Canterbury Tale

Charles Nicholl

  • Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury by William Urry, edited by Andrew Butcher
    Faber, 184 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 571 14566 3
  • John Weever by E.A.J. Honigmann
    Manchester, 134 pp, £27.50, April 1987, ISBN 0 7190 2217 7
  • Rare Sir William Davenant by Mary Edmond
    Manchester, 264 pp, £27.50, July 1987, ISBN 0 7190 2286 X

William Urry’s researches on Marlowe have been available in bits and pieces, and his ‘forthcoming book on the Marlowes in Canterbury’ was mentioned by one of Marlowe’s biographers, A.D. Wraight, as long ago as 1965. Here at last it is, seven years after Urry’s death, edited from drafts by his former colleague Andrew Butcher. The text runs to less than a hundred pages, but there are ample appendices and source-notes, and anyway these hundred pages of dense documentary detail are worth a thousand of theorising.

Our historical knowledge of Elizabethan writers like Marlowe ultimately rests on this kind of deep archival work. Toiling through mouldy reams of municipal Latin, poring over act books and close rolls, pleas and recognizances, baptisms and burials, borough-mote surveys and consistorial court proceedings, scholars like Urry provide a constant supply of rich contextual trivia, and just occasionally, down some documentary back-way, they stumble upon the great and famous, and retrieve some precious nugget of raw information about them. The classic instance in Marlowe’s case was the unearthing by Leslie Hotson, in 1925, of the full coroner’s inquest on Marlowe’s death. While Urry has made no comparable discovery – perhaps no one will – he has lit up many small corners of Marlowe’s life, particularly of his childhood.

Christopher Marlowe – or Marley, in the more common contemporary spelling, the one he used in his only extant signature – was born in the parish of St George, Canterbury, in February 1564. He was the son of John Marlowe, shoemaker, and Katherine née Arthur, a Dover woman. They had nine children, though only five survived childhood. Christopher was the eldest son, and after the death of his sister Mary in 1568, the eldest child in the family. His father was ‘rowdy, quarrelsome, awkward, improvident, busy, self-assertive and too clever by half’, in Urry’s estimate. He appears often in the local records, sometimes in positions of minor responsibility – warden of the Shoemakers’ Company, sidesman at the parish church, constable at Westgate – but more often when being sued for debt, nonpayment of rent, or breach of the peace. He was fined for giving his apprentice Lactantius Preston a bloody nose in 1576, and was himself assaulted by another apprentice a few years later. It is hard to avoid seeing Marlowe’s touchy aggressive temper – intellectual and physical – prefigured in his father. His sister Anne seems to have been a handful as well. Like him she was known as a ‘swearer’ and ‘blasphemer of the name of God’, and in 1626, well into her fifties, she set about an unfortunate neighbour, one Prowde, with a staff and a dagger.

Marlowe’s origins were provincial and artisan: an earlier generation in Canterbury were tanners; Christopher’s sisters married a tailor, a shoemaker and a glover. This tough, industrious class nurtured much of the budding literary talent of the time: the Elizabethan leather industry provided a livelihood, not only for Marlowe’s family, but also for that of Robert Greene and William Shakespeare, sons respectively of a Norwich saddler and a Stratford glover. Even here in Canterbury there were other young writers growing up: John Lyly, son of Peter Lyly, clerk to the consistorial court; and Stephen Gosson, a joiner’s son. We have here a miniature blueprint for late Elizabethan theatrical tastes: Marlowe the tragedian, whose thunderous poetry packed them in at the public theatres; Lyly the author of dapper courtly comedies for the boy-actors of St Paul’s; and Gosson the controversialist, whose Schoole of Abuse (1579) was a violent attack on the theatre, and provided a prototype for the Puritan attitudes that were to dog Marlowe’s brief career.

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