Vol. 24 No. 21 · 31 October 2002

Scribblers and Assassins

Charles Nicholl reopens the file on Thomas Drury and the prosecution of Christopher Marlowe

6746 words

On 18 May 1593 a warrant was issued to ‘apprehend’ Christopher Marlowe, and on 20 May he was brought before the Privy Council for questioning. He was not detained, but was ordered to report to the Council daily until ‘licensed to the contrary’. This state of precarious liberty lasted only until 30 May, when he was fatally stabbed by a man named Ingram Frizer, though whether his sudden death was a matter of coincidence or conspiracy remains unresolved. The Council’s warrant does not give a reason for Marlowe’s arrest, but we know it was connected to the arrest of his colleague Thomas Kyd a few days earlier, on a charge of political libelling. During the search of Kyd’s lodgings, a certain ‘vile heretical’ manuscript was found, and under interrogation Kyd ‘affirmed’ that it belonged to Marlowe; other evidence of Marlowe’s heretical opinions was also squeezed out of him. This was probably the pretext for Marlowe’s summons, though there is no doubt he was already under suspicion for his anti-religious views, variously described by those who claimed to have heard them as ‘monstrous’, ‘damnable’, ‘horrible’ and (perhaps most to the point) ‘dangerous’.

Charges of atheism and heresy against Marlowe filled the air at this time. Hints had appeared in print, in the loquacious pamphlets of Robert Greene and Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe, but more damagingly precise were the reports of Government informers – a flourishing trade in the police-state atmosphere of late Elizabethan London. There are two key documents, generally referred to as the ‘Baines Note’ and the ‘Remembrances’. The first, compiled by Richard Baines, is exclusively concerned with Marlowe’s atheistic opinions, while the second reports the words of another man, Richard Cholmeley, who is said to have been converted, or ‘persuaded’, to atheism by Marlowe. I have spent rather longer than I might have wished puzzling over these documents and the circumstances of their composition. They are mere bits of thumb-stained paper but they have the complexity of literary texts. In my book on the Marlowe case, The Reckoning (1992), I tried to work out how they might be connected with Marlowe’s known involvement in secret politics, and with his violent death in Deptford. The occasion of a second edition has brought me back to them, and has brought me more particularly to consider the activities of a shadowy figure named Thomas Drury, who was closely involved in the business, but who has until now managed to evade the spotlight. His name has been known since the early 1970s, when a letter of his turned up in the manuscript-stacks of Lambeth Palace library, but who exactly he was, and what exactly he was up to, have remained unclear. I can now provide some answers to those questions, and I believe they may have a bearing on the deeper question of Marlowe’s alleged atheism.

According to these spies’ reports Marlowe was not just an atheist, but a strident propagandist of atheism. He scattered foul-mouthed quips about Christ and the Virgin Mary ‘almost into every company he cometh’; he wrote treatises pointing out ‘contrarieties’ in the Bible; he spoke trenchantly about the political use of religion ‘to keep men in awe’. The difficulty in assessing Marlowe’s atheism is that we don’t know how much of this is true. The men who wrote these texts were professional informers – at least, when their information was deemed useful they were paid for it – and sometimes informers tell the truth, but sometimes they do not. For the freelance Elizabethan snoop, seditious utterances of one sort or another were his product and livelihood. He listened for them, he touted for them and if necessary he invented them, thus proving himself a cunning ‘politician’ in the precise pejorative sense used by Shakespeare in King Lear: ‘Get thee glass eyes,/And, like a scurvy politician, seem/To see the things thou dost not.’ So while the message of these texts is clear enough, their provenance makes them hard to interpret. The proportion of truth and invention in them cannot be gauged. Did Marlowe really say what these people say he said? Or are they looking at him with those ‘glass eyes’, and pretending to see in him things that were not really there?

The ‘Baines Note’ is fully entitled ‘A Note containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly, concerning his damnable judgment of religion and scorn of God’s word’. It was apparently delivered to the authorities on about 27 May. It was not, therefore, a cause of Marlowe’s arrest so much as a product of it: a timely contribution to the case against him. The Note survives in two manuscripts in the Harleian Collection in the British Library. One is almost certainly autograph; the other is a scribal copy with some interesting annotations. These annotations, I can now reveal, are in the hand of Sir John Puckering, the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. This is a new fact, though not a surprising one. Puckering took a particular interest in what we might today call ‘state security’, and together with another high-ranking court official and Privy Councillor, Lord Buckhurst, he played an important role in the investigation of Marlowe and his associates. The Baines Note is a lurid but efficient summary of Marlowe’s alleged blasphemies and subversions: 19 in all. They include such comments as that ‘the Angel Gabriel was bawd to the Holy Ghost because he brought the salutation to Mary’; that the Sacrament would be better ‘administered in a tobacco pipe’; that the New Testament was ‘filthily written’; and that ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and . . . used him as the sinners of Sodoma.’ It also contains the famous homosexual quip, ‘that all they that love not tobacco & boys were fools’. After listing these for a page and a half of close-packed script Baines concludes darkly: ‘I think all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped.’

What do we know about Richard Baines? He was, like Marlowe, a Cambridge man: he graduated from Caius College in 1576, four years before Marlowe went up to Corpus Christi. From there he went to the English Catholic seminary at Rheims: essentially a defection to the enemy, and again a kind of parallel with Marlowe, who was later rumoured to be going ‘beyond the seas to Reames’. There, in 1582, already an ordained priest, Baines was unmasked as a spy for the English Government. He was imprisoned in the town jail at Rheims, and in 1583 wrote a confession. As well as his misdeeds as spy and saboteur, this document gives a fascinating account of his own collapse of religious belief. ‘Proceeding farther and farther in wickedness’, he had begun to mock religion with ‘pretty scoffs’ and ‘wicked words’; he uttered ‘divers horrible blasphemies in plain terms’. As to where this was leading he had no doubt: ‘The next step on this stair is atheism and no belief at all . . . This is the highway to heresy, infidelity & atheism, as to my great danger I have experience.’ The extraordinary thing about this part of Baines’s confession is its closeness to that other product of his pen, the Note on Marlowe. What he says about his own behaviour in 1583 – the ‘scoffs’ and ‘blasphemies’, the efforts to draw others to atheism – is similar to what he says about Marlowe’s behaviour ten years later. This makes the Note psychologically more complex, but it also makes its veracity more dubious. Baines has played the atheist himself; he has been on this ‘highway to heresy’; he could write these rasping blasphemies down on a piece of paper whether he had heard Marlowe say them or not.

Another biographical backdrop to the Note brings Marlowe and Baines into physical contact. In January 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the Dutch port of Vlissingen, or Flushing, an English garrison-town close to one of the front lines of the war with Spain. He was accused of ‘coining’ or counterfeiting money, and of a seditious ‘intent to go to the enemy’. His accuser – indeed his ‘chamber-fellow’ in Flushing – was none other than Richard Baines. There is no space to go into this murky, espionage-related episode, but it, too, throws a kind of light on the Note. Baines had betrayed Marlowe before. There was ‘malice’ between them: this is the word used by Sir Robert Sidney in his report on the case, sent over to Lord Burghley along with the deported counterfeiter, ‘Christofer Marly’.

In his Note, Baines announces that ‘one Richard Cholmeley was persuaded by Marlowe’s reasons to become an atheist.’ This brings us to the other key text, the report entitled ‘Remembrances of words and matters against Ric Cholmeley’, in which it is stated that Cholmeley ‘saith and verily believeth that one Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity, & that Marlowe told him that he hath read the atheist lecture to Sir Walter Ralegh and others’. The informer then goes on to itemise some of Cholmeley’s ‘horrible & damnable speeches’, many of which closely echo the blasphemies attributed by Baines to Marlowe. Another thing the Note and the Remembrances have in common is that they both mention Sir Walter Ralegh, whose name is trailed suggestively as Marlowe’s protector and encourager, thus reviving gossip about Ralegh’s ‘school of atheism’ which had appeared in a popular Catholic pamphlet the previous year.

Richard Cholmeley was a Cheshire man, probably of Catholic origins; his family had local connections with Lord Strange, in whose circle Marlowe moved as a playwright. Like Baines, he is almost exclusively known as a small-time spy. He was part of the anti-Catholic intelligence machine: a couple of his reports survive in the Public Record Office, and there are payments on record in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber, Sir Thomas Heneage, who disbursed secret-service money. A particular speciality of Cholmeley’s was the production of bogus Catholic propaganda – ‘he made certain libellious verses in commendation of Papists and seminary priests, very greatly inveighing against the State’ – and in The Reckoning I argue that he was the true author of the anonymous verses known as the ‘Dutch Church libel’, which incited the apprentices of London to riot against immigrant traders. This inflammatory broadside, issued on 5 May 1593, is another important text. It was in some ways the first hint of trouble for Marlowe, in that it was signed with the pseudonym ‘Tamburlaine’, the name of his most popular hero; and it certainly meant trouble for Thomas Kyd, who was arrested as the suspected author of it. As mentioned, Kyd’s arrest in turn led to the discovery of that ‘heretical’ treatise (yet more bits of paper), and so to the apprehending of Marlowe.

All this paper: I have the notion that these men are failed or frustrated writers – Baines the penner of notes and confessions, written with a certain overheated relish; Cholmeley the composer of doggerel rhymes and thunderous libels. The tools of their trade are pen, paper and inkpot. They relate to Marlowe not just as fellow spies, but as fellow scribblers. They hold a mirror up to him – not because of what they say, which is very dubious, but because of what they are. And he in turn holds the mirror up to them, in the tawdry and convoluted intrigues of The Jew of Malta, performed at the Rose Theatre in February 1592, a few weeks after his deportation from Flushing.

So we have these two spies or projectors, these two Richards or Dicks, and their apparent recollections of Marlowe’s blasphemies. They closely corroborate one another on the subject, but they share also a professional history of untrustworthiness: they are not good witnesses of what a man might have said or done. We now come to the ‘third man’, another of this tribe of politic scribblers, the one about whom least has been said. Thomas Drury made his entrance late in the game – late in terms of historians finding out about him – when a letter of his was discovered in 1974, among the papers of Anthony Bacon (brother of Francis) at Lambeth Palace. It was written on 1 August 1593, two months after Marlowe’s death, and it shows Drury was closely involved in these events. He writes:

There was a command laid on me lately to stay one Mr Bayns, which did use to resort unto me, which I did pursue, and in time, although then I did not once so much as imagine where he was, I found him out, and got the desired secret at his hand, for which the City of London promised, as also by proclamation was promised, a hundred crowns, but not a penny performed . . . Then, after all this, there was by my only means set down unto the Lord Keeper and the Lord of Buckhurst the notablest and vildest articles of atheism that I suppose the like were never known or read of in any age, all which I can show unto you. They were delivered to Her Highness, and command given by herself to prosecute it to the full.

To paraphrase: Drury was commanded to search out his former acquaintance Richard Baines and get a certain ‘secret’ from him. This secret was information about the author of the Dutch Church libel, for which the City of London had indeed posted a 100-crown reward. The reward was announced on 10 May. By 12 May, Thomas Kyd was under arrest, ‘suspected for that libel that concerned the State’. The inference is strong that he was arrested further to the information provided by Baines and Drury – information that was certainly false, and which they knew to be false, but which swiftly served the purpose of incriminating Kyd’s former room-mate, Marlowe. Drury then went on to provide further ammunition against Marlowe, for according to this letter it was through his encouragement or persuasion that Baines wrote down those ‘vildest articles of atheism’, in other words the Note concerning Marlowe. ‘By my only means’, Drury says proudly, this document was ‘set down’ and delivered to Lord Keeper Puckering. His claim that it was read by the Queen is confirmed by the scribal copy of the Note, which is endorsed in Puckering’s hand: ‘Copye of Marloes blasphemyes, as sent to Her H’.

In the first edition of The Reckoning I pursued Thomas Drury some way. A fact that swiftly emerged was that Drury not only knew Baines, who ‘did resort unto’ him, but also knew Cholmeley. Two years previously, on 13 May 1591, a Council warrant was out for Drury and two of his ‘companions’: one of the latter was Cholmeley. Drury was indeed arrested, his lodgings searched for ‘matters of state’, and on 15 May he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea. Cholmeley, however, was not arrested with him; on the contrary, he was paid for assisting in the arrest. On 29 July £6 was issued ‘to Burrage and Chomley that apprehended Thomas Drury’ – Burrage is Jasper Burrage or Borage, a known associate of Cholmeley’s; nothing is known of him except the word ‘dangerous’ scribbled beside his name in the ‘Remembrances’. It would seem from this that Drury not only knew Cholmeley, but had a score to settle with him, and for this and other reasons I have argued that Drury was himself the informer who compiled those Remembrances against Cholmeley in 1593, and that he refers to this both in his letter to Anthony Bacon and in a pair of letters written a few weeks later to the influential and ever vigilant Sir Robert Cecil. This document, we remember, is not only an indictment of Cholmeley, but also of Marlowe, who is named as his atheist guru.

There is a suffocating closeness about it all. Drury knows Baines and Cholmeley; Baines and Cholmeley know Marlowe. There is a background of ‘malice’ between Baines and Marlowe, and probably between Drury and Cholmeley as well. And out of this little huddle of snoops and counter-snoops there emerges, within a space of a couple of weeks, a barrage of allegations about Marlowe’s heretical views, allegations uttered by Baines and Cholmeley, but in each case orchestrated by Thomas Drury.

A letter discovered a few years ago by David Riggs further highlights Drury’s involvement, because it shows he had a prior connection with Lord Keeper Puckering. On 8 November 1592 Lord Buckhurst wrote to Puckering:

I did speak to Mr Drury according to your Lordship’s desire, and after a long discourse by him to me made of his own misery and hard fortune, I prayed him to set down in writing such matter as might be valuable to the State . . . He was very loath to set down the particularities thereof in writing because it consisted in diverse attempts & industries of his own whereby he meant to hazard his life for the service of Her Majesty and his country. Nevertheless, if he should be urged unto it, he would make it manifest that to the adventure of his life he would do great things . . . Surely, my Lord, I am persuaded that if he may have liberty & leave to go beyond seas, that to recompense his ill doings past he will adventure himself somewhat to do some service.

It is endorsed on the verso, in Puckering’s hand, ‘Thom Drury’s confession of matters of State’.

As we saw, Drury had been carted off to the Marshalsea in the summer of 1591, having been arrested by his former ‘companion’, Cholmeley. He was apparently still in prison 18 months later, for Buckhurst’s letter talks of his impending ‘liberty’. He has been interviewed there at the request of Puckering, who thinks he knows something ‘valuable’ to the Government. He appears ready, ‘if urged unto it’, to do some ‘service’ for Buckhurst and Puckering – precisely the two men to whom he would deliver, a few months later, those ‘articles of atheism’ compiled by Richard Baines and attributed to the mouth of Christopher Marlowe. Dishing the dirt on dangerous atheists like Marlowe, and on those like Ralegh who harbour them, seems here to be product. It is (Drury hopes) the kind of ‘service’ that Puckering and Buckhurst had in mind when they granted him his freedom from the Marshalsea.

In this game of black propaganda, Thomas Drury increasingly emerges as a kind of impresario, a purveyor of these incriminating texts to the authorities. But who was he? He has proved elusive (not least because there is more than one Thomas Drury around at this time) but I can now offer for the first time a brief biography of this unsavoury character. I have found in other areas of his life certain corroborating episodes which throw light on his modus operandi, and on his animus against Marlowe and Ralegh.

Thomas Drury was born into a well-breeched and well-connected East Anglian family, but he was a younger son and had to depend on his wits rather than inherited wealth to maintain himself. It seems he was as full of craft in dealing with family matters as he was in political machinations, for in a letter written c.1599 we find his own nephew describing him as ‘that degenerate rogue Tom Drury’.

He was the third son of Robert Drury of Hawstead, Suffolk, and Audrey née Rich, the daughter of Richard, Lord Rich, a former Lord Chancellor. He was born on 8 May 1551. Thirteen years older than Marlowe, he was in his early forties when he became involved in the atheism affair. There is a faint literary aspect to Drury’s family connections. Through his mother he was a first cousin of Robert, Lord Rich, who in 1581 married Penelope Devereux, sister of the Earl of Essex. She was Sir Philip Sidney’s inamorata, the Stella of Astrophil and Stella. This is not a very auspicious connection, however, as cousin Rich is punningly guyed throughout Astrophil, and painted as a coarse, heartless booby.

In 1564, aged 13, he was admitted as a ‘gentleman pensioner’ (a term denoting a well-off student) to Caius College, Cambridge. His elder brothers William and Robert matriculated there in the same year. We have no further details of his university career, but it is worth noting that he is another Cambridge man, like Baines and Marlowe, who enters the intelligence business. Baines was also at Caius, though he and Drury were not contemporaries. It was a markedly Catholic college, and it is possible that Drury was Catholic. Other members of his family certainly were: his cousin, Henry Drury of Lawshall, was indicted for harbouring a fugitive priest in 1584, while a younger generation of Catholic relatives included Robert Drury, who was ordained a Catholic priest in Spain in 1593 and martyred in 1607, and Ambrose Rokewood, the Gunpowder Plotter, whose mother Dorothy was of the Suffolk Drurys. Thomas may be another of the turncoat Catholics who feature so much in the Marlowe story, but this is by no means certain.

What he did after leaving university is unclear, since it turns out he is not the Thomas Drury who was a ‘student in heraldry’ in the mid-1560s, and later a member of the Inner Temple: this namesake, of the Buckinghamshire Drurys, is a distant cousin. We must be content with a few interesting fragments. The first is that according to his letter to Anthony Bacon, Drury knew Bacon’s father, Sir Nicholas. He speaks of ‘the true love I have ever borne to your honourable father, as also to all his house’. This may suggest that Drury was employed by Sir Nicholas – a Lord Chancellor, like Drury’s grandfather – sometime before his death in 1579. Another interesting connection comes via the marriage, in the early 1570s, of his older brother William to Elizabeth Stafford. She was the sister of Sir Edward Stafford, who later became English Ambassador in France. Here is a hitherto unknown dimension to Thomas Drury: he is a brother-in-law of that most conspiratorial of ambassadors, whose house in Paris was a conduit of spies, agents and conspirators. He is also a brother-in-law of William Stafford, the protagonist of the Stafford Plot of 1587. This was one of a series of chimerical assassination plots against the Queen, which served ulterior purposes of entrapment and incrimination – in this case of the French Ambassador’s secretary, Des Trappes. Also involved in this sham plot was Michael Moody, a former servant of Sir Edward Stafford’s in France and from the late 1580s an associate of Robert Poley, the veteran spy who was one of the men present at Marlowe’s death in Deptford.

The early career of Thomas Drury seems to show us a young man of some promise: a student at Cambridge, a satellite of Sir Nicholas Bacon, a brother-in-law to Sir Edward Stafford. But then we start to hear of another side to his character. On 27 June 1580, Lord William Burgh filed a bill of complaint against ‘Thomas Drury, gentleman’, who is without a doubt our Drury. In this document, discovered by Roy Kendall, Burgh alleges that Drury tried to swindle him to the considerable tune of £300. ‘Slyly and subtly creeping into the company and familiarity’ of Burgh’s sons, Drury at length ‘insinuated himself’ into the acquaintance of Burgh, ‘pretending great honesty and truth, and . . . boasting himself to have great sums of money to pleasure his friend’. The upshot was that Drury loaned Burgh £100, but ‘subtly devised a bond wherein the said Lord Burgh should stand bound to him in £300’ if he failed to repay the debt on time. Various shenanigans followed, furiously narrated in Burgh’s bill of complaint. The outcome of the case is not recorded, but this is our earliest hint of Drury as trickster: we hear of his ‘unconscionable dealing’, of his ‘purpose to entrap’. There are later records of him in the loan-sharking world – a world familiar to the hard-up poet Marlowe, and also to Marlowe’s killer, Ingram Frizer, who earned his living in that trade.

At about the same time as this scam was unfolding, we spot Drury in the unpredictable company of the Earl of Oxford. Among various accusations laid against Oxford by his former friend Henry Howard was this: ‘thus did he proffer all his cutters to Thom Drury to hew my lord Howard in pieces.’ Oxford had, in other words, urged Drury to kill Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, and had placed his ‘cutters’ – his swordsmen, his goons – at Drury’s disposal for this purpose. It is not claimed that Drury had effected any violence, only that Oxford had wanted him to. If this potential hit-man is the same Thomas Drury, and it seems pretty likely that it is, this would place him as a minor crony of Oxford’s in around 1580 (Henry Howard’s deposition is dated 29 December 1580). More importantly, it would place him in the volatile waters of Catholicism and atheism, these being the charges against Oxford at this time. The blasphemous squibs attributed to Oxford sound like an early version of the Marlovian blasphemies reported by Baines. Howard says of him:

In earnest and with choler he hath stretched out his horrible and most blasphemous voice against the sacred and most glorious Trinity, affirming that . . . the Blessed Virgin (horresco referens) made a fault and that Joseph was a wittol [cuckold], than which words what can be more abominable considering the dainty fruit that sprang of that unspotted root? . . . To the first [chapter] of Matthew, when I vouched it against this beastly paradox, wherein she was affirmed to conceive by the Holy Ghost, he said the Jews of Italy would tell another tale and put both Matthew, Mark and John to silence . . . In divers companies, not for disputation sake but with advisement, he hath sworn that more plain reasons and examples may be vouched out of Scripture for defence of bawdry than out of all the books of Aretinus.

This is the sort of badinage you might have heard at the Earl of Oxford’s supper-table in the late 1570s. ‘The Turk himself,’ Howard said, ‘speaks better both of Christ, of the Virgin, and the canon of the scriptures.’ When it comes to atheism, we have a sense (as we do with Baines) that Drury has been here before. When he waxes indignant about Marlowe’s blasphemies – the ‘vildest articles of atheism that I suppose the like were never known or read of in any age’ – we might counter by saying that certainly such things had been known before, not least in that Oxford circle of which Drury, it seems, was a part.

Within this ambit Drury would almost certainly have come into contact with Sir Walter Ralegh, for Ralegh had also run with the Oxford pack in the late 1570s, before swiftly switching sides when the capricious Earl’s position of influence began to unravel. He and Oxford became implacable enemies, and in the deposition that mentions Drury, Howard also accuses Oxford of planning to engineer Ralegh’s murder: ‘Thus for a recompense of Rawley’s service, his life should have been latched between both the walls before his going over [to Ireland], and suits of apparel given to those that should have killed him for seeking my Lord of Leicester’s favour’ (that is, to make it look like Ralegh had been killed by servants of Leicester). Whether this would also have involved ‘Thom Drury’ and my Lord’s ‘cutters’ is not specified.

In the summer of 1585, Drury was in Fleet Prison. It could have been for something mundane like debt, but what is known of his subsequent career suggests it may have been something more, that ‘matters of State’ were involved. While there, he was involved with a fellow prisoner named John Meere or Meeres, a law student at the Inner Temple, and a man described as ‘full of craft’. This Meere is himself an interesting character. In 1592 he became a servant of Ralegh’s: an unfaithful servant, as it turned out (‘that rogue Meere’; ‘so infamous and detested a wretch as Meere’ – these are Ralegh’s words). He is another link between Drury and Ralegh, and it is possible that he too is glimpsed on the periphery of the Marlowe affair: another villain, as if we needed one.

Some time after his release from the Fleet, Drury crossed over to France. We find him there in 1587. His relationship to the Stafford family seems to be bearing fruit. Sir Edward Stafford was now Ambassador in Paris, where he employed a number of dubious ‘secretaries’ and spies, and where he pursued a cat-and-mouse game of rapprochement with conspiratorial Catholic exiles like Thomas Morgan, Charles Paget and Charles Arundel. In the view of Sir Francis Walsingham, Stafford’s relations with the enemy went far beyond the requirements of secret diplomacy, and Walsingham’s biographer Conyers Read has marshalled a formidable case against Stafford as a double-agent. It sounds like the perfect milieu for a man of Drury’s accomplishments, and he is probably referred to in a letter of 11 September 1587 concerning Stafford’s dealings with the Duc de Montpensier, nephew of the Duc de Guise. In this letter the Abbé del Bene, writing in Latin, complains of Montpensier having ‘withdrawn from their sworn league’ thanks to the ‘evil arts of his [Stafford’s] secretary, the iniquitous Dewry’. It would be fruitless to pursue this into the labyrinth of Parisian politics, but it seems likely that this ‘iniquitous’ servant of Stafford’s called Dewry is in fact his dodgy brother-in-law Thomas Drury. We thus find Drury mixed up in French affairs, like many of the spies in this story – Baines, Poley, and possibly Marlowe himself.

For a while after this, frustratingly, Drury recedes into the documentary shadows. Between September 1587, when he is glimpsed in Stafford’s employ in France, and May 1591, when he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea, there is precious little news of him. For some of the time, perhaps, he was watching anxiously as his brother William’s career went into freefall. Sir William Drury had an official post in the Exchequer, but whether through mismanagement or dishonesty or both, he ended up with a crippling personal debt to the Queen of £5000. In early 1590, en route for France, he fell out with the irascible Sir John Burgh over a ‘foolish quarrel about precedency’, and in the ensuing duel he was fatally wounded. His will survives, including a ‘remainder to my brother Thomas Drury’. What exactly was entailed in this ‘remainder’ is not clear, but with at least £3000 still owing to the Queen, it is not likely to have been much – financial frustration is the refrain of Drury’s life. That Sir John Burgh was the man who killed Thomas Drury’s brother may be of some significance, for Burgh was a close associate of Ralegh’s in the early 1590s. He was the captain of Ralegh’s ship the Roebuck in 1592, and the captain of a reconnaissance fleet sent out by Ralegh to South America the following year. This might be thought to add a personal impetus, in Drury’s mind, against the Ralegh set, and thus against Marlowe as a very visible part of it.

We have now, at least, a fragmentary biographical context in which to place the tale-bearer of May 1593. To this I can add two later episodes in Drury’s career, which have no direct bearing on the Marlowe case, but which throw a kind of light back on it. They corroborate Drury’s type of activity: the way he worked, the kind of man he was. They give us Tom Drury in his element, and it is the same element that we discern in the Marlowe affair – the manipulation of testimony, the exploitation of others’ ill-deeds, real or imagined.

The first emerges from a letter written by his nephew Sir Robert Drury (son of the late Sir William) in about 1599. This Drury was a follower of the Earl of Essex, and was now serving with the Earl in Ireland. The letter is addressed to his uncle by marriage, George Parker; the ‘Mynne’ referred to is his cousin, William Mynne. I have no precise idea what the letter is on about, but whatever ‘follies’ or indiscretions Mynne had committed, it is clear that Thomas Drury was as ready as ever to exploit them. It is a long letter, so I extract only the parts relative to Thomas:

Uncle Parker, I perceive by your letters how you are crossed by the follies of Mynne and the boys, and that by that degenerate rogue Tom Drury they are published, and by his practices much trouble like to ensue unto you, as also great disgrace to me . . . Let Mynne be forewarned of that rogue’s company . . . I marvel he was not arrested. You shall find that, at one time or another, in his drunken ale-pots his tongue shall walk. You did very ill to spare him. It will rather hurt than otherwise, for if he had spoken upon his arrest any matter it would have received small credit, and you and I know many ways to discredit his testimony . . . I perceive there hath been some old sueing and plotting. It seemeth my Lord of Essex is possessed mightly so by some letters, therefore desire mine uncle [Sir Edward] Stafford to write unto his Lordship that it is nothing but Tom Drury’s plots that he deviseth to beg and get money with . . . I have shown him [Essex] my uncle [Tom]’s letters and yours; he hath addressed his whole mind to my Lord Chief Justice, which will serve the turn, and seeing it is but matters deposed of others’ speeches, and not by the parties themselves, it will not much hurt us.

Let us luxuriate for a moment in these descriptions of Drury’s behaviour in 1599. He has ‘published’ – that is, made public – something detrimental to Mynne, and also, it seems, to Sir Robert Drury and the Earl of Essex. He is a mischievous tale-bearer making capital out of ‘others’ speeches’. He is a rogue and a drunkard whose tongue ‘walks’ when he is ‘in his ale-pots’. What is noticeable, above all, is Sir Robert’s weary tone of familiarity: it is ‘old sueing and plotting’; it is ‘nothing but Tom Drury’s plots that he deviseth to get money with’. This is Thomas Drury’s métier, the letter seems to say. It is precisely the métier I have argued for him in the Marlowe case of 1593 – the promoter of other mens’ misfortunes: ‘by his practices much trouble like to ensue unto you’.

The final act in the spurious comedy of Drury’s career occurs in 1603. I came across this in the course of some research on Sir Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Leicester by Lady Douglas Sheffield. Dudley had made various half-hearted efforts to prove his legitimacy, a matter of some delicacy in that his mother was now married to another man – in fact to Sir Edward Stafford, Drury’s brother-in-law. The legalities of Dudley’s claim boiled down to a single question: had Leicester plighted his troth to Lady Sheffield – as she claimed – in a chamber at Esher House in the winter of 1573, or hadn’t he? Nobody, it seems, was able or willing to testify to this event, now thirty years past, and the case never prospered. And then in the spring of 1603, up suddenly pops a woman called Magdalen Salisbury, claiming – indeed ready to testify – that in her youth, as Magdalen Frodsham, she had served as Lady Sheffield’s ‘gentlewoman’, and that she had indeed been an eyewitness of the betrothal of Leicester and Lady Sheffield in 1573. Suspicions about this were soon raised. There were those who remembered Magdalen Frodsham, but they were certain she had entered Lady Sheffield’s service after Robert Dudley’s birth in 1574, and not, as she was now claiming, in 1572. These suspicions were well-justified, for it soon became clear that her whole testimony was a sham. As she was brought in to testify she became flustered and distressed, and cried: ‘What would they have me to do? I was very young and I cannot remember anything.’ It transpired, in fact, that her memory of the event had been coached – had been invented – by someone else: someone who, as a witness drily put it, ‘reminded her of many things, which she straight verified and confessed, but did not tell them before’. That someone was our old friend Thomas Drury, and Magdalen Salisbury’s sworn statement was another – the last as it turns out – of his concocted texts.

He had somehow got his hooks into her, in late 1602, at the house of one Thomas Ward, where she was living rent-free and apparently in some poverty. He wheedled her into his confidence, offering her ‘large promises’, presumably of money, if she would depose in court that she had personally witnessed the betrothal. Her statement to this effect was actually taken down in Drury’s ‘chamber’, probably by Drury himself, and was sent by him to Dudley. In a letter dated 8 August 1603, Drury tells Dudley that he has ‘made the woman subscribe to the note’ and that ‘she is very forward to depose, for a further consideration.’ The letter ends: ‘as I like of your answer and dealing, so I shall proceed; if not pinchingly, I am yours. Mora trahit periculum [delay brings danger].’

Dudley was apparently convinced: it seems to have been largely on the strength of Magdalen Salisbury’s statement – and that of her brother Henry Frodsham, also suborned by Drury – that he instituted the proceedings to establish legitimacy. The case ground on for nearly two years, before collapsing under the splenetic interrogations of the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke, who pronounced the witnesses’ statements ‘not worth a frieze jerkin’. In the judgment of Star Chamber on 10 May 1605, it was found that Dudley had been the dupe of Thomas Drury, who ‘to work his own private gains’ had enticed him with these faked testimonies. Mrs Salisbury was an ‘infamous instrument of Drury’, and he, in turn, was ‘a man of mean condition and notoriously evil character’. It is an apt summary of this troublesome figure; ironic that it comes from the mouth of Coke, whose indictment of Ralegh for high treason in 1603 had traded on those baseless accusations of atheism fomented by Drury and others ten years previously.

For her part in this charade Mrs Salisbury was fined the considerable sum of £100, as was her brother Henry, but this final unmasking of Thomas Drury’s methods and motives had little effect on him, for he had in fact died shortly after his initial dealings with Magdalen, of the plague then rampant in London. The date of his death, as we learn from these documents, was 26 August 1603. He was 52 years old. He died at his lodgings at the Swan Inn in Southwark, within earshot, perhaps, of those other fictions performed daily at the Rose and the Globe.

In reality Magdalen Salisbury remembered nothing. But Drury ‘reminded’ her of things which she then ‘straight verified’: false memories of an event she had not really witnessed. It is a marvellous little vignette of Thomas Drury in action. In terms of hard evidence it has little real bearing on the Marlowe case: it is a parallel, no more. But it does perhaps tell us this. If Baines did not, in fact, remember Marlowe producing all those dreadful blasphemies, then Drury would have been at his elbow to remind him of them – that is, to concoct them with him, and then to persuade him to ‘straight verify’ them in the form of a signed ‘Note’. This last scam of Thomas Drury’s is one more pointer to the confected nature of that earlier text, ‘set down’ by his means, and delivered by him to the dissident-hunting Lord Keeper on 27 May 1593. There is little doubt that Marlowe held sceptical views on religion, unorthodox by the paranoid standards of the day, but the rabid atheist-evangelist of the Note seems more than ever an invention: a script written by others, for ulterior political purposes – and, of course, in this world of paid informers, for money. This is a fictional Marlowe, a heretical puppet-figure. It may be coincidence that the real Marlowe was stabbed, and thus silenced, three days later, but if so it was a convenient one for Drury, and for the glass-eyed politicians whom he served.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences