Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Death of Christopher Marlowe?

Peter Farey presents what he believes to be the most relevant facts surrounding Marlowe's supposed death, and asks our readers seriously to consider just what conclusions they would arrive at in these circumstances, and what explanations they would have for doing so.



Wednesday 30th May 1593


The home of Eleanor Bull, Deptford Strand, on the Thames about 4 miles downstream from London Bridge.


Christopher Marlowe

• Born the son of a Canterbury shoemaker in February 1564. At university for six and a half years being educated to M.A. level. At 29, currently England's greatest playwright.
• Socially on familiar terms with many of the country's top aristocrats, statesmen, writers, scientists, philosophers and other thinkers.
• Occasional secret intelligence agent on behalf of the Privy Council, most probably for Lord Burghley. Possibly involved for him right now in secret matters touching the Queen's succession, a topic about which she has forbidden any discussion.
• Has apparently been staying with his friend Thomas Walsingham, close relative and former high-ranking employee of the late spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.
• Arrested and brought to be questioned by the Privy Council ten days ago after an accusation of heresy arising from papers alleged to be his having been discovered in the home of fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Their Lordships knew that he might be found at Thomas Walsingham's home in Kent.
• Released on condition he reports to them every day. There is no record of whether he actually did so or not.
• Far more serious accusations now with them will almost inevitably lead to his torture, trial and execution.

Robert Poley

• About ten years older than Marlowe. Cambridge educated but took no degree.
• Former agent provocateur for spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, is known to be an expert liar, prepared to perjure himself if necessary. In 1585/6 he was apparently "placed with" Sir Francis Walsingham's daughter Frances, and "by that means ordinarily in his house." In 1590 the widowed Frances married the Earl of Essex, who joined the Privy Council three months ago.
• Poley is now regularly employed as an intelligence agent and messenger for the Privy Council, particularly Vice-Chamberlain Thomas Heneage and Lord Burghley.
• Has recently been undertaking frequent missions to Scotland and the Netherlands. Departed for The Hague on 8th May, and is on his way back from there right now with urgent and important letters for the Privy Council.
• He will delay delivering these for another nine days, however, when his warrant will (uniquely) say that he has been "on her Majesty's service" all of this time.

Nicholas Skeres

• 30 years old. Another of Sir Francis Walsingham's former agents provocateurs, and with the ability to lie with complete plausibility that this implies (and see below, concerning his duplicitous role in loan sharking).
• Had done occasional work soldiering for the Earl of Essex and as a courier for him to and from Walsingham (although, given the above, could have been planted on Essex as a spy?)
• Still calling the Earl his "lord and master" only a month ago at the Court of Star Chamber but evidence suggests that by doing this he may have offended Essex, and therefore lost the chance of further employment, at least for some time, as a result.
• The Star Chamber appearance was to do with his luring potentially wealthy men into the clutches of a predatory loan shark.
• Currently involved in similar confidence trickery with Ingram Frizer (below) in a "hustle" just coming to fruition.

Ingram Frizer

• Age 31?  First heard of when he bought and resold the Angel Inn, Basingstoke, in 1589. Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning, 2002, p.27) describes him in 1593 as “a property speculator, a commodity broker, a fixer for gentlemen of worship, ... a racker of young fools.”
• Financial adviser to Thomas Walsingham, with whom Marlowe was apparently staying at the time of his Privy Council appearance. Has probably been with Walsingham since (and resulting from?) Thomas’s brief imprisonment for "outlawry," or debt, in May 1590.
• Loan shark in partnership with Skeres, currently heavily engaged in a "hustle" (the victim a young man called Drew Woodleff) from which Thomas Walsingham, whether knowingly or not, stands to benefit.

Eleanor Bull

• A distant relative of Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil, via her "cousin" the late Blanche Parry, Chief Lady of the Queen's Bedchamber.
• The widow for some three years now of George Bull, sub-bailiff for the Lord of the Manor of Deptford, Christopher Browne (who was also Clerk of the Green Cloth - a sort of "internal auditor" for the Queen's household). It seems that they had no children.
• She now apparently provides (for payment) a room and refreshment for private gatherings such as this. Whether this is available to all or just to certain "intelligence service" clients is unknown.


Thomas Walsingham

• His father was a first cousin of Sir Francis, for whom he had worked until 1589.
• During that time he had been a case officer on the unmasking of the so-called Babington Plot against the Queen, with Poley (certainly) and Skeres (probably) among his operatives.
• In 1589 he inherited the family estates - including his home at Scadbury, near Chislehurst in Kent - upon the death of his elder brother Edmund. Described as "lately of London" as well as of Chislehurst when released from prison in May 1590.
• He gave up intelligence work (Sir Francis also died in 1590) and is apparently now settled into the life of a landowner and patron of the arts, although he will also be on record as residing in London (Tower Street ward) in 1595. This is probably in Sir Francis's former home in Seething Lane, now owned by Thomas’s second cousin Frances, wife of the Earl of Essex.
• Among those patronized is his friend Christopher Marlowe, whom he may have known from their "spying" days.
• Frizer is working with him as a sort of financial agent, a role which he will continue to occupy (in particular for Walsingham's wife Audrey) for many years.

Lord Burghley

• William Cecil, the Queen's right-hand man since her accession 35 years ago.
• There are two occasions in the past when he apparently got Marlowe out of a mess resulting from something Marlowe was doing on behalf of the Privy Council.
• His son Sir Robert Cecil has now joined him on the Privy Council and is helping him (also in secret) over the unmentionable "succession problem," possibly with some involvement by Marlowe.
• He tried, without success, to save the religious dissidents Barrow, Greenwood and Penry from execution, all of whom have been hanged within the past few weeks.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

• John Whitgift, in his early sixties, a leading member of the Privy Council, and the Queen's greatest (and apparent favourite) defender against threats to her position as head of the Church in England, whether it comes from Catholics, Presbyterians, Puritans or Atheists.
• Supported by fellow Council member John Puckering, fifty-year-old Keeper of the Great Seal, who is the apparent stimulus for - and recipient of - the several accusations of Marlowe's blasphemies, heresy and outspoken atheism.
• Whitgift is backed by the arguments of his leading adviser, Richard Cosin, who explains that against "a grievous crime" such as heresy, a judge has the power to proceed against the accused, even without evidence.


• Marlowe, Poley, Skeres and Frizer meet here at Dame Bull's house in Deptford Strand at 10 a.m.
• They spend some time privately in their room.
• They take lunch there.
• They spend most of the afternoon strolling quietly around the garden.
• At about 6 p.m. they return to the room and take supper.
• Some time later either Poley or Skeres (presumably) emerges from the room claiming that the man they identify as Marlowe is dead, having attacked Frizer, who has fatally stabbed him in self defence.
• The blood pouring from Frizer's scalp seems to confirm their story.


Assuming these facts to be true, what would you consider the most logical explanation for the meeting of these particular people, and no others, in Deptford Strand of all places at this particular time? What possible reasons might there have been for their meeting, and what arguments are there for and against each of them?



Friday 1st June 1593


Again the home of Eleanor Bull, Deptford Strand.


Frizer, Poley, Skeres and maybe Eleanor Bull
(as above)

William Danby

• Coroner of the Queen’s Household, whose responsibility it is to attend inquests on violent deaths occurring within "The Verge" - the area within twelve (Tudor) miles of wherever the Queen happens to be. Deptford Strand is just within the Verge, being slightly under twelve (Tudor) miles from Nonsuch in Surrey, where the Queen is currently residing.
• For the inquest to be legal it should be run by a local county coroner and Danby, which is not in fact how this one is done. The only way in which he can legally run it on his own is if he is also a county coroner. This is in fact quite likely (his predecessor filled two such roles and Danby apparently lives only a few miles away in Woolwich, also in Kent) but no Kentish records allowing us to check this have survived, and if he is he must report it in the record of the inquest to make it legal – which he doesn’t.
• Danby studied law at Lincoln’s Inn back in the 1540s, an exact contemporary there of Thomas Walsingham’s father, and at the same time as William Cecil (Burghley) was at Grays Inn. As Queen’s Coroner, which he has been for the past four years, he must be well-known to Burghley and the rest of the Privy Council.
• It would have been Danby’s responsibility to authorize what happened to the body of John Penry - of much the same age as Marlowe - who was hanged for subversion about two miles away from Deptford on the evening before the Deptford meeting.

Nicholas Draper

• First on the list of jurors and one of only two "gentlemen" jurymen listed, so very probably the foreman of the jury.
• Jury members are usually selected by the coroner from a group of suitably qualified local men summoned by the bailiff of the hundred. Yet Draper does not come from the relevant hundred (Blackheath), but lives seven miles away in the parish right next to Chislehurst, where Thomas Walsingham lives. That they are both gentlemen therefore makes it highly likely that they already know each other.

The Rest of the Jury

• Other than Thomas Batt, yeoman, who also comes from Bromley, where Draper lives, the jury consists of men from Deptford, Greenwich and Lewisham.
• There is one other gentleman (Wolstan Randall), together with a miller, two bakers, a grocer, a carpenter, a husbandman, the yeoman (a superior grade servant) and seven others whose occupations are unknown.


According to Danby’s report of the Inquest, in Leslie Hotson’s translation but stripped of most of the repetition and legalisms, this is what the witnesses claim happened behind that closed door.
After supper Ingram Frizer and Christopher Morley uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is le recknynge; and Christopher Morley then lying upon a bed, and moved with anger against Ingram Frizer upon the words spoken between them, and Ingram sitting with his back towards the bed, and with the front part of his body towards the table, and Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley sitting on either side of him in such a manner that he in no wise could take flight; it so befell that Christopher Morley on a sudden and of his malice towards Ingram aforethought, maliciously drew Ingram’s dagger which was at his back, and with the same dagger Christopher Morley maliciously gave Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches and of the depth of a quarter of an inch; whereupon Ingram, in fear of being slain, in his own defence and for the saving of his life, struggled with Christopher Morley to get back his dagger; in which affray Ingram could not get away from Christopher Morley; and Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger gave Christopher a mortal wound over his right eye; of which Christopher Morley instantly died.


Given what we now know of the background, what in your opinion would really be the most logical verdict, and why?

• It was indeed self-defence as the witnesses claimed.

They were lying, because (if you had to say what you thought really happened):

• It was a planned murder.
• It was an unplanned murder.
• It wasn't Marlowe's body, but a substitute, allowing him to escape.

© Peter Farey, March 2011 

Peter Farey has been manning the Marlovian barricades on the internet for the past 13 years or so. His Marlowe Page is one of the most respected sites about Marlowe on the web. He is a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society
TimesofIndia IndiaTimes Jarmusch Swinton

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.THE MARLOWE PAPERS


JacksonH said...

This article got my interest. Find myself spending an hour on site.

Farey raises excellent points. If you think about it . . . what are all these liars doing in one room???

Nokodimis said...

Mr. Farey is my favorite.

DresdenDoll said...

A room with a few seasoned spies (Marlowe/Poley) and some lesser "liars" and there's a fight over a bill (a reckoning)? Yeah, sure. I can't believe it.

Keep up the great work, everyone.

Ms. Ellen J. said...

Some interesting clues, everyone, are in As You Like It. For example, how did Shakespeare know about "reckoning"?????? How did he get this info when I thought the info regarding the "death" of Marlowe was sealed? (I think)

Peter Farey said...

Ms. Ellen J. wrote:

"Some interesting clues, everyone, are in As You Like It. For example, how did Shakespeare know about "reckoning"?????? How did he get this info when I thought the info regarding the "death" of Marlowe was sealed? (I think)"

Yes indeed. This is something which I myself mentioned among the comments on the "The Case Against Oxford as Shakespeare" item. Let's not get too carried away about this though. There is no reason to assume that the details of the inquest wouldn't have been recorded in the Kent archives as they should have been, and therefore available to anyone who had a plausible reason for wanting to see them. It's just that those archives haven't survived. And no, there is nothing suspicious about this. Only a tiny fraction of such records have survived from those days. There is no evidence to suggest that the details were 'sealed' in any way.

On the other hand it is certainly interesting that many of the contemporary accounts were so wide of the mark, whereas Shakespeare does seem to have been aware of one specific detail which nobody else writing about it apparently knew.


daver852 said...

The account of Marlowe's "death" is absurd. We are told that Marlowe is lying down, and Frizer is sitting with his back to him. Marlowe might have been able to grab Frizer's knife while lying down, but in order to deliver two blows to Frizer's head, Marlowe would have had to be standing. Likewise, Frizer would have had to stand up in order to have gotten the knife away from Marlowe. So there must have been a fairly large space between the bed and the table, yet we are told that Frizer could not get away to avoid the attack. In addition, why would Marlowe attempt to stab Frizer in the head, and, if he did, why were Frizer's wounds nothing but minor scratches? If I were angry enough to grab someone's dagger and try to kill him, and he had his back to me, I'd aim for the largest target, i.e., his back, not his head. Why didn't the other two men intervene? Nothing in the coroner's report makes any sense.

Dan Sayers said...

First Peter, congratulations on this and all your excellent research on Marlowe. I always know something by you will be well-founded and rational, as well as highly interesting. In some cases, such as your deciphering of the Stratford Monument, completely fascinating.

I have one question. Having read your various articles regarding the events at Deptford, you seem to suggest that the faking of Marlowe's death would explain why these characters would have spent all day at Eleanor Bull's house. However, I can't see where you explain this. Sorry if I'm missing something obvious - why would the meeting have had to last all day? Thanks!

Peter Farey said...

Dan, thank you for the kind words. I'm so pleased that you find my contributions interesting.

For me, there are really two main considerations about the the question of them being there all day.

The first is that I have used it as one of the arguments against it having just been a deliberate murder, which could presumably have been carried out just as easily after lunch if they intended to use much the same story. The longer they waited, the more chance there would be of something unexpected happening to make it either go wrong or become impossible.

The second is less an argument for the faked death as such, but something we need to explain for the faked death story to be plausible. I was tempted at one time to think that rigor mortis in the intended victim needed to wear off before anyone could be allowed near the body. If Penry, for example, had been hanged at 6 p.m. on the Tuesday the condition would have started with a stiffening in the neck and jaw by midnight, and the body completely stiff by 6 o'clock on the morning of the meeting. The rigor would start to go at around midday, and continue to reduce throughout the rest of the day until being completely gone late on the Wednesday evening.

On the other hand, if the body of a hanged man is to be used, there are more important reasons for making sure that nobody gets near enough to the body to see the physical effects of that, particularly on the neck, so I'm more inclined to see the critical path depending upon just when Danby can be there on the Wednesday to take charge and make sure that the whole 'murder scene' is sealed off.

In the essay "Marlowe's Sudden and Fearful End" on my website, I create a scenario in which Eleanor Bull reports the killing to her late husband's boss, the Lord of the Manor, only to 'find' (as was of course prearranged) that Danby just happens to have popped in for a visit there on his way home from Nonsuch, allowing him to take charge straight away. They therefore had to wait for some indication of Danby's arrival.

If Danby had been a county coroner as well as being the Queen's however, as I now suspect, then it might have simply depended upon whatever else he had on his plate, and how soon he would be able to attend. However, the shorter the time between the alleged killing and his arrival to take over presumably the better?


Dan Sayers said...

Peter, thanks for your clarification. I agree, the four of them having spent all day there does make the murder scenario less likely. Aside from this, it seems to me that the strongest factor against the murder theory is that (as you rightly point out) there would be much easier ways to kill Marlowe, if that was all that was required. If we accept that there is something fishy about the story given in the coroner's inquisition (as Nicholl and others do, an increasing number of people since Hotson's 1925 discovery of the document), it seems that an important part of the plan was for Marlowe's death to have been witnessed - hence the need for the two others' presence. Thus it is essential for there to be no question that he really died in the manner described. Why require such elaborate proof that he died, if he really did?

Your remarks about rigor mortis are interesting - your following thoughts notwithstanding. I suppose one advantage of the 'stabbing' occuring in the evening is that that way, the inquest could not have occurred until the following day. If Eleanor Bull had raised the 'hue and cry' at an earlier time of day, it would have increased the risk of witnesses viewing the body that same day. Presumably there are some readily apparent differences between a body that's just been killed, and a one-day-old body.

By the way, I like your description of a possible scenario in which this all could have played out, I think it's very useful in visualising how such a plan might have been achieved. Yes, it's clear that it would be important for Danby to be on the scene pretty quickly.

I'm still curious about the lengthy description of the day's events, given by Danby in the inquest document. One thought I had is that perhaps the detail of them walking around in the garden might be corroborated by further witnesses, if need be? I don't know.

Again, you do point this out (quoting Samuel Tannenbaum), but I think it's worth drawing attention to the (rather important!) fact that it's not really possible to cause instant death through a stab wound to the eye. Particularly a stab wound of two inches in depth, as described by Danby. This is illustrated by, e.g. the case of Phineas Gage, an American railroad worker who survived having a large iron rod driven all the way through the front part of his head (scroll down on that link to see a drawing of Gage's skull, with the path of the bar through it). Basically, an injury to the front part of the brain is equivalent to a partial frontal lobotomy, and does not cause instant death. In many cases (such as Gage's), it doesn't cause death at all, or even loss of consciousness. It would be good to have a forensic pathologist's opinion on this, but that's my understanding. Given that this is the case, it would not be possible for Marlowe to have died in the manner described by Danby. This fact alone casts very serious doubt on Danby's truthfulness in his description of the state of the body, and implicates him in a probable cover up.

Anonymous said...

awesome blog!!!!!!!!!!

mariner said...

I read at some point that Queen Elizabeth sealed Danby's report when she received it, and decreed that no one would further investigate Marlowe's "death" without her personal permission.

Do I have that wrong?

Peter Farey said...

I'm afraid that it is one of those Marlovian myths that there is anything special about the way this was dealt with by the queen.

Hotson translates the words at the end of Ingram Frizer's pardon as "We therefore moved by piety have pardoned the same Ingram ffrisar the breach of our peace which pertains to us against the said Ingram for the death above mentioned & grant to him our firm peace. Provided nevertheless that the right remain in our Court if anyone should wish to complain of him concerning the death above mentioned In testimony &c Witness the Queen at Kewe on the 28th day of June."

The "Provided nevertheless..." bit is the one that has been wrongly taken to imply some special lid being placed on it by the queen but this is in fact entirely standard wording as drafted by some clerk.

The original Latin for that sentence was Ita tamen quod stet rectum in Curia nostra siquis versus eum loqui voluerit de morte supradicta and Thomas Watson's pardon for the killing of William Bradley, for example, has virtually identical wording. What's more, the pardon of Thomas Walsingham for 'outlawry' (debt) differs from this only in terms of the offence itself, but the "Provided nevertheless that the jurisdiction remain in our court" bit is still included.


mariner said...


Thank you for that explanation.

frank said...

What if...Marlowe was staying with the widow Bull as she was trusted,a kinswoman of Blanche Parry,who was related to Dr. Dee and the Queen's lifelong confidante and also lived within the verge, the court being then at Greenwich. What if... Marlowe spoke too freely about secret matters and his answers implicated the Privy Council themselves ( Robt.Persons had already accused them all of being atheists). What if the Privy Council wanted to get him away and he refused to go? What if the three men, each answering to a different chief,were there to keep the others honest. They visited Marlowe by arrangement that day and spent the day getting him drunk, marched him over to somewhere like Sayle Court, put his clothes on a corpse(Penry?) and staged the rest. The reason for the fight? Ms Bull sends up four meals not knowing there are only three who can eat. What happened to the fourth meal? Who pays for it? As for what happened to Marlowe see what Isabel says about the clue in the Shrew when Christopher Sly wakes up.