As we approach the anniversary of Marlowe's alleged death, it's sad that college students today have never heard of Christopher Marlowe. But the few who have will often ask, “Wasn’t he killed in a bar-room brawl?” The belief that Marlowe was killed in some seedy watering hole and then buried - case closed - is rampant, from the Eleventh Edition of the Britannica - “He was slain in a quarrel by a man variously named (Archer and Ingram) at Deptford at the end of May 1593, and he was buried at the lst of June in the churchyard of St. Nicholas at Deptford" - to a recent course description for "Marlowe and Shakespeare" at Williams College - "Marlowe was murdered, stabbed through the eye in a tavern brawl." Too often there's not even the mere recognition that so many of the details surrounding May 30, 1593, are highly disputable.
It wasn’t until Harvard professor Leslie Hotson in 1925 managed to find the actual Coroner’s Inquest on Marlowe’s death in the Public Record Office that we were given the details of the “bar-room brawl.” In fact, Marlowe’s supposed demise did not take place in a bar-room, but in a very respectable guest house in Deptford run by an equally respectable widow by the name of Eleanor Bull. She was not just anybody. She was, in fact, distantly related to Lord Burghley (William Cecil), the Queen’s secretary of state and head of her intelligence service.
Park Honan, in his 2005 biography Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, writes: “Mrs. Bull was a widow of good family lineage, whose likely discretion would have suited secret agents . . . Her ‘cousin’ Blanche Parry, Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, had been a favourite of the queen.”
As for the bizarre events that took place that day, Honan writes: “The four guests who reached Mrs. Bull’s at about 10 a.m. were Marlowe, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and the ‘special messenger’ Robert Poley, who had just returned from the Hague. In need of privacy, they stayed all day at Mrs. Bull’s, which was not a tavern but a rooming-house in which meals were served. Her normal clientele would have included supervisors or inspectors at the dockyards, exporters of quality goods, and merchants involved in imports from Russia and the Baltic ports.”
As we know, Poley was one of Burghley's most experienced spies, and Frizer and Skeres were employees of Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s friend and patron. Mrs. Bull’s house was conveniently located only seven miles from Walsingham’s estate at Scadbury, where Marlowe had been staying after his arrest and release on bail.
Mrs. Bull’s husband Richard, who died in 1590, as a sub-bailiff assisted Christopher Browne, Lord of the Manor of Deptford and Clerk of the Green Cloth, in his manorial duties. And the Muscovy Company, a powerful trading company whose earliest investors were Elizabeth's inner circle of Lord Burghley and spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, had a warehouse nearby Bull's house. Burghley and Walsingham, of course, played significant roles in Marlowe's "grooming" into the world of espionage.
Was Marlowe acquainted with Mrs. Bull’s house before the events of May 1593? Did Dame Bull's "connections" (through her late husband Richard, Lord Burghley, and Blanche Parry) play any role on May 30, 1593? And to a less likely but equally intriguing extent, did the Muscovy Company? And why Deptford? And why was Robert Poley, no secret service lightweight, there?
My theory is that Mrs. Bull’s role was to provide discrete hospitality for these secret agents and their plot. She saw no evil and heard no evil.
And many more questions remain.
Who is buried in the unmarked churchyard? Is it John Penry, whose body, I suspect, was the actual subject of the coroner’s inquiry? Penry, a Puritan activist, had been hanged the day before only two miles from Deptford. Was it Frizer and Skeres who retrieved the body and brought it back to Deptford? An order from the Secret Service would have facilitated that action. Strangely enough, no members of Penry’s family were permitted to attend the hanging or take possession of the body. In fact, no one knows whatever happened to Penry’s body or where it was buried.
Unfortunately, Honan, like so many other biographers of Marlowe, believes that the poet was killed at Deptford and that William Shakespeare was the great genius who wrote all the plays in the First Folio - published, coincidentally, by Edward Blount, Marlowe’s executor!
There is still a great deal to explore about the events in Deptford, and that is why my book and Daryl Pinksen's are so important. I have no doubt that in the near future irrefutable proof of Marlowe’s survival after Deptford will be found.
© Samuel Blumenfeld, May 2009
Samuel Blumenfeld, a World War II veteran of the Italian campaign, has authored more than ten books. His latest, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection: A New Study of the Authorship Question, was published by McFarland. He is a former editor in the New York book publishing industry and has lectured widely. His writings have appeared in such diverse publications as Esquire, Reason, Education Digest, Vital Speeches of the Day, Boston, and many others. He is a regular contributor to MSC.
See Sam on YouTube addressing the authorship controversy.
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