1. Political Landscape in the 1580's

Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister who, together with her Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, was said to rule the land with the Queen as the Head of all, was also Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. As such he used the University as his recruiting ground to enlist bright, patriotic young men to serve as secret agents. Evidently Marlowe was picked out for this service, which was vitally important, in this age of of Catholic versus Protestant political intrigue, an age of political assassinations, directed against the Heads of States.

In 1584, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, leader of the Protestants in the Netherlands, was assassinated following a failed attempt in 1582. In 1589 King Henri III of France, a Catholic who had flirted with Queen Elizabeth and also patronized Giordano Bruno whom the Holy Roman Inquisition burned at the stake in 1600, was assassinated with the poisoned dagger of a Jacobin friar. His brother, Charles IX, had also been poisoned. In 1610 the next King of France, Henri IV, the former champion of the Huguenots, who embraced Catholicism on ascending the throne with the words ‘Paris is worth a Mass’, met his death at the point of a dagger also.

The Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth were ceaseless, but all were uncovered one after another by the English Secret Service, skilfully built up under the direction of Sir Francis Walsingham to become the greatest and most successful espionage network of the time, with agents placed as far away as Turkey to cover every exigency. It was entirely thanks to the efficiency and dedication of Walsingham’s Secret Service that Queen Elizabeth led such a charmed life and escaped assassination.

2. Good Service & Rheims

Marlowe’s first important assignment as a secret agent was probably in 1584/5, after he had successfully gained his BA (a hurdle many students evaded or failed), and when his normally constant residence at his college was suddenly interrupted by lengthy absences. We have the invaluable records of the college buttery and audit books to confirm this. The weekly one shilling stipend for the purchase of extra food and drink at the buttery bar was not collected, and the Audit book records all presences and absences term by term, covering also the vacations, for the students were required to remain at college all year except for the summer vacation.

Contemporaneous with Marlowe’s absences was the plotting of the most dangerous conspiracy yet hatched, the Babington Plot, which was conceived at the Catholic Seminary at Rheims run by Cardinal Allen. Students who were not Catholics were also admitted there, probably in the hope of converting them, and the rumour spread at Cambridge that Christopher Marlowe had gone to Rheims as a Catholic convert. When this reached the ears of the Cambridge authorities they decided to withhold permission for him to receive his MA degree. In dismay it appears that Marlowe appealed to the Privy Council to intervene and clear his name, which they did, and handsomely, in the following letter1 dated 29 June 1587:

“Whereas it was reported that Christopher Marlowe was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims, and there to remain, their Lordships thought good to certify that he had no such intent, but that in all his actions he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly, whereby he had done Her Majesty good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing. Their Lordships’ request was that the rumour thereof should be allayed by all possible means, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement, because it was not Her Majesty’s pleasure that anyone employed, as he had been, in matters touching the benefit of his country, should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th’ affairs he went about.”

The letter is signed by:-

  • Lord Archbishop (of Canterbury), John Whitgift;
  • The Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley;
  • The Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton;
  • The Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon;
  • Mr. Comptroller, Sir James Croft.

The Queen is mentioned twice, citing her personal interest in this young man’s attainment of his MA without hindrance from the authorities who are “ignorant of th’ affairs he went about,” and testifies that he had done good service and “deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing”. This letter is unique in the annals of Elizabethan espionage records.

Note 1: PRO Privy Council Registers PC2/14/381

3. Debating Marlowe's Espionage Role

Marlowe had clearly been engaged in an important assignment for the Government and had acquitted himself worthily, and all the evidence of the circumstances strongly suggests that it was in connection with the uncovering of the Babington Plot, which aimed directly at the assassination of Queen Elizabeth and her chief ministers and purposed the enthronement of Mary Queen of Scots as England’s Catholic Queen. It was the most daring and dangerous plot conceived to date over which Mendoza, the Spanish Ambassador in Paris, was rubbing his hands with glee!

English Jesuit College at Rheims

However, Charles Nicholl, author of The Reckoning1, claims that Marlowe never went to Rheims at all. Yet since the letter states that he did not intend “there to remain”, obviously he must have been there!

Nicholl claims that Marlowe’s government employment was to do some ‘snooping’ on his fellow students at Cambridge to find any who were harbouring Catholic Sympathies which might lead them to defect to Rheims and there indulge in plotting with Elizabeth’s enemies. That is what he claims constituted “matters touching the benefit of his country”, which drew from the Privy Council their letter of commendation and praise from Her Majesty! This does not make sense as ‘snooping’ and would not justify his well- documented absence from Cambridge.

Several other scholars, less hostile than Nicholl, find it difficult to accept that Marlowe was the discreet, well-behaved, patriotic young man described in the Privy Council’s letter of commendation, to whom an important task “touching the benefit of the country” had been entrusted.

Part of the English Jesuit College at Rheims still exists behind this 17th century façade. William Allen established the seminary here after a similar college at Douai was forced to close in 1578. Richard Baines enrolled that same year, but was imprisoned in May 1582 for being an under-cover English agent. Amongst other allegations was a plot by Baines to inject poison into the college well. The Privy Council’s letter to the Cambridge University authorities in June 1587 mentions that “it was reported that Christopher Marlowe was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims, and there to remain.”

Note 1: Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (Jonathan Cape 1992/revised edition Vintage 2002)

4. The English Agent in Paris

Marlowe made his mark with the Queen and her Government at the age of twenty, and he emerged as the new poet-dramatist of genius, “the Muse’s Darling”, at the age of twenty-three when he arrived in London. He was to continue his career in the Queen’s service as a highly trusted secret agent, as we now know from further significant research published during 1996.

This career brought Marlowe into close contact with the Elizabethan court and gave him also first-hand insight into the political scene in some of the major courts of Europe. This is reflected in his political play about the turmoil in France, The Massacre at Paris, which has regrettably survived only in a mutilated edition of what must have been a great contemporary historical drama. Even in its much abbreviated form it is still worth performing.

Here is the speech spoken by the dying King Henri III of France after he has been stabbed by the Jacobin Friar who gained access to the king under the pretence of delivering a letter.

The English Agent, who has no words to speak, could have been Marlowe himself!

Enter the English Agent

Henry: Agent for England, send thy mistress word
What this detested Jacobin hath done.
Tell her, for all this, that I hope to live;
Which if I do, the papal monarch goes
To wrack, and th’ antichristian kingdom falls.
These bloody hands shall tear his triple crown,
And fire accursed Rome about his ears;
I’ll fire his crazed buildings, and enforce
The papal towers to kiss the lowly earth.
Navarre, give me thy hand: I here do swear
To ruinate that wicked Church of Rome,
That hatcheth up such bloody practices;
And here protest eternal love to thee,
And to the Queen of England specially,
Whom God hath bless’d for hating papistry.

The Massacre at ParisScene XXII, Lines 56-70

Henry dies because the dagger was poisoned, but here is shown making a pact of friendship with the King of Navarre, the leader of the Huguenots who suffered dreadful slaughter in the blood-bath of St. Bartholomew’s Eve in 1572, when 3,000 men, women and even babes in arms were massacred by the Catholic faction. The river Seine ran red with blood!

This massacre is the title of Marlowe’s play. He was eight years old when this happened, and Canterbury received an influx of Huguenot refugees to whom Queen Elizabeth granted asylum and gave them the Undercroft of the Cathedral to use for their worship. The feelings of horror that this massacre engendered are reflected in the passion expressed by Marlowe in this speech.