At the end of May 1593, Christopher Marlowe, England's top poet-dramatist of the day, stood accused of atheism, blasphemy, heresy, illicit coining, treachery and treason. The punishment for such alleged crimes included being boiled alive, burning at the stake, or being hanged, drawn (i.e. disemboweled) and quartered. He was, in other words, in deep trouble.

Having been arrested under suspicion of just the heresy, he had been granted bail on 20th May, but was required to report daily to their Lordships of the Privy Council, (1) while this further 'evidence' was gathered. The informer's extremely biased (2) report now being complete, Marlowe faced immediate detention and torture, to extract a confession, whether guilty or not, unless some means of escape could be found. Had he simply fled, or gone into hiding, he would for the rest of his life have been pursued as a fugitive. A much better solution would certainly have been to fake his own death and to assume a new identity. As a secret agent of several years standing, Marlowe would have had both the experience and, as we shall see, the contacts to bring this about.

And indeed, just before the informer's report reached the Privy Council, word arrived that Marlowe was dead and buried, having been knifed in the face (and thus rendered less recognizable?) during a fracas involving three gentlemen at a house in Deptford. Plague was raging through London that summer, and the coroner's inquest and subsequent burial of the body, in an unmarked grave, had been completed within only 48 hours of the 'killing'. (3)


The cause of Marlowe's arrest in the first place was that two fragments of a paper containing "vile hereticall conceipts", (4) and allegedly having come from him, had been found in the home of his fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd. Suspected of having been involved in the display of an inflammatory anti-immigrant poster, Kyd had been arrested, taken to the Bridewell, and tortured. His rooms had been searched and the document found, which "he affirmeth that he had from Marlowe".

In stark contrast to the way that Kyd had been treated, however, Marlowe was granted bail by the Privy Council, merely having to report to them each day "until he shall be licensed to the contrary". Furthermore, although the informer's report was apparently delivered three days before Marlowe's death, it was held back for some slight re-editing, so that it did not actually reach their Lordships until after it. (5) This combination, of Marlowe's freedom on bail and the delaying of the report, would have provided a perfect opportunity for the faking of his death to be planned and carried out.


The Spymaster

It might appear from this that there was someone very highly placed at Court with the power to delay and modify such a report, and who had Marlowe's interests at heart. And, of course, there was. Queen Elizabeth's right hand man and Lord Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, together with his son, Sir Robert Cecil.

Marlowe had been employed as an 'intelligencer', apparently under Lord Burghley's aegis, for at least eight years, having almost certainly been originally recruited directly on behalf of Burghley himself. Marlowe had been personally selected for his Cambridge scholarship by Jonathan Parker, the son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, whose bequest the scholarship was, and who had been one of Burghley's closest friends. (6) Robert Cecil started at Cambridge at exactly the same time as Marlowe and may well have got to know him there - as Thomas Nashe, at the same college as Cecil, certainly seems to have done. Cecil and Marlowe were both quite a bit older than most of the other new arrivals would have been. (7)

When, as a result of his government work, it looked as though Marlowe would be prevented by the University from commencing M.A., it was a letter to them from the Privy Council, with Burghley as one of the signatories, that put them straight, saying that "it was not Her Majesty's pleasure that anyone employed, as he had been, in matters touching the benefit of his country, should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th'affairs he went about". (8)

It is also thought, as we shall see, that he was working for Burghley in 1592. This too would explain how it was that, at the time of Marlowe's arrest just over a year later, someone on the Privy Council knew precisely where Marlowe would be found. The arresting officer was dispatched to Scadbury, near Chislehurst in Kent, the home of Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe's close friend and patron. (9) And they were right. Marlowe was indeed staying there, away from the plague-ridden capital.

The Friend and Patron

Thomas Walsingham was first cousin, once removed, to Sir Francis Walsingham, who, until his death in 1590, had been Burghley's close colleague and the Queen's principal spymaster. Thomas himself had been employed in such work - where he may have first met Marlowe - until 1589, when his brother Edmund died, leaving him as owner of the Scadbury estates. After that, he seems to have withdrawn from intelligence work and concentrated primarily on being a landowner and patron of the arts. This was to include the poet, Christopher Marlowe, with whom he is known to have developed a close friendship. (10) It is usually assumed that Marlowe was writing his poem Hero and Leander at Scadbury when he was arrested, which is why it remained unfinished by him.

Although the record does not show Walsingham himself to have been present at Deptford on 30th May 1593, the day of Marlowe's death, he was closely connected with the three other men who are known to have been there, who were the sole witnesses to the killing and who would also seem to have identified the body. (11) All three of them, whether as agents provocateurs or as confidence tricksters, may with justice be termed 'professional liars'.

The Three Tricksters

Described as a servant of Thomas Walsingham, albeit a 'gentleman', Ingram Frizer is the person alleged to have killed Marlowe, in self-defence, in a row over payment of the bill (le recknynge). Although he had to spend some time in gaol, the pardon came through from the Queen within an exceptionally short time - one month - whereupon he (surprisingly?) returned to the service of Marlowe's close friend Walsingham, and remained with him for the rest of his working life. (12)

As a highly lucrative sideline he operated as a 'conny-catching' loan shark, tricking rich and foolish young gentlemen into either paying something like 100% interest on loans - which were in fact never forthcoming - or forfeiting their property if they did not. (13) In this he was assisted by Nicholas Skeres, the second of the men present at Deptford, and apparently employed by the Earl of Essex.

As well as being the one first to identify and then to lure these gentlemen into Frizer's trap, Skeres had in the past been involved in intelligence work. His name has been connected with the so-called 'Babington Plot' against the Queen's life, as one of Sir Francis Walsingham's agents provocateurs. (14) If so, he would have been working closely not only with Thomas Walsingham, but also with the third member of the Deptford trio, Robert Poley.

Poley had been deeply involved in the Babington Plot, having managed to infiltrate the group and even become a close friend of Babington himself, while keeping Sir Francis informed of every move. (15) His Catholic cover 'blown' after that, and following Walsingham's death, he now had more of a supervisory role, reporting to Thomas Heneage, but within the Burghley network. It is of interest that the documents show him to have been 'in Her Majesty's service' at the time of the Deptford killing. (16)

All three men, therefore, were highly skilled and experienced 'con-men'. Poley was even described by William Camden in his Annals of England as a "most cunning counterfeiter and dissembler". (17) They would have had little trouble pulling the wool over the eyes of a jury, and no scruples whatsoever about doing so. (18) It is indeed difficult to imagine why the by now fairly renowned playwright Christopher Marlowe should be meeting these three people unless it were for just such a purpose.

The Hostess

The myth persists that Marlowe was killed in 'a tavern brawl'. It was not in a tavern, however, but in the home of one Eleanor Bull, a widow who had provided the four men for a 'sum of pence' a room and refreshment for the whole day that they were reported to have been there.

Despite allowing her home to be used in this way, Widow Bull did have some social standing. She was related to Blanche Parry, who had been the Queen's Chief Gentlewoman and closest confidante. When Blanche died in 1589 she left a bequest to her 'cousin' Eleanor Bull. The draft of this will is in the handwriting of Lord Burghley, whom she clearly considered a close friend, possibly also even a relative. (19) As Charles Nicholl puts it, Eleanor Bull "...was someone who could call on court connections if she needed, someone who might serve court connections if they needed" . (20) She would have been able to control exactly who was and was not at her house in Deptford Strand that day.

The Coroner

The Inquisition mentions three times that the killing took place 'within the verge' - that is, within twelve miles of the Queen's person. This meant that, rather than the necessary inquest being covered by an unknown local coroner, it would have to be done by the Coroner to the Queen's Household, William Danby. It was only within the verge, in fact, as on the 30th May the Queen and her Court were at Nonsuch Palace, in Surrey, which is nearly thirteen miles from Deptford. This, in itself, is easily enough explained by the fact that the 'statute mile' were not in use at that time and the 'Elizabethan mile' was somewhat longer. What is less easy to explain, however, is how Marlowe managed to be at Deptford all day, as the witnesses said he was, from 'about the tenth hour before noon', bearing in mind that he was also required to attend upon their Lordships daily. (21)

In his role as Coroner to the Queen, Danby had had for at least four years a close professional relationship with the Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley, someone of whom he may also have been a very old friend, their having been contemporaries at the Inns of Court some fifty years earlier. (22)

Coroners had a special responsibility for prisoners who died whilst in custody, and also to authorize the disposal - such as for medical purposes - of bodies either where no next-of-kin could be found, or where, as with some executions, the family was not to be allowed possession of the remains. (23)

The Body? (24)

On the evening before Marlowe's alleged death. John Penry, Puritan preacher, and almost certainly behind the publication, if not the actual writing, of the anti-establishment 'Marprelate Tracts', was hanged for treason at around 5 p.m. It was at a place called St. Thomas-a-Watering, a couple of miles out of London on the Kent road, therefore within the verge and, as it happens, only two miles or so from Deptford.

Penry was a year older than Marlowe, (25) but they both went up to Cambridge in 1580 - Marlowe to Bene't College (now Corpus Christi) and Penry to Peterhouse, just across the road. They proceeded B.A. at the same time, Marlowe subsequently commencing M.A. at Cambridge, Penry at Oxford. They were both later to become thorns in the side of John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Penry to this day being regarded as one of the major martyrs of non-conformism.

Penry had written more than once to Lord Burghley, protesting his loyalty and innocence , (26) but his trial before the Queen's Bench started on 21st May, and he was condemned to death on the 25th. For some reason there was a delay of four days. Then suddenly, without any warning, and therefore without his wife, family or friends knowing what was going on, he was carted away to be hanged. (27) There is no record of what happened to the body.

Of course we cannot say for certain on the basis of this evidence that the body viewed by Danby and the members of the jury three days later - with an additional stab wound to the eye - was that of John Penry. What we certainly can say, however, is that such an outcome was quite feasible. (28)


What we can clearly see from the above is that Christopher Marlowe had not only a very real motive for staging a faked death, but also the opportunity to do so, and an almost perfect means of getting away with it. He faced an excruciatingly painful end, from which even his highly placed friends would be unable to save him; he had been given just enough time for someone, possibly Walsingham, to organize his 'death' and disappearance; and if one had wanted to fake a death and get it legally accepted it would be hard to find a better combination of people to fix it.

For this reason, most of the evidence in the Coroner's Inquisition, based as it is entirely upon the word of three skilful liars, must be taken with a pinch of salt. Only the corpse with a dagger wound to the eye is definitely true, but, as Shakespeare puts it: "death's a great disguiser; and you may add to it". (Measure for Measure, IV.2.175, - which even concerns the hero's replacement by an executed prisoner.) (29)

Ridiculing the very idea that Marlowe might have survived Deptford, Prof. Samuel Schoenbaum said:

"The circumstances of the slaying are set forth in detail in the legal records; a jury of sixteen accepted the coroner's findings. But of such impossibilities the anti-Stratfordians make their instruments to plague us". (30)

Would that miscarriages of justice were as impossible, or even as rare, as he seems to believe, and that juries could be relied upon always to get it right. We hardly need reminding how often this is not the case, however. And on this occasion, with the jury obviously kept in the dark about almost all of the details given above, an 'unsafe' verdict on their part must have been well nigh a certainty.

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1 Public Record Office (PRO) Privy Council Registers PC2 / 20 / 374 (20 May 1593)

2 British Library (BL) Harley MS.6848 ff. 185-6. The 'Baines Note', a list of accusations clearly based largely upon hearsay, at least one of them personally motivated, and finishing with: "...all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped."

3 PRO Chancery C260 / 174 / 27 is the original inquisition in Latin, which Hotson discovered in 1925, now badly faded. His translation is found in J. L. Hotson, The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925) pp.28-34.

4 BL Harley MS.6848 ff.188-9. These were in fact quite innocuous and could have been copied from a book which was in the library of John Gresshop, Marlowe's headmaster at Canterbury. See Dr. William Urry's Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (1988) p.77.

5 There are two copies of the Baines Note. The first (above) is probably in his own hand. The second (BL Harley MS.6853 ff.307-8) is a fair copy and confuses the dates. It says that it was delivered three days before Marlowe's death but gives a date three days after it. What is quite clear, however, is that someone held on to it for a while to enable it to be carefully amended and copied out before it went to the Queen and Privy Council.

6 Dictionary of National Biography (DNB): Burghley had been instrumental in persuading Parker to accept the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and, as Chancellor of the University, had Parker as his vice-Chancellor. Parker tended to turn to Cecil when particularly depressed, such as after the death of his wife, and presented him with one of the very few copies of his work De Antiquitate Ecclesiae.

7 On their arrival at Cambridge, Cecil was seventeen and Marlowe just short of it. In contrast, most students started at about fourteen or fifteen. A sickly child, Robert Cecil had been educated at home, and this was his first time away. Jonathan Parker, as a probable friend of the family, may well have suggested that Cecil get in touch with 'his' pensioner, Christopher Marlowe or vice versa.

8 PRO Privy Council Registers PC2 / 14 / 381 (29 June 1597)

9 Ibid. PC2 / 20 / 374 (18 May 1593). Henry Maunder, one of the messengers of Her Majesty's Chamber, was instructed to "repaire to the house of Mr Tho: Walsingham in Kent, or to anie other place where he shall vnderstand Christofer Marlow to be remayning...".

10 In Edward Blount's dedication to Thomas Walsingham of Marlowe's incomplete Hero & Leander, he speaks of the close relationship that existed between Walsingham and the poet, "the man that hath been dear unto us", as pointed out by Calvin Hoffman, The Man who was Shakespeare (1955) p.179.

11 There is no mention in the Inquisition of anyone else present who knew Marlowe and, with three "gentlemen" all confirming that this was in fact the identity of the body, it would certainly have been accepted as true. In the unlikely event that any members of the jury did know him, the dagger wound to the eye would have made them much less happy to voice any reservations they may have had, when faced with such unanimity.

12 Having killed England's top playwright, Frizer was released after four weeks. Compare this with Marlowe's friend Thomas Watson who, having committed a very similar offence, but with the victim apparently being only a common ruffian, had to wait five months before his pardon came through.

13 J. Leslie Hotson, The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925) pp.42-49 and 69-73. Walsingham himself also apparently stood to gain from this particular 'scam'.

14 Nicholas Skeres's connection with the Earl of Essex, and his possible role in the Babington plot, are well covered by Charles Nicholl in his, The Reckoning (1992) Jonathan Cape, pp.28-30. But see also Paul E. J. Hammer: A Reckoning Reframed: the "Murder" of Christopher Marlowe Revisited, in English Literary Renaissance (1996)

15 For an examination of Poley's role in the Babington Plot, also see Charles Nicholl, Ibid. pp.147-165.

16 F. S. Boas, Christopher Marlowe (1940) pp.268-9 and 275.

17 William Camden, The Historie of the most renowned and victorious princesse Elizabeth... composed by way of Annals (1630), quoted by Nicholl, op. cit., p.163.

18 Poley is even on record as saying "I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm". PRO State Papers SP12 / 282 / 13 . As Boas, Christopher Marlowe (1940), Clarendon, Oxford, put it (p.123): "What an avowal from one of the trio on whose evidence the Coroner's jury were to be dependent later for their verdict on how Marlowe met his death!".

19 BL Lansdowne MS.62 f.123. Discovered by Jane Apple (see Urry, op. cit. p.85). In the original document, Burghley appeared third on the list of beneficiaries, and was left Blanche's "second" diamond. The Queen, naturally, got the first!

20 Charles Nicholl, op. cit., p.37.

21 The fact that the Court was at Nonsuch, and the difficulties this posed, was suggested by William Honey in his The Life, Loves and Achievements of Christopher Marlowe, alias Shakespeare (1982), pp.346-350.

22 The DNB shows William Cecil there from 6th May 1541, and in the records of Lincoln's Inn a William Danby was admitted on 1st August the following year. Gray's Inn records, however, have Cecil there a year earlier. One person who was at Lincoln's Inn at precisely the same time as Danby, however, was Thomas Walsingham, the father of 'our' Thomas.

23 Vestiges of this remain in today's law with the particular responsibility for the death of prisoners, and the law related to organ donations. See Halsbury's Laws of England (4th edn.,1974) Vol 9, pp.666, and Sir William Holsworth: A History of English Law (7th edn. 1956) Vol 1, pp.295-6.

24 The possible connection between the death of John Penry and a faked killing of Marlowe was first noticed by David A. More, who discussed the possibility in his Drunken sailor or imprisoned writer? printed in the Marlovian newsletter, 1997, and republished on the Internet (as ...Marley there dead and slain) at: http://members.aol.com/marlovian/inquest/penry.html

25 Earlier biographers, including the DNB, have Penry born in 1559. This is corrected by later ones to 1563, which certainly conforms better with his going up to Cambridge in 1580.

26 Albert Peel, ed. The Notebook of John Penry 1593 (1944) p.xxii says: "Burghley remains an enigmatic figure. He gave the Puritans much support - he is said to have helped hundreds - and it is clear that Penry counted on his protection... No doubt he would have saved Penry if he could. Perhaps he intended to do so, but Whitgift was too quick for him..."

27 John Waddington, Penry the Pilgrim Martyr (1854) p.204 "He was led at five, from the prison in the High-street, Borough, to the fatal spot. A small company of persons, attracted by seeing the workmen preparing the gibbet, had collected together. Penry would have spoken, but the sheriff insisted, that neither in the protestation of his loyalty nor in the avowal of his innocence should he utter a word. His life was taken and the people were dispersed. The place of his burial is unknown."

28 We may feel that both Marlowe and Penry were too well-known for such a substitution to have worked. This is to look at it with modern eyes, used to TV and newspaper close-ups, however. The faces of famous people would have been largely unknown to most people in those days.

29 In my 'The Reckoning' Revisited, I go into much more detail as to why a faked death is the most logical explanation of why these particular people would have met in that particular place on that particular day.

30 Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives (1970), Clarendon Press, Oxford. Schoenbaum seems to have forgotten the context of his quotation, viz. "The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us." (Lear V.3.168-9)

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