Thursday, July 8, 2010

Christopher Marlowe – Flight or Banishment? by Peter Farey

Although we Marlovians - almost by definition - share a belief that Marlowe's death was faked, there is rather less unanimity about just who was and who wasn't also involved in the deception. This paper sets out my own thoughts on the subject.

One thing needs to be cleared up straight away: there is no evidence that the Court of Star Chamber had shown any interest in Marlowe's doings. He was arrested on behalf of the Privy Council, appeared before the Privy Council, was released on his indemnity by the Privy Council, and commanded to report daily to the Privy Council until licensed to the contrary. Furthermore, the reports of his alleged wrong-doings seem to have gone only to Privy Council members. Although most of the meetings of the Council in the latter half of May 1593 were held in the Star Chamber at Westminster (rather than at Nonsuch, where the Queen and Court were), and although members of the Privy Council also served as members of the Court of Star Chamber, this court as such was not involved.

There can be little doubt, however, that Marlowe was in trouble. One may dismiss some of the individual accusations made by those informing against him as either inaccurate or exaggerated, but taken all together they paint a fairly clear picture of someone who had genuine atheistic beliefs (whatever that meant), who attempted to persuade others that these were right, and who had even written a book on atheism which he had used possibly more than once as the script of a lecture intended to persuade others to this opinion.

The main thrust of the campaign currently being pursued by Archbishop Whitgift was anti-presbyterian and anti-puritan, but we can still be fairly confident that he would have considered these activities no less deplorable than those of Barrow, Greenwood and Penry - all of whom were tried and executed around then for things they had written. And we may assume, I think, that on the Privy Council both he and Lord Keeper Puckering would have been pushing hard for similar action to be taken against Marlowe. Voices would surely have been raised in his defence too - by Lord Burghley, Lord Admiral Howard or Sir Robert Cecil perhaps - but if Marlowe was in trouble it was nevertheless primarily with the Privy Council itself.

If Marlowe had decided to escape inevitable punishment by faking his own death, therefore, his choosing of Thomas Walsingham to help him - as he clearly must have done given Walsingham’s links with everyone there - may seem a bit strange. Until only four years earlier Walsingham had been working as an important functionary in the intelligence network of his close relative Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's spymaster and until his death in 1590 a leading member of the Privy Council. This could be fairly easily explained away, of course, but if the two of them did join forces to fake the death some of their other decisions are rather harder to understand.

For example, if I had been engaged in a project intended to outwit the Privy Council I don't think I would have chosen a venue owned by someone related in some way to two of its members, as Eleanor Bull apparently was. Nor would I have chosen a location within the verge (i.e. within 12 miles of the Queen), which was therefore not only within the special jurisdiction of the Privy Council but would ensure that the one coroner in the country closely connected to the Privy Council, William Danby, would have to hold the inquest.

Similarly, one might question their choice of accomplices. In Nicholas Skeres we have someone who had served under the Earl of Essex for several years and only a month earlier as a witness before the Court of Star Chamber declared that the Earl (who would have attended in his capacity as a recently appointed Privy Council member) was his "Lord and Master."1 Robert Poley was certainly employed directly by the Privy Council at this time, nearly all of his warrants being signed by Vice-Chamberlain Heneage on their behalf. In fact, of all the people involved in the attempt to escape the clutches of the Privy Council on that fateful day, Thomas Walsingham's servant Ingram Frizer seems to have been the only one not to have some connection with it!

No, what we really must infer from this is that at least one or more members of the Privy Council were involved in some way. But if so, who? The Council consisted of different factions, so whoever it was would have been putting their careers and possibly even their lives at risk should a member of one of the rival factions find out. There is a likelihood, as I have discussed here earlier,2 that Nicholas Skeres's Star Chamber Court appearance a month earlier had put him out of favour with Essex, but this would have made him even more eager to ingratiate himself with the Earl. Could any of the others really trust him? And Robert Poley was widely known as duplicitous, Sir Francis Walsingham having even written that he was loath to "lay himself open" to him.3 A simple word from either of them directly or indirectly into the ear of Archbishop Whitgift could have been catastrophic for any Council member or members acting on their own. Would any of them have really been prepared to take such a risk on behalf of Christopher Marlowe, no matter how much "good service" he had done for Her Majesty in the past nor how potentially valuable his brilliance as a poet/dramatist might be? I think not.

For me, therefore, it really is very hard to believe that the death-faking was performed without there having been some sort of agreement at Privy Council level as Louis Ule first suggested.4 Unlike him, however, I see this as a compromise between the Cecils (mainly) on the one hand, who wanted him saved, and Whitgift and Puckering (mainly) on the other, who wanted him dead. The Queen's tacit approval would also be sought. He would be not only banished for life, but would become a "non-person" too. By their doing this he would be seen by the masses to have been struck down by God for his transgressions,5 but his undoubted genius would survive in a way that might prove useful to the state. I note that it was Whitgift and Puckering who, with Chief Justice Popham, actually signed John Penry's death warrant for that most unusual (but possibly essential) time of day, and that it was Puckering who changed the words on the Baines Note from "died a sudden and violent death" to the more equivocal "came to a sudden and fearful end of his life."6

Lord Burghley was apparently quite ill at this time, so it may also be worth noting that he nevertheless attended more Privy Council meetings than any other Privy Counsellor over this period, apparently not once missing any of the eleven meetings held between 11th May and 12th June. The 31st of May - between the "death" and the inquest - is particularly interesting, when at the Star Chamber in the morning he attended a Council meeting with Whitgift and Puckering (the opposition?) and one at Nonsuch in the afternoon with Essex, Hunsden, Heneage and Robert Cecil (the supporters?).

My conclusion is in fact that the whole Privy Council knew and, with varying degrees of conviction, agreed to it. As I see it, this is the only way in which the risk to anyone involved could be sufficiently reduced, unless they themselves spilt the beans! If it were discovered, it could be brushed aside as a Privy Council decision, and any alleged perjury excused on the basis of the inquest having in any case been null and void.7

Whitgift's going along with this might seem very strange at first, despite his above-mentioned role in the provision of John Penry's body at just the right time. Although I am usually reluctant to read hidden meanings into the texts, however, there is a passage in As You Like It (the play with so many apparent references to Marlowe) in which I cannot but believe the symbolism to be deliberate:
Under an old oak, whose boughs were mossed with age
And high top bald with dry antiquity,
A wretched, ragged man, o'ergrown with hair,
Lay sleeping on his back. About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreathed itself,
Who with her head, nimble in threats, approached
The opening of his mouth. But suddenly
Seeing Orlando, it unlinked itself,
And with indented glides did slip away
Into a bush, under which bush's shade
A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay couching, head on ground, with catlike watch
When that the sleeping man should stir. For 'tis
The royal disposition of that beast
To prey on nothing that doth seem as dead.
I'm not sure why the snake (who doesn't appear in the original story) is female, but that it forms a noose around the man's neck and threatens to stop his mouth is surely meaningful. I understand that the basic colour of ecclesiastical vestments changes to green at Pentecost (i.e. when Marlowe "died") and stays green for the six months until Advent. That an Archbishop's vestments would have gilt trimmings goes without saying, especially someone as showily extravagant as Whitgift was.8 The identity of the lioness, who was male in the original story, with the royal disposition (and "udders all drawn dry"!) also seems clear. They are together on this, and Marlowe will be in no danger from either of them as long as he "doth seem as dead."

The publication of plays registered with the Stationers' Company at this time was subject to the approval of Whitgift or his colleague Bancroft. As You Like It was registered in 1600, but this was not converted into permission for it to be published until over twenty years later, and after the deaths of both the Queen and Whitgift. It therefore seems to me that this may well have been one of the reasons why.

Finally, it is worth saying that such a scenario would be far more likely to work in ensuring both Marlowe's accepting the "sentence" and his continued silence on the subject. With any other situation it would be just the fear of what might otherwise be done to him which would buy his obedience, whereas with this one the ultimately more powerful carrot of eventual forgiveness, return, and recognition could be promised, whether such an end was ever really on the cards or not.

The constant recurrence of such themes in Shakespeare’s later plays may well suggest that he at least still thought it was. Referring to Prospero’s epilogue to The Tempest, for example, Stephen Greenblatt wrote: "Why, if [Shakespeare] is implicated in the figure of his magician hero, might he feel compelled to plead for indulgence, as if he were asking to be pardoned for a crime he had committed?"9 Why indeed?

Peter Farey

© Peter Farey, July 2010  Burgess Sam Riley Deptford

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." Himself no stranger to official subterfuge, Peter was based behind the Iron Curtain during the "cold war" (in BRIXMIS), observing and reporting on Soviet military activity in East Germany.

Click here to reach Peter's website.

1Nicholl, Charles. 2002. The Reckoning. p.33.
2Farey, Peter. "Nicholas Skeres and the Earl of Essex."
3Nicholl, p.160.
4Ule, Louis. 1995. Christopher Marlowe 1564-1607: A Biography. p.234. David More also suggested around this time that Marlowe had been "banished to death," probably by The Queen, Burghley and Essex.
5See for example William Vaughan’s 1599 Golden Grove, in which he wrote: "Thus did God, the true executioner of divine justice, work the end of impious atheists."
6Nicholl, pp.323-5. Trascripts of the two Baines Note versions can be found at and
7Farey, Peter. "Was Marlowe’s Inquest Void?"
8I am grateful to Michael Frohnsdorff, who suggested the Whitgift connection in The Marlowe Society Newsletter 18, Spring 2002, pp.31-33.
9Greenblatt, Stephen. 2004. Will in the World. pp.376-7.

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SSiano said...

It has taken me years to conclude that Deptford wasn't what the encyclopedia says it was: a tavern brawl over a bill. Marlowe was too smart a man to fall victim to a reckoning, and I think at this particular moment in his life, facing a possible death sentence, every move he made was very well considered. Whether he wrote Shakespeare, I can't say; possibility he lived after Deptford? Makes sense.

How scholars fail to raise basic questions about Deptford baffles me.

Christine said...


CharlieDon'tSurf said...

As You Like It (3.3.9-13). How did Shakespeare know about the Marlowe "reckoning"?

Daryl Pinksen said...

SSiano makes a good point. A stone-cold sober look at the Coroner's report in the full context of the historical circumstances, as Peter does here, stands in sharp contrast to the way the event is dealt with in popular books on the subject.

Routinely explained as a cover-up for an elaborate assassination -- utterly baffling -- or, even more bizarre, as just a simple get-together of friends that went wrong, Peter's meticulous expose of the persons, their motives, connections, the precise nature of Marlowe's predicament, all lead to a more rational conclusion: the men were there, acting on behalf of powerful masters, to fake Marlowe's death.

It's an inconvenient outcome, because, if he survived, Marlowe would have continued to write. And what he wrote would have sounded remarkably like the work now credited to the Stratford shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, William Shakespeare. This is no small distinction, for it makes fair comparison of Peter's argument alongside the other, more strange rationalizations of Kuriyama, Riggs, Nicholl, Trow, Bloom, Bate, etc. nearly impossible.

As for Christopher Marlowe, choosing to agree to banishment and the termination of his identity was no more a choice than when a drowning man chooses to reach for a rope thrown to him by rescuers.

Cynthia Richards said...

Mr. Farey,
A very interesting post. I do wonder, though, if Marlowe's possible banishment were the result of a compromise between factions on the Privy Council, why the need to fake his death as well? Why not just banish him? If one faction wanted to use him as an example to discourage blasphemy, it seems to me that a public announcement of his banishment would have been sufficient. What would have been gained, from their point of view, from a sloppy, staged death over a dinner bill? Hardly a demonstration of the wrath of God, if that was their aim--as you suggest. (Surely a staged execution would have been more convincing!) Moreover, for Marlowe to have been both banished AND proclaimed dead to the world doesn't seem to be much of a compromise between factions---it's too heavily weighted on the "Let's Get Marlowe" side. So it doesn't ring true to me. I still think he fled for his life. But you raise good questions about how his faked death could have been kept secret, given those involved.
Thank you for the excellent work you continue to do on this fascinating subject.

Peter Farey said...

Cynthia, thank you for your comments (especially the complimentary ones!)

I'm always very uncomfortable with arguments based upon "surely they would have been better advised to do it some other way" when we can really only guess at the many factors they would have to take into account, and must conclude that - since they didn't banish him - they thought that the solution they did choose was better!

One has only to read the Puritan gloating about the manner of Marlowe's death (I quoted only one from several) to see that it was 'successful' in terms of it being seen as God's judgement, and therefore far more significant than one decided only by a human agency.

One question for you, if I may? Assuming that it must have been someone "in the know" who did it, we Marlovians have tended in the past to make much of the change of words on the Baines Note from "died a sudden and violent death" to the more equivocal "came to a sudden and fearful end of his life." Now that Nicholl has shown the amendment to have been made by Puckering (i.e one of the 'enemy') what do you think his motivation might have been for doing so if he hadn't been one of those in the know?

Peter Farey

LiviniaClarkson said...


As a long-time reader of your website, I do wish you'd occasionally pop up on the BBC as an expert talking head whenever a matter of Shakespeare authorship arises. You're such a voice of logic and a formidable adversary of the Stratfordians!

Rado Klose said...

A superb post. A thesis taken to its logical conclusion. Individual members of the star chamber whatever else they were must have been politicians versed in compromise and possessed of the moral suppleness needed to survive tricky times. It is as well to remind ourselves sometimes what a remarkable collection of abilities had assembled themselves in the person of Christopher Marlowe. If a Marlowe was potentially valuable to them there was only the one, and probably even more useful in a state of banishment.

Isabel Gortazar said...

Why, if the carrot of pardon was being dangled in front of his nose, would a realist like Marlowe write such a scene in 1600, offending the two persons on whom his pardon depended?

It is also to be noted that the serpent is waiting for the Lioness to attack, there is no indication that either the serpent or the lioness have decided to spare Orlando's life, only that the serpent is taking for granted that the lioness will take care of it as soon as Orlando "wakes up".

If the scene was unwisely included in the 1599/1600 version, it could also mean (and I'd go along with that), that Whitgift eventually came to know what had happened, but had to leave the initiative of any further move against Marlowe to the lioness, who was after all responsible for his being only "asleep".

While this scenario seems to me quite logical, the idea that the shabby charade at Deptford would be the result of the entire Privy Council of England putting their heads together, does not. But this would mean that the scene was written and included in As You Like It after 1604, when both the Queen and Whitgift were dead.

As for the change in Puckering's wording, while it could mean nothing special at all, it may mean that Puckering did know what was going on and did not wish to look like a fool, when and if Marlowe ever came back.

Rado Klose said...

hi Isobel
I would have thought that a pardon comes only after a conviction and Marlowe was never convicted. I have always assumed that the point of the Deptford incident was to get Marlowe lodged in the public mind as dead, a sentence with no remission. The carrot that might have been offered was a return from banishment to live quietly somewhere away from London. They would always have had the ultimate sanction of quietly disposing of him if he showed any inclination to step out of line as he was officially already dead.

Chutny said...

Marlowe intrigue is quite addicting; thanks for feeding my appetite!

isabel Gortazar said...

I do apologize Rado; I should have said "eventual forgiveness" which is the wording Peter used.

In any case, "pardon" or "forgiveness" could not, as you say, refer to a legal "pardon" as Marlowe was never convicted, but I assumed that would be taken for granted in the context of the discussion.

I don't understand the rest of your comment. In my view, the incident at Deptford was staged to get Whitgift off Marlowe's back, and avoid interrogation on the rack followed almost inevitably by execution.

The point I was trying to make is that if the entire Privy Council was in agreement, the elaborate charade was unnecessary and a mockery of justice, rather than a compassionate plan to avoid a valuable man being destroyed by religious fanaticism.

Peter's interpretation of the speech in AYLI is very interesting, but I place it not in 1593, but in 1599 (thought probably written much later). By 1599 Whitgift could easily have found out what had happened, but he couldn't "undo" it. He could however put enormous pressure on the Queen to make sure that if Marlowe dared to come back the "lioness" would destroy him, this time for good.

In the scene, we find Orlando already with his clothes in rags and hair overgrown, asleep in a wood (the woods in AYLI are the abode of banished people, like Duke Frederick and his men). So Orlando is already banished, and has been so long enough for his clothes to become rags and his hair to be overgrown. But he is "asleep" (away), not dead, and the old lioness is watching, so the snake can leave his prey and count on the lioness to do her job.

I personally think this scenario more likely than the one presented by Peter. I cannot imagine the Privy Council as an Institution making a unanimous decision to do something illegal, when they could have obtained the same results doing it legally.

If banishment was intended, nothing could have been easier. The added detail of a faked (accidental) death was shabby, unless it was not the decision of the Privy Council, but of a few individuals.

But that's just my opinion.

Rado Klose said...

Hi Isobel
Thanks for replying. A couple of points. I don't see how Marlowe could ever have reemerged without undermining the authority of the Privy council. Second Marlowe's crime was, it seems , to be free and over colourfull with opinions and ideas that were not his alone. The ascendancy of rational thought over blind adherence to dogma, Catholic or Protestant. Marlowe might simply have been the easiest branch to saw off a tree the growth of which was alarming the church. Other limbs of said tree might well have been wondering "who next?" and decided to negotiate with Whitgift.I'm sure Peter is correct in that such an enterprise requires every one to have little blood on their hands.

NoOneToChangeButYourself said...

I love the interpretation of the scene from AYLI - it's always struck me as an odd bit of writing - I'm wondering if the old oak might not be an allegorical reference to Lord Burghley?

NoOneToChangeButYourself said...

I love the interpretation of the scene from AYLI - it's always struck me as an odd bit of writing - I'm wondering if the old oak might not be an allegorical reference to Lord Burghley?