‘You don’t want to see him,’ said the porter at Corpus, when Charles Nicholl went to Cambridge to look at the portrait that is probably Christopher Marlowe. ‘He died in a tavern brawl.’
Nicholl viewed the putative Marlowe, in his opulent slashed doublet, and wondered how he could afford the outfit. He looked at his buttery bills too, and noted when the shoemaker’s son had money to spend; noted when (unless he was starving himself) he was absent from college. His conclusion? There was no tavern. There was no brawl. It is an old lie that Nicholl has set out to nail, but he is unable, he admits, to substitute a new truth. All he can hope for is a ‘faint preserved outline where the truth once lay’. In Elizabeth’s England, men lied to their reflection; and Marlowe belonged to a shadow world of espionage, where every straight action is mirrored by treachery, where the agent provocateur is king.
Charles Nicholl has previously written on alchemy in the Elizabethan age. ‘As above, so below’: this was the maxim of alchemists. It works in the real world too. The factious giants of Elizabeth’s court are supported by a vast root-system of con-men, of prison informers, of spies, ‘projectors’ and ‘ambodexters’. Marlowe was part of this underground world: this is not in contention. But his reputation is surrounded by rumour, misinformation, disinformation. Shady and unpleasant he may have been, Nicholl says, but we owe him something – not simply because he was a great dramatist and poet, but because his death was murder, and the crime is unsolved. Nicholl is an investigator with a compelling sense of duty to the past and the people who inhabit it. To accept an untruth, to assent to a lazy version of history, is not just negligent but immoral.
Charles Nicholl writes vividly, without the academic’s compulsion to cover his back; but where he is speculating he says so clearly. Part of the success of his book comes from the fact that he has focused sharply on his central incident. He begins with an account of Marlowe’s death; he leads us away from it, into the thickets of European politics and the literary and political underworld; then he leads us back, by ways digressive but sure, to the Widow Bull’s victualling house in Deptford, where in spring 1593 four young men spent a day drinking wine in the garden.
Mrs Bull’s house was not a tavern, nor was she a sort of Mistress Quickly, half-expecting a fight to break out as the sun declined. She was a bailiff’s widow, with some court connections; her house was a respectable one. Nicholl evokes the Deptford evening: the scent of apple orchards mingling with the reek of fish and sewage. At about six o’clock, the young gentlemen came in for their bespoke supper. A short while later, Ingram Frizer put the point of his dagger into Christopher Marlowe’s right eyesocket. He inserted it to a depth of two inches. Marlowe died quickly, with no great fuss.
The inquest produced a tidy, emollient version, which the coroner accepted. It had been self-defence, said the two witnesses, whose names were Skeres and Poley. Marlowe and Frizer had quarrelled over the bill, or reckoning. Marlowe had picked up Frizer’s dagger and slashed at him, Frizer had wrested it away (presumably while the witnesses stood as if turned to stone) and had inflicted the fatal wound. No other version was available to the court; these were the only witnesses, and their account could not be contradicted. Four weeks after Marlowe’s death, Frizer was pardoned. One of the rumours that went about town was that there had been a quarrel over a boyfriend. Nicholl is quite certain that whether or not Marlowe was a homosexual, it had no bearing on his death, and we cannot know what bearing it had on his life: ‘We do not know what it meant to be gay in Elizabethan England.’ As for the row about the bill, it is plausible enough, as an explanation, until you know there was a greater account to be settled. At the time of his death, Marlowe was under investigation by the Privy Council, suspected of being part of a plot to incite the citizens of London against the immigrant Dutch merchants. His friend Kyd had already been arrested and tortured, and the fact that Marlowe was not in gaol suggested that some powerful interest was protecting him. It was not the first time he had been in trouble with the authorities. In Cambridge in 1587, his college had taken fright at a report that Marlowe was planning to skip the country and join the ranks of the would-be Catholic martyrs, the seminarians at the English College in Rheims. The Privy Council had taken the unusual step of intervening on his behalf: young Marlowe was a good boy, he should be given his degree. Then in the late January of 1592, he had got into a more spectacular kind of trouble: he was deported from the Dutch town of Flushing, accused of coining. In London he was interviewed by Burghley, the Lord Treasurer; though coining was a capital offence, he cannot have served more than a short term of imprisonment: in May that year he was on the streets again, brawling in Shoreditch and attracting the attention of the constabulary.
Leave aside for a moment all speculation and suggestion. Just these two (well-documented) incidents seem to show that we are dealing in a business of spectacular complexity. They went back a long way, Marlowe and Frizer and Skeres and Poley, much further back than the ‘feast’ at Mrs Bull’s. In As you like it Shakespeare made a reference to Marlowe’s death, cryptic but pointed: he called it ‘a great reckoning in a little room’.
What sort of man was Marlowe? Nicholl is not primarily writing a work of literary criticism, but he presents us with a picture of an author who is congruent with what he writes. Marlowe is flamboyant, sceptical, a vivid schemer, with plenty of ‘stomach’ – that is, he is ambitious, impulsive, noisy, prone to violence. Not the best sort of recruit for the secret services, by modern standards – but patient undercover work was not his forte. Nashe wrote:
His pen was sharp-pointed like a poignard. No leaf he wrote on but was like a burning-glass to set on fire all his readers ... He was no timorous servile flatterer of the commonwealth wherein he lived. His tongue and his invention were foreborn: what they thought they would confidently utter. Princes he spared not, that in the least point transgressed.
At some level, however, he must have been in the service of princes; everyone was. Poetry wasn’t a living. So, in 1587, Nicholl tells us, he was acting as a recruiter for the Catholic seminary at Rheims, working on the young men within his university, and reporting back to some important Protestant about what success he had. Some recruits were from crypto-Catholic families; some were just romantic boys with a relish for danger and for being on the wrong side of the establishment. Christopher Marlowe was – no doubt – not intrinsically evil or depraved; probably he was not particularly anti-Papist, and perhaps indeed he had flirted with Rome himself. His own beliefs are unknowable, but at an early age, it seems, he found work he could do, the kind of work that keeps you in doublets you can wear to have your portrait painted. He was the kind of man whose rashness, in speech and action, might provoke an answering rashness in others. He was articulate, where others fumbled for words. He was ingenious, where others struggled to find the mechanism of a plot. The weak, the wavering, the disaffected would be drawn to a man like Marlowe.
In the Europe of the late 16th century, Nicholl shows, ‘intelligence’ was a massive industry. Of course it was different from the modern idea of Intelligence, because ink and paper and the spoken word were the only means of communication, and news could travel only as fast as a courier. Every government department needed its sources of information, and so did every great man; networks of couriers and foreign correspondents were maintained. And when it came to understanding what your opponents were up to, you could not tap their telephones or monitor their radio communications: your only course was to insert some man of yours among their men. Thus, the two-faced man flourished – and at state expense, since Francis Walsingham had set up in England the world’s first professional secret service.
Subversion was an industry. You can feel, reading Nicholl, that every second seminarian at Rheims must have been a spy; indeed, that seems quite possible. The history of Elizabeth’s reign has a thin, friable top surface: the Protestant virgin of England, standing alone against Catholic France and Spain; the Queen of Scots nourishing her assassination schemes, knotting them to a vast Papist conspiracy that creeps throughout Europe. Yet if you look at these conspiracies – at the Throckmorton plot, the Babington plot – they melt away. Deluded, muddled, inefficient young gents have their plans firmed up for them by whatever brisk agent provocateur Walsingham has put in place. ‘Farewell, sweet Robyn,’ writes Anthony Babington to Robert Poley, who was one of the men who stood by as Marlowe was stabbed. ‘Farewell, sweet Robyn, if as I take thee true to me.’ Poley was anything but true: and Babington, briefly strung-up but fully conscious, was shortly afterwards castrated and disembowelled by Elizabeth’s executioner.
Nicholl is adept at tracing the cross-connections, the processes by which sedition was manufactured; and he has plenty of persuasive case-histories, of agents turned double-agents turned triple-agents. He leaves us in no doubt that Marlowe was on the edge of the secret world, then later at its heart. Why did the secret services bother with the young literati? Because they were clever, and good at understanding plots; because they always needed money; because they were footloose and willing to travel; because they had the entrée to great households, and could be induced to spy on their patrons. Marlowe’s patron was Thomas Walsingham, the great spymaster’s nephew. Beyond this, he had the friendship of powerful men.
One was Lord Strange, who became Earl of Derby. He belonged to the Stanley family, whose power-base was in Lancashire, a part of England famous for clinging to Catholicism. His cousin Sir William Stanley was a notorious traitor, who after years of stalwart military service to Elizabeth had handed the Dutch town of Deventer over to the Spanish and formed a regiment in the King of Spain’s service. Lord Strange was a problem for the Government. As a Lancashire official he did his job of naming and fining recusants. Ostensibly, he was loyal. Yet he was high in the line of succession, and Catholic exiles saw him as a likely figurehead in the event of a coup. The Earl of Northumberland, too, was very near the throne. He was an occultist and scholar, and collected the works of Giordano Bruno. Northumberland’s friend was Walter Ralegh; their coterie was sceptical, intellectual. They had the kind of enquiring minds a precarious regime detests.
One of Nicholl’s most interesting lines of investigation follows the work of Frances Yates, and concerns Giordano Bruno’s visit to England in 1583. Bruno was protected by Henri III of France; while in England, he may have proffered a distinctive Valois solution to Europe’s problems. On the one hand was an intransigent, narrow-minded Protestantism; on the other, the Jesuitical, proselytising Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. Might there be a third way – another way of looking at God? Bruno’s dream was of something more spiritually and intellectually attractive than the aggressive dogmas which dominate the age. There is no space, in his tightly constructed book, for Nicholl to explore Bruno’s mysticism, or the shifting frontier between mysticism and science; nor can he do more than advert to John Bossy’s theory that Bruno was spying for Walsingham. If he was, Nicholl argues, it did not help his notions gain currency; Walsingham was interested in the man and his links with the French Embassy, not in Bruno’s wider message. Nicholl suggests that it was in the Northumberland-Ralegh circle that Bruno’s ideas lingered on, after his extravagant presence was withdrawn. They may have lingered on, too, in the mind of a playwright looking for a model for Dr Faustus.
One cannot say that the Government was simply too hard-headed for Bruno’s ideas to take hold. They were alchemists, too, when it suited them. Edward Kelley, a famous spirit-medium and an assistant of John Dee, the occultist, geographer and mathematician, was one of Lord Burghley’s agents in Prague, where there was a set of expatriate, feebly plotting Catholics. Burghley applied to him hopefully for some of his ‘tincture’, for it would have been very useful for the war-weary economy if the Lord Treasurer had a starter-potion for turning base metal into gold. ‘Our gold is not the common gold,’ the alchemists used to say. But Burghley had missed the spiritual dimension of the science. Common gold was what he was after. He also asked Kelley for a cure for his gout.
To men of this mentality, religion was the servant of the state. It kept the masses quiet – such men acknowledged, in that respect, the atheist’s objection to faith – and it also provided a touchstone of allegiance. It was said that Ralegh, for instance, belonged to no religion. Kit Marlowe, informers said, had ‘read him the atheist lecture’. And Marlowe was a well-known scoffer, who would say (in his cups, perhaps) that Jesus and Saint John were lovers, that ‘the first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe.’ Where church and state are in alliance, atheism is treason.
It was not a private matter, whether a man believed in God. A man of no religion might soon be a man of any religion: that is, he might become a Papist, a subversive, if talked to in the right tone or approached with a big enough bribe. Again, to the conventional mind, atheism was incomprehensible: if you did not believe in God, might you perhaps believe in the devil, and might you not, if you were a slippery occultist like one of the Northumberland set, have the means of communication with him? The devil had, notoriously, more spies than any Lord Treasurer, or Mr Secretary Walsingham; more battalions than the Earl of Essex, the old Queen’s toy-boy. Atheism would be a neat charge to stick on that contentious man Ralegh, if you were ill-disposed to him. It was vague, too vague, perhaps: but suppose you could associate him with the popular discontent against ‘the beastly brutes the Belgians’, the French and Flemish refugees, the rich Dutch merchants – against whom, it seemed, his man Marlowe had made placards? Would that not (at least) tend to get Ralegh into more trouble than he was in already?
Once you have praised The Reckoning for its sharp focus, it seems ungracious to carp at it for not taking an overview. To get the best from the book you need to understand about the succession problem, about Elizabeth’s constant equivocation, about the efforts of her ministers to stampede and panic her into action; you need to know why the secret service was necessary. Could Nicholl not have provided a swift, synoptic background? Of course, specialists would have quarrelled with it, but it would have supplied the one lack in his fascinating book. He doesn’t usually make the mistake of assuming the reader knows everything he knows, but there are areas of obscurity. He refers, in a phrase, to the Lopez affair. Has he explained it somewhere? The book is, necessarily, one-paced and choked with detail; you might blink and miss something. But ‘Lopez’ is not in the index: so perhaps he hasn’t explained.
Lopez was a Portuguese Jew, one of Elizabeth’s court physicians. He plotted in a pale and extensive way, took money from here and there, from so many masters that any intelligence he ever supplied was cancelled out by counter-intelligence. But it is unlikely he plotted, as the Earl of Essex alleged, ‘a desperate and dangerous treason’ to poison the Queen. Even Elizabeth did not believe it, but – because Essex sulked, and manufactured evidence – the old man was hung, drawn and quartered, just the same. His real crime, possibly, was to have laughed at Essex with two Portuguese drinking cronies, and to have insinuated that he had cured him of a certain discreditable disease. The point is that both Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil believed Lopez innocent. That was no reason to assert themselves on his behalf. They were dispensable, these little, paid-for consciences, these bought bodies.
Nicholl explains that after Walsingham’s death the secret service divided. Some agents were bought by the Earl of Essex, and some by Robert Cecil. This split may have been fatal for Marlowe. Essex and Ralegh were old enemies, implacable opponents; they fought a naval campaign together, but they also fought for the favours of the old woman who was the fount of all power. Nicholl sees Marlowe’s end as part of a conspiracy to bring down Ralegh; he makes persuasive connections. But finally, he cannot explain what Marlowe was doing in the ‘little room’: with Poley, who was Robert Cecil’s man, with Skeres, who was Essex’s man, and with Frizer, who was anybody’s man, perhaps, if the sum were agreed beforehand. What pretext was given to Marlowe for this strange meeting; what proposition was put to him, in those long hours in the garden; why did he not sense the drift of events, and get out of that little room in time? Nicholl does not claim he can supply the answers, but rather puts us into a frame of mind where we see that there can be none. What stays with the reader – when he has forgotten the smaller details of the intelligence network so minutely described – is a sense of frustration and futility. If it were otherwise, the author would not be true to his subject, The secret services of that time, and maybe of more recent times, existed largely for their own ‘inward’ reasons, and were governed and kept in business by their own distorted logic. They were the great school and refuge of opportunists, cynics – and of poor poets, no doubt – and operated not so much to serve the state as to serve themselves. Despite his scholarship, Nicholl’s aim is humble enough. ‘I am not trying to argue that Marlowe’s death has to have a meaning. My reading only extends to a more complex kind of meaninglessness than that of a tavern brawl.’
Is the book pointless, then? Not at all. It tells us, if we needed telling, that poetry and cynicism may co-exist, flourishing in one heart, that great writers may be the dupes and servants of small regimes – and that writers will do most things for the promise of hard cash.