Peter Farey


People are often puzzled over the number of different ways in which the name 'Christopher Marlowe' was spelt at various times, and wonder if we are in fact right to assume that they refer to the same person. This short paper considers that question and concludes that we are right to think so.

It is perhaps worth considering first why we spell 'Marlowe' as we do now, and I suspect that it is because the first work to be printed with his name as author (Dido, Queen of Carthage, in 1594) had it that way, and that the other versions to appear on the title pages ('Marlow', 'Marloe' and 'Marlo') all seem at least to be within the same ball-park of pronunciation. It is therefore reasonable to assume that (whether correctly attributed or not, which is not considered here) the same author is meant in each case - even for the Tamburlaines, which were not directly associated with the name 'Marlow' until 1631.

Taking just one of these works, Hero and Leander, we discover from Edward Blount's dedication in 1598 that the author was dead by then, and that he had been a good friend of the dedicatee, Thomas Walsingham, as well as of Blount himself. A reference to the same work, circulating in manuscript in Autumn 1593, allows us to get nearer to the date of the poet's death, however, when Thomas Edwards wrote that "Leander's gone". (1)

The only clear reference to Marlowe as a playwright around that time came from Thomas Kyd, fairly shortly after his own imprisonment (from 12th May 1593) and the killing, when he wrote:

My first acquaintance with this Marlowe, rose upon his bearing name to serve my Lord: although his L[ordshi]p never knew his service but in writing for his plaiers. (2)
It is not certain just who this Lord was, but we do know that Lord Strange's Men performed Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy as well as Marlowe's Jew of Malta and Massacre at Paris. We also learn from Kyd that this 'Marlowe' was reputed to be an atheist, and that some papers had been found in Kyd's room - "fragments of a disputation toching that opinion [i.e. atheism], affirmed by Marlowe to be his".

When we look at these papers, we find them endorsed "vile hereticall Conceiptes Denying the Deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior fownd among the papers of Thos kydd prisoner. Which he affirmeth that he had ffrom Marlowe." (3) This is dated 12th May 1593, so that when - only six days later - the Privy Council orders the arrest of a 'Christopher Marlow' who is probably staying with Thomas Walsingham 'in Kent',(4) we may be sure that it must be Thomas's friend the playwright, as must also, therefore, be the "Christofer Marley of London, gent.", despite the different spelling, who answers the summons two days later. (5)

The following month, George Peele wrote (repeating that 'Marley' spelling):

Why hie they not, unhappy in thine end,
Marley, the Muses darling, for thy verse
Fit to write passions for the souls below. (6)
We know, therefore, that our poet/playwright Christopher Marlowe (or Marley) died some time between 20th May and early June, that he was a friend of Thomas Walsingham, and that he had just been before the Privy Council . So when we find that a 'Christopher Morley' was stabbed to death on 30th May in the company of two people whose names are closely linked with that of Thomas Walsingham,(7) and one with close connections with the Privy Council, we may justifiably conclude that this must have been the same man. We could still be wrong, but this conclusion is corroborated by the Baines Note, (8) reporting to the Privy Council on the atheism of a 'Christofer Marly' who apparently died at about that time. And this certainly clinches it.

In 1597, Thomas Beard mounted a vicious attack on Marlowe (this, despite its inaccuracies, is clear from his description of the death) telling us some more about him.

" of our own nation, of fresh and late memory, called Marlin, by profession a scholler, brought up from his youth in the Universitie of Cambridge, but by practise a playmaker, and a Poet of scurrilitie..." (9)
The 'Marlin' is, of course, somewhat unexpected, but Beard had been at Cambridge himself, and there was indeed someone there at the same time (overlapping for a couple of years) whose name had apparently been transmuted into 'Marlen', 'Marlin', etc., for much of his time there, but whose 'correct' name - if there was such a thing - was 'Christopher Marley', the name with which we are by now rather more familiar.

As we shall now see, this Cambridge scholar came from Canterbury.

The terms of the will of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, included (among others) the foundation of a scholarship at Corpus Christi (then Ben'et) College, Cambridge, for one boy, born in Canterbury and having attended the King's School there. The Archbishop died on 17th May, 1575, and the first boy to benefit from this - selected, as 'Marley' was later, by Matthew Parker's son Jonathan - was Christopher Pashley, who remained there for six years.

Following Pashley's departure after the first trimester of 1580-1, someone called 'Marlen' (also subsequently spelt 'Marlin', 'Malyn', 'Marlyn', 'Marly' and 'Marlye') started to receive in Pashley's place the payments for the same scholarship. (10) And in 1587, following the supplicat for his M.A. degree by 'Christopherus Marley', a Jacob Bridgeman was admitted "in locum dominii Marley" to the now- available Canterbury scholarship ("in locum Cantuariensis scholaris vacantem"). Some nine years earlier, the accounts of the Treasurer of Canterbury Cathedral, 1578/9, show that a 'Christofer Marley' was a scholar at the King's School Canterbury that year. (11) This was the only 'Marley' (or similar) on the list of fifty scholars. The Cambridge M.A., therefore, can have only been this 'Christofer Marley' from Canterbury.

He was also the only person with a name anything like that to have been awarded this degree shortly after the Privy Council's intervention, in which they wrote that a "Christopher Morley... should be furthered in the degree" because he had "done her Majesty good service & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing... touching the benefit of his country". (12) This, therefore, is also our playwright, and also the 'Christopher Morley' who was reported killed at Deptford.

At Corpus Christi at the same time as Marlowe was a John Benchkin, also from Canterbury. When the name 'Christofer Marley' appears in Canterbury in 1585 as a witness to the will of John Benchkin's mother, therefore, we may be sure that it is the same man. The other witnesses are John Marley, Thomas Arthur, and John Moore. These people are all related: Thomas is John Marley's brother-in-law, and John Moore his son-in-law. (13)

This then links back to the record of a christening in Canterbury on 26th February 1563/4. "Christofer the sonne of John Marlow".(14) 'Christofer Marlow', in other words, which brings us more or less full circle to the 'Christopher Marlow' who, over thirty years later, would be presented as the author of The Massacre at Paris.

We started with Hero and Leander and finished with John Marlowe, who is known to have been a shoemaker in Canterbury. It is useful, therefore, to read the following in a commonplace book, dated 1640:

...Marlo who wrot Hero, & Leander was an Atheist, & had wrote a book ag(ain)st the Scripture, how that it was all one mans making, & would have printed it but would not be suffered. He was the son of a shoemaker in Cant: (15)
Before finishing, a word or two about the various ways in which his surname is spelt, and for this I think we need to start with the way in which he and his father spelled it - 'Marley'. It seems possible that, spoken with a Kentish accent, the first syllable could have sounded to non-Kentish ears as lying somewhere between 'Marl' and 'Morl', and people merely wrote down whichever one they thought they heard. Similarly, the second syllable could lie somewhere between 'ley' and 'low'.

Those changes are hardly unexpected, but the appearance of that final 'n' upon his arrival at Cambridge does need some explanation, since it is phonetically quite different. I think the answer lies in an initial error of transcription which got progressively worse ('Marlen', 'Marlin', 'Merling'), and which was not finally corrected until he started to take his actual degrees there. The initial error is in fact quite easy to explain, as the final letter 'n' of a word in Secretary hand was often written with a downward flourish not unlike the descender of the letter 'y', and the first person to copy the name 'Marley', thinking that a letter 'n' was intended, simply wrote 'Marlen' instead.

There is also, of course, the possibility that he quite liked having a name so like 'Merlin', and did nothing to get it changed until he had to!

© Peter Farey, 2002-4


1 Thomas Edwards: Narcissus (1595) - but circulating in manuscript in 1593.

2 BL Harley MS.6848 f.154 (in this and all subsequent transcripts, use of the letters i, j, u, and v has been modernized)

3 BL Harley MS.6848 f.189

4 PRO Privy Council Registers PC2 / 20 / 374 (18 May 1593)

5 Ibid. (20 May 1593)

6 George Peele: The Honour of the Garter (1593)

7 PRO Chancery C260 / 174 / 27, discovered by Leslie Hotson, and his translation given in his The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925).

8 BL Harley MS.6848 ff.185-6

9 Thomas Beard: Theatre of Gods Judgements (1597)

10 Frederick S. Boas: Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study (1940) p.13

11 A.D. Wraight and Virginia F. Stern: In Search of Christopher Marlowe (1965) pp.48-9

12 PRO Privy Council Registers PC2 / 14 / 381 (29 June 1587) . That they refer to the degree as to be taken "this next Commencement" makes it clear that it is a Cambridge Master of Arts (M.A.) degree that is meant.

13 A.D. Wraight and Virginia F. Stern: op. cit. pp.228-9

14 Frederick S. Boas: op. cit. p.3

15 Henry Oxinden's commonplace book, quoted in Constance Brown Kuriyama: Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life (2002), p.239

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