The Marlowe Society

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.

Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632)
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.

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.