. He was not the local county coroner, but the Queen’s own coroner and a member of her household. He could preside because the incident occurred within the verge, that is within a circle of twelve miles from the Queen’s Court which at that time was at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey. If the Queen was interested in the events of that day, who better to ensure that the inquest went according to plan, than her own man.
The other important element was Deptford itself. Why was the meeting held there? Could it have been solely because Cecil’s cousin had a house there? Could it have been for its proximity to shipping on the Thames, a quick escape route? Could it have been because it fell within the Queen’s verge? Or was it for all these reasons?
Orthodox biographers tend to accept the coroner’s report at face value as a basis of their theses. Constance Brown Kuriyama, in her biography Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life describes the day in Deptford as a pleasant day in the country gone terribly wrong, and, despite the dubious morals of his companions, maintains ‘that the one person in the party at Deptford who was most likely to attack another person physically was Christopher Marlowe.’
Charles Nicholl in his book The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe, the most thorough investigation into the events and personalities surrounding the case, speculates that Marlowe’s death was intended as a message to whomever it might concern. However, unable to come to any conclusion as to who that might be, in the end he opts for seeing it as an unintended result of a drunken fight after a long and boozy day of interrogation.
On the other hand, in his biography, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, Park Honan maintains that Frizer deliberately provoked and killed Marlowe so as to protect his master, and therefore his own income stream, from an association with a known heretic. Meanwhile, in The World of Christopher Marlowe, David Riggs believes that Marlowe was murdered at the behest of the Queen herself because of his heresies.
All these scenarios leave too many open questions. If this was just a pleasant day in the country, why would Marlowe have been there with such unsavoury companions, and why in Deptford rather than Scadbury, Walsingham’s country house? If anyone wanted Marlowe murdered why do it so publicly and hang about for the inquest? Would it not have been easier to stab him in the back in some dark lane and throw his body into a plague pit? If the inquest was supposed to send a message, to whom, since its results were not widely known? If the murder was at the behest of, or to impress a particular party, could not proof of the act have been delivered privately directly to that person?
If the Queen or any person in power wanted Marlowe dead they certainly did not need to go about it in such an underhand way. Marlowe was in grave trouble and if events were allowed to take their customary course he would have been executed anyway, or, if secrecy was required, he could have disappeared into one of Her Majesty’s prisons and never be seen again.
Unable to make a case for anyone wanting Marlowe dead in this way, Kuriyama and Nicholl have opted to see it as a random, accidental event, instigated by Marlowe’s own violent nature. (see Christopher Marlowe’s History of Violence). Honan and Riggs, unable to accept the coroner’s report at face value have opted for murder, but have given much too obscure motives and have not explained why the murderer was not more secretive.
Not even the most orthodox biographer can escape the obvious conclusion. The fact that all Marlowe’s companions on that day were Secret Service men, the fact that their hostess was a cousin of the head of the Secret Service, the fact that the presiding coroner was the Queen’s own coroner, the fact that the incident occurred so close to a port, all these factors could not have come together randomly, but point to some kind of deliberate plan, in effect a conspiracy.
If the objective was only to kill Marlowe, by whatever party, for whatever reason, it was too public, and too well orchestrated, with too many parties involved. The most logical explanation must be that the objective of this conspiracy was not really that Marlowe should die, but rather that he be seen to have died, that there should be no doubt of his death, and that no one could be blamed for it.
This was not to be Marlowe’s real death, but a fictional death, in fact, a theatrical presentation of his death, deliberately and elaborately staged to convince the world at large that he was dead and gone and no longer a threat to anyone. Whoever this message was intended for was not to know who the message came from, or that it was even intended for them in particular.
Finally, if Marlowe did escape one last prop was needed, a fresh body to show to the coroner and the jury. It so happens that just such a body was available, for on the previous day, in St Thomas-a-Watering in Surrey, less than three miles from Deptford, another Cambridge man, John Penry, was summarily hung for his part in the publication of heretical tracts, his execution having been unexpectedly brought forward by a few days. (See The Theatre of a Propaganda War: The Playhouse in the Marprelate Controversy.)
The fact that this body would have shown signs of strangulation might explain why the wound had to be in the eye and not lower on the body: the jury would only have needed to see the body’s head and the rest of it could remain covered. Waiting for the body to arrive under cover of darkness might also explain why Marlowe and his companions spent the whole day wandering around the garden in conversation.
By the time the coroner’s court convened, Marlowe may well have already arrived on the Continent. Did he spend the rest of his life writing plays and shipping them off to England to be performed under Shakespeare’s name? I find it unlikely. Writing plays for a repertory company would require the playwright to be part of the company, intimately acquainted with the skills of his players, and on hand to make any necessary changes. Marlowe could not have written the plays at a distance. And, anyway, I would like to think of him having a much more interesting life than being holed away scribbling plays he would never see performed.
© Pauline Montagna 2021
Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life by Constance Brown Kuriyama, Cornell University Press (2002)
The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholls, Vintage (2002)
Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy by Park Honan, Oxford University Press (2005)
The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs, Faber and Faber (2004)
Playing Dead: An Updated Review of the Case for Christopher Marlowe by Peter Farey, The Oxfordian, Volume XI 2009, pp 83-98