Christopher Marlowe was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, born in the same artisan class and in the same year (1564) as William Shakespeare.
His exceptional gifts were recognised when a boy and he gained a scholarship to the prestigious King’s School. This was the ancient choir school administered by the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral and whose Statutes provided education for ‘fifty boys both destitute of the help of friends and endowed with minds apt for learning’.
In fact it was the Kentish gentry who snapped up the coveted places for their sons, and a poor man’s son, though he had ‘a mind apt for learning’, only gained a place when a vacancy occurred. Those waiting for such a vacancy would necessarily have been among the ten fee-paying special choristers who were taught with the King’s scholars and dined at their table.
Young Marlowe was evidently one of these, his fees probably being paid by the local philanthropist, Sir Roger Manwood. The latter was a friend of Dr. John Parker, son of Archbishop Parker, who administered the scholarship awards. On Sir Roger’s death in 1592 Marlowe wrote a Latin elegy in his memory.
The long-awaited vacancy for a scholarship did not occur until he was fourteen, almost at the upper age limit of the choir school which ranged from nine to fifteen.
Canterbury Cathedral: The King’s School was built in 1544, in the shadows of the great church.
At King’s, Marlowe received a rigorous education rated as the best available in his day. The school day began at 6am with a Psalm and Litany, and ended at 5pm with a Psalm, a Litany and a prayer. Then there was ‘prep’ to be done between 6 and 7pm in which the day’s lessons were memorised and the brighter boys helped the slower ones.
Besides instruction in Religion and Music, for they sang Mass in the Cathedral every morning, they were thoroughly grounded in Latin grammar and ‘becoming practised in the classical poetic tales and familiar with the Letters of learned men of Latin and Greek literature’, and as they progressed were led ‘to taste Horace and Cicero‘. Both ancient and modern history were taught and boys were encouraged to compose Latin poetry, and regularly performed plays in Latin and Greek, sometimes lavishly ‘furnished’ (i.e. with costumes and props). The boys were supposed to speak only in Latin even when at play. They wore long gowns and were provided with a new gown every Christmas.
Once he had gained his scholarship, through which his education was funded by the Church, Marlowe became eligible for the next stage in his education, and at the age of sixteen and a half was awarded a second scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. For this he was required to compose a Latin verse and to sing plain-song at sight and to demonstrate his mastery of Latin syntax and grammar.
The Norman Staircase at King’s School, Canterbury.
Marlowe’s first full-length play (now lost) is believed to be The True History of George Scanderbeg based on the life of a heroic Christian Prince of Albania, Prince Castrioto, who was abducted as a child by the conquering Turks and renamed Scanderbeg. He developed outstanding prowess at arms and became a favourite of the Turkish emperor who gave him charge of his armies. Learning of his true origin he converted to Christianity and fled to his own country, freeing it from Turkish rule and leading his people in victorious opposition to the Turkish enemy. He was a man of pristine valour who taught his soldiers to respect women, forbidding them to rape their victims in war.
Marlowe gained his BA in 1584 to become ‘Dominus’ Marlowe, and gained his MA – a coveted status symbol in Elizabethan times – in 1587, when he left Cambridge after six and a half years of study with the intention of taking holy orders and entering the Anglican Church, as required by his scholarship. However he left this path to enter the Queen’s service as a trusted government agent.
At Cambridge he is thought by some historians to have written the lyrical drama Dido, Queen of Carthage based on Virgil’s epic poem, in addition to his Tamburlaine the Great with which he was to take London’s theatre world by storm! Its premier marked the birth of Shakespearean drama.
Marlowe had been writing poetry and performing plays ever since his King’s School days. His education fashioned him to become the innovative genius who first conceived and created Shakespearean blank verse drama. This is why Tennyson hailed him as “The Morning Star” of the great dramatic flowering of Elizabethan England.