Scribblers and Assassins

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

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.

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