On 30 May 1593 a murder was said to have been committed in a room that had been hired for a private meeting in a respectable house in Deptford, owned by Dame Eleanor Bull. It was not a tavern as is often alleged. Dame Bull had Court connections. Her sister, Blanche, was the god-daughter of Blanche Parry, who had been the much loved nanny of the infant Elizabeth and was a “cousin” of Lord Burghley’s. Now widowed, Dame Bull hired out rooms and served meals. It was likely that her home was a safe house for Government Agents.
The strange circumstances of Marlowe’s murder in that room at Deptford have been the subject of endless debate and conflicting theories. The following is the official story as related in the Coroner’s Report, discovered by Dr. Leslie Hotson in 1925 in the archives of the Public Records Office, London.
Four men were said to have been present at Dame Bull’s house on that day:
- Robert Poley: an experienced government agent, who carried the Queen’s most secret and important letters in post to and from the courts of Europe. He arrived at Deptford direct from The Hague, where he had been on the Queen’s business – Deptford then being a busy naval dockyard and port from which ships voyaged back and forth to the Continent.
- Ingram Frizer: the personal servant and business agent of Marlowe’s patron, the wealthy Thomas Walsingham, cousin of the recently deceased Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who had created the espionage service which protected Queen Elizabeth’s life from the on-going Catholic assassination plots. Thomas Walsingham had assisted his illustrious cousin as his right-hand man and was himself a master-spy.
- Nicholas Skeres: a minor cog in the great Walsingham spy machine, who often assisted Poley. A shady character, who was, at this time, engaged in a double-dealing project with Ingram Frizer to fleece a naive young man of his money (termed “conny-catching” by the Elizabethans). In fact Skeres, Frizer and Poley were all skillful con-men and liars.
- Christopher Marlowe: the famous poet-dramatist, who enjoyed both the friendship and the patronage of Thomas Walsingham and at whose estate, Scadbury in Kent, he was staying at the time of his arrest, having gone there to escape the plague in London.
Thomas Walsingham therefore can be seen to be connected with all four of these men.
Marlowe was arrested on Sunday 20th May 1593, on a charge of atheism, which was heresy, a serious crime for which the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake. Despite the seriousness of the charge, however, he was not immediately imprisoned or tortured on the rack, as his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd had been. He was granted bail on condition he reported daily to an officer of the Court.
Soon an old enemy of Marlowe’s, Richard Baines, produced to the Privy Council a “Note” against Marlowe repeating what he was alleged to have said (worthless hearsay evidence), and implicating him in the capital crimes of scorning Scripture and the Church, and of coining.
This “Baines Note” was remarkably similar in content to the (false) confession that Baines himself had been compelled to sign at the Catholic Seminary at Rheims in 1582 before they would release him. It was a fairly standard formula of accusation/confession.
On Wednesday 30th May Marlowe was said to have spent the day at Deptford with Poley, Frizer, and Skeres. The official Coroner’s Report reveals what was supposed to have happened, but at the time it was not public knowledge. Marlowe was rumoured to have been killed in a tavern brawl, and all else was speculation. The Coroner’s report was only discovered in 1925 by Dr. Leslie Hotson.
Above: The Chislehurst village sign today still shows Marlowe’s patron, Thomas Walsingham, being knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1597.
The following is a report of the inquisition into the death of Christopher Marlowe by Willliam Danby, Coroner of the Queen’s Household. The document1 was discovered in 1925 by Dr. Leslie Hotson, with the original Latin report and the following translation appearing in his book, The Death of Christopher Marlowe. The report represents the official version of events at Dame Eleanor Bull’s house on 30 May 1593.
“KENT/INQUISITION Indented taken at Detford Strand in the aforesaid County of Kent within the verge on the first day of June in the year of the reign of Elizabeth by the grace of God of England France and Ireland Queen defender of the faith &c thirtyfifth, in the presence of William Danby, Gentleman, Coroner of the household of our said lady the Queen, upon view of the body of Christopher Morley, there lying dead & slain, upon oath of Nicholas Draper, Gentleman, Wolstan Randall, gentleman, William Curry, Adrian Walker, John Barber, Robert Baldwyn, Giles ffeld, George Halfepenny, Henry Awger, James Batt, Henry Bendyn, Thomas Batt senior, John Baldwyn, Alexander Burrage, Edmund Goodcheepe, & Henry Dabyns who say [upon] their oath that:
Ingram ffrysar, late of London, Gentleman, and the aforesaid Christopher Morley, and Nicholas Skeres, late of London, Gentleman, and Robert Poley of London aforesaid, Gentleman, on the thirtieth of May in the aforesaid thirtyfifth year, at the aforesaid Detford Strand in the aforesaid County of Kent within the verge about the tenth hour before noon of the same day met together in a room in the house of a certain Eleanor Bull, widow; & there passed the time together & dined & after dinner were in quiet sort together & walked in the garden belonging to the said house until the sixth hour after noon of the same day & then returned from the said garden to the room aforesaid & there together and in company supped;
& after supper the said Ingram & Christopher Morley were in speech & uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not be at one nor agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is le recknynge, there;
& the said Christopher Morley then lying upon a bed in the room where they supped, & moved with anger against the said Ingram ffrysar upon the words aforesaid spoken between them, and the said Ingram then & there sitting in the room aforesaid with his back towards the bed where the said Christopher Morley was then lying, sitting near the bed, that is, nere the bed, & with the front part of his body towards the table & the aforesaid Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley sitting on either side of the said Ingram in such a manner that the same Ingram ffrysar in no wise could take flight;
it so befell that the said Christopher Morley on a sudden & of his malice towards the said Ingram aforethought, then & there maliciously drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger the said Christopher Morley then & there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches & of the depth of a quarter of an inch;
where-upon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, & sitting in the manner aforesaid between the said Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley so that he could not in any wise get away, in his own defence & for the saving of his life, then & there struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid; in which affray the same Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley;
& so it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d, gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died;
& so the Jurors aforesaid say upon their oath that the said Ingram killed & slew Christopher Morley aforesaid on the thirtieth day of May in the thirtyfifth year named above at Detford Strand aforesaid within the verge in the room aforesaid within the verge in the manner and form aforesaid in the defence and saving of his own life, against the peace of our said lady the Queen, her now crown & dignity;
And further the said Jurors say upon their oath that the said Ingram after the slaying aforesaid perpetrated & done by him in the manner & form aforesaid neither fled nor withdrew himself;
But what goods or chattels, lands or tenements the said Ingram had at the time of the slaying aforesaid, done and perpetrated by him in the manner & form aforesaid, the said Jurors are totally ignorant.”
In witness of which thing the said Coroner as well as the Jurors aforesaid to this Inquisition have interchangeably set their seals.
Given the day & year above named &c.
by WILLIAM DANBY Coroner.”
The report leaves many questions unasked and there are many hypotheses as to what really happened that day in Deptford, producing theories that range from a Government backed assassination to a faked murder. See our discussion on some interpretations of the Coroner’s Inquisition report, and the issues it raises.
One does not need a first-class degree in law to recognise the inadequacy of this inquest as a means of establishing the whole truth about Christopher Marlowe’s death, for the report leaves many questions unasked, presumably because they were not asked at the inquest.
- Did anyone not present at the death identify the corpse?
- Was any medical evidence given about the time and cause of death?
- Was Eleanor Bull called? Or her servants?
- Did anyone at all give evidence about the purpose of the meeting of the four men that day?
- Who booked the room? Who was to pay for it?
- And what was actually discussed during all those hours in house and garden?
The inquest report implies a firm No! to the first four questions, and that the other questions were not asked. This suggests that the inquest was carefully controlled, and guided to its probable purpose of establishing that Marlowe was dead, and that Frizer had killed him blamelessly, in self defence.
Like sixteenth century inquest reports generally, this report records only the Coroner’s summary of what had been established by the evidence heard. But who gave the evidence, and what they said, is not recorded, and we are left with the impression that the evidence was that of Poley, Frizer, and Skeres alone, the three men said to have been present at the death. Their secret service connection does not seem to have been recognised at the inquest, where they were simply ‘gentlemen’.
As for them – in his invaluable mine of information, The Reckoning, describes those three men as a “profoundly slippery trio,”1 and a “dodgy delusive trio.”2 “The only evidence for [Marlowe’s attack on Frizer] is the testimony of a pair of professional deceivers, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley”3. Elsewhere Nicholl quotes Poley’s “own assertion that if he had to, he would willingly perjure himself, rather than say anything that would do him ‘harm’.”4
Thus does Nicholl completely demolish the credibility of the only witnesses that must have been heard at the inquest. And yet he still confirms the assumptions with which he began his book, “that those four men met at the house at Deptford and that Marlowe died in their company.”5 He lamely concludes that Marlowe’s death was “meaningless,”6 a word surely appropriate for Nicholl’s verdict, which is more consistent with Stratfordian orthodoxy than with common sense. Apparently no evidence was heard, except that of the “profoundly slippery trio,” that Marlowe was even present with them that day, or that the corpse was Marlowe’s.
The most credible “meaning” in the inadequate inquest, and the hasty burial of the corpse in an unmarked grave, is that it was to establish officially that Christopher Marlowe was dead, when he wasn’t. And as to the ludicrous pantomime described as having led to Marlowe’s death, well, if this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction, as Fabian said about another carefully planned charade.7
The Inquisition report was signed by William Danby, coroner to the royal household, because the murder had been committed “within the verge” – that is, within twelve miles of the Queen’s presence – and she was then in residence at her favourite palace of Nonsuch in Surrey, about ten miles from Deptford. This meant that the royal coroner took precedence over the local coroner.
With his death now officially recorded, the body of Christopher Marlowe was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas churchyard, Deptford.
Ingram Frizer went to prison to await the Queen’s pardon, which arrived in the extraordinarily brief space of twenty-eight days – probably the shortest on record! On his release, a free man, Frizer immediately returned to the service of his master, Thomas Walsingham, whose dear friend and “admired poet” he had just murdered! He remained in the service of Walsingham for the rest of his life.
So just how plausible is the conclusion of the Inquisition that this was an accidental killing over “le recknynge”?
The details and cicumstances of Marlowe’s death remained undiscovered until 1925, though lurid and far-fetched accounts did start to appear in the late 1590s. The details of the Inquisition clearly passed from the Queen’s Coroner to the Queen herself and her Privy Council, so these details will have become known to a select circle within a few days. How much became known to Marlowe’s friends and associates in the world of the theatre and espionage, and in the so-called School of Night, is much more uncertain, though the fact of Marlowe’s death was certainly known, for instance, to the dramatist George Peele, before the end of June 1593.
If we assume Frizer’s story to be true we are, therefore, following the lead of such Elizabethan contemporaries who knew the details, and the twentieth century readers and admirers of Leslie Hotson.
But the story takes some swallowing.
Frizer had a known record as a liar, and here he had every motive to lie, for he was on trial for his life. Moreover a true and trusty servant would have been expected to guard his master’s guest’s life with his own. Moreover the record of Skeres and Poley as spies and dissimulators indicates that their evidence, in a modern court of law, would be regarded with grave suspicion.
The whole day’s business makes little sense to modern eyes, and the details of the fight are totally inane.
The suggestion of an “accidental” killing presupposes a drunken brawl, and the question of paying the bill seems of total insignificance beside the issues of impending imprisonment, trial, torture and horrific death, which were awaiting Marlowe on the morrow.
The two main conspiracy theories are either that Marlowe’s killing was a government sponsored assassination, or that his death was faked.
Marlowe was involved as a secret service agent in the dark Elizabethan world of spying, double-dealing, disguise, plotting and political assassination. His death, viewed in this light, would apparently make more sense. However, to accept this motive for his murder we have to make a plausible attempt at identifying both the real murderers or authors of the plot, and the reasons why they wanted Marlowe out of the way.
It is, of course, absolutely certain that there was secret service involvement in the plot, and this accounts for the group of extraordinary personalities that gathered together that day in Deptford. Only Frizer is not known to have had any specific secret service connections, but, of course, his master, Thomas Walsingham was a master spy in his own right, and Frizer would be there to do his master’s bidding.
The next question that has to be asked is whether the secret service involvement was professional or private. In other words, were the events at Deptford the result of government orders to the secret service (or at least the orders of one political faction) or were individuals using their own initiative, adopting secret service methods?
It is difficult to imagine what the Privy Council or those members of it most actively involved with the secret service such as Lord Burghley, his son Robert Cecil, and the Earl of Essex, could have gained by their involvement in an assassination plot. Marlowe was already a doomed man, and could easily carry his secrets to the grave. Perhaps there may have been a fear that certain shady transactions might have been revealed under torture but these too could have been hushed up? Moreover such a ham-fisted method of disposing of him would have provoked more sensation and notice than a quiet dagger in the back in the street on a dark night, which was a more usual secret service mode of operating.
Thomas Walsingham almost certainly had links with the circle of freethinkers that grouped themselves around Sir Walter Raleigh, the “Wizard” Earl of Northumberland, and Ferdinando, Lord Strange, and which we know now as The School of Night. Rumours of atheism, heresy, and black magic that gathered around them indicate how the ignorant came to regard their insatiable quest for knowledge and debate. Marlowe, as a member, would have known their secrets, and had they had something to hide might have revealed it under torture. However, the idea of murdering Marlowe to protect themselves seems totally out of character, and would surely have never been accepted by this brave band of free-thinking pioneers. Nevertheless the idea cannot be totally dismissed.
Finally we have briefly to examine the idea of a secret service punitive killing, directed against a betrayer or double-dealer. For this to be a possibility Walsingham himself has to become an arch double-dealer, inveigling his friend into a false sense of security and then killing him. However, the secret murder in the street on a dark night or even a typical Renaissance poisoning would have been far more appropriate and easy to hush up.
Clearly a secret service assassination required skill and guile, born of long experience; this plot exhibited neither.
The two main conspiracy theories are either that Marlowe’s killing was a government sponsored assassination, or that his death was faked.
A Faked Murder?
This idea has been gaining in popularity in recent years. It stems directly from the same circumstances that give rise to the idea of the assassination plot, namely secret service involvement, probably acting under orders from a higher authority. Once again there may have been persons of rank who had much to lose by revelations that Marlowe might make under torture, but with this theory they may have resolved to save him rather than kill him.
Once again the secret service were accustomed to operations of this nature; substitute heads such as Ragozine’s for Claudio’s in Measure for Measure speedily come to mind. It is even possible that Marlowe was a valued spy with particular experience that was badly needed in 1593. Sadly it is much more unlikely that anyone would have gone to such trouble to save England’s leading dramatist.
As stated previously Thomas Walsingham had all the necessary skills and contacts to make such a plot successful, and Poley, in particular, the expertise to carry it out. But again it has to be asked whether they would have done it in a manner so likely to bring trouble on themselves, if they had not had the backing of some of the leading figures of the land.
Only two such figures seem likely to have had the authority both to give such orders and to brazen it out afterwards. These are Queen Elizabeth herself and Lord Burghley. Either or both could have had direct access to the Secret Service, probably through Walsingham. To rescue Marlowe at the eleventh hour from the grip of the Court of Star Chamber would look highly suspicious, under whatever guise the rescue was effected.
The ecclesiastic group on the Privy Council headed by Archbishop Whitgift were no doubt anxious to make Marlowe an example, as an atheist, heretic and dissolute playwright. They would not be easily shaken off the scent. Whether Elizabeth and/or Burghley were prepared to risk such divisions and accusations among members of the Privy Council may be seriously open to question. Almost certainly this is precisely what happened when news was brought to the Privy Council of the highly convenient death of Marlowe in Dame Eleanor Bull’s house on 30 May 1593.
If Marlowe’s death was faked, then it follows that he most likely must have been smuggled out of the country to live abroad in exile. Research into this hypothesis has been undertaken, most notably by A.D.Wraight who has examined possible clues in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.