HomeAbout the AuthorRenaissance WritingRenaissance LinksOther WritingSpeechesDonna's BlogSlideshowsNuggets
Donna N. Murphy
Why Marlowe's Death is Dubious

A "Death" in Deptford

Christopher Marlowe “died” on May 30, 1593 in Deptford, Kent. A bustling town on the Thames River, Deptford was dominated by docks, merchant vessels, Navy warships, and warehouses. One warehouse belonged to the Muscovy Company that supplied Russian tackle and cable to the English ships that defeated the Spanish Armada, and sold English weapons to Russia that Ivan the Terrible used, Tamburlaine-like, to annihilate his enemies.

Anchored in Deptford was Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, the ship in which he circumnavigated the globe. A popular tourist attraction, people cut chips of wood from it to bring home as souvenirs. Greenwich Palace was less than a mile away, although Queen Elizabeth was at Nonsuch Palace that day.

On the land between St. Nicholas Church and the Thames which they called Deptford Strand stood the home of widow Eleanor Bull. It was not a tavern, as legend has it. Whether it was soley a single-family home, a trade office, a boarding house or a safe house is unknown; what we do know is that Bull served meals to four men in a private room on May 30.

The coroner’s inquest into Marlowe’s death provides the official version of what happened there the day Marlowe "died." At 10:00 a.m. Marlowe met together at Bull’s with three other men. They ate supper, “were in quiet sort,” and walked in the garden until 6:00 p.m. The word “quiet” is surprising, since most people in Marlowe’s position would have been floor-pacing, fingernail-biting nervous wrecks.

Thomas Kyd and Richard Baines

A tract designed to inflame opinion against immigrants had been posted on the wall of the Dutch Churchyard on May 5, 1593. It was written in blank verse, contained mention of a Paris massacre (echoing the name of Marlowe’s play), and was signed by “Tamburlaine,” although its style indicates that Marlowe did not write it. The Privy Council ordered the arrest of the unknown perpetrator, and on May 11 searched author Thomas Kyd’s lodgings. During this search, they found the “Arian heresy.”
Arians were followers of the 4th-century Arius, who held that Jesus was human, not divine, and thus were Unitarian rather than Trinitarian. What the searchers found was an excerpt from The Fal of the Late Arrian, 1549, by John Proctor, which includes a handful of paragraphs containing the Arianist views of an unknown contemporary man within a 288-page book devoted to showing that these views were wrong.
Kyd was arrested, imprisoned and, possibly under torture, said that this document belonged to Marlowe, and must have been shuffled amongst Kyd’s papers when the two shared writing quarters in 1591. A. D. Wraight posited that Marlowe may have used the paper as a basis for discussion with members of the School of Night, a phrase from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost which has been employed to refer to a circle of intellectuals centered around Sir Walter Ralegh. [1] Perhaps. Or perhaps it was obtained elsewhere and planted in Kyd's room, as Charles Nicholls conjectured. [2] The Privy Council order Marlowe's arrest, and found him at the home of his friend Thomas Walsingham, the late spy-master Francis Walsingham’s cousin. Marlowe appeared before the Council on May 20 and was ordered to give daily attendance to their Lordships. He was freed on his own recognizance, a treatment decidedly different from Kyd’s.

Evidence was gathered against him by Marlowe’s enemy, Richard Baines, and written up in the Baines Note which accused Marlowe of being an atheist, a coin counterfeiter and, according to some interpretations, a homosexual. All three offenses were punishable by death. Official annotation on the Note confusingly states that it was turned over to authorities on May 27 and on Whitsun Eve, June 2, but the earlier date is more probable.

Lord Burghley

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, England’s de-facto Prime Minister, was a Privy Council member who had rescued Marlowe on two earlier occasions. Once he signed a note requesting Cambridge University to grant Marlowe his Master’s degree because, despite rumours that Marlowe was going to go or had gone to Rheims (the meaning is unclear), he had done Her Majesty good service and deserved to be rewarded. Rheims was a Catholic seminary in France which trained English priests and infiltrated them back into Protestant England. The other time, Marlowe was remitted to Burghley under guard from Flushing, where fellow intelligencer Richard Baines accused him and a goldsmith of the capital crime of “uttering” a false coin. The fact that Marlowe appeared in Canterbury not long afterwards means he must have gotten off lightly. Circumstances signal that on both occasions, he was acting on government business.
If Burghley or his son, Privy Council member Robert Cecil, saw the Baines Note, Marlowe could have been warned in advance that this time, things looked grim. The author was certainly about to be imprisoned and tortured, and the odds were high he’d be sentenced to death. This was his 11th hour, which made it all the more perplexing that he chose to spend it with Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer.

The Professional Liars
Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres were known government intelligencers, both involved in exposing the Babington Plot of Mary, Queen of Scots against Queen Elizabeth, for which Mary had been executed. Poley had just arrived in Deptford Strand on courier duty from the Hague, and spent the day in Deptford with Marlowe instead of directly delivering correspondence to the Queen. The payment record for his service between May 8 and June 8, 1593 is accompanied by wording that was unique to this specific payment. It described Poley as “being in Her Majesty’s service all the aforesaid time.” [3] Skeres served the Earl of Essex, a good friend of Sir Francis Bacon, while Ingram Frizer was a retainer of Marlowe’s friend, Walsingham. 
Around this time, Skeres and Frizer were working together to scam a young man with the old usury trick of lending a person commodities rather than money, valuing the goods at far more than they were worth on the bond their victim signed, in effect forcing him to repay at an exorbitant rate of interest. Marlowe chose to spend what he might have viewed as a brief respite in the eye of a hurricane, in the company of a highly competent government intelligencer and two servants who were really good at lying.

According to the official inquest, after the four of them dined together that evening, Marlowe and Frizer got into an argument over the reckoning (bill) for the meal. Marlowe was lying on a bed, while Skeres, Frizer and Poley sat in a row at a table near the bed with their backs to Marlowe. Marlowe suddenly drew Frizer’s dagger and attacked him with it, wounding him twice in the head. Frizer was pinned in by Skeres and Poley and couldn’t escape, so to save his life, he took back his knife and attacked Marlowe, stabbing him over his right eye with a wound two inches deep and one inch wide. Marlowe died instantly, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Exonerated on grounds of self defense, Frizer was released from prison within a month. This was speedy. In comparison, Marlowe’s friend Thomas Watson spent five months in Newgate Prison before receiving his pardon for killing William Bradley in self defense.
Marlowe’s friend Walsingham immediately took Marlowe’s killer Frizer back into his service.
It appears probable that the first man named on the jury list, and thus likely the jury’s foreman, was Thomas Walsingham’s neighbor, fellow “gentleman” Mr. Nicholas Draper. [4]

The Coroner
Queen Elizabeth’s own coroner, William Danby, was the attending coroner at the inquest because the killing happened within the “verge,” the imaginary circle with a 12-mile radius drawn around the Court, which at that time was located at Nonsuch Palace. According to the law, however, Danby was supposed to have been joined by the County Coroner. Indeed, it would have been typical for the County Coroner to notify the Queen’s Coroner that a murder had taken place, and invite him to attend the inquest.

Leslie Hotson discovered the inquest into Marlowe’s death in 1925, which should have laid the issue to rest. After all, the sixteen jurors believed the story. Instead, it stirred up a hornet’s-nest of questions.

1. Why were three men sitting in a row on the same side of the table, with no one opposite? Had Mrs. Bull run out of benches?
2. Once Frizer got his knife back, Poley and Skeres could have restrained Marlowe so that he was no longer a threat. Why stab him? The playwright was, after all, his master’s friend.
3. Would a two-inch deep stab over the eye (there’s bone there; did he mean in the eye?) really lead to instantaneous death?
4. Why was Frizer’s pardon issued so rapidly?
5. How did the Queen’s Coroner William Danby find out about Marlowe’s death, and why wasn’t the County Coroner present at the inquest along with Danby?
6. Why did Walsingham take back into service the man who killed his friend?

A Body Switch?

Eleanor Bull's home was located two miles away from where John Penry was executed. John Penry was believed to have been the mastermind behind the anti-church Martin Marprelate tracts, and was sentenced to hang on May 25, but the sentence was stayed. Then suddenly, without prior notice to his family, he was executed around 5:00 pm on May 29. His family did not receive his body despite letters to Lord Burghley beforehand requesting that it be returned to them. David A. More proposed that Penry’s body was substituted for Marlowe’s. [5]  
As coroner of Marshalsea, the prison where Penry was kept until execution, Danby would have been in a position to procure the body for substitution. 
This idea might not have occurred to More but for Shakespeare’s suggestion. In Measure for Measure, one man’s body is substituted as proof of execution in order to keep another man alive. In the play, when the Provost worries that the dead body will be properly identified, Duke Vicentio tells him, “O! death’s a great disguiser, and you may add to it” (IV.ii.185-6).

The jurors were local men, unlikely to have known what Marlowe or Penry looked like, but if they did, a stab in the eye would have rendered the body difficult to recognize. The four men may have spent the day quietly at Mrs. Bull’s house because they were waiting for rigor mortis to leave Penry’s body so that it could look freshly killed again.
Although Elizabethan spies sometimes sped the course of death, it is plausible that in this case they helped Christopher Marlowe avoid execution. 

[1] A. D. Wraight, The StoryThat the Sonnets Tell (London: Adam Hart, 1994), 262.

[2] Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning (London: Vintage, 2002), 354. See also Nicholl’s discussion of the book from which the excerpt was taken, John Proctor’s The Fal of the Late Arrian, 51-2.

[3] Eugene de Kalb, “Robert Poley’s Movements as a Messenger of the Court, 1588 to 1601,” Review of English Studies 9 (1933): 14-17.

[4] Peter Farey, “The Deptford Jury,” http://www.rey.prestel.co.uk/jury.htm, accessed on May 1, 2017.     
[5] David A. More, “Over Whose Dead Body--Dead Sailor or Imprisoned Writer?” The Marlovian Newsletter, Fall 1996,
http://www.marlovian.com/essays/penry.html. Accessed Sept. 19, 2013.

Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, and the Archbishop of Canterbury
Did Marlowe go to Scotland after his "Death"?
Clue from Edmund Spenser?
Clue from Thomas Nashe?
Marlowe, Shakespeare and Religion
How Shakespeare Thought Like Marlowe
The Nature of Genius
Shakespeare's Knowledge of Italy
Shakespeare Was an Adept
Why it Probably Wasn't the Earl of Oxford
Why it Probably Wasn't Sir Francis Bacon
Why Marlowe's Death is Dubious
The Wise Man's Paradox
Christopher Marlowe's Writing
Marlowe-Shakespeare Similarities
Copyright 2017 by Donna N. Murphy