Trust the Coroner
- Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy by Park Honan
Oxford, 421 pp, £25.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 19 818695 9
Compared to boring old Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, we think, had a short life and a gay one. When not writing his sonorous verse, he was spying, preaching atheism, fighting and getting murdered. Park Honan has done one of the two already, and now has done the other. Coming shortly after David Riggs’s solid, even too-solid The World of Christopher Marlowe, his Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy feels a little lightweight. He is probably right to say that he has a better story about Marlowe’s origins in Canterbury and his doings at Corpus in Cambridge, and a rather more realistic take on Marlowe’s life. But where he claims ‘a close, unromantic alertness to politics and religion, as well as to explicit facts about individuals’, I am not too convinced. The book is full of minor errors on both points. Faversham is not one of the Cinque Ports. Reformed, with a capital ‘R’, means Calvinist. The historian of the Jews in England was Cecil Roth, not Philip. Stephen Gosson never became a Catholic monk. Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador, did not ‘trust’ that Elizabeth could be assassinated, and his secretary, Courcelles, did not become an English mole. (I confess that I said he did, but withdrew the charge in a second account which Honan cites.) Padua was not an independent city-state. The English College at Douai did not train Jesuits, and Robert Parsons, who was not a doctor, had nothing to do with founding it. Giordano Bruno was not born at Nova. Thomas Norton was not assistant torturer to Richard Topcliffe, but the other way round. There was no British army in 1586.
Vol. 29 No. 1 · 4 January 2007
There are so many distortions in John Bossy’s review of my Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy (LRB, 14 December 2006) it is hard to know where to start. At first, he errs in minor details. He says Faversham was ‘not’ a Cinque Port. In fact, the town was one of the Cinque Ports of Dover in Marlowe’s youth. I never claimed Padua was an independent city state. Castelnau did support the idea of replacing the queen. More important, the coroner’s report on Marlowe has inconsistencies noted by specialists. It is not enough to say ‘there is no good reason for doubting the coroner’s verdict,’ as if unrefuted objections to the document did not exist. Bossy finds it wrong ‘to imply’ that Thomas Walsingham’s duties as in the Babington case were to watch ‘house and gardens’; but I implied no such simple thing. He forgets Thomas’s mediating role with the poets Watson and Marlowe, who both served as couriers. Whatever he supposes, there is no evidence that Thomas Walsingham ‘decided’ on events in the Deptford ‘story’. My account does involve the motives and initiative of Marlowe’s killer, Ingram Frizer, whom Bossy never mentions.
He claims that there was no such thing as an Elizabethan secret service. That is nonsense. By the 1580s, the Secretary ran a clandestine service, unrivalled in extent if not in pay, by other intelligence services at home or abroad. He had placemen from London to Turkey, some of whom were unpaid. Bossy’s speculations neglect Marlowe’s urgent need for funds and later for more dangerous work. It is silly to hold that there is no sign of his spying, and so overlook the Flushing episode and events that led up to it. Further, it is wrong to imply that official work did not occur at Seething Lane. More serious nonsense occurs in Bossy’s belief that the authorities cared nothing about ‘heresy’ after the eighth parliament. As for my writing, I shouldn’t have used ‘British’ for ‘English’ on page 148; but a few minor, correctable slips occur in any careful biography.
Vol. 29 No. 3 · 8 February 2007
Park Honan says that it is hard to know where to start with complaints about my review of his life of Marlowe (Letters, 4 January). We might start with the trivial details. Faversham was never a Cinque Port. He describes Padua as ‘struggling with other small states against Hapsburg and Valois control’. On p. 123 he says that Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador, ‘trusted that the queen could be killed’, which is untrue; in the letter he changes ‘killed’ to ‘replaced’. This is slightly more like it, but still untrue.
He reasonably complains that I did not discuss one of the incidents which has been used as evidence that Marlowe was a spy. This is his trip to Flushing over New Year 1591-92, when he was arrested for inciting a goldsmith to coin some money, including an amateurish Dutch shilling. I imagine Marlowe was trying to make some cash, or more probably seeing whom he could make a fool of. It is far-fetched to suppose, as Honan and others do, that he was on his way to an assignment spying on English Catholic emigrés in Brussels. I doubt if anyone sent on this mission would ensure that it coincided with a popular production, in London, of a play written by himself about the massacre of St Bartholomew and the murder of the Duke of Guise; or that he would share a lodging on the way with someone who, ten years before, had been very publicly exposed as a spy in the English college at Reims.
On Marlowe’s death, the only real complaint Honan has against the coroner’s verdict is that it said that Marlowe died ‘instanter’ from Frizer’s dagger, where another reporter says that he died ‘shortly after’ and a medical person suggests five or six minutes. I think ‘instanter’ can stretch to this. On the authorship of the alleged murder, Honan’s formal statement is that Frizer killed Marlowe because he thought that the death would please Walsingham and further his own career; his covert statement, in a fancy conclusion, is that Walsingham tipped him the wink.