The Marlowe Society
The Corpus Christi portrait, discovered in 1952
The Corpus Christi portrait, discovered in 1952.
23 June 2014

Identity Crisis?

Times Article Casts Further Doubt on Marlowe as Sitter in Corpus Christi Portrait

An article in today's Times newspaper (p.13, and Leading article on p.28) has again raised serious doubts that the identity of the young man in the Corpus Christi portrait is Christopher Marlowe. Arts Correspondent Jack Malvern cites an article by Corpus Christi alumnus and Emeritus Reader in Early Modern British History at the University of Kent Peter Roberts, that recently appeared in the college magazine Pelican, stating that the dates on the portrait (contrary to popular supposition) do not in fact match those of Marlowe.

The assertion is based on two specific observations. The first is that the official new year in England at this time started on Lady Day (25 March). Thus Christopher Marlowe by contemporary dating was actually baptised on 26 February 1563 - "old style" as the distinction is commonly referred to. This is already clear from the baptismal entries in the extant register from St George's Church in Canterbury. The entry for Christopher Marlowe ("The 26th day of February was christened Christofer, the sonne of John Marlow") is followed by another entry for a subsequent baptism in March. The series of chronological baptismal entries is then interrupted by a note of "Anno DM, 1564", marking the start of the new year 1564. That Marlowe's date of birth is commonly cited as 1564 is correct relative to our modern calendar ("new style") where the new year begins on 01 January.

Christopher Marlowe's baptism recorded in the parish records of St George the Martyr, Canterbury
Christopher Marlowe's baptism recorded in the parish register of St George the Martyr, Canterbury: "The 26th day of February was christened Christofer, the sonne of John Marlow", with the subsequent new year 1564 marked for Lady Day (25 March).

However this fact alone would not affect Marlowe's eligibility as a 21 year old sitter for the portrait which is dated 1585. If the same timeframe is used, the year in which the portrait was painted began on 25 March 1585. Marlowe would still have most likely1 celebrated his 21st birthday in the previous month of February 1584 (old-style).

It is the second argument made by Peter Roberts that, when combined with this first observation, makes Marlowe's age in 1585 inconsistent with the portrait's inscription. This point concerns the exact translation of the Latin inscription on the portrait: "ANNO DNI ÆTATIS SVAE 21 / 1585".

This is widely translated as "Aged 21 in the year 1585".2 This would largely be true for Marlowe regardless of when the year officially started. If the new year is taken to have started on Lady Day in both cases, then in 1585 Marlowe would have been 21 from the start of that year (25 March 1585) until his 22nd birthday almost 11 months later in February 1585 (old-style). If the new year had started on 01 January, Marlowe would have celebrated his 21st birthday in February 1585 (new style) and been 21 for the remaining 10 months of the year 1585.

However, Roberts points out that the strict translation of "Ætatis Suae" is "in the specified year of (his) age". In this case the portrait inscription is therefore indicating that the sitter is in his 21st year i.e. aged 20. This then creates a problem for Marlowe as sitter, irredeemably if the new year is taken to start on 25 March: if Marlowe turned 21 in February 1584 (old style), he is not therefore still in his 21st year at any point during 1585 (old style). If the year is taken from 01 January 1585, then Marlowe would be aged 20 for less than two months until his 21st birthday in February 1585 (new style).

The inscription on the Corpus Christi portrait
The inscription on the Corpus Christi portrait: ANNO DNI ÆTATIS SVÆ 21 / 1585 / QVOD ME NVTRIT / ME DESTRVIT

Roberts' arguments are clearly valid, although there remains some ambiguity around the exact intended meaning of the phrase "Ætatis Suae" used in this and other portraits. Marlowe Society Research Officer Mike Frohnsdorff commented, "there is nothing new in this, and there has been very little commitment to certainty about the date corresponding to Marlowe. I have always been sceptical. But the Latin is no sure guide. Classical 'ætas' means a variety of things (originally 'ævitas' and then shortened) relating to age. Medieval Latin is far looser, and more ecclesiastical. But on the basis that the inscription means 'in his 21st year', the dates do not fit Marlowe, and I've heard that said many times. Yet, we can never be sure. Age dates are frequently inaccurate throughout history, and this one misses by a month! We don't know Marlowe's birthday, only his baptismal day, and we don't know if he knew his birthday or his age precisely, which again was commonplace."

Marlowe scholar and Society member Peter Farey is also familiar with the argument. "No, it doesn't come as any surprise to me, as it is something I have been aware of for some time." He mentions that the subject had cropped up in a recent discussion of Shakespeare's Stratford monument and the meaning of 'Ætatis 53'. "I had pointed out that this meant 'in his 53rd year' rather than 'aged 53' as most people seem to think. I also pointed out that for most of 1585 Marlowe was in his 22nd year, and therefore not 'Ætatis Suae 21' as that portrait says!"

But Peter also notes that one cannot categorically rely on the intended meaning of 'Ætatis Suae' in such a context. "I discovered that it wasn't all that easy to find examples to see how 'Ætatis' was actually used at the time. Christopher Wren was born on 20 October 1632, and his famous monument ('Reader, if a monument is required, look around') states 'Obijt XXV, Feb: An(n)o.MDCCXXIII.Æt.XCI. '; in other words he died on 25 February 1723, with the 'Æt.XCI' obviously meaning 'in his 91st year'. For Thomas Hobbes, however, it was a different story. He was born on 05 April 1588 and died on 04 December 1679 (i.e. at 91 years of age). His epitaph reads 'Obiit anno Domini, 1679, ætatis suae 91.' So although the 'correct' interpretation of 'Ætatis' is 'in the year of his age', there has been at least one exception!"

Peter Farey also points out that whilst the start of the year was not officially changed to 01 January until the 'Calendar Act' of 1752 (in which England also finally replaced the Julian with the Gregorian calendar), in practice "the use of the 'Lady Day' year had been declining for many years. I would say that the use of the current dating or the combined '1584/5' version for Jan-March had in fact become much more common by 1585. The 1752 Act did in fact refer to the new style as 'the common usage throughout the whole kingdom'."

Of course, the evidence for the sitter in the Corpus Christi portrait being Marlowe has always been circumstantial at best: that the portrait was discovered in Corpus Christi college (in 1952),3 and the supposed correspondence of the sitter's age to Marlowe's. As William Urry pointed out, even that coincidence provided a small probability of the portrait being Marlowe: "there were other young men in Cambridge of those years at that moment, and the gilded youth who stares from the portrait does not look like a hard-up shoemaker's son."4

Mike Frohnsdorff shares these doubts. "The costume is clearly not fitting for a student and we have always known that. The only let out might have been if the College had dressed him up for a portrait for some honour he had brought on the college. It certainly wasn't his secret service work, as some have claimed, for the College had to be convinced by the Privy Council to award him his MA in 1587." Could it have been in honour of an early play or poem? "We don't know enough about his early literary work and his lost plays, like Scanderbeg and a Hannibal one. Dido, Queen of Carthage may date from these years, and more likely we have all his translations possibly done at Cambridge, the Ovid Amores."

The other interesting aspect of the portrait is the impresa inscribed on the portrait beneath the dating: "Qvod me nvtrit me destrvit" ('that which nourishes me, destroys me'). This has appealed to some as an apt motto for a man for whom the popular perception is one of living fast and dying young. This has never, of course, been counted as evidence of the portrait being of Marlowe. And as Mike Frohnsdorff points out, "the impresa dates at least back to 1555 and it is of Italian origin. It is not unique to the portrait and the sentiments are commonplace. A.D. Wraight pointed out that Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 contains a translation, but it is anyway a standard idea. One of the knights in Pericles, Prince of Tyre has another such impresa with similar meaning on his shield for the tournament near the beginning."

In conclusion, it remains highly doubtful that the portrait discovered at Corpus Christi College in 1952 is of Christopher Marlowe. Peter Roberts' arguments regarding the dates on the portrait not matching Marlowe are most likely correct, although there persists some small ambiguity regarding the intended meaning of "Ætatis Suae 21" as referring to the sitter as aged 21, or in his 21st year. But the image in the portrait has become so identifiable with Marlowe over the last 50 years or more by appearing on the cover of every book about him and poster for one of his plays, that it is highly unlikely that it will stop being used any time soon in the absence of an alternative.

  • Note 1: Note that we don't actually know the date of Marlowe's birth; our best guess is that it was a few days prior to his baptism. This was very common in the sixteenth century, when Elizabethan children were baptised as soon as possible after birth to guarantee entry into heaven in the event of an early death. But the actual date of Marlowe's birth is not pertinent to this debate, we will assume for the sake of argument that he was born in February 1563 (old-style). Back to Text
  • Note 2: Most if not all of Marlowe's biographers (post 1952 of course) either explicitly translate the inscription as "Aged 21", or at least state that the inscription corresponds exactly with Marlowe's age in 1585 e.g. William Urry (Christopher Marlowe & Canterbury, p.61), Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning, p6), A.D.Wraight (In Search of Christopher Marlowe, p.63), Park Honan (Christopher Marlowe - Poet & Spy, p.112). Back to Text
  • Note 3: There is a good and detailed description of the differing accounts of the discovery of the painting, and of those who subsequently passed judgement on the portrait, in Park Honan's biography (Christopher Marlowe - Poet & Spy, pp.111-119). Honan states that the "sitter who gazes at us was born when Marlowe was, in 1564" (p.112) but later that "Pat Bury [formerly Dean of the College and its librarian since 1937], less sure, noted that the date coincided with Marlowe's twenty-first year." (p.115). "Bury at first sent copies of the photos [of the portrait] to experts and enquired as to the motto in a quest that began on 15 November 1952. G.K. Adams, of the National Portrait Gallery, could say nothing of the motto, but advised that 'inscriptions on Elizabethan portraits were very rarely help in identification'. Before the year's end, two Marlowe biographers, F.S. Boas and John Bakeless, said that they had never seen the motto." (p.115).Back to Text
  • Note 4: William Urry, Christopher Marlowe & Canterbury, p.61. Back to Text