Writer and Secret Agent
Besides being a highly skilled writer, who created plays such as Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine, Christopher Marlowe had been employed as a secret agent by Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.
Like most playwrights of his age, he had a wealthy patron – Thomas Walsingham, a royal courtier and a first-cousin once removed of Francis Walsingham. It is significant that every person involved in the fake-death incident described below, seems to have been associated in one way or another with Marlowe’s friend and patron Thomas Walsingham.
Legend has it that on 30 May 1593, Christopher Marlowe was killed after a day of smoking, dining and drinking with friends. They spent the day at Mrs Bull’s lodging house in Deptford, where they “passed the time together,” walked in the garden, and “in company dined,” according to a Public Record Office report.
When the time came to settle the bill, it was claimed that an argument erupted between Marlowe and Ingram Frizer as to who was going to pay. Two witnesses claimed Marlowe pulled out Frizer’s knife and started slashing at him wildly about the head. Frizer took back control of his dagger, and, he claimed, in self-defense, plunged it into Marlowe’s head just above his right eye. The writer was instantly killed.
Modern-day scholars are not so sure that is what really happened, and many believe that Marlowe’s death was an assassination, possibly ordered by Queen Elizabeth I herself.
Support for this theory has recently come to light with the discovery that the inquest into Marlowe’s death was probably illegal. The inquest should have been supervised and enrolled by the local County Coroner. Instead, William Danby, the Coroner of the Queen’s Household became involved and drew up the coroner’s report. Danby was involved in the plot and there must have been tacit approval from the Queen.
Adding credence to this theory is that Elizabeth pardoned Marlowe’s ‘murderer’ about four weeks after the Deptford incident.
Through my readings I have concluded that, although he had become a liability, Marlowe’s death was in fact faked and he was then sent into exile, where he continued to write plays, which were attributed to William Shakespeare.
Why Marlowe had to be removed
Up until his ‘death’, Marlowe had become increasingly vocal about his disdain for Christianity and the bible. He stated that Christ was a homosexual and expounded atheistic beliefs. It was said that he used his way with words to convince others. “Into every Company he Cometh he persuades men to Atheism, willing them not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and his ministers,” one informant stated.
This was a dangerous stance to take in Elizabethan England, where performing blasphemy in a public place could lead to execution. Before he was seemingly killed, Marlowe had already been arrested for his blasphemous utterances and was out on bail and under government surveillance.
Some claim that Marlowe faked his own death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition and this is what my Oracle reading confirms – except he had help from the highest levels of the land.
If Marlowe was such a liability, why was he recruited as a spy by Walsingham in the first place?
The rise of the greatest playwright of his time
Marlowe was born in February 1564, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. He attended Corpus Christi College Cambridge for six and a half years and was educated to MA level. Marlowe graduated in 1587 and moved to London, where he began writing plays.
His plays were well received and, despite his humble background, by the age of 29, when the Deptford stabbing was said to have taken place, Marlowe was considered England’s greatest playwright.
Socially he was on familiar terms with many of the country’s top aristocrats, statesmen, scientists, writers, philosophers and thinkers and this put him in an excellent position for his other profession, as a secret agent.
The Elizabethan James Bond
As it was not considered a fit profession for aristocrats to pursue, Elizabethan playwrights often came from modest backgrounds. Yet every playwright needed a wealthy patron to sponsor their work.
Marlowe was introduced to Thomas Walsingham by a fellow poet, who Walsingham had previously patronised, and he soon became a frequent guest at his house in Scadbury, Kent.
Inevitably, Marlowe came to the attention of the Queen’s Secretary of State and spymaster, Francis Walsingham. His charm, inventiveness and intelligence must have impressed, as he was soon recruited as an agent for the Queen.
Marlowe was charismatic, eloquent, quick-witted, able to think on his feet and ready to act swiftly and decisively – a true man-of-action. I see him as a James Bond-like figure of the Elizabethan world.
He was very persuasive and able to dissemble, so spreading mis-information and manipulation was an easy part of his job description.
However Marlowe had his flaws, and these eventually brought him down.
I see Marlowe as being a malignant gossip who easily deceives with his charm and twists the truth. Though undoubtedly brilliant, Marlowe was a volatile, emotionally unstable character who had a chip on his shoulder. He was gay in an age when the church saw acts of ‘buggery’ as a grievous sin and this must have added to his spiritual doubts and confusion and perhaps helped foster his atheistic beliefs.
Angry Thomas, Angry Cecil and an Angry Queen
In my readings of the people involved, I saw that by the time of his ‘death’ both Thomas and the then Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, had become very upset with Marlowe. Although an excellent agent, and perhaps the best the Queen’s spy-system had ever recruited, he could never be said to be steady and reliable.
As the year 1593 progressed his emotional life seemed to become increasingly unstable, his behaviour volatile and his statements increasingly controversial. It gave certain members of the Privy Council, an easy target by which to attack Elizabeth’s spymaster and by implication the Queen herself and Marlowe was at the point of being sent to trial for his life.
I saw that the Queen felt this was a negative situation over which she had no control. With Marlowe she felt she was dealing with a volatile individual. After the early death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590, Robert Cecil had succeeded him as her Secretary of State and spymaster, and therefore it was he who bore the brunt of her ire. As far as she was concerned this incident showed that Cecil’s judgement was flawed, and she could do better. He was aware of her doubts and felt quite let down by Elizabeth, and their relationship never quite recovered from this crisis.
The queen was mistaken about Cecil. Like his mentor Walsingham, Cecil was quick-witted and adept at dealing with immediate conflicts but felt a driving force in his life had got out of hand. Even before things came to a head in May 1593, he had become disenchanted with Marlowe’s childish behaviour. He felt Marlowe was living in a dream world with unrealistic expectations. Despite this he went ‘to bat’ for Marlowe and got the Queen’s agreement to the scheme to fake his death and send him into exile.
Thomas Walsingham was angry with Marlowe for causing all this trouble and was afraid of losing everything. Dealing with Marlowe was like dealing with a chemistry set, which could potentially go off at any moment. Yet he genuinely admired Marlowe and a reconciliation was effected and the rifts were healed.
In my reading for Thomas Walsingham, he saw Marlowe as a person who was wonderfully inventive, yet easily bored. There were problems with their communication after the exile because Marlowe did not correspond with him reliably and communications were often rather fraught because of, what Thomas saw as, unrealistic financial expectations on Marlowe’s part.
Yet surely the ‘Shakespeare’ plays that Marlowe kept sending from Italy, must have been a constant source of delight for this patron of the arts throughout the following years.
The Italian Shakespeare
Marlowe was of no real use as a spy in his new situation. Yet he continued to produce and send his writings back to England and his plays were performed. These plays and his other writings could, of course, no longer be attributed to a deceased Christopher Marlowe. A front man had to be recruited and that man was William Shakespeare.
In the ensuing years Marlowe constantly felt cheated of what was rightfully his. After all, someone else was receiving praise for his own work. He never felt he was paid enough in this new situation and it became part of a constant dispute between Marlowe and Thomas Walsingham in their correspondence.
Marlowe’s move to Italy could have provided key opportunities, as far as his lifestyle was concerned, yet he constantly missed out because of his stubborn refusal to let go of the past.
He was beset by nostalgia. Marlowe kept the old alive and that kept him emotionally trapped and unable to move on with his life.
Recurring themes in Marlowe’s ‘Shakespeare’ plays
Many of the themes in Marlowe’s life recurred in his ‘Shakespeare’ plays. Disgrace, faked or presumed death, banishment or exile, and change of identity became major ingredients. As Shakespearean literary historian and author, Stephen Greenblatt puts it: “Again and again in his plays, an unforeseen catastrophe…suddenly turns what had seemed like happy progress, prosperity, smooth sailing into disaster, terror, and loss. The loss is obviously and immediately material, but it is also, and more crushingly, a loss of identity. To wind up on an unknown shore, without one’s friends, habitual associates, familiar network – this catastrophe is often epitomized by the deliberate alteration or disappearance of the name and, with it, the alteration or disappearance of social status”.
How the Stratford man became involved in the sham
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, 23 April 1564. His father was a glove-maker and William received only a grammar school education. At the age he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway and had three children.
Between the baptism of his youngest children (who were twins) in 1585, and Shakespeare establishing his reputation as an actor in London in 1592, nothing is known, and scholars generally refer to this period as ‘The Lost Years’.
So, what happened in these so-called lost years? I did a reading for this period and found the following:
In the intervening years Shakespeare became involved in the buying and selling of building supplies and for years had some success. Then the building trade went through the doldrums. This hit Shakespeare’s business badly and he suffered financial problems.
He moved to London, desperate for money, and eventually found work as an actor. By the end of 1592 Shakespeare had become a founding member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors.
In May 1593 the fake-death and exile of Marlowe had taken place, yet Marlowe had a poem completed (Venus and Adonis) and ready to go to the printers. Cecil and Walsingham moved quickly and gave Shakespeare an offer which, from various standpoints, he could not refuse.
As an actor his income would have been low and uncertain, and he still had large debts from his failed business and was near bankruptcy. So, a financial inducement to become the front-man for Marlowe must have come as a God-send.
Shakespeare was effectively offered an opportunity to re-invent himself and make a new start.
What affect did this scheme have on Shakespeare?
The Stratford man was not the danger-loving man we saw in Christopher Marlowe. Governed by his feelings, he was emotional and beset by insecurity. Although he was complicit in the sham, he was constantly afraid of being exposed as a fake. As a result, he needed a lot of support and reassurance.
He also had to balance his books and account to Walsingham for any money he received.
This venture ultimately became successful and after a period of initial uncertainty on Shakespeare’s part he eventually felt more secure.
Upon Christopher Marlowe’s death, Shakespeare was allowed to retire back to Stratford, where he lived a comfortable if rather ordinary and unremarkable life until his own death.