CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE - Some biographical facts

Peter Farey


The earliest record we have of the poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe is of his baptism at St. George's Church, Canterbury, on 26th February 1564. So, although his actual date of birth is unknown, at least we know that it must have been before this. We can also work out the earliest date for his birth in fact, as he must have been under fifteen - the maximum age for acceptance - when he entered the King's School, Canterbury on 14th January 1579. Any birthday between 15th January and 25th February 1564 is possible therefore, but a date nearer to the later of these is much more likely. There is no known basis for the web-wide belief that he was born on 6th February.

Christopher was the second child of John Marlowe, a shoemaker and freeman of Canterbury, who had come there from Ospringe - a village some ten miles nearer London - about eight years earlier. His mother, who had married John in May 1561, was Katherine Arthur, from a family in Dover, roughly fifteen miles south-east of Canterbury. Their first child, a daughter (Mary), lived for only a very few years after Christopher's birth, and of the other Marlowe children, only six apparently reached adulthood - Christopher himself, Margaret, Joan, Ann, Dorothy and Thomas.

It is perhaps worth mentioning the fact that spelling was not standardized at that time, and Marlowe's name was spelt many different ways in the course of his life. This has given rise to doubt in some people's minds as to whether it is necessarily the same person being referred to each time in his 'standard' biography. This is considered in more detail in my essay The Spelling of Marlowe's Name, which gives reasons for us to be confident that it is the same person. Although, as we shall see, today's conventional spelling was not how he himself spelt his name, I shall as far as this account is concerned stick to the conventional one.

Nothing is known about Christopher's education before 14th January 1579, when he officially started, with a scholarship, at the King's School, Canterbury. What we do know, however, is that by then he must have been not only able to read and write but also, to be accepted at such a relatively late stage, well-versed in Latin.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, had endowed in his will a scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, for a boy from the King's School, and Marlowe was successful in being selected for this by Matthew's son, Jonathan Parker. Among the requirements for selection were to be able "at first sight to solf and sing plainsong" and to be "if it may be, such as can make a verse". Towards the end of 1580, therefore, he left Canterbury for university, where he would be officially resident for the next six and a half years, gaining his B.A. degree in 1584, and M.A. in 1587.

There is a fairly clear record of his actual presence in College, both from the accounts of the payment of his scholarship funds, which depended upon his being there, and his expenditure at the College buttery. From these it is clear that he was occasionally absent for quite long periods. Some seven weeks of the June-September 1582 trimester are unaccounted for, as are another seven in April-June 1583. He was there most of the time between July 1583 and September 1584, but for the academic year following that (1584/5 - his first full year as Dominus Marlowe, B.A.) he seems to have been there for less than half the time that he should have been. Although the payment records are missing for the academic year 1585/6, the buttery accounts show him to have been less absent then, other than during April-June 1586, when it looks as though he was away for some eight weeks in all.

Such absences were not necessarily unusual, however, and it must be made clear that there is no record at all as to what he might have been doing while he was away, other than on one occasion in August 1585, when he is known to have been in Canterbury, having witnessed a will there. He signed it 'Christofer Marley', which is in fact the only known example of his handwriting.

Before the award of the M.A. in 1587, some rumours had apparently been circulating that he intended ('was determined') to go to Rheims and, having gone, to remain there. This would normally mean training for priesthood at the Catholic College at Rheims, with the probable intention of eventually returning to England as a Catholic subversive. It seems that his M.A. was likely to be withheld because of this, but a letter was sent from the Privy Council to the University authorities, insisting that he had no such intent. He had apparently been employed in "matters touching the benefit of his country", the rumour should be allayed by all possible means, and he should be "furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement". There is no other indication of what he might have been doing to justify this high-powered commendation, nor who it was that had actually employed him in "doing her Majesty good service". Though the wording of the letter is somewhat ambiguous to modern ears, there really is little reason to interpret it as meaning that he had already been to Rheims at the time it was written.

The request from the Privy Council apparently worked, and he commenced M.A. (i.e. he was awarded the degree) that July. As the last payment of his scholarship had been for the Lent trimester (January-March) 1587, in fact it seems probable that he had already left Cambridge by then. Recent research has revealed him possibly in London (All Hallows') by August 1587, when he seems to have 'found' a horse whose owner, James Wheatley, later sued him for its return. And in August the following year (described as 'of London') he was also sued by John Elvyn, a contemporary of his at Corpus Christi, for the return of ten pounds he had borrowed. (David Mateer, 'New Sightings of Christopher Marlowe in London', Early Theatre 11.2, 2008)

The next time we actually know of his whereabouts is not until in September 1589, when, as we shall see, he is said to have been residing in the Norton Folgate area of London, Shoreditch, just outside and to the north of the City boundary.

Although Philip Henslowe built his theatre The Rose on the south bank of the Thames in 1588, the main two London theatres - The Theatre and The Curtain - were situated very near Norton Folgate, where Marlowe had been lately resident in '89, and his earlier plays would almost certainly have had their first public performances at one of them, more probably the former. At least seven plays, one narrative poem, two lengthy translations in verse from the original Latin and a hugely successful short pastoral poem are generally accepted as having been written by Marlowe before his death in 1593, although some scholars do claim to have identified his hand in other plays too.

There is no certainty as to exactly when any of his known works were actually written, but it is generally inferred that his Tamburlaine the Great, Part One would have had its first public performance in 1587, with Part Two presented the following year. Dido Queen of Carthage may well have been written while he was at Cambridge, as Thomas Nashe - who apparently had a hand in it - was there at the same time.

The other plays were most probably written and performed between 1588 and 1593 - Edward the Second, Doctor Faustus (whose prologue seems to refer to Edward The Second but not to the next two plays), The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris, the last being described by Henslowe as 'ne' (i.e. new) in 1593. The poem Hero and Leander was unfinished at the time of his death, so could have been his last work. The dates of his translations of Ovid's Amores and Lucan's Pharsalia are completely unknown, as is when he wrote the famous Passionate Shepherd poem ('Come live with me and be my love...').

Although the sources of our information are not always necessarily to be relied upon, Marlowe seems to have had a fairly wide circle of friends and acquaintances. These included his particular friend and patron, Thomas Walsingham, and a circle of intellectuals centred around the Earl of Northumberland and Sir Walter Raleigh, including in particular the mathematicians Thomas Hariot and Walter Warner, and the poet Matthew Royden. He seems to have known the stationers Edward Blount, publisher of Shakespeare's First Folio, and Thomas Thorpe, of Shakespeare's Sonnets fame, pretty well; also other so-called 'University Wits' - Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, and George Peele for example. He moved in theatrical circles too, of course, and must have been well acquainted with Philip Henslowe, who staged his plays, and Edward Alleyn, who played the lead in most of them. He also claimed to be well-known to Lord Strange (the future Earl of Derby) whose players had performed some of his plays.

It is an unfortunate fact that historical records about individuals, especially commoners, mostly concern either their own or someone else's brushes with the law, however, and Marlowe is no exception, as we have seen.

The September '89 record mentioned above is another example of this, when he was involved in an affray which resulted in someone's death. This was only after Marlowe had withdrawn from the fight, however. The only known aggressor on that day was William Bradley, the person who was killed - by the poet and dramatist Thomas Watson, whose claim that this was in self-defence was accepted.

Two and a half years later, in January 1592, we find Marlowe on the continent, in Flushing, where he was arrested on a charge of arranging the counterfeit of some coins. Flushing was still an English garrison town, and the Governor, Sir Robert Sidney, sent him back to England with a letter requesting that he be dealt with by the Lord Treasurer - William Cecil, Lord Burghley. What Marlowe was alleged to have done was in fact a capital offence, so it is of interest that the next record we have of him, only some three months later, finds him a free man. One obvious explanation, given his previous links with the Privy Council, would be that whatever he was doing there had been on behalf of Burghley in the first place.

The record of his being free shortly afterwards is in early May 1592, when he had apparently failed to 'keep the peace', whatever that meant, towards two constables in the Shoreditch area. He was therefore required to do so, and to appear before the magistrates at the next General session, on penalty of 20. Whether he did or not is unknown.

Marlowe next turns up in September '92, back in his home-town of Canterbury where he was involved in a fracas - involving a (walking?) stick and a dagger - with a tailor, William Corkine. The case appears to have been settled out of court, but it is clear from the evidence originally submitted that no bodily harm was done to the plaintiff, only damage to property (to the value of 10, according to Corkine).

Clearly, none of these offences was thought to have been at all serious, as far as his own involvement was concerned. It is perhaps worth recalling that there is no record of Marlowe ever having wounded anyone physically before the last day of his life, and that the details of this have been much disputed. In Kyd's letter, mentioned below, he writes of Marlowe's "attempting sudden privy injuries to men", but in the context of what else he is saying, and of how those words tended to be used at the time, this almost certainly concerns verbal, rather than physical, abuse.

In May 1593, however, a sequence of events started which did apparently put Marlowe in a far more dangerous position.

On the evening of 5th May, an anti-immigrant poem, now known as the "Dutch Church Libel", was posted on the wall of a London church. It was in blank verse similar to Marlowe's, was signed by someone calling himself 'Tamburlaine', one of his most famous characters, and included references to two of his other plays. The implication seemed to be that he was, at least in part, responsible for stimulating the civil unrest that was being threatened in it. The Privy Council insisted that the author should be found and punished.

A few days later, the playwright Thomas Kyd was arrested, apparently following a tip-off that he was responsible for the libel. His room was searched, and allegedly heretical papers found, which he said must have come from Marlowe, when they were 'writing in one chamber' together a couple of years earlier. Although innocent of the original charge, Kyd was tortured, and - trying to distance himself from Marlowe as much as possible - accused him of atheism. He later repeated in writing roughly what accusations he must have made, and followed this up with a letter to Sir John Puckering, the Lord Keeper, giving further details.

On 18th May, Marlowe was sent for to appear before the Privy Council, the Court being then at Nonsuch in Surrey, where his attendance was recorded (for his 'indemnity', or security against being penalised for failing to obey their command) on Sunday 20th. There being no meeting of the Privy Council that day, however, he was required to attend daily, presumably until there was, although the next one was actually held in the Star Chamber, Westminster Palace, on Wednesday 23rd.

Meanwhile, other damning documents were appearing, all of which confirmed him not only as an atheist himself, but one who encouraged atheism in others. These were the so-called 'Remembrances' concerning Richard Cholmeley, some further accusations about him, and the famous Baines 'Note', with its list of accusations levelled against Marlowe. So much damning material seems to have appeared in such a short time, in fact, that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that an orchestrated campaign had been mounted against him.

Only ten days after his first attendance on the Privy Council, however, Christopher Marlowe was gone. According to the report of the inquest on his death, he and three other men - Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley - met on the morning of 30th May 1593 at the Deptford home of a widow called Eleanor Bull. They had lunch together, and spent a quiet afternoon in the house and walking in the garden. After dinner that evening the other three were sitting with their backs to Marlowe, who was lying on a bed near to them. An argument broke out between Marlowe and Frizer concerning the payment of the bill, or 'reckoning'. Marlowe drew Frizer's dagger from behind him and hit him on the scalp with it, wounding him. A struggle ensued in which Frizer thrust the dagger into Marlowe's head, just above the right eye, killing him instantly. Two days later the Coroner of the Queen's Household, who officiated at the inquest, and sixteen jurors, found Frizer to have acted in self-defence, and he was free within the month. Marlowe was buried in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Deptford, on the evening of 1st June.

All of the circumstances surrounding this event, including my reasons for doubting the truth of the Coroner's report, are discussed in detail in my essay Marlowe's Sudden and Fearful End.

Peter Farey, 2004 (updated 2011)

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