The Marlowe Society

The Free-Thinkers

The Free-Thinkers

2. 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."1

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.

Thomas Hariot (1560-1621)
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.

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.

  • Note 1: The 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. Back to Text