The Free Thinkers

The Free Thinkers

  1. Marlowe & The School of Night
Marlowe was a child of the English Renaissance and the Reformation, which was also that troubled period called by the great scholar Dame Frances Yates, “the false dawn of the Enlightenment”, which was doomed to suppression and delay. He shared his birth year, 1564, with Galileo (and with Shakespeare, but that fact is never mentioned by the Shakespearean academic authors). It was a dangerous time in which to express an eager interest in the new scientific discoveries that were exciting the minds of intellectuals all over Europe. In England Sir Walter Raleigh and the young (9th) Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy (also born in 1564), led a group of intellectuals, a select band of advanced thinking noblemen, courtiers and educated commoners, including mathematicians, astronomers, voyagers who had explored the New World, geographers, philosophers and poets. They formed an esoteric club nicknamed “The School of Night” which met secretly to discuss this forbidden knowledge, always ‘behind closed doors’. Marlowe became a member of this close circle, who were called Free-Thinkers and were all stigmatised as “Atheists” in order to blacken them in the eyes of the ignorant.

The Ecclesiastical Authorities feared the spread of interest in scientific discovery which was displacing the geocentric concept of Ptolemy, who lived in the second century AD, holding that the static Earth was the centre of the Universe around which the Sun orbits daily. Church dogma upheld this earth-centred view citing Holy Scripture as ‘proof ‘. When the great Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus developed his heliocentric concept of the Universe he did not dare to publish his book describing this hypothesis, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, until his death in 1543. It was Galileo’s persistent promotion of Copernicanism that brought the Holy Roman Inquisition finally to the decision that he would have to be silenced.

A most important member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle was the advanced thinker, brilliant mathematician and astronomer, Thomas Hariot. He was in the patronage of both Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland, the latter nicknamed the “Wizard Earl” for his love of experimenting with chemistry for which he had laboratories built into all his houses.
Hariot, who has been called “the greatest scientific mind before Newton”, was in secret correspondence with Johannes Kepler, who discovered that the orbits of the planets were not circular but eliptical. Hariot was Marlowe’s friend in this circle, with whom he was often seen browsing at the bookstalls in St Paul’s churchyard. These Free Thinkers discussed a wide range of subjects and were avid in their pursuit of all knowledge. Such men, in the eyes of the church, were dangerous. The Earl of Northumberland had at an early age dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge. He was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James I for almost sixteen years on a false charge of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, just as Sir Walter Raleigh was falsely charged, also by King James, with conspiring with the Spaniards. In fact, King James had a paranoid fear of these brilliant men because he suspected them of exercising magical powers, which the superstitious King held in terror. Both were accused of the “vile heresy” of Atheism. It was this that was also the cause of Marlowe’s tragedy.
Above: Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632) - the 'Wizard Earl'. This portrait, by Anthony van Dyck, was commissioned posthumously by the Wizard Earl's son, Algernon Percy, 10th Earl.
  1. Kyd’s Accusations

The prelude to Marlowe’s arrest in 1593 on a charge of “Atheism” was the incidence of riots by the London apprentices against the Huguenot settlers whom they saw as threatening their livelihoods with their skilful trades. The quelling of riots was in the legal province of the Court of the Star Chamber, the dreaded higher court which also dealt with matters of heresy and was the English equivalent of the Holy Roman Inquisition. It was the only court empowered to use torture to obtain confessions, and operated without a jury. It represented the all-powerful legal arm of the most reactionary elements of Church and State.

Officers of the Star Chamber searched the rooms of Marlowe’s fellow dramatist, Thomas Kyd, who had been involved in writing the collaborative play Sir Thomas More (lately rejected by the censor because it contained scenes of riots considered to be inciting), and among Kyd’s papers they found incriminating evidence in the form of a treatise discussing the Holy Trinity which was immediately labelled as “Atheism”. Poor Kyd was hauled off to prison to be put on the rack in a process known as “scraping the conscience”. Under torture he stuck to his original claim of innocence and stated that this paper belonged to Marlowe, who had been writing in the same room with him and had left it there accidentally, and had become “shuffled” with Kyd’s own papers “unbeknown to him.”1The incriminating document still exists and has been established by modern handwriting experts as not in Marlowe’s hand but more probably in Kyd’s own hand.

Kyd was released, a broken man (he died a year later), and clearly was embittered and vengeful, as seen in his poison-pen letters to Lord Puckering desperately trying to clear himself of the fatal taint of “Atheism,” which had led to his dismissal from the patronage of his former lord and master, the Earl of Sussex, and left him destitute. In pleading his case for exoneration from this charge, he presents his own innocence and blackens the reputation of Marlowe by contrasting their characters in a completely unjustified manner.

Kyd was by then aware of the murder of his former friend, Christopher Marlowe, at Deptford in a base quarrel with his patron’s servant, whom (according to the story that the Deptford jurymen no doubt told with relish in the taverns) Marlowe had attacked from behind with the servant’s own dagger. Kyd makes full use of this information, calling Marlowe a man who was “intemperate and of a cruel heart, the very contraries to which my greatest enemies will say by me” (Kyd’s syntax is a little confused here). We may excuse him for he had suffered on the rack thanks to Marlowe’s supposed carelessness with his papers and by then Marlowe was considered to be dead so could not defend his reputation.

Above: Believed to be a portrait of Marlowe's friend Thomas Hariot (1560-1621), mathematician and astronomer, even though the age of the sitter is incorrect.
  1. Character Assassination

Kyd’s assessment of Marlowe’s character has been accepted by most scholars, who see it as confirmation of the malignant report of the Star Chamber informer, Richard Baines; yet we know from considerable documentary evidence that the statements of informers are the last pieces of evidence to be trusted. Over the centuries their stock-in-trade has hardly changed, specialising in false accusations of blasphemy and especially sexual depravity of every kind, including buggery (even with animals as charged against Mohammed by Christian accusers in the 16th century), sodomy, incest and pederasty (charges also brought against the Jews by the Gestapo).

Marlowe, in common with such great men as Solzhenitsyn, was the victim of a police state, and the charges of Baines and Kyd (who may in part be reflecting what had been impressed on his mind by torture) are as much to be believed as the charges made by the Gestapo and the KGB.

The charges are quite clearly lies, and in Marlowe’s case they are contradicted by all that his friends and admirers said of him, calling him “the Muse’s darling”, “the man that hath been dear unto us”, “that pure elemental wit, Christopher Marlowe”, “kind Kit Marlowe”, and even from his envious rivals, “Thou famous gracer of Tragedians”, acknowledging him as England’s premier poet-dramatist in 1592, just before the tragedy at Deptford overwhelmed his reputation.

It is the policy of the Marlowe Society to work towards lifting this cloud of infamy from his unjustly blemished name and restoring Christopher Marlowe to the position of honour his genius deserves. After four hundred years it is time that credit is given where it is due.

Raleigh led the group of Free-Thinkers nicknamed ‘The School of Night’, that included Marlowe, Thomas Hariot, and the ‘Wizard Earl’, Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland. 

Above: Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), circa 1590.