The Elizabethan period produced many characters whose names live on for their creative genius. One of these was the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe (See these earlier posts about Marlowe here & here) As well as being famous for his writing, Marlowe had also achieved notoriety. In the summer of 1589 he was involved in a sword fight in which a man was killed, he had previously been accused of forgery, blasphemy and having unorthodox religious views – on top of all this he was suspected to be homosexual.
That Marlowe was stabbed to death in a house in Deptford London is a well known fact. However, the circumstances surrounding this death have been the subject of much debate.
A great reckoning in a little room (As you like it: Shakespeare)
The official story is that on the evening of May 31st 1593 Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer in a house in Deptford, London. Also present were two other men, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. Over the course of the day the four men had met, eaten and played backgammon. Following a walk in the garden they had returned to the room when an argument broke out over the bill to be paid.
Ingram Frizer was sitting at a table between Poley and Skeres when Marlowe, who had been lying on a bed, suddenly jumped up, snatched Frizer’s dagger and hit him on the head with the pommel (apparently this is where the term to ‘pummel’ comes from). Frizer sustained several cuts to his head from this attack. In the ensuing struggle Frizer managed to force the dagger from Marlowe who received a fatal wound to his right eye, according to the inquest;
“the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of twelve pence, gave the said Christopher a mortal wound above his right eye, of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch”
At the inquest, Frizer’s plea of self-defence was accepted by the coroner. Marlowe, at the time one of the literary greats of Elizabethan England was buried on the 1st of June 1593 in St Nicolas’s church in Deptford. Although the church is still there, the exact site of Marlowe’s burial is unknown.
In a time where people routinely carried weapons such as daggers and swords it is perhaps no surprise that occasionally these got used. Certainly at the time it seems to have been accepted that Marlowe’s death was simply the result of a drunken argument. However, over the years a great deal of suspicion has grown up about what actually happened that night. Although Marlowe is known primarily as a poet and playwright there was another, less public side to his life.
Undercover work and connections
It is agreed that Marlowe did perform some kind of undercover work which took him away from his Cambridge studies during 1585. This was probably for the spy master Walsingham and probably involved him in spying upon Catholic sympathisers. At this time, Cambridge was the focus of government suspicion because of concerns about students being drawn to outlawed Catholic circles. A secret recruitment network for dissident priests had been established there and the authorities were keen to gather as much information as possible about secretive Catholic activities. When Marlowe left Cambridge in 1597 it seems likely that he would have maintained his undercover contacts and also perhaps the undercover work?
Over the years many questions have been asked about the men who were with Marlowe at his death, Nicolas Skeres, Ingram Frizer and Robert Poley. All of these men have been linked to the murky world of Elizabethan espionage.
Both Frizer and Skeres had previously been in trouble for fraud. Nicholas Skeres had identified himself as a servant of the Earl of Essex at an earlier court hearing whilst Frizer was in the service of Walsingham. Robert Poley was also a Walsingham employee and had played an important role in the betrayal of the Babington plot conspirators. Another connection to the authorities can be found in the house owner, Eleanor Bull who was a (fairly distant) relative of Lord Burghley.
A fatal argument – or something more sinister?
Although the official investigation suggested that Marlowe’s death resulted from a drunken fight amongst acquaintances it seems certain that things are not so simple. As we have seen, it is a fact that all of the participants in Marlowe’s death can be linked to the world of espionage as well as to powerful (and ruthless) players in this game. Was Marlowe deliberately killed though? In his book (The Elizabethan Secret Services), Alan Haynes concluded that a political assassination was unlikely ‘even in that gloomy decade’ – why not simply lock him up if the authorities wanted to silence him?
In contrast, Charles Nichol comes to a slightly different conclusion in his book about Marlowe’s death. In Nichol’s carefully researched and argued account he concludes that the purpose of the meeting was to try and secure Marlowe’s co-operation – and failing this, to silence him forever. Marlowe had fallen foul of the powerful Earl of Essex and the meeting was an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Marlowe to be a bit more compliant – there could be only one outcome, a political murder.
The Marlowe society takes a different view however and you are recommended to check this out here
It is hardly surprising that a lot of stories have been told about this incident, it is also understandable that the story may have grown in the telling. Imagine the fuss if something like this were to happen today – not only a famous poet and playwright stabbed to death but also a secret service connection – what would the media and the blogosphere make of that!
According to Hilary Mantel there are many references to Marlowe’s fate throughout the works of Shakespeare. Apparently the first part of Act 3 in Romeo and Juliet refers to the circumstances of his death.
Live by the sword – die by the sword?
To me it seems likely that the old saying ‘live by the sword – die by the sword’ applies to Marlowe. Given his history of unconventional beliefs and behaviour as well as the dangerous company he was keeping, it does not seem so very surprising that he met his death in the manner that he did. Despite there being many gaps in our knowledge of his life it is clear that his 29 years were surprisingly eventful and one can only wonder about what he would have achieved had he lived longer.
If you want to read more about the life and death of Marlowe then I strongly recommend ‘The Reckoning’ by Charles Nicholl. I have already mentioned Alan Haynes’ book about the Elizabethan secret services which devotes a chapter to the death of Marlowe.
The Marlowe society website
Thanks to Lee Durkee for advice about the correct size ruff for ‘Ingram Frizer’
Thanks also to James O’Hanlon for agreeing to appear as Ingram Frizer.