A Turbulent and Scandal-Plagued Life; Christopher Marlowe


Many biographies of Christopher Marlowe ironically begin with an account of his death.  His final few days were recorded in great detail and it must have seemed a suitable epitaph for a man who led such a turbulent life.  He was suspected of being a government spy and had a reputation of being both an atheist and a homosexual.  There is no evidence of Marlowe’s sexuality but charges and accusations of the sort were not uncommon as a means to discredit an individual.  At that time to be an atheist held the dangerous implication of being an enemy of God (an idea which remains sadly unchanged in some circles).  The governor of Flushing had reported that each of the men – Marlowe and Baines – had “of malice” accused the other of instigating the counterfeiting, and of intending to go over to the Catholic“enemy”; such an action was considered atheistic by the Protestants, who constituted the dominant religious faction in England at that time.

“These and other testimonials need to be discounted for their exaggeration and for their having been produced under legal circumstances we would regard as a witch-hunt” ~ Eric Rasmussen ~ description of Robert Baines’s evidence against Marlowe

Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564 and educated at the Corpus Cristi College of Cambridge University.  While at Cambridge he wrote ‘Dido, Queen of Carthage’.  Even though the education he received there would have traditionally prepared him for a career in the clergy, he decided not to join the Ministry.  The university therefore attempted to withhold his degree after a series of unexplained absences and a suspicion that he had converted to Catholicism.  A conversion of this nature was forbidden in 16 CE England.  The Queen’s privy council stepped in on his behalf and overturned their decision stating that Marlowe had been of great service to both Queen and country under the charge of Sir Francis Washingham in the secret service.

Poster for WPA performance of Marlowe's Faustus, New York, circa 1935

Poster for WPA performance of Marlowe's Faustus, New York, circa 1935


Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587 and moved to Shoreditch in London.  In 1589 he spent time in Newgate prison for his part in a street fight in which a man was killed.  This is thought to have been the same year in which he wrote Dr Faustus.  In 1592 he found himself in trouble again.  This time in the Netherlands, where he was accused of counterfeiting currency and also of the intent to join the English Catholic exiles.  This accusation was made by his colleague, Richard Baines.

Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Deptford. The plaque shown here is modern.

Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Deptford. The plaque shown here is modern.


In 1593, Marlowe was again arrested after being accused of heresy again by Baines and again on the grounds that he was suspected of holding views conflicting with that of the established religion.  He escaped on a lighter sentence than normally expected enabling him to write his final to plays, ‘Edward II‘ and ‘Massacre at Paris‘.  In the same year Thomas Kyd was arrested under suspicion of libel against Dutch immigrants living in London.  Kyd was tortured into a confession that some of the ‘heretical’ writings found in his apartments actually belonged to Marlowe.  This was not the first time that Marlowe had been accused of ‘atheism’ and ‘heresy’ so the playwright was ordered to give an account of himself to the Queen’s privy council.  He was released on bail but ordered to report to the council daily.  Ten day’s later, Marlowe was dead.

Another document claimed at around the same time as Baine’s accusation that “one Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for Atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity, and that … he hath read the Atheist lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others.”

Marlow had spent most of the day of his death (30th May 1593) in a guest-house owned by one Eleanor Bull with three other men.  the first was Ingram Frizer, a shady business man and ‘fixer’.  The second was Frizer’s equally dubious associate, Nicholas Skeres who had know criminal connections and had been involved in governmental intelligence work.  The last man was Robert Poley, an agent in the secret service.  The inquest records describe a dispute over the bill at the guest-house.  The deceased Marlowe was claimed to have been the aggressor in the affair and is said to have taken Frizer’s dagger and stabbed him with it.  Frizer is claimed to have snatched back the knife and stabbed Marlowe through his eye socket.  The coroner’s report also points at Marlowe to have been the aggressor and that Frizer was acting in self-defence.

“These thinges, with many other shall by good & honest witnes be aproved to be his opinions and Comon Speeches, and that this Marlow doth not only hould them himself, but almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both god and his ministers as I Richard Baines will Justify & approue both by mine oth and the testimony of many honest men, and almost al men with whome he hath Conversed any time will testify the same, and as I think all men in Cristianity ought to indevor that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped, he saith likewise that he hath quoted a number of Contrarieties oute of the Scripture which he hath giuen to some great men who in Convenient time shalbe named. When these thinges shalbe Called in question the witnes shalbe produced.” ~ The final paragraph of Robert Baines’ accusation against Marlowe.

Shortly before Marlowe’s death, Robert Baines again accused him of heresy in report entitled ‘A Note Containing The Opinion of on Christopher Marly, concerning his damnable Judgement of Religion and scorn of God’s word.‘ This charge was used to reinforce Kyd’s claims against Marlowe: That he had repeatedly expressed ‘monstrous opinions’.  Within four weeks of Marlowe’s death Frizer, the business man of dubious reputation, had received a royal pardon for causing the death of Christopher Marlowe.  In the months and years following his death, the story of his heresy and blasphemy was even further embellished, after all it is easy to libel the dead.  Rumours were spread accusing him of treason, atheism, and homosexuality, and some people speculated that the tavern brawl might have been the work of government agents. Little evidence to support these allegations has come to light, however.  One Thomas Beard (later to become the schoolmaster of regicide Oliver Cromwell) is thought to be one of the most notorious for these acts of attempted character assassination. Beard claimed that Marlowe had blasphemed to his last breath (impossible given the cause of death) and that the manner of his death was a clear sign of ‘God’s judgement’.  Claiming supernatural causes for mundane events is not a new tactic of the followers of religion.

And Works…

Marlow Produced 7 plays, all of which were immensely popular but the three most famous are Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, and Dr Faustus (one of the required texts of the Open University course I registered for which starts in February: AA100).  He was the pioneer in the use of non-rhyming blank verse (iambic pentameter) which was later taken up by his contemporaries including William Shakespeare.  It is dangerous to critique or interpret a writer’s work based upon the events of their lives, especially when the accounts of those events come from their rivals, paid informants, torturers or their victims.  Neither is it prudent to dismiss the similarity between the plots of both Tamberlaine and Dr Faustus: men who rose from their origins to celebrity fell foul of their poor choices; that Edward II explores homosexual relationships; or that The Jew of Malta deals with the hypocrisy of Christians.

A foul sheet from Marlowe's writing of The Massacre at Paris (1593). Reproduced from Folger Shakespeare Library Ms.J.b.8

A foul sheet from Marlowe's writing of The Massacre at Paris (1593). Reproduced from Folger Shakespeare Library Ms.J.b.8


His reputation is now secure as one of England’s foremost playwrights and the man who established blank verse as the medium of Jacobean drama.  He is also know for his poetry.




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