Meet Christopher “Kit” Marlowe

Introducing Master Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, the often misunderstood genius poet, playwright and provocateur of the Elizabethan era. I love this summarization of his life from the Poetry Foundation and thought for those wondering about my own novel “Blood and Ink”, that you might like to know a little about the man I wrote about.
Here is the excerpt: “The achievement of Christopher Marlowe, poet and dramatist, was enormous—surpassed only by that of his exact contemporary, Shakespeare. A few months the elder, Marlowe was usually the leader, although Shakespeare was able to bring his art to a higher perfection. Most dramatic poets of the sixteenth century followed where Marlowe had led, especially in their use of language and the blank-verse line. The prologue to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine proclaims its author’s contempt for the stage verse of the period, in which the “jygging vaines of riming mother wits” presented the “conceits [which] clownage keepes in pay”: instead the new play promised a barbaric foreign hero, the “Scythian Tamburlaine, Threatning the world with high astounding terms.” English drama was never the same again.

The son of John and Catherine Marlowe, Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, where his father was shoemaker, in 1564. He received some of his early education at The King’s School, Canterbury, and an Archbishop Parker scholarship took him from this school to Corpus Christi College in the University of Cambridge. In 1584 he graduated as Bachelor of Arts. The terms of his scholarship allowed for a further three years’ study if the holder intended to take holy orders, and Marlowe appears to have fulfilled this condition. But in 1587 the University at first refused to grant the appropriate degree of Master of Arts. The college records show that Marlowe was away from Cambridge for considerable periods during his second three years, and the university apparently had good reason to be suspicious of his whereabouts. Marlowe, however, was not without some influence by this time: Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Burghley, and Sir Christopher Hatton were among members of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council who signed a letter explaining, “Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames and there to remaine, Their Lordships thought good to certefie that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaved him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithfull dealinge….” The reference to “Reames” makes everything clear. The Jesuit seminary at Rheims was the refuge of many expatriate Roman Catholics, who were thought to be scheming to over-throw the English monarch: the Babington Conspiracy was plotted here—and its frustration in 1586 was achieved through the efforts of secret agents placed by Sir Francis Walsingham.

In 1587 Christopher Marlowe, M.A., went from Cambridge to London; and for the next six years he wrote plays and associated with other writers, among them the poet Thomas Watson and the dramatist Thomas Kyd. His friendship with Watson brought trouble: the two friends were arrested in 1589, charged with the homicide of William Bradley, and committed to Newgate Prison. Marlowe was released after a fortnight, and Watson (whose sword had killed Bradley) pleaded that he had acted “in self-defence” and “not by felony”; he was set free after five months in prison. The association with Kyd was also the cause of trouble some years later. In the spring of 1593 Kyd was arrested on a charge of inciting mob violence in riots against Flemish Protestants. His home was searched, and papers were found there containing “vile hereticall Conceiptes Denyinge the Deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior.” Kyd denied that the document was his, asserting that the papers belonged to Marlowe and had been “shuffled with some of myne (unknown to me) by some occasion of our wrytinge in one chamber twoe yeares synce.” Perhaps Kyd, a professional scrivener, had been transcribing the manuscript for Marlowe—who was not, however, the author (the ideas had been published in 1549 by John Proctor under the title The Fal of the Late Arrian). Riots combined with the plague made the spring of 1593 an unusually tense period; and the Privy Council (Archbishop Whitgift and Lord Burghley were still members, as they had been in 1587) acted quickly on Kyd’s information and instructed a court messenger “to repaire to the house of Mr. Tho: Walsingham in Kent, or to anie other place where he shall understand Christofer Marlow to be remayning, and … to apprehend, and bring him to the Court in his Companie. And in case of need to require ayd.” Marlowe—who had perhaps retreated to Kent in order to avoid the plague which had closed the London theaters—was commanded to report daily to the council. The treatment was proper for a gentlemen: a lesser person would have been imprisoned.

Attempting to exculpate himself from the charges of heresy and blasphemy, and to deny any continuing friendship with his former chamber mate, Kyd sent two letters to the Lord Chancellor, Sir John Puckering. In the first he affirmed Marlowe’s ownership of the papers that had been “shuffled” with his own, declaring “That I shold love or be familiar frend, with one so irreligious, were very rare … besides he was intemperate & of a cruel hart.” In the second he enlarged upon the subject of “marlowes monstruous opinions,” offering examples of how Marlowe would “gybe at praiers, & stryve in argument to frustrate & confute what hath byn spoke or wrytt by prophets & such holie men.”

Kyd was not alone in making such accusations at this time. Puckering also received a note from a certain Richard Baines, who may have been a government informer and had previously been arrested with Marlowe at Flushing in 1592. On this occasion the Governor of Flushing commented in a letter which he sent to Lord Burghley along with the prisoners, that “Bains and he [Marlowe] do also accuse one another of intent to goe to the Ennemy or to Rome, both as they say of malice one to another.” In 1593 Baines denounced Marlowe for his “Damnable Judgement of Religion, and scorn of gods word.” Marlowe, he said, had stated

That the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe….
That Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest ….
That if there by any god or any good Religion, then it is in the papistes because the service of god is performed with more Cerimonies, as Elevation of the mass, organs, singing men, Shaven Crownes & cta. that all protestantes are Hypocriticall asses….
It is perhaps understandable that the Elizabethans, fearful for their Church and their State, should have given some credence to these wild statements, but it is astonishing to find that some readers of Marlowe’s works—to the present day—are prepared to accept the slanders of Kyd and Baines and believe in Marlowe’s “atheism.”

Although such slanders have affected the dramatist’s reputation, they did no harm to the man. By the time Puckering received Kyd’s second letter and the note from Baines, Marlowe was probably already dead.

Marlowe’s death and the events which immediately preceded it are fully documented in the report of the inquest (which was discovered by Leslie Hotson and published in The Death of Christopher Marlowe). The report tells of a meeting at the house of Mrs. Eleanor Bull in Deptford—not a tavern, but a house where meetings could be held and food supplied. On 30 May 1593 Marlowe spent the whole day there, talking and walking in the garden with three “gentlemen.” In the evening there was a quarrel, ostensibly about who should pay the bill, “le recknynge”; in the ensuing scuffle Marlowe is said to have drawn his dagger and wounded one of his companions. The man, Ingram Frizer, snatched the weapon and “in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of 12d. gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died.” Ingram Frizer was granted a free pardon within one month, and returned to the service of the Walsinghams. One of his accomplices was Robert Poley, the man largely responsible for the discovery of the Babington Conspiracy in 1586. The third man was Nicholas Skeres, who may have been the “Skyrres” who was with Poley and some of the conspirators shortly before the discovery. Such a combination of events and personalities makes it unlikely that this was a mere tavern brawl.”

So, the question could be – did Marlowe actually die in Deptford, or is there another story beneath what happened? “Blood and Ink” tells another tale, beginning Kit’s life at the age of eight when he is kissed by the inspiration of a muse… Now available in hardcover, paperback, ebook and Audible narrated by the incredible actor Jon Dixon! Visit Amazon or my website to learn more!!

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