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.

In terms of Marlowe biography, Dr Urry’s canvas is less partial than might appear. Marlowe was getting on for seventeen when he left Canterbury for Cambridge University in late 1580. He died at the age of 29, so this study covers a good half of his life – often the more obscure half in a distant historical figure. Urry recovers the young Marlowe’s immediate human and social surroundings: extended family, neighbours, apprentices, schoolfellows. He reels off the names of the Marlowes’ neighbours as if he were doffing his cap to them in the street: Alderman Rose the woollen-draper; Harmon Verson the immigrant glazier; Laurence Applegate the tailor, who spoke ‘bawdy words’ about Mistress Hurt; Goodman Shaw the basketmaker, into whose house John Marlowe stormed one evening in 1579 and said, ‘Michael Shaw thou art a thief, and so I will prove thee to be’; and Gregory Roose the capper, husband to the local midwife Goodwife Roose, who probably brought Christopher Marlowe into the world.

Though compact – population about 3500 – Elizabethan Canterbury was a cosmopolitan city. Its ecclesiastical eminence drew visitors from all over Europe, and its position on the through-road from Dover to London brought a broader cross-section of travellers, soldiers, sailors and sturdy vagabonds. Like many cities, it hosted Protestant war-refugees from France and the Low Countries. A wave of French Huguenots arrived after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, an event Marlowe later worked over in his lurid political drama, The Massacre at Paris.

Religion loomed large in Canterbury. The only book in the family home – at least by the time of John Marlowe’s death in 1605 – was the Bible. In St George’s parish, lying between the cathedral and the city’s eastern gate, Marlowe grew up literally in the shadow of the Church. He witnessed its finest pomps, also no doubt its grisly punishments. He became one of its most reckless critics, scoffing at the ‘bugbeares and hobgoblins’ of superstition, and dangerously arguing that religion was just a political tool ‘to keep men in awe’. Here too, Urry gives a local, human face to religious controversy. At King’s School, which Marlowe entered on a £4-a-year scholarship in 1578, his fellow pupils included Samuel Kennett, who became a Catholic exile and missionary, and died a Benedictine monk in 1612, and Henry Jacob, who later founded one of the first Congregationalist Churches in England. Nearby lived a young Puritan called Robert Cushman, a grocer’s assistant. Many years later he returned from exile in Holland and was the prime mover in the hiring of the ship Mayflower.

Marlowe’s first headmaster at King’s was a Cambridge man, John Gresshop, and an interesting document published here is the catalogue of Gresshop’s library, drawn up on his death in 1580. It contained over three hundred and fifty volumes – nothing like the Mortlake library of Dr John Dee (four thousand volumes) or the thousand-plus books collected by Lords Burghley and Lumley, but it shows the kind of reading available to a bright young scholar. There are the plays of Plautus and Terence, the poems of Juvenal and Ovid, a strong Italian presence including Boccaccio, Petrarch, Valla and Ficino. There is More’s Utopia, Munster’s Cosmographia, and the works of Chaucer. One senses the emancipation, the new mental world opening up for the cobbler’s son. Among the theological tracts on Gresshop’s shelves was John Proctor’s Fal of the Late Arrian, a confutation of Arianist views which questioned the divinity of Christ. This was already an old book, published in 1549, but it contained large chunks of the heterodoxy it was written to confute. An Arianist manuscript, drawn verbatim from this book, was among the papers seized at Thomas Kyd’s lodgings on 11 May 1593. These ‘vile hereticall conceipts’, as the investigators called them, were found to be Marlowe’s. They had got ‘shuffled’ with Kyd’s papers when the two writers were sharing a chamber in 1591. A week later Marlowe was himself summoned before the Privy Council for questioning. Those ‘hereticall conceipts’ may well have been a part of the matter: in the murky political movements of 1593 such ideas had acquired new dangerousness, especially in association with Marlowe. Before the end of the month, he lay dead in Deptford.

After his departure for Cambridge, just two further visits to Canterbury remain on record. On a Sunday morning in November 1585 he was at the house of Katherine Benchkin on Stour Street, together with his father, his brother-in-law John Moore, and his uncle Thomas Arthur. There, in the parlour, Mistress Benchkin asked him to read out her new will, which he did ‘plainely and distinktly’, and shortly afterwards signed the will in witness. The will was discovered by another Canterbury burrower, Frank Tyler, in 1939. It is the only known example of Marlowe’s signature, and provides, in turn, calligraphic proof that the ‘Collier Leaf’ – a manuscript fragment of The Massacre at Paris, now in the Folger Library – is in Marlowe’s own hand.

Marlowe’s last recorded spell in Canterbury was in September 1592. Typically, it was a fight that makes it memorable. On Friday, 15 September, close to the corner of Mercery Lane, Marlowe attacked William Corkine, tailor, with a staff and a dagger. John Marlowe, ironically, was acting as local constable at that time: possibly he had to arrest his son, certainly he paid the 12d surety required to keep Christopher out of jail. Corkine sued for assault, but by the time it came to court they had patched up their differences, and the case was dismissed. Twenty years later, a William Corkine published a lute accompaniment to Marlowe’s famous lyric, ‘Come live with me’. This was probably the Canterbury tailor’s son.

Marlowe had only one brother, Thomas. He was four when Marlowe left for Cambridge, 16 at the time of the Corkine fracas. To him Marlowe must have been half a stranger, someone who returned home from time to time, trailing notoriety from London. Thomas may have died young too – there is no mention of him in his mother’s will, 1605 – but he may just be the Thomas Marloe who travelled to America in the ship Jonathan, and who was living in 1624 at a settlement near Jamestown, Virginia, breathing the freer air of America that would so much have suited brother Kit.

Urry’s coverage of Marlowe’s later career is sketchier, but one body of interesting new material concerns Eleanor Bull, in whose house at Deptford Strand Marlowe was killed. The evidence increasingly suggests she was a lady of some substance. She was the widow of a minor official at nearby Deptford Manor, cousin of one of the Queen’s gentlewomen, Blanche Parry, and perhaps distantly related to Lord Burghley himself. As Urry says, this finally dissipates the romance image of Mistress Bull as a ‘poor ale-house keeper eking out a squalid existence at Deptford docks’. So far this line of enquiry proves nothing directly about the circumstances of the killing, but it tends to shift the tone of the incident yet further away from the conventional – and official – version, which blamed his death on a drunken brawl over the ‘reckoning’.

Marlowe was an extraordinary man, yet his life, like everyone else’s, constantly intersected with ordinariness. This book tells us about him because it tells us what it was like to live in that decade, in that street, in that income-bracket. In his perceptive introduction Andrew Butcher suggests that this kind of close-focus contextual study is now really the front line in Elizabethan literary history. It recovers the contingencies – the ‘formative tensions’, as he puts it – of a writer’s life. It finds him not in quill-wielding solitude, but precisely at his points of contact, his mingling with certain very particular sectors and groupings of Elizabethan life, shaping them and being shaped by them, each point of contact leaving its forensic traces. Some may find Dr Urry’s book too dense with detail. But the detailedness is a kind of intimacy, and in the end he gives us a portrait more human, more actual, than the psychologising and bio-crit of more conventional biography.

Another fruitful area, somewhat parallel, is the neglected ‘minor’ author. Most of the writers filling the airwaves in the 1590s – as at any other time – were producing pretty forgettable stuff. Yet they were, once again, in close personal and professional contact with those we now think of as ‘major’, and much has been revealed by blowing the dust off some workaday Elizabethan scribbler.

A classic instance is E.A.J. Honigmann’s biographical study, John Weever. Weever was no great stylist, but his Epigrammes (1599) contain early notices of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, and show him to be familiar with Shakespeare’s ‘sugred sonnets’ in manuscript. He also took part in the so-called ‘War of the Theatres’. This burst of satirical mud-slinging briefly diverted playgoers around the turn of the century. Shakespeare was involved, but the main authors were Jonson, Thomas Dekker, John Marston and Everard Guilpin. In 1601, according to Honigmann, Weever was caricatured as Bubo in Dekker’s Satiromastix and as Thersites in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In each case, he features as a crony of Jonson, who is guyed in those plays as Horace and Ajax. Weever’s own contribution was the anonymous Whipping of the Satyre, which appeared in about August 1601.

Though his interests are more literary than Urry’s, Professor Honigmann is another archival expert. In his previous book, Shakespeare: The Lost Years (1985), he used contemporary local records to reopen the possibility that the actor ‘William Shakeshafte’ – mentioned in 1581 in the will of a Lancashire landowner, Alexander Hoghton – was none other than the 17-year-old William Shakespeare, pursuing an early career as a player and schoolmaster in a rich and conspicuously Catholic household up north. The case he presents there is a strong one, both internally and in the way it fits – via Hoghton, the Earl of Derby, and the theatrical troupe of Derby’s son Lord Strange – with the earliest surviving notices of Shakespeare as a playwright in London in 1592. Out of this book came his interest in John Weever and his literary connections. Weever was also a Lancashire man (born in Preston in 1576), and was involved – or tried to be – with many of the wealthy families there. His Epigrammes add some cement to the Hoghton-Shakespeare connection, for as well as being fulsome in their praise of ‘Gulielmus Shakespear’, they were principally dedicated to Alexander Hoghton’s nephew, Sir Richard Hoghton.

A small, possibly dwarfish fellow, an enthusiast of the ‘divine drugge’ tobacco, John Weever was one of those figures glimpsed on the edge of many literary scenes. Like Marlowe’s friend Thomas Nashe, his ubiquity seems to express a gossipy, journalistic temper which found its outlet not in newspapers, for there were none, but in topical pamphlets and plays, and in the snapshot form – satirical or laudatory – of the epigram. Both writers were threatened by the Archbishop’s decree of 1 June 1599 banning various ‘unsemely satyres – epigrams’ from print.

Weever died in 1632, and was remembered mainly for his antiquarian work, Funerall Monuments, published the previous year. Honigmann’s fluent and exact account now gives us the whole man – ‘small-timbered’ though he was – and throws much light, en passant, on the literary scene of the last Elizabethan years. Other ‘minor’ figures we encounter here (Francis Meres, Robert Allott, William Covell) will repay investigation. Honigmann also provides a photo-facsimile edition of the Epigrammes, from a copy in the Bodleian Library.

Another impeccable biography, also from the Revels Companion Library, is Mary Edmond’s Rare Sir William Davenant. Davenant, born in 1606, was not himself an Elizabethan, but his long and colourful career as a poet, soldier and theatre-manager seems a continuity from that time. His early plays are in the Jacobean psychodrama mould: in The Cruel Brother (1627), Foreste slits his sister’s ‘wrist-veins’ and bids her bleed ‘till dryness make them curl like lute-strings in the fire’. In 1638, after the death of Jonson, he became Poet Laureate. A Royalist general and gunrunner during the Civil War, he returned to the stage in the 1650s, sidestepping the suppression of plays by staging London’s first ‘operas’. After the Restoration, he was primarily responsible for re-introducing Shakespeare’s work to starved theatregoers.

An old and tenuous legend makes Davenant a literal heir to theatrical greatness: Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. In its milder form the tradition is that Davenant was his godson, but the wags knew what that meant: they told how the boy ran to greet his godfather Shakespeare one day, and was told ‘not to take the name of God in vain’. In his Brief Life of Davenant, John Aubrey quotes him as saying that he ‘writt with the very spirit’ of Shakespeare, and says that he ‘seemd contented enough to be thought his Son’. This snowballed over the centuries to the point where Davenant’s mother, Jane or ‘Jennet’, became the leading contender for the coveted Dark Lady award. Mary Edmond examines this old chestnut with care. It is certainly true that Davenant’s parents ran a wine-tavern (later called the Crown) in Oxford, and there is no reason to doubt the near-contemporary tradition that Shakespeare often stayed there on his travels between London and Stratford. Edmond also shows possible connections between Shakespeare and Jane Davenant’s brother, Thomas Sheppard. There is much that is authentic in the story, though she prefers to stick at the godfather stage of the hypothesis.

This is just one small corner of an expansive, deeply researched biography. Anyone unfamiliar with Davenant’s writing will find their appetite whetted by the extracts here. He can be lyrical or spikily realistic, and has a sleek, pared-down style. Here is his witty synopsis of the enterprise culture of 1635:

  They would make us pay
For day-light, if they knew how to measure
The sun-beams by the yard. Nay, sell the very
Air too, if they could serve it out in fine
China-bottles.

The Revels series, published by Manchester University Press, continues to produce first rate textual and historical work on the period. Judging from Dr Urry’s book, someone at Faber could take a few tips from MUP on how to present user-friendly notes and source-references. They are an integral part of Urry’s book: one chapter has no less than 216 footnotes. There are sensible ways of organising this material. Hanging great screeds of numerals and acronyms in the back of the book, like so many sheets of floral wallpaper, is not one of them.