Trust the Coroner

John Bossy

  • 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.

Not all of this is nit-picking. Unlike Riggs, who has interesting things to say about Marlowe’s prosody, Honan is deeper into his life than his works, and if his grasp of the context is loose, we may be nervous about his judgment on matters of major fact. The chief cause of nervousness appears in his subtitle: ‘Poet and Spy’. We are to imagine that these two aspects of Marlowe’s life are equivalent, or equally established. They are not. Marlowe the poet is a luminous fact; Marlowe the spy is a shaky conjecture.

There is one, and only one, piece of fairly hard evidence in favour of the conjecture, and it is famous. It is the minute of a letter from the Privy Council to, I suppose, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge, dated Thursday, 29 June 1587, stating that, contrary to gossip, one Christopher Morley had been of good behaviour and ought to be allowed to take his Master’s degree. Since the degree ceremony was on the following Tuesday, somebody was cutting it fine. The gossip had said that Morley, whom everyone takes to be Marlowe, ‘was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames’ – the Catholic seminary then at Reims in France – ‘and there to remain’; the Council said that there was no truth in the rumour. ‘Determined’ I take to mean ‘concluded by observers on rational grounds’: I guess the conclusion had been come to by somebody in Cambridge, perhaps the head of Marlowe’s college. What the determination had been based on is pretty obvious: Marlowe had not been seen in Cambridge since around the end of the previous Lent term, and someone had assumed that, like numerous other graduates, he had fallen for the lure of the popish colleges abroad. The Council said that, on the contrary, he had been absent doing the queen good service, which deserved a reward. The queen did not wish ‘that anyone employed, as he had been, in matters touching the benefit of the country should be defamed by those that are ignorant of the affairs he went about’.

So, during the past two or three months, presumably, Marlowe had been doing something in the queen’s service. We do not know what that was. There are two plausible suggestions on the table. One is that he went to Paris with his fellow Corpus man, Nicholas Faunt, who worked in Sir Francis Walsingham’s office and had gone there to look into the doings of the English ambassador. The other, floated by Riggs, is that he may have been sent to the Spanish Netherlands in connection with negotiations for a peace with Spain which were to continue on until the despatch of the Armada the following year. The second idea is the more likely. Faunt’s letters from Paris survive, and so far as I know there is nothing in them to suggest that he took Marlowe with him. Riggs’s conjecture is supported by the names of the members of the Privy Council who signed the Marlowe letter, most of whom were promoters of the peace talks. I think he is warm but not hot, because we are looking for a messenger, and in the case of the peace talks we know who the messenger was: he was somebody else. There is an adjacent possibility, and it is awfully tempting.

There was an English army in the (Protestant) United Provinces of the Netherlands, fighting the Spaniards under the command of Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester. His conduct had been disapproved of, and he had withdrawn temporarily to England. In March 1587 a recently appointed privy councillor, Lord Buckhurst, had been sent to the Netherlands to find out what Leicester had been up to; he wrote several reports home which were unfavourable to Leicester, and came back at the end of June. The dates of his trip fit nicely with those of Marlowe’s disappearance. If he had, say, been carrying Buckhurst’s letters we should understand how, later on, he knew his way about Holland and Zeeland; and we might get a jolt when we remembered that Buckhurst in his younger days had been Thomas Sackville, joint author of the original English blank-verse tragedy, Gorboduc. He had also been recommended for a translation of Lucan’s epic Pharsalia, which Marlowe actually did.

Unless anything turns up in Buckhurst’s letters, this is another speculation. But it is a better speculation than anything else on offer, certainly a far better one than the idea that what Marlowe had been doing in those weeks of the spring of 1587 was spying on Catholics. It is virtually certain that he had not been to Reims, and reasonably certain that he had not been doing any spying anywhere, since espionage tends to leave records. Why then does Honan, and the world at large, suppose that Marlowe had a part-time job as a spy? Much has been made of his connection with Thomas Walsingham, Sir Francis Walsingham’s second cousin and, according to Honan, a ‘case officer’ in his secret service. This is a fantasy, to which only his name gives substance. Marlowe certainly had to do with Thomas Walsingham: he was staying at his house near Chislehurst in Kent shortly before his death in May 1593, perhaps writing Hero and Leander, of which Walsingham patronised an edition five years later. Their friendship may well go back quite a way: I should think they had been introduced by Marlowe’s friend the poet and Latinist Thomas Watson, and the likeliest time for this would be the summer of 1589, when Marlowe and Watson had been involved in a sort of duel and Walsingham had helped them to get out of trouble. We cannot tell whether Marlowe and Walsingham had known each other before this, and if they had it would not be much of an incentive to thinking that Marlowe had been employed as a spy.

Thomas Walsingham during his late teens had served as a messenger for the English ambassador in Paris: when the ambassador was replaced his cousin appears to have put him in charge of his London house in Seething Lane; there he remained until 1589, when he came into his inheritance in Kent. He succeeded in this position one Walter Williams, whose doings as a confidential agent for Sir Francis are well documented. Honan, like Riggs and Charles Nicholl in his account of Marlowe’s death, The Reckoning, assumes that Thomas Walsingham was in the same business: Honan supposes that in his time the house in Seething Lane was a kind of MI5 headquarters, full of secret servicemen controlling spies and arranging political assassinations. Really? Thomas Walsingham’s connections with intelligence amount to two occasions when he was involved with the actual spy Robert Poley, on the first of which he was asked to pass a message to his cousin and refused, and possibly another occasion when he was paid £5 for doing something unspecified for the government, perhaps looking after a prisoner. It is most likely that Walsingham’s job was to keep an eye on the house and garden; as for Marlowe, there is nothing to show that he was ever at Seething Lane. He may well have been; but his only known connections with Walsingham were literary and social.

It would be tedious to go on; enough to say that there is no proper evidence at all to show that Marlowe was ever part of what is foolishly called the Elizabethan secret service. This conclusion ought to guide inquirers into what has become another cause of speculation, Marlowe’s death in a hostelry in Deptford on 30 May 1593. The coroner’s report, that it was the result of a dispute between Marlowe and one Ingram Frizer about paying the bill for their dinner, has been treated as a cover-up by several writers convinced that the government of Elizabeth practised a ‘culture of surveillance’ and maintained itself in power by dirty tricks. Charles Nicholl claimed that Marlowe was murdered by agents of the Earl of Essex in pursuit of a struggle for power at court with Sir Walter Raleigh. His is a respectable book, but the claim has been rightly resisted.

David Riggs makes more of Marlowe’s atheism as a reason for the murder. That Marlowe was an atheist in the sense in which the term was used at the time is perfectly true: it meant, not so much someone who did not believe in God, as someone who expressed sceptical views about the divinity of Christ or the immortality of the soul, or took a satirical line on parts of the gospel story or the Old Testament. It was a frame of mind popular among the chattering classes towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, and caused the conventional to think in apocalyptic terms about the future of the country. Riggs puts together Marlowe’s atheism and his spying to make of him (I quote John Gross) ‘the eternal rebel’; he reads the Tamburlaine plays, a wildly successful strip-cartoon in blank verse, as an engine of social criticism, and supposes that Marlowe’s death was personally procured by the queen, scandalised by his violation of traditional sanctities. Here he depends on a remark by a ne’er-do-well called Tom Drury which we need not credit.

Honan, for all his commitment to Marlowe as a spy, is actually a lot more cautious. He claims that the plays reveal a ‘fascination with secret power’, as would be expected of a spy, and adds that Marlowe became ‘a spy in another sense, as a highly critical and original inquirer into human nature and social behaviour’. This is a very soft landing. Spying does not figure much in his story about Marlowe’s death, which is that Thomas Walsingham decided that the poet’s atheism was a block to his own advancement. Honan’s pair of deviations is atheism and heresy, which he alleges to have been attacked by parliamentary legislation earlier in the year. Parliament had done no such thing: it had passed a stiff act against Protestant separatists and a rather feeble one against Catholic recusants. It was concerned with religious enthusiasts, not with atheists; and not with heretics. Unlike atheism, heresy in Elizabethan England was a strictly defined matter: the Act of Supremacy of 1559, in reaction to Queen Mary’s persecution, said that nobody in England, and especially no organ of the Church, could define as heresy anything that was not so declared by the ‘express and plain’ words of the Scriptures, the first four General Councils, or Parliament itself. The only one of these with any teeth was the second, but it had nothing to do with Marlowe, and would not have caused Walsingham much bother.

In short: there is no good evidence that Marlowe was ever a spy, so speculation about the relationship between his career in espionage and his works of literature is needless; and there is no good reason for doubting the coroner’s verdict on his death. Coroners were serious figures, and so were their juries.