by Peter Farey



For anyone interested in the circumstances surrounding the killing of Christopher Marlowe at Deptford in 1593, The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl (Jonathan Cape, 1992) is a must. Deliberately ignoring the usually recorded aspects of this famous poet/dramatist, he concentrates upon the other world that Marlowe probably occupied, that of the Elizabethan secret agent. Nicholl has an understandable distaste for many of the activities carried out by the double-agents and undercover 'projectors' of the time, and this distaste, perhaps inevitably, is occasionally evident in his portrayal of Marlowe. It is, nevertheless, a far more balanced and realistic picture of him than A.D. Wraight's "riposte" to this book would have us believe (Adam Hart, 1992).

The Reckoning itself is very readable, and contains within its four hundred or so pages a mass of relevant information about the people, events and relationships that most probably played a part in what happened at Deptford that day. All of the necessary background seems to be there to enable one to come to a reasonable conclusion about what may have happened, and why, but this is the one area in which the book is unsatisfactory. The facts upon which the conclusion is based may be right, but sometimes the reasoning applied to those facts is not.

The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to reexamine Nicholl's reasoning, while taking his information as fact unless there is good cause for rejecting it. The page numbers refer to the original Jonathan Cape (hardback) edition.


Although he dismisses the story of Marlowe's death as reported in the Coroner's Inquisition, Nicholl does accept that Marlowe was killed at Deptford on 30th May 1593, but he sees it arising from the failure of the Essex faction to get Marlowe imprisoned and tortured, with the aim of incriminating Ralegh. To Nicholas Skeres, apparently representing the Earl of Essex, "is entrusted the delicate task: to try once more to persuade Marlowe to turn evidence against Ralegh, and failing that, to silence him for good" (pp.327-8). Ingram Frizer was there simply as the organizer of the meeting for Skeres; and Robert Poley, representing Sir Robert Cecil, was also there - unexpectedly and uninvited - to "ask questions" and "make offers". He came into his own after the murder, however, when he acted to "close the case up as quickly and tightly as possible" (p.328). How Poley would have even known about the meeting, just what those questions and offers might have been, and how he could persuade Skeres that he had a right to be there at all, are some of too many loose ends in this account of what happened.

We may also ask, for example, why they chose to meet in Deptford, when all except the uninvited guest, Poley, were closely involved with Thomas Walsingham, whose home at Scadbury - where two of them were probably living at the time - would, presumably, have been ideal. Why, indeed, did they choose a place owned by someone whose main connection with the Court now appeared to be via the Cecils, and who had no known link with the Essex faction? And why would Essex entrust such a delicate task to Skeres, a lowly employee who gets not a single mention in the sixteen volumes of papers belonging to Anthony Bacon, the "chief figure in Essex's intelligence service" (p.222)? Finally, what was Robert Poley doing between 1st June, when he attended the inquest, and 8th June, when - less than 13 miles away - he delivered the papers "concerning special and secret affairs of great importance" he had brought back from The Hague? (p.32)


According to Nicholl, the campaign against Marlowe was mounted with the intention of getting him arrested and tortured so that he would incriminate Sir Walter Ralegh, and thus finish off this court rival of Essex once and for all. Yet, as Nicholl himself acknowledges, Ralegh posed no threat to Essex at all at this time.

"This was the situation in early 1593. Essex was in the spate of success. On 25 February he was sworn in as a full member of the Privy Council, thus realising a life-long ambition, and cementing his position as the Queen's 'minion' with a measure of executive power. Ralegh, by contrast, was disgraced and exiled from court." (p.296)

Whilst the fact that there was indeed such a campaign seems to be well supported, there is no attempt to establish whether there might have been anyone else to whom the complete removal of Ralegh - not to mention Marlowe - was probably desirable.


Although Ralegh was right out of favour at Court, he did nevertheless continue to be a thorn in the side of others. Firstly, his interests as a free thinker, and his apparent readiness to continue discussing these ideas with others, remained unchecked at a time when such 'atheism' was coming under ever more attack. Secondly, he still had a platform for his views as a Member of Parliament. A.D. Wraight has suggested, therefore, that a more likely instigator of the moves against him would have been the Church, in the person of Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift. In Wraight's The Story that the Sonnets Tell (Adam Hart, 1994), she gives the impetus behind it as coming from:

"...Reactionary ecclesiastical powers, whose domination over men's minds was tenaciously guarded by their instruments of enforcement - the Holy Roman Inquisition abroad and the Court of Star Chamber in England. The fear of losing their power-base as the minds of men became freed from superstition... was what impelled their witch-hunt against the free thinkers."

The more political aspects of this are indeed referred to by Nicholl (p.280) when he comments upon the allegations being made against Cholmeley:

"This expresses the worst fears of the authorities about the consequences of allowing atheism to prosper: civil disobedience, social breakdown, anarchy."

Unfortunately, Nicholl doesn't seem to consider the possibility that this was why Marlowe was targeted, both for his own views and those of his friends, and Wraight herself provides no documentary evidence in support of her claim that Whitgift was behind it. If we look at what actually happened, however, we find that this would explain most of the loose ends left by Nicholl's solution.

We may wonder whether Whitgift would target someone he already knew to have been one of Burghley's agents, having been a co-signatory of the document requiring the Cambridge authorities not to withold Marlowe's Masters degree. But this was six years earlier, and he would have been most unlikely to remember such a trivial item after so long. That the left hand could be ignorant of what the right was doing in this area is, in any case, amply illustrated by the affair of 'The Dutch Shilling' in Flushing (pp.234-9), when both Baines and Marlowe appear to have been working under cover for the government, yet wrecked everything by informing upon each other.


Nicholl places Essex's 'servant', Richard Cholmeley (p.251), at the heart of the Marlowe/Ralegh attack. He suggests that it was Cholmeley who penned the Dutch Church libel, since he had written such things before, wrote verse, and was a professed admirer of Marlowe (p.287). Given that people were to be put to the torture over this, however, it seems strange that he would so obviously incriminate himself in this way. Similarly, it would have been extraordinarily callous for his own side to have informed on him, as Nicholl suggests (p.305). But most of all, if he was indeed fingered by Baines/Drury some time in mid-May, why is it that Kyd was immediately arrested for the crime, and Cholmeley not arrested at all until he gave himself up, apparently for some other reason, at the end of June?

In his essay A Reckoning Reframed: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe Revisited, Paul E.J. Hammer has indeed cast considerable doubt upon whether this Richard Cholmeley was in fact the same Richard Cholmeley who, according to Nicholl, appears to have been a servant of the Earl of Essex.

Richard Cholmeley plays an important part in the story, but there is an inconsistency concerning him which grows larger as the book progresses. In a nutshell it is that, whereas the Baines Note concerning Marlowe's alleged transgressions is taken only as the informer's probably biased version of the truth, the words of Cholmeley, as also reported by an informer, are assumed to be completely accurate. "He also asserted that...", rather than "he was also said to have asserted that..." is the first of many such instances. See p.278, for example, where words given as Cholmeley's are compared with those of "Marlowe, according to Baines". Nicholl casts considerable doubt on how far we should trust the words of the informer (Richard Baines) with regard to his allegations about Marlowe, but he has no such concern about the words of the informer (Thomas Drury?) in the case of Richard Cholmeley. Drury had far more reason for hating his target than Baines, yet his 'Remembrances' and further accusations are taken to be an accurate record of what Cholmeley has said. Neither Marlowe nor Cholmeley had the slightest control over what was being reported about them, and Cholmeley was probably no more responsible for what he was alleged to have said than Marlowe was.


Some time between the 6th of May (the day following the evening the libel was posted) and the 10th of May (when a reward that had been offered to him was offered to all), Thomas Drury was sent to find out from Richard Baines the name of whoever was responsible for the Dutch Church libel. He obtained the said information and handed it in, but was never given the reward he had been promised (p.304). The most likely reason for this, presumably, would be that the information he gave to the authorities was false.

By 12th May, however, Thomas Kyd was a prisoner, charged with the offence, protesting his innocence, and complaining that he had been the victim of an informer (p.43). He was never brought to trial, though, so we must assume that he managed to convince the authorities of his innocence. Why, then, would Baines have said that he did it? It seems to be a part of the same attack on Marlowe, since it was at Kyd's lodging that the "vile hereticall conceipts denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior" which he "affirmeth that he had from Marlowe" were found, which resulted in his views about Marlowe's atheism being made known.

We should note, therefore, that on the day before his imprisonment, at the Star Chamber, the Privy Council had discussed the Dutch Church libel and, as Nicholl reports (p.42), "Officers were ordered to 'apprehend every person so to be suspected' and to 'search in any the chambers, studies, chests or other like places, for all manner of writing and papers that may give you light for the discovery of the libellers'." Had somebody been tipped off? It is perhaps of interest to see that, whereas Whitgift was at that meeting, Essex was not.

Whatever the significance of this, though, there would seem to be far more reason for suspecting that Kyd was the person informed upon than that it was Cholmeley, as Nicholl proposes.


If Kyd was the person named, and if Nicholl is right about what the letter from Thomas Drury to Anthony Bacon is all about (and, with a couple of exceptions mentioned later, he almost certainly is), one person who seems to have been connected with every stage of this 'campaign' is Richard Baines.

Of the various people who might have been behind this series of happenings, Baines is in fact the only one involved at every stage. Furthermore, he is the only one we know of who would have personal reasons for wanting to hurt Marlowe. There had been 'malice' between them, following the affair of 'the Dutch Shilling' in Flushing (p.235) in which each had accused the other of treason. Baines may well have been disgusted to see Marlowe get away with what was in his view a capital offence, annoyed at being forced back from Flushing, and offended to see something he had apparently proposed in his earlier life - the poisoning of a seminary's well - lampooned in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (p.124).

Even if (pace Paul Hammer) Cholmeley had been acting as an agent provocateur for the Earl of Essex - who was keen to achieve an intelligence coup - Baines really is far more convincing as the orchestrator of the plot against Marlowe and Ralegh.

If, then, it is Baines, rather than Cholmeley, who master-minded this attack, for whom would he have been working? Nicholl's argument, based upon his belief that Essex was behind it, is that Baines must have been an Essex man; and he even has the Baines 'Note' produced (p.323): "In the back-rooms of the Essex entourage". Wraight, on the other hand, says that - because Whitgift is behind it - Baines must have been working for 'his' Star Chamber Court as a professional informer.

We don't really have to guess, however. Nicholl himself gives us the probable answer (p.130): "In 1587, a Richard Baines was installed as the rector of Waltham, near Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire. He is described as a Cambridge man, and this is almost certainly our Baines" and he was "still rector in 1607" (p.335). If Nicholl - or, his source, Constance Kuriyama - is right, then we know that it must have been the Church which allowed him leave for his stay in Flushing in 1591/2 and his investigations in London in 1593. We may therefore assume that it was the Church for whom he was working at those times. So who, excluding the Queen, was at the head of the Church in England? The Archbishop of Canterbury. Baines was already working for John Whitgift, and had been since 1587 at least.

One thing we should be aware of, however. The title "rector" can just be the term for the man with the right to collect the "great tithes", and by Elizabethan times rectors were not always clergymen. After the Dissolution many tithes in fact passed into the possession of the laymen who bought up former ecclesiastical property, and were sold on the open market. Baines had been ordained a Catholic priest, however, so it does seem more likely that this position had ecclesiastical duties too.


One of the most interesting characters introduced to us by Nicholl is Thomas Drury, who seems to have played a major part in the events leading up to Marlowe's death. Nicholl quite rightly tells us that the letter Drury wrote to Anthony Bacon is a key document, and goes on to interpret it in detail (pp.302-8).

The first thing we learn is that Drury obtained the name of the Dutch Church libeller (or so he thought) from Richard Baines, and handed it to the authorities. This seems certain, although Nicholl implies that he did this to obtain the reward promised in the Lord Mayor's proclamation on 10th May. It is of some importance to the dating of what happened, however, to notice that his actual words indicate that he had been privately offered the same reward, probably before that date. He talks of "the desired secret ... for which the City of London promised, as also (my emphasis) by proclamation was promised, a hundred crowns".

As we have already seen, Nicholl thinks that the name given was that of Richard Cholmeley. This seems, for the reasons already given, to be most unlikely, and Nicholl's main reason for believing this (that a reference to Cholmeley's arrest follows straight after this) really is illogical. On the other hand, the idea that Drury should investigate Cholmeley, and write the 'Remembrances' against him, may well have come from Baines too.

Nicholl says (p.306) "there is little doubt in my mind that Drury is ... claiming a leading role in the surveillance and arrest of Richard Cholmeley" and it is difficult to disagree with him. Similarly, he says that "Thomas Drury now steps forward as a likely candidate for the informer who compiled the 'Remembrances'", and this is later made irrefutable by Drury's letter to Robert Cecil (pp.316-7).

Unfortunately Nicholl does go wrong when he considers the next words from Drury:

"there was by my only means set down unto the Lord Keeper and the Lord of Buckhurst the notablest and vildest articles of atheism, that I suppose the like were never known or read of in any age, all which I can show unto you. They were delivered to Her Highness, and command given by herself to prosecute it to the full".

He says that there is "no doubt at all that Drury is here referring to the Baines 'Note' against Marlowe", but this cannot be, as Marlowe had been reported dead by the time 'Her Highness' received the 'Note'.

There is in any case a much better candidate for this, which is the letter filed alongside Drury's 'Remembrances'. It is almost identical to the Baines 'Note' in terms of its description of Cholmeley's atheism, it is almost certainly addressed to Justice Young, who was reporting to the Lord Keeper on this matter and who did subsequently arrest Cholmeley, and it was prosecuted to a certain extent at least.

Nicholl's belief that the 'Note' was by Drury's instigation is, therefore, simply not supported by the evidence, and it is also clear that the Baines 'Note' provided the model for this letter, rather than it being the other way round, as Nicholl seems to imply.


What is certainly revealed by Drury's evidence, however, is the hitherto unknown role of Sir Robert Cecil in this business (p.319). It is perfectly clear, and quite certain, that Drury's 'Remembrances', within which Marlowe was accused of skilfully spreading atheism, were first addressed to him.

The accusations against Marlowe as contained in the 'Remembrances' were not the only such items Cecil knew about, however. He had also been at the Privy Council meeting when the Dutch Church libel had been discussed, at their meetings following Kyd's imprisonment, and almost certainly (although unfortunately the attendance was not recorded) at the next meeting, when Marlowe's arrest was ordered. Nicholl also gives good reasons for thinking that Cecil was responsible for editing the Baines 'Note' after it was first handed in (p.321). Nicholl puts it thus (p.319): "As the events of May unfold, Sir Robert Cecil is fully apprised".

The following other quotations from Nicholl are particularly important:

"There is really only one plausible candidate as the protector of Marlowe in May 1593: Sir Robert Cecil. He too, I have argued, was a kind of patron of Marlowe: not in that poetic, conversational sense of the literary patron, but in the subfusc sphere of political dealings. Marlowe had been used by Cecil, just as Cholmeley had. The Flushing episode, though still enigmatic, belongs within the aegis of Cecil's intelligence service, belongs within the ongoing process of the government's surveillance of the presumed Catholic pretender, Lord Strange. The business about Marlowe and the 'K of Scots' suggests that he is still involved, together with his friend Roydon, in this area of succession politics" (p.316)

The phrase 'succession politics' does imply two things, in fact. There was the question (as mainly addressed here) of threats against the current ruler, but there was also the question of who would succeed her if and when she died naturally. The latter was a subject completely forbidden by the Queen, and anyone discussing it could be asking for real trouble. There is nevertheless little doubt that the 'K of Scots' reference had something to do with this question too. Nicholl discusses Cecil's possible response to these matters:

"A more pressing perception might be of Marlowe's dangerousness, however. The problem is a perennial one for spymasters: the friction between the overt and the covert sectors of government; the fear that overt, official enquiries will produce unintended disclosures about covert activities. Marlowe has worked, on Cecil's behalf, in those dodgy areas of government. Already, in the 'Remembrances', there is embarrassing material: the 'scandalous report' that Cecil had instigated Cholmeley as a pro-Catholic libeller. Does Marlowe too have that kind of compromising knowledge about the dealings of the Burghley network? How much, for instance, does he know about Cecil's game-plan against Lord Strange, soon to take shape in the cynical form of the so-called 'Hesketh plot'? It was imperative that nothing should come out about this. Here is a more pressing motive for Cecil's protection of Marlowe: to shield him from the clumsy inquisitions of legal prosecution" (p.320).

and also:

"Cecil's involvement in the affair, which we know from Drury, translates into a kind of uneasy vigilance. Marlowe is in this harsh spotlight. He is a problem, a possible security risk. Is it at this stage that the signal goes out to the Netherlands, ordering the return of Robert Poley?" (p.321)

The answer to this is probably yes, but the question it begs is "to do what?". The skills at which we know Poley to have been pre-eminent were those of a totally plausible liar.


Another person described by Nicholl as Marlowe's "friend and protector" (p.118) is Thomas Walsingham, who, because of his familiarity with all four of the men apparently involved, is indirectly connected with the Deptford incident too. Nicholls says that Walsingham did not have the 'clout' to challenge the prosecution of Marlowe (p.315), but we may be sure that he would have wanted to do what he could to protect his friend.

Ingram Frizer is described as his 'man', and both of them are involved with Nicholas Skeres in slightly shady dealings. Frizer and Skeres are also known to be highly convincing con-men, so could it be that Walsingham's help partly took the form of providing these two men to assist Poley in whatever action was needed?

Nicholl shows us (pp.29-30) that Skeres had been a servant of the Earl of Essex since 1589, and that in 1595 he still was. Something about Skeres is interesting, though, when we look at his possible role in the Babington plot in 1586 (pp.28-29). Nicholl points out that "it looks like he was there as a government plant" and, after the arrests, "drops from the story, almost certainly because he was Walsingham's man all along." Then, in July 1589, carrying papers for the Earl of Essex, Skeres was nevertheless paid by Sir Francis Walsingham. Given his continuing connection with the Walsingham family (p.23) and his meeting with Poley on the fatal day, one cannot avoid a nagging suspicion that (in a world of such double-dealing) he just might have continued his career as a 'plant', and was actually still reporting within the former 'Walsingham' set-up, now largely in the hands of the Cecils. About Walsingham, Nicholl (p.191) quotes 'an early biographer': "his spies waited on some men every hour for three years" - and the practice certainly didn't stop with Sir Francis's death. Most people would, in any case, expect Skeres's loyalty to 'partners in crime' to be rather stronger than to a master whom he has possibly hardly ever met.


We now see the meeting at Deptford in a rather different light, since, rather than being at Essex's instigation, it would appear to have been set up on behalf of Sir Robert Cecil and Thomas Walsingham, most probably with the intention of helping Marlowe to escape the arrest and torture which the arrival of the Baines 'Note' rendered almost certain. Given the dire straits that Marlowe was in, the fact that Poley was carrying those papers "concerning special and secret affairs of great importance" from the Netherlands, and the lack of any known connection between Poley and Frizer at that time, we can in any case probably rule out the possibility of it being just a social gathering.

In which case, what might have been some possible objectives for the meeting at Deptford that day?

Whilst it might have been possible for Robert Cecil to consider having Marlowe murdered, the presence of Frizer and Skeres (and thus the undoubted involvement of Thomas Walsingham) would make this extremely unlikely. It would have required Walsingham not only to have agreed to the murder, but for Cecil to have raised the question with him in the first place, which seems highly improbable. Besides, for a man with money and power in those days, there were certainly far simpler ways of arranging a murder than this.

As for discussing what to do, this would without doubt have been done by Cecil himself, almost certainly with the help of his father, Lord Burghley, Thomas Walsingham and Marlowe himself. Poley, Frizer and Skeres were operators, the people who carried out the instructions, and not the ones to decide upon a strategy of such importance. We should also remember that Marlowe was supposed to be presenting himself to the Privy Council at Nonsuch every day, which he is most unlikely to have done on the day in question, arriving - as he is said to have done - some sixteen miles away, by road, in Deptford at 10 a.m. This implies that he must have known already that it would no longer matter whether he attended their Lordships that day or not. In other words, the decision had been made already.

Arrangements for fleeing and going into hiding could have been quite satisfactorily completed without any such meeting, and certainly without the involvement of Frizer and Skeres. It would in any case leave the huge coincidence of Marlowe's supposed death at Deptford unaccounted for.

Only one of these options does actually fit the circumstances precisely, although the implications for literary history make it almost unthinkable. It is that these people were there to fake Marlowe's death, so that he could then live the rest of his life under some other identity. We have to assume that they were there to help him; one 'killer' and two witnesses would be needed; they were all known to be skilled liars; it was at a house owned by someone connected with - and possibly even related to - the Cecils; Marlowe probably already had undercover experience; and there was indeed a supposedly dead Christopher Marlowe (rendered less recognizable by a face wound) lying there at the end of the day.


And if this were the course chosen, it would be extremely helpful to have a 'friendly' coroner, rather than a local one, which might be a bit of a gamble. Coroners, of course, were also the best people to be acquainted with if you just happened to require a dead body. It is therefore of some relevance that William Danby had been a contemporary of William Cecil at the Inns of Court some fifty years earlier, and had been his close colleague at court for the past four. Although Deptford Strand was just within the verge at the time (the Queen was at Nonsuch, rather than at Greenwich as Nicholl thought), it was necessary for the Coroner of the Queen's Household to be brought in by the local coroner at such times, and for them to run the inquest together. That Danby in fact ran it on his own does seem to make it rather more likely that he was specially chosen for this particular job.

So well did Danby do his it, nevertheless, that the inquest was carried out and the body was buried on the same day - in an unmarked grave, of course - and Ingram Frizer released to return to his favoured position with Marlowe's friend Thomas Walsingham inside a month.


There will inevitably be quite a lot of speculation in the following, but it is, as far as possible, all justified by what has been concluded above.

For someone who had spent several years operating as an agent under cover, life as a Lincolnshire rector, although financially secure, may have proved somewhat dull, and it would not be surprising if Richard Baines had not pressed for occasional work which made better use what he considered to be his particular talents. This is possibly what happened here. We can see him visiting London, and poking around to pick up something with which to approach either the Archbishop or his sidekick, Dr. Bancroft. He may have come across Cholmeley talking about the influence upon him of the 'famous gracer of tragedians', Christopher Marlowe, and, given his own dislike of Marlowe, noted this as a possibility. Following this up, he may have sought out Thomas Kyd and listened to his views, which seemed to be even more critical than those of Robert Greene, who had died a few months earlier.

Armed with such information as these people would have provided, Baines could suggest to his masters that an attack be mounted against Marlowe, and that he could, with a little more investigation, provide a watertight case against him. They would have liked the idea, adding to it the fact that Marlowe was only one of a group of 'atheists' whom they would like to catch, Sir Walter Ralegh being one of them. They tell him about Ralegh's recent speeches in Parliament, about the placards that have started appearing, apparently as a result, and about the Commission set up to investigate them. Baines is given permission to proceed, but is told to ensure that there is no indication of their involvement. So he devises his plan accordingly, and starts as soon as possible to put it into effect.

Whether he revisited Kyd and planted the 'vile hereticall conceipts' during that visit, or whether Kyd had shown them to him when they were discussing Marlowe's atheism (as is perhaps more likely, given that Kyd had to think they were Marlowe's), they had to be in place quite early on.

Taking care to make sure that people couldn't fail to recognize the references to Marlowe, he next wrote a poem based upon an extreme version of Ralegh's political views about immigrants and, on the evening of 5th May, posted it on the wall of the Dutch Church.

He then contacted Thomas Drury, who was unknowingly to play a major part in his plan, and suggested that he tell the Commissioners that he might be able to discover who did it, and see if they would offer a reward for this. He was not to give Baines's name, of course, or they would simply send one of their own officers to pick him up, and torture the information out of him. It had to be "someone Drury knew only by sight", perhaps.

Drury was indeed offered a reward of 100 crowns for this information. Baines told him that it was Thomas Kyd who had done it, and this was the name he handed in. Meanwhile Baines would have briefed Whitgift, who, at the Star Chamber meeting of the Privy Council on 11th May, could raise the issue of the Dutch Church libel, authorize torture in the pursuit of who was responsible, and insist upon thorough searches of the papers etc. of anyone suspected. Kyd was immediately picked up, the 'vile hereticall conceipts' found, and himself tortured. What he had to say about Marlowe was no doubt reported back to the Privy Council (which met at court in Whitgift's Croydon home on 13th and 14th May) probably along the lines of the shorter of the two letters he wrote to the Lord Keeper. If so it was extremely damning.

Baines, meanwhile, had suggested to Drury that he could get his own back on Richard Cholmeley (who had betrayed him in the past) by investigating him and informing the authorities. He knew, he said, that Sir Robert Cecil would be particularly interested. He, Baines, would be able to help with some of the detail. Drury duly obliged, and the 'Remembrances' were the result, delivered to Cecil some time in mid-May.

Cecil therefore knew by now that his man Marlowe was in deep trouble. The combination of the 'heretical' document, the accusations of Kyd, and now the claim that he was actively proselytizing for his atheistic ideas, even though Cecil must have realised that they were all part of an elaborate frame-up, would undoubtedly lead to Marlowe's torture and death. It must have been around now that the first thoughts about a faked death began to develop.

On 18th May, Marlowe's arrest was ordered. Someone on the Privy Council, presumably Cecil, knew where he was to be found - at Thomas Walsingham's home in Kent. On 20th May, Marlowe duly put in his appearance, and - one assumes with the backing of the Cecils, father and son - let out on bail, required only to attend upon their Lordships every day. Clearly, this would not mean the whole Privy Council. Perhaps it would be sufficient for him to see just Sir Robert Cecil?

It was now perhaps suggested by Cecil, privately, that Marlowe might like to bring their mutual friend and former colleague, Thomas Walsingham, along next time, and at that meeting - joined by Lord Burghley - they must have discussed the possibility of a faked death. The names of the Cecils' man Poley, Walsingham's man Frizer, and his sidekick Skeres were mentioned. Using Skeres would also be a good means of ensuring that his 'master', the Earl of Essex, bought the story. The Cecils know the owner of a place in Deptford that will be ideal, and Burghley is sure that his old friend Her Majesty's Coroner, William Danby, can be trusted to help in whatever way is necessary, both in ensuring the 'correct' result for the inquest and in finding an appropriate body for them.

A particular difficulty was that Robert Poley had gone to the Netherlands on 8th May, and might not be back in time. Perhaps, therefore, Thomas Walsingham could go and fetch him, which would thus enable Poley to be fully briefed without having to return to the court first. Poley, Frizer and Skeres could firm up the exact details of what their story is, once they knew the sort of corpse Danby had got for them.

Baines, meanwhile, had been completing his own account of Marlowe's transgressions and handed his 'Note' in on 27th May. This too found its way to Sir Robert Cecil. Now things have become really urgent. Eleanor Bull's place has been provisionally booked, Frizer and Skeres are waiting at Scadbury for the return of Walsingham with Robert Poley, and Marlowe is probably there too, making the daily run to Nonsuch to find out the latest, and to keep Cecil informed. Everything is ready to go, with the exception of Robert Poley ... and a body.

A possible answer to this has been suggested by David More, editor of The Marlovian newsletter. On 21st May, the trial had started of the Puritan, John Penry, suspected of being behind the Martin Marprelate pamphlets. He had written to Burghley, protesting his innocence, but on 25th May he had been condemned to death. He was about the same age as Marlowe.

We do not know how much he resembled Marlowe, but we do know that his execution was delayed for four days, until the 29th May, and that it then took place with such suddenness that none of his family was able to attend, nor ever able to discover what happened to the body. He was executed at about six o'clock on the evening of the 29th, and only a couple of miles from Deptford. As this took place within the verge, the Queen's Coroner, William Danby, could have had some influence in determining what happened to the body. The following morning, the four men met at Widow Bull's house in Deptford.

There is no record in the Coroner's Inquisition as to who identified the body, and certainly no mention of anyone else who knew him being involved. Given that the witnesses are described as 'gentlemen', however, it would seem probable that their identification would have been accepted, especially if Thomas Walsingham had been there to back them up, and if Danby was seen to take their word for it.

On 2nd June, presumably with some relief, Cecil was able to deliver to the Queen his slightly amended, and more equivocally described, version of the Baines 'Note'. The question of Frizer's culpability, given Danby's report (and perhaps a judicious word from Burghley), went through Chancery without problem. And by the end of June he was a free man.

Whether Marlowe ever was there that day may of course be doubted. Was he perhaps 'played' by Thomas Walsingham until the corpse arrived? Maybe he stayed nearby, so that as soon as Poley was finished at the inquest, they could take a boat somewhere into which Poley knew all the 'secret ways'. Scotland? The Netherlands? Wherever it was, it would take Poley until a week later, 8th June, before he would finally be able to deliver the letters "of great importance" he had brought back with him from The Hague the month before. Luckily, he would be able to prove that he had been "in Her Majesty's service all the aforesaid time" (p.32)


A.D. Wraight (Ibid., pp.120-2) believes that the the writ of certiorari issued after the inquest indicates a personal interest in this case on the part of the Queen. This is not certain, and her suggestion that Walsingham sought the Queen's help is unconvincing, but it is nevertheless possible for the Queen to have known about what was happening. If so, the following alternative course of events would equally well explain what happened that day.

Whitgift, perhaps prompted by Baines, initially persuaded the Queen that Marlowe should die, because of the outspokenly heretical, atheistic and blasphemous views which he seemed determined to 'teach' to others, but Burghley managed to get at least some stay of execution. Whitgift didn't like this, so he instructed Baines to mount the anti-Marlowe campaign to increase the pressure, and made sure that the Cecils knew about it at each stage. Fearing that they were not going to be able to save Marlowe for much longer, therefore, they managed to persuade the Queen that a faked death would achieve the same result. As the pressure mounted with each new revelation, however, (and maybe they knew that the Baines 'Note' was on its way too) they suspected that she was very likely to change her mind again, so decided that they had better go ahead with it before this happened.

Such a scenario would have the advantage of providing a better explanation of why Danby would have become involved - because she told him to - and, indeed, how he could have been persuaded not only to guarantee the required verdict, but also to help in obtaining the necessary body.

Peter Zenner, in his The Shakespeare Invention (Country Books, 1999) has drawn attention to the following anonymous sonnet, which appeared in a collection of poems, The Phoenix Nest, published shortly after the killing in 1593. Among the poets represented are Marlowe's friends Thomas Watson, Matthew Roydon and George Peele. This poem appears between others clearly addressed to the Queen.

A Secret murder hath bene done of late,
Vnkindnes founde, to be the bloudie knife,
And shee that did the deede a dame of state,
Faire, gracious, wise, as any beareth life.
To quite hir selfe, this answere did she make,
Mistrust (quoth she) hath brought him to his end,
Which makes the man so much himselfe mistake,
To lay the guilt vnto his guiltles frend.
Ladie not so, not feard I found my death,
For no desart thus murdered is my minde,
And yet before I yeeld my fainting breath,
I quite the killer, tho I blame the kinde.
   You kill vnkinde, I die, and yet am true,
   For at your sight, my wound doth bleede anew.

Although a perfectly ordinary meaning - that of the poet being 'murdered' by his disdainful mistress - is quite acceptable, it is certainly possible to interpret this as having a second meaning, in which the 'dame of state' would have been the Queen, and the 'bloudy knife' a literal, rather than a metaphorical, one.


As Nicholl, speaking of the immediate aftermath, says (p.59), "There was ... no attempt to hush up the fact of Marlowe's Death. But as to how it happened, and why, there was as yet no public comment". In fact, as far as we know, it would not be until four years had passed before even a dagger was mentioned. Even then, as he says (p.68) "Five years after his death, the consensus view on Christopher Marlowe - unless you happened to know otherwise - was that he had died on the streets of London in a fight over some rent-boy".

So far as we are able to tell, it was not until Leslie Hotson's discovery of the Coroner's Inquisition, in 1925, that anyone found out that the fight was over the payment of a bill. Certainly none of the accounts included in The Reckoning suggest that it was known. Except in one case. It is generally accepted that, in Touchstone's reference to "a great reckoning in a little room", he is referring not only to Marlowe's death, but to the actual word used in the coroner's report. So how did Shakespeare, having no known connection with anyone involved in this story, know something that no one else in the world - other than those directly involved in the legal process - would have known?

On the other hand, perhaps this question could open a can of worms which, as far as the scope of this paper is concerned, had better remain firmly shut!

© Peter Farey, January 2000-2