Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nicholas Skeres & the Earl of Essex by Peter Farey

At one point in Michael Rubbo's 2002 documentary Much Ado About Something, Rubbo is in Jonathan Bate's garden discussing with him the Marlowe "faked death" scenario at Deptford. Energetically "digging in" some compost, Bate protests, "But what it presupposes is that the three men in the room were all in on the plot to save him." "But of course they were," says Rubbo. "They were all employees of..." With some frustration Bate interrupts him: "But they weren't - they were with rival factions!" "That's what Nicholl says," Rubbo replies, "but that's very disputed." And that's pretty much where the discussion is left.

Yet Bate was making an important point, and it is one which Marlovians ignore at their peril. The Queen's favourite Essex had only recently been appointed to the Privy Council, and was viewed with the greatest mistrust and suspicion by the Cecils - Lord Burghley and his son Sir Robert Cecil - both of them also on the Council. As for Essex, he was waiting for the old man to die so that he could take over as the Queen's chief minister. A fierce, but civil, rivalry might best describe their relationship at this time.

Robert Poley was quite clearly working on the Cecil side of that divide, and Nicholas Skeres, having certainly served Essex in the past, had described him as his "Lord and Master" only a month earlier. Ingram Frizer wasn't really connected with either, although he was very closely associated with Thomas Walsingham, formerly employed by his father's cousin, the late spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, and it would be generally agreed that he was on the Cecil side of the Cecil/Essex split. Thomas Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil are known to have been good friends later.

All three of them being there in the first place really makes no sense unless we assume that they were in some way representing their masters' interests. Marlovians believe that the most logical reason for their presence was to fake Marlowe's death on their masters' behalf, but this assumes Skeres to have been there in his capacity as a confidence trickster working for Frizer (and Walsingham?) rather than as a servant of Essex. That he so obviously was Essex's man does weaken the argument quite a lot - the point Jonathan Bate was making.

Fortunately for the Marlovian argument, however, an undated letter from Skeres to Essex's confidant Gelly Meyrick discovered by Paul Hammer1 among the Devereux Papers at Longleat (MS.1, fol.306) casts considerable doubt upon his having still been with Essex at the end of May 1593, when Marlowe's apparent death occurred.

In this letter - "to my most esteemed friend Gelly Meyrick" - Skeres writes (the spelling modernized):
Sir, it is long since I made choice of your friendship, and that I have found you no more readier to do me good, hath (I think) rather proceded of my own negligence than your fault. Of which negligences I have in the wrong done to myself paid the price. But now I return to my self that have been long a stranger to my self, and do lay upon the love it hath pleased you to bear me, with this request to avoke your thoughts to help me in my present suit to my Lord [of Essex] which is for some employment and charge in these affairs that are now in hand which suit (being the only stay of my fortune and the readiest means for me to recover my umbered blemish) I present to you in his Lordship's favour to make me happy, and I shall be ready to do any service to the authors of my benefit. And though I have heretofore forsaken the ways of my good, I am so tired with those walks, as all my labour shall be spent to redress my life. Good Mr Meyrick respect my long service and travail the which I hope will not be so cast off and be now as ready to pleasure me as you have been willing before to show desire. I hope of your good will, I doubt not of your power, vowing if in this you make me happy to acknowledge you the only original and means of my good during life. Thus bending all my good in your goodness towards me, I wish you the happiness of your desires.
From this, we learn the following:

1. He has done long and arduous service for Essex in the past. In 1589 Skeres had carried messages between Essex, who was in Exeter, and Sir Francis Walsingham in London after Essex's return from Portugal. Whether he was actually working for Essex at the time is not certain, however, given that it was Walsingham who paid him, and that he had apparently been one of Walsingham's men involved in the discovery of the Babington Plot three years earlier. "He quietly drops from the story, almost certainly because he was Walsingham's man all along" as Charles Nicholl puts it.2 The "long service and travail" he is referring to here, however, clearly means Essex's failed expedition to Normandy in 1591/2 when, having started with 4000 men in August 1591, the force lost about three quarters of them either from sickness or enemy action. Skeres managed to survive nevertheless, and returned some months after Essex in August the following year.

2. He regrets the way he has spent his life in the past, and is determined to put it right from now on. In 1593 he was thirty. He had been employed at the dishonest end of the money lending-business from his early teens and was still involved in it. So it seems very likely that it is this practice he means by having "forsaken the ways of his good," and that it is this life which he now intends to "redress," meaning that the letter was most probably written after May/June 1593.

3. He has become estranged from Essex because of something he did which damaged his image in Essex's eyes. Nicholl (p.438) and Hammer (p.228) come up with only two suggestions as to what this might have been: the Deptford incident of May 30,1593, or Skeres's appearance before the Star Chamber Court a month earlier. In the first of these he was apparently only a witness to what went on, and it is difficult to see what might have offended Essex unless what happened was the very opposite of what he had wanted - but there is little if any reason to suspect that Essex had any interest in Marlowe at that time, whether alive or dead! In the latter, Skeres had been summoned before the Star Chamber Court because of his having worked for ten years or more as an "instrument" to draw victims into the clutches of the loan shark John Wolfall. Nicholl plays this down as a possible cause of the disfavour, but unsurprisingly fails to mention that if this were the event in question his whole Essex-based thesis as to what happened (both the 1992 and 2002 versions) would be in ruins. What neither he nor Hammer mentions either is that the Earl of Essex himself was a member of the Star Chamber Court, and may of course have taken exception to someone "before the Star Chamber for extortion" as Hammer put it, drawing attention to the fact that Essex was his "Lord and Master." As a new member, his image mattered.

4. He is asking for support from Meyrick in his suit to Essex for employment in the "affairs that are now in hand." Both Nicholl and Hammer suggest that the affairs in question might be Essex's preparations for his Cadiz expedition of 1596. Nicholl has some reservations about this, however, saying that the word "affairs" does not seem quite right for a military expedition. He has obviously forgotten Richard II, in which the King uses the word twice with precisely that meaning, one even saying "affairs in hand."3 He floats the possibility of it being the so-called Lopez affair Skeres had in mind, but gives no indication of how Skeres would have known about it, nor how Meyrick would have known it was this he was talking about. The "affairs that are now in hand" are probably military ones, but the reference seems to be more general than just the Cadiz campaign, and Essex's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) may give us a clue.
Essex therefore threw himself into military administration, the appointment of army officers, intelligence-gathering, and an ever-growing number of foreign correspondences - areas of often frenetic activity which reflected his conviction that confronting Spain was England's most urgent task and which provided him with a steady supply of the political ammunition which he needed to impress this view upon a reluctant queen...Although Essex took over correspondence with Florence (through James Guicciardini) in 1593 and invested much time and money in intelligence-gathering from 1592, the full extent of his ambition to become a statesman of truly international significance emerged only in 1595.
It was these preparations that must have been fairly widely known and which Skeres most probably had in mind rather than any specific project, about which public knowledge would have been very limited indeed.

5. Since it is addressed to "Gellie Mericke" and he refers to "Mr Mireke" in the text, it must have been written before Meyrick was knighted in the summer of 1596. Skeres was also arrested and released in March 1595 when the record describes him as a "servant" of Essex, which suggests a date before this too, although this is something he may well have claimed on the basis of his long service even if he was still out of favour and being given no work to do. One is reminded of the imprisoned Christopher Marlowe claiming in Flushing to be well known to Lord Strange and the Earl of Northumberland, whilst almost certainly actually working for Lord Burghley at the time.

Given that Skeres had apparently done long service for Essex up until April 1593, and that the estrangement occurred "long since" some time before 1596, it seems highly likely that as a result of Skeres's Star Chamber appearance, Essex let it be known that he was displeased at having his name associated with that of a usurer's tout, and would prefer Skeres not to have the chance to do so again. The Star Chamber hearing was in April 1593 and the letter must have been written a year or two later, before Meyrick's knighthood in 1596 but after a sufficient time for the falling out to have happened "long since." And if this is so, then Skeres's presence at Deptford only a month later will have had nothing to do with Essex - even if he was brought back into the Essex fold later on, which his imprisonment following the executions of Essex and Meyrick might suggest.

We cannot say that this is certain, but it is undoubtedly very probable indeed, and enough for it to be no longer possible for people like Jonathan Bate to claim with any confidence that Poley and Skeres were with "rival factions" and therefore most unlikely to have collaborated on something like the faking of Marlowe's death.

Peter Farey

© Peter Farey, September 2009

Peter Farey, a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, is the 2007 recipient of the Calvin & Rose G. Hoffman Prize, administered annually by The King's School in Canterbury for a "distinguished publication on Christopher Marlowe." He has been manning the Marlovian barricades on the internet for the past 11 years, with over 4000 posts to internet newsgroups in that time, mostly about the Marlovian theory. Click here to reach Peter's website.

1Hammer, Paul E.J. "A Reckoning Reframed: the 'Murder' of Christopher Marlowe Revisited." English Literary Renaissance 26.2, 1996, p.242.
2Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. London: Vintage, 2002. p.32.
3Richard II. 1.4.46-51.
We will ourself in person to this war,
And for our coffers with too great a court
And lib'ral largess are grown somewhat light,
We are enforc'd to farm our royal realm,
The revenue whereof shall furnish us
For our affairs in hand.

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Dean said...

a darn good article; my sense is Poley probably was the grown up in the room; he was the leader of the group.

Dean said...

not sold Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. Authorship doesn't interest me. Something going down on May 30 that goes against the government version, probably! Still, a very good article.

LunaRosa6 said...

I remember the the scene with Bate. Almost as good as 6:26 of the Much Ado clip on youtube!

BrynMawr9549 said...

this is very important info; all on the same team.

these "pros" arguing over a bill (the conventional story) is ludicrous. A political hit? Why not just kill M. in a dark alley.

Why the Queen's coroner?

Nope: they had to send M. underground; and I don't mean in a coffin!

Peter Farey said...

BrynMawr9549 asked...
Why the Queen's coroner?

That isn't really a problem. Deptford Strand was within 12 (Tudor) miles of Nonsuch Palace, where the Queen was, which meant that it happened within "the verge", and therefore required his attendance. However, it was the responsibility of a county (Kent) coroner to run it jointly with the Queen's coroner and to record it in the county records. That the Queen's Coroner (William Danby) did it alone in fact rendered the whole inquest legally null and void. On the other hand, it could have been legal if Danby had also been a coroner for Kent - which is quite likely - although the fact that he didn't say this in his report would have also made it null and void! The really interesting thing is that if he was a coroner for Kent too it means that there was only one place in the whole of England where he could operate alone, which was entirely within the jurisdiction of the Privy Council, and within two miles of which a corpse would be available precisely when needed. That one place was Deptford Strand!

Dave Herber said...

Skeres was known to be linked with Poley during Poley's work on the Babington Plot but I don't see in either Hammer's or Nicholls' reasons enough to make Essex feel the way he did.

In early 1594 Essex was severely repudiated by Ferdinando Stanley for having in his employ men who had left Derby's service under dubious circumstances. To get such a rebuke from an Earl of such standing, and to effectively laugh it off and seek to make ammends through the Talbots, Skeres, a known criminal would have had to have done something really damaging to the Earl for him to have become estranged. Essex was known throughout his career to have such figures as Skeres and other malcontents in his service.

Sorry but being a witness in court or being involved in a loansharking operation just don't cut it. Now if Skeres, and Poley had been involved in something else, like the death of Derby....

DunedinLouise said...

super website

Daryl Pinksen said...

What happened at Deptford, and who pulled the strings, is one of the most intriguing questions that Marlovians debate.

We know that a month before Deptford, Skeres considered himself in the service of the Earl of Essex. I believe Peter has demonstrated that when Nick Skeres met with Poley, Marlowe and Frizer, at Deptford, his status as Essex' man is now an open question. Debate will continue on that point.

The larger question, of Essex' possible involvement in Marlowe's fate, is still unanswered.

There are intriguing hints of the "Shakespeare" writer's admiration of, and loyalty to Essex, and Andrew Gurr has pointed out that in the rivalry between the Cecils and the Essex faction, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and their principal writer (Marlowe, we believe), were firmly on the Essex side.

We know that Marlowe had been in the employ of the Cecil intelligence service under Lord Burghley, so it would appear that Marlowe had switched allegiance at some point. And what better point than in May 1593, when his life was in jeopardy?

If Marlowe's survival had been orchestrated by the Cecils, and his continued saftey was dependent on the Cecils, why would he so clearly thereafter side with their rivals?

Furthering speculation, the writer of Venus and Adonis (Marlowe, we believe) seems to have been personally affiliated with the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Essex' closest confidante, at the exact moment that Marlowe's fate was determined at Deptford.

Essex, by then a powerful Privy Councillor in his own right, a rising star, and the Queen's current darling, was busy assembling his own private intelligence service at that moment.

To Essex, saving Marlowe would have meant saving the greatest poetic genius England had ever known (we know that Essex and Southampton loved the theater), and simultaneously acquiring an intelligence asset - and future propaganda tool - with tremendous potential.

If Essex was the instrument of Marlowe's survival, saving Marlowe would not have been solely an act of altruism. It would have been a coup.

Leeds said...

cheers to all of you on a great job; peter farey strikes again!

The Other Great One said...

Fantastic article, coupled with fantastic commentary.
I approve.

Peter Farey said...

Sorry for the delay in answering Daryl's post. It certainly deserved a response (for the record, at least!)

Daryl Pinksen said...
What happened at Deptford, and who pulled the strings, is one of the most intriguing questions that Marlovians debate. We know that a month before Deptford, Skeres considered himself in the service of the Earl of Essex.

Peter Farey says:
Not exactly. What we both know is what we have learned from Charles Nicholl, which is that having been on Essex's French expedition in 1591/2 Skeres was still referring to Essex as his "Lord and Master" in 1593. Whether this referred to any service for Essex since their return from France, however, is by no means clear.

Daryl said:
I believe Peter has demonstrated that when Nick Skeres met with Poley, Marlowe and Frizer, at Deptford, his status as Essex' man is now an open question. Debate will continue on that point.

Peter says:
I have no doubt that debate will continue! However, I think that your words suggest an equality of probabilities which I certainly don't accept. I have shown that the records do in fact provide an occasion when a falling-out with Essex is not only quite likely to have occurred, but which fits into the timetable of everything else we know about his service with Essex perfectly well. In the absence of any such other known event at any time, let alone at the right one, the probability that Skeres was still in Essex's service at the end of May 1593 must be very low indeed.

Daryl said:
The larger question, of Essex' possible involvement in Marlowe's fate, is still unanswered.

Peter says:
Indeed it is. As you know, the scenario which I consider the most likely is that the whole Privy Council agreed to it, which must have included Essex. I also believe that the employment of Marlowe by Essex as Monsieur Le Doux, together with the evidence of Richard II and Henry V imply a loyalty to Essex from 1595 on, but not necessarily before that.
However, what we can't get away from is the fact that there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that any of the three 'witnesses' (other than Skeres, whose connection at that time, as we have seen, was very doubtful) or the landlady Eleanor Bull or Coroner William Danby had any personal connection with Essex, whereas in every case there is a connection with either Thomas Walsingham, the Cecils, or the Privy Council as a whole.

Peter Farey

mariner said...

Peter says:
Indeed it is. As you know, the scenario which I consider the most likely is that the whole Privy Council agreed to it, which must have included Essex.

Why do you believe this? I haven't studied this as long or as thoroughly as you, but I would think it more likely that fewer were aware of the subterfuge.

I thought Whitgift was a member of the Privy Council, and that he was involved in trying to have Marlowe executed.

If there were factions within the Privy Council wouldn't it be more likely that one of the factions would maneuver to spirit Marlowe away without the other factions' knowing?

Peter Farey said...

All very good points, and ones that deserve a rather more considered response than I can provide off the cuff right here and now.

One thing you do need to understand is that there is no single Marlovian view about exactly who was and who wasn't in on it. What we are all agreed on, however, is that there was an "it" for them to be "in" on!

I feel an essay coming on.

Peter Farey