Reviewing the evidence and rumours around Christopher Marlowe’s disappearance which remain controversial and the subject of debate to this day. Why is there no final conclusion to this debate and no simple explanation of why Marlowe went to Deptford and was never heard of again?
An Incident in Deptford
Christopher Marlowe’s life was controversial, and the record closed with a controversy to top any of the issues affecting a life both obscure and carrying a charge of ill defined sensationalism. Constance Kuriyama wrote that Marlowe has a “virtually iconic status as the designated outlaw or bad boy of Elizabethan drama” (1). That his last recorded day on earth – 30th May 1593 – created mystery and controversy was a fitting conclusion to a life which was never conventional. The disappearance of the poet is established fact but why he had vanished remains obscure. Rumours of a violent death which is still the default explanation of what happened to him did not take long to circulate.
Stories about Marlowe’s disappearance did not emerge in print for several years after the events by which time what happened had become folk lore. Tales of his demise involved stories of a fatal pub tavern brawl in Deptford because of an argument over paying the bill (the reckoning) or a killing following a dispute over a woman. Until the discovery in 1925 of the coroner’s report, by Harvard historian Leslie Hotson (2), accounts of his disappearance were more legend than fact. The inquest report claimed that Marlowe had indeed been killed by being knifed, but showed his killer had received a Queen’s pardon as having acted in self defence. The publication of the report did not however end controversy.
Making an Exit From the Stage; Rumours and False Leads.
Marlowe’s disappearance in 1593 did not excite much interest at the time. Playwrights were only minor celebrities, known mostly to theatre goers and critics, and people were focussed on survival in the plague year of 1593 when thousand of Londoners were killed by the disease. Even in his immediate circle little comment was made in public. There was no doubt Marlowe had disappeared, but how and why were not publically discussed.
Marlowe’s closest friends were aware he had passed so suddenly he had left unfinished a major narrative poem, Hero and Leander and in 1598 two versions were published, the first being the incomplete version left by Marlowe with a comment from the publisher to Marlowe’s patron Thomas Walsingham of Scadbury in Kent, which assumed Marlowe was dead. Later that year, his fellow poet George Chapman finished and published the poem, with a dedication to the wife of Walsingham, Lady Audrey, closing the record as far as his circle was concerned. Chapman wrote (3) that completing the poem was “the duty we owe our friend… namely the performance of whatsoever we may judge shall make to his living credit, and to the effecting of his determinations prevented by the stroke of death”, this effectively closed the book on Marlowe as a living being.
Others who had not known Marlowe well, if at all speculated about what had happened, the rumours of his death spreading along with his reputation. In 1598 Francis Meres, the Boswell of late Elizabethan literature, started the rumour that he was killed in a fight over a woman (4).
Among this swirl of misinformation, a story that he died in a Deptford drinking brawl emerged in print. In 1600 William Vaughan published an account of Marlowe’s death which indicates he had some local knowledge of folk memories circulating in Detford (the contemporary spelling), the reports claiming Marlowe died at the hands of “one Ingram”. (5) For the next two centuries researchers searched for a record of a trial for murder of anyone with this surname, finding nothing. However in 1820 the antiquarian James Broughton hit on the notion of writing to the Vicar at St Nicholas’ Church, Deptford and found the first solid evidence. The Vicar sent him an extract from the burial register, stating that on 1st June 1593 Christopher Marlowe had been buried “slaine by Ffrancis Archer”. Unfortunately, while the date and statement were clear, the name was incorrect. For the next century, researchers looked for a trial involving a Ffrancis Archer but drew a blank (6). Marlowe seemed impossible to locate.