Marlowe’s Birth

Marlowe's Birth

  1. Baptism at St. George the Martyr

Christopher Marlowe was baptised at the church of St. George the Martyr, Canterbury, on Saturday 26 February, 1564. His exact date of birth is not recorded, but Elizabethan children were commonly baptised very shortly after birth to ensure entry into heaven in the event of an early death – not uncommon, given the infant mortality rates of the time. Indeed, Christopher may have been lucky to survive himself, for Canterbury experienced high rates of mortality due to a concerted outbreak of plague between 1563 and 15651William Urry, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (Faber and Faber, 1988) pp3-4.

Canterbury was a small city at the time of Marlowe’s birth, dominated as it is today by the cathedral. A survey in 1563 recorded 700 households, whilst a similar exercise five years later extrapolates to approximately 900 households and a population of 2,341 people above adolescent age2Ibid p2. St. George’s church was situated near to St. George’s Gate (or Newingate) on the east side of the walled city. The church housed the great waking bell for the whole city, which was rung at 4am each morning. By 1569, the parish of St. George contained 208 communicants3Ibid p7.

Opposite the church on the other side of St. George’s Street, the house that was located on the corner of St. George’s Lane is thought to be that inhabited by the Marlowe family when Christopher was born. Marlowe’s father, John, was a shoemaker by trade and his shop was also located in the parish. The house was unfortunately destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs during the Second World War, and the site is now occupied by Fenwick’s department store. The Marlowe Society is currently trying to organise some kind of memorial to mark the site, and is in discussion with Fenwick’s owners.

St. George’s Church fared only a little better against the German air bombardment, and was largely destroyed by fire during the same air-raid on 01 June 1942. The clock stopped at 02:18 am4William Urry, Saint George’s Church, Canterbury Canterbury Local History Pamphlet No.3, and the bells (dating from the 17th century, and at least one that had survived from Marlowe’s time) fell to the ground and subsequently ‘disappeared’. Much of the church building was demolished, but although the spire had been lost, the surviving church tower was protected with scaffolding and eventually restored after the war.

The clock tower of St. George’s Church, Canterbury where Marlowe was baptised is all that survived a German air raid in 1942. The original clock dials (dating from 1825) were restored in 1955.

  1. His Parents

John Marlowe, was born in the village of Ospringe, very close to Faversham, some nine miles west of Canterbury. There is conflicting evidence regarding his age, legal documents from later in his life putting his date of birth variously between 1536 and 1543. The earliest date seems the most likely5William Urry, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (Faber and Faber, 1988) – see discussion on pp12-1, the same year incidentally that Faversham Abbey was granted to Sir Thomas Culpepper as part of the Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

John Marlowe was also likely to have still been living locally at the time of Thomas Arden’s murder, instigated by his wife Alice in 1551. This was the notorious case chronicled by Raphael Holinshed, and which would provide the plot and characters for the anonymous play Arden of Faversham written approximately forty years after the event. The geographical proximity, as well as certain matters of style, have led some to suggest Christopher Marlowe as the play’s author.

It seems probable that Marlowe’s father moved to Canterbury around the age of twenty, during the reign of Queen Mary. At some point during the financial year beginning Michaelmas (29 September) 1559, John Marlowe became apprenticed to a shoemaker named Gerard Richardson. It is possible that he had already begun learning the cobbler’s trade, either in Faversham or Canterbury, for John became a freeman of Canterbury shortly after Christopher’s birth, in April 1564, and an apprenticeship of just four years would be unusually short6Ibid p13.

Legal records from 1566 suggest John Marlowe had lived in St. George’s parish since 1561-2, around the time of his wedding to Katherine Arthur at St. George’s Church on 22 May 1561. Katherine was born and raised in the port of Dover on the south coast of Kent, some 18 miles from Canterbury. Her father William was not recorded as having a trade when he died in 15757Ibid p14, suggesting the family was far from wealthy, and possibly explaining why the wedding, somewhat unusually, did not take place in the bride’s native town. John and Katherine Marlowe went on to have nine children, six of whom survived into adulthood, during a marriage that would last nearly 44 years until death did them part in 1605.

St. George’s Church, Canterbury, before it was largely destroyed by German bombs in 1942. It is believed that the Marlowes lived in the house on the opposite side of St George’s Street for the first ten years or so of his life.

  1. His Father’s Career

Despite taking on some five different apprentices between 1567 and 1593, John Marlowe did not appear a particularly adept businessman, and actions relating to debt were regularly brought against him. This did not stop him being elected as warden and treasurer of the Shoemakers’ Company in 1589, but at the end of his year in office a shortfall of over 40 shillings was found. The company seemed reluctant to take legal action, but a case was finally entered on 27 January 1592. By a curious coincidence, both father and son thus simultaneously found themselves in deep water, with Christopher most likely on that very day sailing on a ship back from Flushing to England, extradited along with his nemesis Richard Baines on a charge of “coining” (counterfeiting) a Dutch shilling (Sir Robert Sidney’s covering note to Lord Burghley being dated the previous day). Both appeared to have escaped serious punishment, however, with Marlowe Sr. somehow managing to pay off this sizable debt by the end of the year.

John Marlowe appears as both plaintiff and defendant in at least 17 other cases in the Canterbury borough pleas book during the 1570’s, 80’s and 90’s8William Urry, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (Faber and Faber, 1988) pp27-28, hinting at a vigorous character even in such a litigious age. But he was well enough thought of to hold various positions of responsibility in the Shoemaker’s Company, and was appointed as a Searcher (inspector of leather) in 1581-2. Marlowe acted as Sidesman (responsible for greeting the congregation and organising seating in the church) at St. George’s in 1573, and as Churchwarden in the parish of St. Mary Breadman between 1591 and 1594, where the family then resided. For some of this period he was also constable of Westgate (1591-2), and may have been somewhat embarrassed at having to find surety for his son Christopher, accussed by one William Corkine of an attacking him with “staff and dagger” in Mercery Lane, Canterbury on 15 September 1592.

Christopher Marlowe’s father had basic literacy, able to sign his own name and write a few words. His signature regularly confirms him as witness or bondsman on legal documents, most notably on the will of Katherine Benchkin (dated 19 August 1585, just above the only extant signature of his 21 year old son Christopher. William Urry’s dedicated research has thus identified John Marlowe’s documented involvement in all kinds of activities throughout his life in Canterbury. What such historical records cannot show, of course, are John and Katherine’s reaction to the alleged murder of their son in 1593.

The photo above shows the house on the corner of St. George’s Street and St. George’s Lane, believed to be where the Marlowes lived for the early years of Christopher’s life.  It was destroyed in a German air raid in 1942.

Christopher Marlowe’s parents survived a further twelve years after the events in Deptford. His father John died first at the probable age of 68 or 69, making his will on 25 January 1605 and being buried in the churchyard of St. George’s the following day. For all his apparent financial difficulties, an inventory of his goods following his death provided evidence of a, if not prosperous, then at least modestly comfortable life. Katherine Marlowe did not outlive her husband by long. Her will is dated 17 March 1605 and she was buried the next day, not seemingly alongside her husband, for her burial is recorded in the register at All Saints Church.

  1. His Family

Christopher Marlowe was the second of nine children born to John and Katherine Marlowe between 1562 and 1576. At the age of 4, his elder sister Mary died leaving

Christopher as the eldest surviving child. Within two months of Mary’s death, a brother whose name is not recorded died just days after being baptised. Another brother, Thomas, who was born two years later in 1570, survived just two weeks. The Marlowes’ only other son was their last recorded child, baptised in April 1576. There is no record of this second Thomas’ death, either in infancy or later in life, but he was not mentioned in his mother’s will of 1605.

Marlowe’s early years in their house on the corner of St. George’s Lane would thus have found him surrounded solely by his sisters. Both Margaret (18 months his junior) and Anne (7 years younger) would go on to enjoy very long lives (living to 76 and 81 respectively), whilst his youngest sister Dorothy at least outlived her first husband, who died when she was 52. Interestingly, Anne’s wedding to John Cranford took place on 10 June 1593, just 11 days after her brother’s alleged murder in Deptford. Christopher’s other sister Jane (5½ years younger) was married at the age of just 12, and even more shockingly to modern sensibilities, appears to have died in child-birth the following year.

All of Marlowe’s siblings were born by the time he departed for Cambridge University in December 1580. He was twelve when his only surviving brother was born, and it seems unlikely that the two boys can have been that close, for the second Thomas would have been just 4 when his older brother took up residence at Corpus Christi College.

Marlowe’s Education