Saturday, May 23, 2009

Who Was Eleanor Bull? by Samuel Blumenfeld

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

© 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.

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


GeraldBoca said...

I find it stunning how easily scholars continue to promote the "tavern brawl" without delving into the very intriguing circumstances surrounding May 30, 1593. Thanks to this website for bringing all the intrigue to light.

For me, the greatest playwright of his day (before "Shakespeare") being buried in an unmarked plague pit just makes no sense. Something's rotten!

Isabel Gortázar said...

Hi Sam: That was a clear account of the Deptford affair, the circumstances of which cannot be repeated too often, as scholars insist on ignoring the facts.
There are two things, though, which I would like to point out: Firstly, that the presence of Poley on 30th May is in question, as per documents telling us that he was actully in The Hague; Poley's "presence" in the "brawl" could have been added when the Coroner's report was "corrected" on or about 15th June, according to the Queen's indications. The other thing is that, according to Charles Nicholl's book, The Reckoning, Skeres was Essex's man, not Thomas Walsingham's. Which is why I believe Marlowe had been for some time Essex's secret agent.

AndrewK said...


I'm a huge fan of all your work in the area of literacy. I'm a newcomer to your Marlowe interest, but you have me hooked.

Anonymous said...

keep up the good work, very important. marlowe's reputation has been terribly sullied due to gross historical inaccuracies.

JeffreyKatz said...

an excellent website

Anonymous said...

great stuff . . . thanks sam!

Anonymous said...

should all be put into a movie.

Unknown said...

To the Right Honourable my Lord of Burghley
Lord Treasurer of England
January 26, 1591

Right Honourable,
Besides the prisoner Evan Flud[d] I have given in charge to this bearer my ancient two other prisoners, the one name Christopher Marly, by his profession a scholar, and the other Gifford Gilbert a goldsmith taken here for coining, and their money I have sent over unto your Lordship.

The matter was revealed unto me the day after it was done, by one Richard Baines whom also my ancient shall bring unto your Lordship. He was their chamber fellow and fearing the success, made me acquainted with all. The men being examined apart never denied anything, only protesting that what was done was only to see the goldsmith’s coining. And truly I am of opinion that the poor man was only brought in under that cover, whatever intent the other two had at the time. And indeed they do one accuse another to have been the inducers of him, and to have intended to practise it hereafter, and have as it were justified him unto me.

But howsoever it happened a Dutch shilling was uttered, and else not any piece, and indeed I do not think that they would have uttered many of them. For the metal is plain pewter and with half an eye to be discovered.

Notwithstanding I thought it fit to send them over unto your Lordship, to take their trial as you shall think best. For I will not stretch my commission to deal in such matters, and much less to put them at liberty and to deliver them into the towns hands being them Queen’s subjects, and not required neither of this said town I know not how it would have been liked, especially since part of that which they did counterfeit was her Majesty’s Coin.

The goldsmith [Gilbert] is an excellent workman and if I should speak my conscience had no intent hereunto. The scholar [Marlowe] says himself to be well known both to the Earl of Northumberland and my Lord Strange. Baines and he do also accuse one another of intent to go to the enemy or to Rome, both as they say of malice one to another. Hereof I thought fit to advertise your Lordships, leaving the rest to their own confession and my ancient’s report.

And so do humbly take my leave at Flushing the 26 of January 1591.
Your Honour’s very obedient to do you service,
R. Sydney

Endorsed: 26 Jan. 1591. Sir Robert Sidney to my L. He sends over by this bearer his Ancient one Evan Lloyd, and two others Christopher Marly and Gifford Gilbert a goldsmith taken for coinage, to be tried here for that fact. There has been only one Dutch shilling uttered, the metal plain pewter.

From the above letter, it seems Marlowe was involved in counterfeiting, together with an Evan Fludd, and the ‘goldsmith’ Gilbert.

We learn that Richard Baines brought this incident to Sidney’s attention who was Governor at Flushing at the time.

Those involved were sent back to England to be prosecuted; the penalty would have been painful, there is no doubt, yet no trial, at least that has come down to us, emerges from their acts; not only that, but three weeks after Marlowe is returned as prisoner from Flushing, his play, "The Jew of Malta" is on the boards of the Rose Theatre in London.

In my personal opinion, and through extensive research, Marlowe was assassinated by Elizabeth's Privy Council for being a 'whistle blower' and if the above letter is to be genuine, for counterfeit.

I could be wrong, however, I could also be right.

Elaine M. Dutton

Isabel Gortázar said...

The letter from Robert Sidney to Lord Burghely, posted here by E.M. Dutton is well known to Marlovians. What it really means is still in debate.

We need to remember that Marlowe had been spying on Catholic activities probably since 1586. One of the major problems encountered by the priests ordained in the Continent, who had to go back to England in disguise, in order to continue with their evangelical mission, was the difficulty of obtaining English money.

We have no proof that this is what happened, but a very logical explanation to this particular incident would have been the idea of forging coins for such priests. The false "Bank", run by double agents, would have been known and used by all those planning to cross over, giving a vantage point to the "Bankers," who would then have become acquainted with their names and aliases, their plans and a much needed physical description to pass on to the authorities.

If this was the plan, it was a brilliant idea that silly Baines ruined in his zeal to take revenge on Marlowe, perhaps because of his Jew of Malta. The absence of trial or punishment against Marlowe once he arrived in England, in chains, proves to me beyond reasonable doubt that the "forging" business was either nonsense or a plan that was being developed under orders.

If the Privy Council had wanted to get rid of Marlowe (for this or any other political reason) here was a golden opportunity: A swift execution for minting false coins (even if it was not true) was as easy as falling off a log. Why overlook such simple solution and choose to orchestrate instead an elaborate assassination in Deptford, involving more than twenty people, including Dame Bull, her servants, the three witnesses, the Members of the Jury and the Queen's Coroner?

If such an old hand at secret intrigues as Lord Burghley chose this rocambolesque plan instead of simply executing Marlowe, I wonder that Queen Elizabeth managed to die in her bed of old age.

And what, by the way Ms Dutton, makes Marlowe a "whistle blower" in this context? The man who blew the whistle was Baines; why didn't the Privy Council assassinate Baines?

Anthony Kellett said...

Yes Isabel, I agree that it is dangerous to simply take this letter at face value. I do not know of any doubt about its authenticity. That said its contents (to me) imply that Sidney was covering his own back and wanted no part in this matter; so he passed the buck as quickly as possible, thereby distancing himself from it. Moreover, it is known that Sidney was morally opposed to the business of trapping catholic spies by deception; and would have wanted nothing to do with these people if (as you say) they were engaged in this activity.

I think this interpretation is given more credibility by the strange way Sidney refers to Marlowe almost as ‘some bloke called Marly’. Even if we suppose that Sidney was not already familiar with him (either through his literary connections or his government activities), Marlowe obviously name-dropped (as Sidney revealed) so it would be strange had Marlowe not mentioned Sidney’s sister too; she would have been the first person I mentioned. In view of the tone in the dedication Marlowe wrote to Mary around 18 months later, he must surely have already been acquainted with that lady; otherwise, I would have thought Marlowe’s subsequent compliments were far too familiar for comfort.

I would, however, be very interested to hear the nature of the "extensive research" you have undertaken into the Privy Council’s murder of Marlowe, Ms. Dutton; have you uncovered more corroborating evidence than that already extant? In the absence of that, I must agree with Isabel, that, if the Privy Council wanted Marlowe dead, either a swift execution or a slit throat in an alleyway would have been far more likely than concocting a convoluted scenario akin to something from a Mission Impossible movie.

Anonymous said...

I am honoured that my post was accepted, and the response to it brings up good points that I would wish to contribute to, however, my research has lasted over 4 years, deals with the underground world prior and beyond Marlowe’s assassination. It delves into the duplicity of the times that every British student should be taught in school and not just that Queen Elizabeth’s times were Golden times.

Since the research would take too much space here to even be considered adding, and it is impossible to take Marlowe’s life and put it into a small box, I will briefly state that if I gave just extracts of my research, it may not satisfy the inquirer, and I apologize again for not doing so, due to the limited space allowed.

Also, I was asked for a google account to comment this time, and since I do not have such an account, am sending this anonymously...unfortunately.

I may be reached at the following email for those who wish to read my research:

Thank you, and I wish all a prosperous and merry 2010.
Elaine M. Dutton