Marlowe: Reviewing Hoffman’s 1955 Book

In the Autumn 2021 Marlowe Society Newsletter, Christian Taylor commented about 1593 – the year of Marlowe’s disappearance in Deptford – describing Calvin Hoffman as an  “eccentric American investigator Calvin Hoffman (1906- 1986) (who) would later claim that Marlowe not only survived his own death, but was whisked away to Italy whence he would send manuscripts to his beloved Tom Walsingham, who had them copied out by his own scrivener and then sent on to London for staging and publication”. This account was based on Hoffman’s book The Man Who Was Shakespeare (Max Parrish, London 1955).

Such a short sketch does not do justice to the work of a man who has played a considerable part in the history of Marlowe studies. While both his theory and the prize have proved controversial and have kept Hoffman’s reputation as a thinker open to the charge of eccentricity, his legacy is important for Marlowe studies – through the Hoffman prize – providing a continuing role in stimulating debate. In this essay I will leave the wider issues pending, to focus on his theory to explain why the book remains an important part of the history of the controversies around Marlowe.

The nature of the theory

The title of the book rather curiously does not mention Marlowe, perhaps deliberately using the name of the man from Stratford to attract attention. Marlowe was a relatively new entry into the debate on candidates who could plausibly rival Shakespeare of Stratford as the author- the Alternative Author controversy.. Hoffman opens by discussing the underlying issues of why Shakespeare’s Authorship is open to debate. Indeed, the first five pages of the Author’s Preface do not mention Marlowe’s name and merely outline the rise of scepticism over the claims for William Shakespeare as a writer.

Hoffman then makes the statement that ‘for the first time the name of the poet dramatist is put forth as the sole author of Shakespeare’s works” (p14)- meaning Marlowe. Hoffman accepts precursors – he notes that in 1895 W G Zeigler wrote a fictional essay in which Marlowe survived the alleged killing in Deptford (to be killed by Ben Jonson!) then in 1923 ‘one Archie Webster claims Marlowe wrote the Sonnets, (published in the National Review (vol LXXXII pp81-86 September 1923) TF) followed in1931 by Gilbert Slater who in his book Seven Shakespeares advanced the theory that Marlowe was one of a team’, (pp14-15) but Hoffman does not see these as arguing for Marlowe as a contender for writing the works of Shakespeare, the claim he makes for his own work.

Hoffman may not be the first person to argue Marlowe was the prime contender for Shakespearian authorship. However the prime issue is the argument he advances for Marlowe. The Preface explains that Hoffman began his research in late 1936, reading a mass of Elizabethan drama, concluding Shakespeare and Marlowe shared a common style when compared to contemporary dramatists, and wondering if they were one person. He began to consider “was the report of Marlowe’s assassination true?” (p18), as the obvious block to considering Marlowe and Shakespeare were one writer, was the view Marlowe died in 1593. Shakespearian works appeared into the Stuart period. If Marlowe died when most of the work was yet to be written, he could not be the author. There is compelling evidence the Shakespearian corpus could not have been written by 1593 – the film Anonymous, arguing for the Earl of Oxford as the author and as he died in 1604 claimed that he wrote the work and left it in a metal box. Best leave that kind of theory to Hollywood.

 Officially Marlowe passed after being stabbed, an inquest returning a verdict of lawful killing. The coroner’s report was discovered by American historian J Leslie Hotson and he published the report in 1925 There is a current of historical thinking that never accepted the verdict, believing Marlowe was murdered but both this and the conventional view believe Marlowe died on May 30th. Hoffman also thought the events in Deptford involved murder, but that Marlowe survived. An innocent passerby was murdered to allow Marlowe to vanish from an impending crisis. Hoffman develops an account of events in which Marlowe survived and was exiled to Italy, sending his work to his patron Thomas Walsingham to stage in London.

The first chapter What do we know about Shakespeare? is short, advancing the thesis that we do not know very much. The argument recapitulates familiar features of the Authorship controversy, rehearsing the lack of knowledge about the early years of the man from Stratford, highlighting his lack of education, cultural capital, and extra-curricular activities. Lacking education and cultural skills, Shakespeare married an older woman at 18 and had to support a wife and three children by the age of 21. He then vanished till the long poem Venus and Adonis appeared in the summer of 1593. Hoffman concluded there is no evidence of the development of the cultural capital needed to produce the work which then appears under his name.

Chapter Two looks at the evidence provided by the title pages of those works carrying Shakespeare’s name, arguing the printed name is not sufficient evidence of authorship. For Hoffman the key issue is that no contemporary writing identifies the writer with the actor born in Stratford. Hoffman sets out the view that evidence of his written activities are limited to business dealings in Stratford after returning from London, Chapter Three looks at the limited contemporary biographical work that has survived, including the critical commentary on the writers of the age by Robert Greene- published in 1592, and the writing of Henry Chettle which has been assumed to be a gloss on Greene’s comments. Hoffman concludes that there is no conclusive evidence Shakespeare was a creative writer. Hoffman then turns to Marlowe.

In Chapter Four, Hoffman outlines Marlowe’s early life and education, focussing on the highly significant letter from the Privy Council ordering Cambridge University to award his MA. But Hoffman is inconsistent. The letter mentions there was a belief Marlowe had gone to Rheims – which suggests he visited the Catholic seminary – but Hoffman cites the Councillor’s statement that Marlowe “had no such intent” (P61). Immediately on the following page he contradicts this, stating Marlowe had made “trips to Rheims” – and in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham, the spycatcher. Hoffman misses the significant fact that Francis Walsingham though a leading member of the Queen’s Privy Council did NOT sign the letter.

Hoffman tends to cut corners, and by omitting the list of signatories misses the absence of the spycatcher. Lord Burghley, who did sign the letter, would be a constant through the rest of Marlowe’s life, but Hoffman prioritises Francis Walsingham, in part to focus on his cousin Thomas, who unlike Francis undoubtedly knew Marlowe though he was a very different personage. Francis died in 1590.

Evidence issues: Marlowe and Thomas Walsingham.

 Thomas Walsingham on page 63 is described as Marlowe’s “friend and lover”, A friend probably, and certainly his host in 1593- Marlowe was staying with Walsingham that spring , but the closer relationship is hard to evidence. Hoffman rightly assumes Marlowe would not have the contacts or resources to make the arrangements for the complex plot he is going to outline, but believed that Thomas Walsingham had means and motivation to put the plot into being. Yet there are major differences between the Walsingham cousins. Sir Francis was a massive player in Elizabethan politics: but he was dead and his cousin had not stepped into his shoes. Hoffman will make Thomas Walsingham the prime mover in the alleged plot, based on his controversial assumption the two men were soulmates. This assumption raises major questions about his use of evidence.

 For example, Hoffman describes his trip to Cambridge where he sees the Corpus Christi portrait discovered in 1952 and proposes this as a possible portrait of Marlowe. This is one issue where he has been influential*, yet the College does not agree. Touching on the fight in Hog Lane in which William Bradley was killed, Hoffman compares this fight with a similar event in Romeo and Juliet. The attempt to mine the Shakespearian corpus for biographical information is a commonplace of Alternative Authorship scholarship, but cannot compensate for the reality that there is little hard evidence.

Chapter Five begins the argument proper addressing the crisis which developed around Marlowe in Spring 1593. Hoffman cites the summons issued by the Privy Council over the Dutch Church libel on 11th May 1593 and the seizure and torture of Thomas Kyd for possessing heretical texts which he claimed belonged to Marlowe. Kyd’s claim led to Marlowe being called before the Privy Council,

and the fact that the libel – a poster on the wall of the Church – was signed with the name ‘Tamburlaine’ – the hero of Marlowe’s most successful play – cannot have gone unnoticed. The events of May 1593 demand closer reading than a short review can attempt but the key issue is claim made by Hoffman that Marlowe was in serious trouble, which is in marked contrast to how events developed up to the day of his disappearance.

Marlowe is allowed to stay with Walsingham, and only has to attend the Privy Council on a daily basis, but Hoffman eggs the pudding. Marlowe was not “lodged for a few nights in a London prison” (P84) and his trial notes are not “lost to us” (p85). While informers like Richard Baines, who Hoffman quotes, are vitally important, what is strikingly manifest is the contrast between the treatment of Kyd and that of Marlowe despite allegations by the informers – notably Baines – that he was an aetheist.

Kyd was undeniably tortured in extremis, as the reaction of the state to religious controversy was normally a resort to extreme violence. Subversive literature was found in the joint lodgings of the two playwrights, Kyd claiming this belonged to Marlowe. Yet there is a contradiction between what the state did to Marlowe, and what they did to Kyd. Marlowe is not arrested and certainly not tortured. The summons to the Privy Council clearly allows him to go to Deptford for a random meeting with three other men – Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley – which the coroner reports as a social meeting.. It is only because of a quarrel over who pays the bill – Le Reckoning – curiously set out in French – that Marlowe dies. Officially there is no relationship to what has happened over the Dutch Church libel. Such contradictions have led critics to question the inquest report – Eugenie de Kalb doing so in a review of the Hotson document in the Times Literary Supplement within weeks of its publication in 1925.

 Hoffman makes no attempt to deal with this central contradiction, assuming that Marlowe is threatened with extreme state violence. He is apparently in fear of his life, and must disappear. Hoffman believes Walsingham will send him abroad. Whether this is what happens is contestable, but what is clear is that there is an inquest as an outcome of a legal process conducted by a leading court official – Hoffman says William Danby is ‘Coroner to the household of our Lady the Queen’ (p100) – which concludes that Marlowe was killed – but rules this was self defence: so the killer- Ingram Frizer – can go free. This has been taken, by those who believe that Marlowe was murdered, as confirmation the state had arranged his killing. Hoffman provides a third argument, arguing that the state in effect colludes in his escape so he is NOT killed. The state in this case is the coroner, a court official. Hoffman believes he is procured by Thomas Walsingham to arrange a cover up to allow Marlowe to flee. Why would a court official wish Marlowe to escape if as Hoffman and others believe, the state wants him as an aetheist to be punished?

The coroner’s report and a speculative account

Chapter Six considers the Coroner’s report of June 1st 1593 as the central issue. Hoffman quotes “a version of the original” (p100) and the pardon granted to Ingram Frizer, “signed by Queen Elizabeth” (p100) Frizer being the man alleged to have stabbed Marlowe. It is a complex document, the original in court latin, which has been controversial from the moment Hotson published it. The key issue for Hoffman, contending that Marlowe escaped from Deptford, and that the coroner’s report closed the legal account allowing Marlowe to escape to the continent, is that it is signed off by 16 jurors, The jury did this after viewing a corpse. Thus there has to be a corpse.

Sadly at this crucial juncture in his argument, Hoffman cannot produce convincing evidence. From page 117 to 121 he sketches what he admits is only “a fictional reconstruction of how the Marlowe – Shakespeare fraud began” (121). His sketch involves Ingram Frizer and Nicholas Skeres as hired killers, employed by Thomas Walsingham – they were certainly the employees of Marlowe’s ‘friend’ – Frizer was working for Marlowe’s patron both before and after the alleged killing, but it is difficult to argue they were known to be assassins. Hoffman writes “They have killed before. They will kill again. Life is cheap in sixteenth century England”. There is no evidence Frizer and Skeres were killers.

Poley has already been identified as “the worst of the three” (p109) as he had much experience of prison. This is certainly true, but he was placed with Catholic prisoners he was paid to report on to the state. There is no reason to think he would be bribed for an assassination. Poley, who had an unusually long career in espionage as Stephen Alford shows in his book The Watchers, only took calculated risks.

Alford commented in the 2013 (Penguin) edition of the book “In thirteen years he went on twentysix missions for Her Majesty’s special affairs… probably the strangest feature of Poley’s career is its longevity. .. he was sent to the Tower of London because of his suspicious behavior in the Babington affair…Sir Robert Cecil kept him on the secret payroll till 1601” (p317) The Babington Plot was 1586. To be a spy for over a decade and a half when most spies could only survive for a few years was a testimony to his careful handling of himself in this dangerous world. Poley had no record of violence or taking risks. Hoffman was alleging events in Deptford involving an attack which involved massive risks. Nothing in Poley’s career suggests that this is what he was prepared to do.

Hoffman argues Marlowe was not in the room at Deptford in Mrs Bull’s house, as he had travelled to Dover to cross the Channel (p119). The three assassins induce a sailor, unknown to them, to go drinking and when he was drunk kill him. The body is shown to the jury posed as Marlowe- Mrs Bull is not called to identify the body as being that of a man who has been in her house the previous day. The dangerously risky assault on an able bodied man lasts only a minute and then “Ingram Frizer has of course, been taken into pre-arranged custody”. (p120). If this was prearranged, then the coroner was party to a murder. It is unlikely the coroner William Danby would have taken part in a murderous plot without political approval. Danby was a court official, yet. how Walsingham could induce a man of that stature to agree to such a plot is not explained.

 The real Marlowe vanishes but Hoffman does not explain how he goes into exile or provides the magnificent output celebrated as the Shakespeare corpus. The only fragment of potential hard evidence Hoffman can provide is a morsel from Thomas Walsingham’s will – proven in 1630 – in which he leaves 40 shillings (£2 Sterling) for a scrivener, an unusual bequest according to Hoffman (pp125-6). This is the only evidence for Walsingham having been the go between from an exiled writer to the London stage. Hoffman believes Marlowe lived in Italy, a country he is not known to have visited – and he was not a catholic nor is he known to speak Italian – sending scripts home to be copied for the stage.. Hoffman argues that Walsingham had to have the scripts copied by a scrivener as firstly Marlowe’s handwriting was known in London, and secondly and significantly “For Walsingham, if the truth were told, would have been guilty, not only of murder, but of suborning the Queen’s coroner. His head would be lopped off without much ado” (p125).

Hoffman may have been overestimated Thomas Walsingham’s political capital. In citing his will of 1630, he rightly names him as Sir Thomas Walsingham, but the title was granted long after Deptford. Since confusion over Francis Walsingham and his cousin is widespread, it is worth stressing there was no equivalent status of the two men. Sir Francis, sometime ambassador to France, Secretary of State and Privy Councillor, was a major political figure in Elizabethan England. His cousin was not. Hoffman thinks he was a knight in 1593 claiming Poley, the spy, “returned from Holland with secret information for Sir Thomas Walsingham and from that meeting with his employer he went to Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford” (p109). Walsingham had no title at that date and did not employ Poley, not being a government official. I cannot see he was in a position to suborn the Queen’s coroner.

The role of the State.

 Hoffman believes, rightly that staging an inquest would take a considerable effort to organise (pp110- 113) – and the involvement of a court official, the coroner William Danby, who operated “within the verge”, the moveable area around the monarch’s person – a phrase repeated four times in the inquest report to emphasise that Danby was on official business. It is crucial to recall that in Hoffman’s view Marlowe is running for his life from a charge of aetheism – an issue which threatens the state, which relies on the Anglican church for support. Queen Elizabeth had made the current Archbishop of Canterbury a member of the Privy Council to show support against subversion: Danby would be expected to toe the line against Marlowe if he was a subversive, not aid a plot to allow him to flee.

Yet Hoffman claims the plot to whisk Marlowe away would involve an inquest and Royal pardon to Frizer. Hoffman states, correctly, the pardon came “with unusual promptness” (p121). The Tudor state was not known for efficiency, but the plot operated like clockwork. How could this lethal conspiracy have been organised, with a court officer involved? With Marlowe buried, the issues were no longer active and the book was closed, but the risks of such a plot were considerable and Hoffman is clear that this is the case. He writes that Danby was corrupted to take susbtantial risks – he “has been well paid to keep a secret which, if he revealed it, would mean his death” (p118). How could this be? It is alleged the Queen is taking an interest in Marlowe: if Danby was found to be aiding him, his career was over and his life at risk. Moreover, if the risk to Marlowe was so severe that Walsingham paid for a lethal plot involving three killers, one a spy on duty at the time of the incident, plus a legal official of the Royal Court, why was Marlowe allowed to go free to spend eight hours, according to the inquest, in a social gathering with men he had little in common with?

 Instead of tackling these complex political issues, Hoffman diverts into the wholly subjective world of literary analysis. Half the rest of the book – pages 122 to 256 – is devoted to literary analysis of texts which Hoffman believed could support his thesis. There is no attempt to account for the contradiction of the role of the state, which he believed is threatening Marlowe’s life – but then is helping him to escape justice with Danby providing an inquest to exonerate Frizer and trigger a Royal Pardon with unusual speed. The inquest generates more questions than answers.

Hoffman’s Legacy

Calvin Hoffman may not have been the first to propose Marlowe for Shakspeare Authorship (a crowded field – in March 2022 Wikipedia listed 87 Shakespeare Authorship candidates) as this was first proposed in 1819 in the journal Monthly Review. His book did not establish his theory on a firm basis. There are too many unanswered questions posed, a lack of substantiation at the key points and over reliance on subjective literary parallels. Hoffman has a poor grasp of English history, notably the monarchy at governmental level** and Thomas Walsingham’s role – as a minor gentry figure in Kent in 1593. He began a significant rise with his marriage, being knighted by the Queen for mobilising the Kent militia against an invasion scare. But at the time of the Deptford incident, he was unlikely to have had the contacts or resources for the plot Hoffman sketches.

Hoffman did not produce a plausible theory, but his book had two effects. The first was to add to the criticisms of the inquest and its conclusion that a random argument over who paid the bill (le Reckoning) led to a fight in which Marlowe was killed. Hoffman’s criticisms of the inquest are valid. The coroner was not acting properly, even if Thomas Walsingham had not arranged for a corpse to be provided by a brutal killing. Hotson’s belief he had solved the mystery of what happened to Marlowe failed to convince, thus making further investigation inevitable.

More importantly, Hoffman knew his book was insufficient and had failed to produce a theory that could prove Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare. As he was a wealthy man, he chose to set up a Trust – the Calvin and Rose G Hoffman Memorial Trust, to be administered by the King’s School Canterbury, the aim of this being:

“research into the life and works of Chistopher Marlowe …. and the authorship of the plays and poems now commonly attributed to William Shakespeare with particular reference to the possibility that Christopher Marlowe wrote some or all of these poems and plays…”

This statement indicating more research was needed to prove the theory. The research was to be stimulated by an annual prize, to take 40% of the trust income, but clause 6 states

“If in any year the person adjudged to have won the PRIZE shall in the opinion of the King’s School furnished irrefutable and incontrovertible proof and evidence required to satisfy the world of Shakespearian scholarship that all the plays and poems now commonly attributed to William Shakespeare were in fact written by Christopher Marlowe then the amount of the PRIZE for that year shall be increased by assigning to the winner absolutely one half of the capital or corpus of the entire Trust Fund and thenceforth the remaining one half of the capital of the Fund and thenceforth the remaining one half of the capital of the Fund and the income thereof shall be held by the King’s school in perpetuity upon the trusts (sic) set out and declared in clause 8 below.”

This is a curious clause as it gives to an undefined body of “Shakespearian Scholarship” the veto on the proposition. The intellectual criteria for proving the proposition are not defined, but even if agreed the outcome would involve a whole body of scholarship having to admit they have been wrong for several centuries. It is difficult to see this happening.

The value of Hoffman’s book will have to rest on its qualities. My view is that Hoffman did not set out a case for Marlowe being the author of the Shakespeare writings, but did expose some serious anomalies in the conduct of the inquest allowing the granting of the pardon to Ingram Frizer. This does not mean that Hoffman was right to say Frizer was a murderer along with Skeres and Poley, or that the inquest was set up to close down the case and let Frizer continue to work for Thomas Walsingham. There was however a dead body, but this could not have been produced by a random murder when Marlowe was already fleeing. Nevertheless the conduct of the inquest was unsatisfactory and Hoffman was right to argue this. From this point sensible debate should now proceed

Trevor Fisher                                      14 4 22

* The links with Marlowe are weak but the title painted on the surface of the portrait QUOD ME NUTRIT ME DESTRUIT has made an impact. Meaning “that which nourishes me destroys me’ it is used by Shakespeare in sonnet 123 “consum’d with that which it was nourished by” and Pericles Act II scene 2 line 33 by the fourth knight, carrying a device with the slogan ‘Quod me alit me extinguit’. Hoffman realized this was important and in a later version of his book – five years after initial publication – he has an addendum reporting on a visit to Professor Gilbert Highet of Columbia university, a classical scholar, and asked for his guidance on the motto. He was told “No Greek or Latin writer ever used the motto, or any near approximation of it. I must conclude that its creation is unique, highly individual – peculiarly unique and individual”. (p244)

The judgement was repeated by A D Wraight in the 1963 book “In Search of Christopher Marlowe” stating Professor Highet could not trace the motto in writers of antiquity, “nor has it been traced in the works of English writers prior to Marlowe”, which appears to go beyond what Highet told Hoffman.

In fact the motto was published in 1586 in a close form to that used in Pericles by one Geoffrey Whitney in a book titled A CHOICE OF EMBLEMS, republished in 1969 by Scolar Press. The full title page of the original published in Leyden carried the note “For the moste parte gathered out of sundrie writers Englishised and Moralised and divers newly devised by Geoffrey Whitney”. The Pericles version is above a drawing of a torch inverted so the flame is put out by wax. It is not possible to know if the version in the Cambridge portrait was also available in 1585 but the Emblems – mottoes – were clearly in circulation in the 1580s and this one is unlikely to be a special creation of Marlowe.

** Hoffman believes Mary Queen of Scots was a significant figure in Marlowe’s adult life, stating that “Mary of Scotland was ambitious and alive” and of Elizabeth and Mary “Both ladies had equal right to the throne”. (p61) Mary was executed on 8th February 1587, so dead during Marlowe’s later years, while the succession rights were not equal. Moreover, Catholics did not accept Elizabeth had any right to the throne, as her parents were not married by the rites of the Catholic Church. Protestants accepted Mary was first in line to the throne, which underlay her execution. Protestant politicians could not take the risk of the Queen dying and a Catholic taking the throne: but they operated with due process, murder was not acceptable. This must apply in the case of Marlowe as well.

The Brewer’s Sting

What I have called the Brewer’s Sting in my little book on Mary Queen of Scots in Staffordshire (Youcaxton 2019) has been underestimated in mainstream histories. In 1585 the Queen was moved back to the grim fortress of Tutbury Castle in order to isolate her from plotters, with a strict regime applied by the puritan Sir Amyas Paulet, but the role of the apparently unimportant supply of beer is underestimated. The Secretary of State and spycatcher, Sir Francis Walsingham, had given strict instructions the Queen should be kept in lockdown, but by some point in that year Walsingham having required total isolation of the Scottish Queen was willing to let Mary communicate with the plotters. However this would only be allowed if Walsingham could intercept and read the coded messages the Queen would send. Walsingham recognized that if he could find a way to have the secret letters passed to his code breaker Phelippes, then he would know what Mary was plotting, but the Queen and her communicants had to be completely unware of what was happening. The Brewers Sting was the way he achieved this apparently impossible feat. History tells that this astonishing feat was entirely successful but how the trick was performed is another matter.

The method of transmitting secret correspondence to and from the Queen in Staffordshire to her conspirators on the continent via Walsingham’s office using the supply of beer was superficially simple. Only four people knew the inner workings of the Sting, the brewer who supplied Tutbury and later Chartley Manor, Gilbert Gifford who was the main courier, Sir Amyas Paulet the controller of the Scottish Queen’s imprisonment, and Thomas Phelippes, secretary and code breaker to Walsingham, the Secretary of State. The letters came through the French embassy, where they had been blocked throughout 1585, and would have to be taken to Staffordshire and into an enclosure tigbtly controlled by armed men. While the focus of attention has been on Gilbert Gifford, the Catholic deacon who persuaded Mary’s continental agent in Paris, Thomas Morgan, and the French embassy that he was a conspirator who could be trusted to take the letters to Staffordshire, the brewer was vital. The man in Burton delivered them to Mary in her prison and took the replies back to Gifford to take to London. Only the brewer could enter the Queen’s prison and handle the correspondence. Gifford – a member of Staffordshire’s leading Catholic family – could never go to Chartley. Focusing on the relatively minor figure of the brewer throws light on how the plot was organized and run, and when and how it took place, and how the Queen was induced to trust a plan which would destroy her.

Given that the French diplomats would only give the letters to someone with a background in Catholic conspiracy, the current consensus is that the plan was devised in December 1585 and could only operate when Gifford had arrived back in England from a Catholic seminary and was ‘turned’ after talking to Walsingham. Yet the brewer in Burton on Trent – then as now a brewing centre with exceptionally pure water – had been in operation for months before and while the Sting certainly could not operate till Gifford was in transit between London and Chartley, investigating the brewer gives a different perspective. 

The scheme is described accurately by Robert Hutchinson in his book on Walsingham. Hutchinson accurately describes the method of transmission that he believes Phelippes visited Staffordshire over Xmas 1585 (1) to create.

“…After some investigation, the method of communication was fixed. The household received their supply of beer from a brewer in the nearby town of Burton, delivered once a week to Chartley in small wooden casks or kegs. It was decided that the secret letters would be held in waterproof wooden canisters small enough to slip into the keg via the hole used for the bung. The Brewer – referred to as the ‘honest man’ by Paulet* was told to transport the letters by this method and when the process was reversed, to hand over Mary’s letters to Gifford.

“The plan was swiftly put into operation and on the evening of 16th January 1586, the Scottish Queen was delighted to relieve her first secret message for almost a year….”

*his name was revealed by Anthony G Petti in 1979 but this is not widely realized. 

This is accurate, and recognizes the role played by the brewer, not always seen as a crucial cog in the wheels. 

Why Change The System?

The provision of small ie low alcohol beer was a vital part of diet in the Tudor period as clean water was in short supply, and the castle did not have a brewery so would always have had to import beer. When Sir Amyas Paulet took over from Ralph Sadler as the Queen’s first Tutbury jailer in 1585 he made a change to the mechanism for supplying the beer, a curious development as no change was needed. The total number of people in the Castle once the two parties of Mary and her jailers had arrived was not changed when a new person was in charge. Paulet tightened security as Walsingham had instructed him to, but there was no reason to change the method to supply beer. Yet when Paulet arrived at Tutbury in April 1585 (3) he made changes which involved a political development in the locality. 

At the end of May 1585 Paulet wrote to Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer, stating that a Brewer and his family had been moved into the house in Burton on Trent belonging to Lord Paget , a Catholic who had fled abroad. Paget’s houses – Beaudesert, his principal house, and at Burton, both in Staffordshire, became Crown properties – so the contents were sent to Tutbury. This did not in itself mean that there should be any change to how beer from Burton was provided. Paulet – probably in conjunction with Walsingham though his name is not featured in the literature – decided to create a new and dedicated supply line but did not explain to Burghley how beer had been provided when Ralph Sadler was the jailer and why a change was necessary with financial implications. If however the brewer was provided with free lodgings this would be an incentive to do what the new regime wanted, and if so then this could be a step towards the smuggling of clandestine correspondence. 

Paulet’s letter to Burghley of 28th May 1585 stated that the Brewer was already set up in the Burton House, and Paulet was anxious that no other family should be allowed to lodge at the house for reasons which seem spurious. The letter said

“The brewer that serveth this house (Paulet must mean Tutbury castle TF) with beer, breweth his beer in the Lord Paget’s house at Burton, where he is lodged with his wife and family and therefore I think, in my simple opinion, your lordship shall do well to forebear during this service here to grant the keeping of the house to any other, because inconvenience may grow between the two families, and the house being utterly naked, the brewer may seem sufficient to have charge of it.” (4)

It is curious that the supply, which must have already have been established and working effectively, now needed alteration. As Paulet said, Paget’s house was stripped of furniture amd was ‘utterly naked’ though the brewer’s family had to have some facilities to live in, which are not spelled out. Paulet’s major concern was cutting off Queen Mary’s ability to write to plotters so it is not suprising Father J Morris who edited Paulet’s letters concluded the move was the start of the Brewer’s involvement in the clandestine transmission of coded correspondence, arguing in his collected letters of Sir Amias Paulet, that 

“In the following letter we have the first mention of the Burton brewer, who was one of the chief agents in the treachery by which Mary was betrayed, and that he should have been put by Walsingham into Lord Paget’s empty house, seems to show that the scheme of her betrayal was already sketched out” (5)

However in the century and a half since Morris wrote this, little evidence to prove such early planning of the Brewer’s Sting has emerged. While the brewer could have started to plan the system of smuggling letters into and out of the Queen’s lockdown quarters, this could not have happened without someone to take the letters to and from the French Embassy, so unless Gifford was already in Walsingham’s team the plan could not work. The Brewer could not take the correspondence further than Burton. Gifford, who was ideally suited to persuade the French diplomats to release the blocked letters, was still in France till December 1585 and no other candidate has been suggested. Either Gifford was in Walsingham’s employ well before returning to England, or Walsingham and Paulet were indulging in a speculative exercise. The current consensus that Gifford had no contact with Walsingham till December 1585 rules this out. We need to know more about the brewer’s arrival at Paget’s house and what deal had been struck, but the deal was probably verbal. 

The apparently marginal issue of what deal the brewer had made is crucial, and made more difficult by his obscurity to most historians who have dealt with the fall of the Queen -the identity of the Brewer was unknown for many years reflecting his relative unimportance – J H Pollen in 1922 wrote of “the honest man’ (we do not know his real name)” – (6) and this has been the name used to this day despite his name having been known since 1979.

Robert Hutchinson is a rare commentator who has seen the importance of the brewer, rightly arguing that “The key figure in all this movement of secret correspondence to and from Chartley was of course, the brewer in Burton. Without his co-operation, the whole elaborate scheme would have collapsed. Although he was reputedly a good Catholic, he was not ashamed to receive bountiful bribes from both Walsingham and Mary Queen of Scots. With an eye to market forces, he also put up the price of his beer, comfortable in the knowledge that Paulet could not now go elsewhere for his supplies of ale.” (7)

 After the move to Chartley on December 24th 1585, once the Brewer was operating he was taking letters in and out of Chartley in water proof packets and was so valuable he could set his own terms. Paulet was furious when he put his prices up and chose when to do the work to suit himself (8) but objections were futile, Paulet had no choice but to play according to the Brewer’s rules.

The brewer was no more than a transmission belt, and when Mary was taken to Fotheringhay after her arrest, he was left in Paget’s house with no further role to play. For three years he appears to have been forgotten, but in September 1589 he reappears again, with his name revealed as William Nicholson, when Sir Richard Croft, who seems to have been his employer, wrote to Richard Bagot the protestant in charge of central Staffordshire, asking for the “graunte of a small thing now in his possession”, as the Brewer – named as William Nicholson – had asked the Lord Treasurer, Lord Bughley, for the continuation of the tenancy of the house of Paget in Burton. Burghley remembered the brewer and wrote back to Bagot on 12th October 1589 that with Bagot recommending that the tenancy be continued and as the brewer 

“was placed theare by Sir Amice Powlet with my allowance, the rather in respect of his good and gainfull service theare in the time of the Scottishe Quene’s lieng at Tutburye; and therefore I pray yowe to continue him tenaunte for I do not meane to have him removed”.

Bagot endorsed the approval for “Nicholson the brewer”, who presumably remained in Paget’s house indefinitely, and with this note (9) the brewer fades from the historical record.

 The key issue of what I have called The Brewer’s Sting has always been seen as the role of Gilbert Gifford, as without someone as suited as him to get the letters from the French embassy the work of the brewer was stalled. Yet the brewer was operationally important as only the brewer could get the secret letters into and out of the Queen’s prison. The use of the kegs would work as effectively one must assume in Tutbury as Chartley, and William Nicholson alone could deliver in this final stage of the journey. It is undeniable that the plot as it operated in practice relied on Gifford arriving at the French embassy with approval by Thomas Morgan. But Hutchinson is right on the key point, without the brewer the transmission of letters to and from the continent would have failed in Staffordshire. We know now that the brewer was installed in Paget’s Burton house in May 1585. What we may suspect, but cannot prove, is that Morris may be right to see this as the first stage in the formation of the transmission system which worked so well in 1586. What we don’t know is how the system could have been set up with Gifford on the continent – unless the current consensus is wrong and he was in league with Walsingham even when training to be a Catholic priest. 

30 11 21 Trevor Fisher

  1. Robert Hutchinson, Elizabeth’s Spymaster, Phoenix 2007 p121. Alford on the date Mary saw Philippes is on The Watchers, Alan Lane 2012, pp20-205.
  2. Stephen Alford The Watchers, Allen Lane 2012 p 197-198. Earlier (p195) he suggested “Morgan was sure that Gilbert Gifford would solve all the problems of communicating with the Queen of Scots in England”. Yet since he must have known Gifford could not enter her prison why did he think this? 
  3. John Guy My Heart is My Own Fourth Estate 2004 Chronology p518
  5. Morris op cit p31 
  6. J H Pollen Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington Plot Scots Historical society 1922 plxvi
  7. Hutchinson op cit pp124-125.
  8. Hutchinson op cit p125. 
  9. Anthony G Petti Roman Catholicism in Elizabethan and Jacobean Staffordshire, pp45-6

Was Marlowe a Spy? Revised

The theory that Christopher Marlowe should be seen as a spy as well as a poet gained considerable impetus in 2005 with Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy (1). Honan’s book sought to establish Marlowe’s credentials in the world of espionage. To a considerable extent he succeeded as entries to the influential Oxford Dictionary of National Biography demonstrate. The entry on Marlowe himself, by Charles Nicholl, (2) – argues Marlowe “had been moving in Catholic circles as a spy or ‘intelligencer’…. typically (but not exclusively) under the aegis of Sir Francis Walsingham” – while the entry on Walsingham himself in the version supplied eighteen months later (3) commits to Marlowe working for the great spymaster. The three authors have no doubt that “Walsingham is now best remembered in the popular imagination for his role as spymaster, which continues to generate a certain notoriety. His casual and brief employment of Christopher Marlowe as an agent in 1587 still gives rise to implausible conspiracy theories”. Yet there is no consensus on whether Marlowe was an espionage operative, or that he ever met Francis Walsingham. The wider views that Marlowe was a protestant spy although attracted to the Catholic Religion remain controversial but attract considerable attention. Despite the work of historians over the best part of a century, since the groundbreaking publication of 1925, Marlowe scholars have not been able to make definitive judgements. Why is this?

In this paper dates are given in the old Julian Calendar – the year did not end till March 25. The year which began in January by the Gregorian New Style calendar, was 1592 but this was not in use in England which was 11 days behind the continent).        
*The key points on Marlowe’s final known hours – see 1593 Marlowe’s disappearance.
** Sir Francis Walsingham, puritan Secretary of State in the 1580s, legendary spy catcher.
*** Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley from 1571, Lord Treasurer in the 1580s and Elizabeth 1’s key advisor since before she became Queen. His son Robert Cecil inherited the role.
**** Marlowe’s name is variously spelt. The Morley cited by the Privy Council at Cambridge is Marlowe as others with this name are not graduating that year.

Marlowe’s life was lived on the margins of late Elizabethan culture and even in the theatre left little hard evidence behind. Playwrights of this period rarely had a high profile, though Marlowe was unusually newsworthy. He generated rumours about heterodox views and activities, though until the second decade of the twentieth century there was no suggestion that he was involved in covert activities. That Marlowe might be a spy became an issue in 1925 when J Leslie Hotson published researches intending to account for Marlowe’s disappearance on May 30th 1593. (4). Hotson did not intend to suggest that the playwright had been involved in espionage. His headline discovery was an inquest report into a death in Deptford, on May 30th 1593, which Hotson showed was officially regarded as the lawful killing of the poet in an act of self defence. But Hotson also discovered a remarkable letter from the Privy Council to Cambridge University on Marlowe’s behalf which pointed to the student Marlowe being employed on government business. Hotson had no doubt this proved Marlowe had been a reliable espionage operative, and closed his monograph by commenting that leading politicians had “praised” him as a “faithful and effective secret agent” (5). This was not quite what the Privy Council letter did, but there was no question Marlowe was known to some of the most important politicians in government.

That Marlowe might be a spy became an issue in 1925 when J Leslie Hotson published researches intending to account for Marlowe’s disappearance on May 30th 1593. (4). Hotson did not intend to suggest that the playwright had been involved in espionage. His headline discovery was an inquest report into a death in Deptford, on May 30th 1593, which Hotson showed was officially regarded as the lawful killing of the poet in an act of self defence. But Hotson also discovered a remarkable letter from the Privy Council to Cambridge University on Marlowe’s behalf which pointed to the student Marlowe being employed on government business. Hotson had no doubt this proved Marlowe had been a reliable espionage operative, and closed his monograph by commenting that leading politicians had “praised” him as a “faithful and effective secret agent” (5). This was not quite what the Privy Council letter did, but there was no question Marlowe was known to some of the most important politicians in government.

Hotson put most of his effort into discussing the inquest report, but within weeks of Hotson publishing, a Cambridge student, Eugenie de Kalb published a highly critical discussion of Leslie Hotson’s interpretation of the events in Deptford*. Reviewing Hotson’s study of the official account of events for the Times Literary Supplement, De Kalb disagreed with Hotson’s acceptance of the official verdict of lawful killing, but more pertinently argued that the companions who met Marlowe in Mrs Bull’s room and garden on the day he disappeared were not part of his literary or Canterbury circles. She contended that “three of the four have been cogs…in the hidden political machinery of Elizabeth’s reign”. (6) This comment started a continuing attempt to find links between Marlowe and the secret operations of Elizabethan government. De Kalb noted that Hotson touched on the fact that Marlowe was summoned to appear before the Privy Council in 1593, the same body which had sent the letter to Cambridge in 1587, but her main argument was about the men at Deptford.

De Kalb argued Marlowe and Nicholas Skeres had a history of secret work, with Poley making the total of three of the four she saw as agents. The allegation of links with espionage did not stop at the men in the room. De Kalb also linked Thomas Walsingham as having formerly been a spy detecting the Babington plot in 1586, though he was no longer involved in the world of his cousin, the famous spymaster Francis, and it was with Thomas Walsingham that Marlowe was staying, Only Ingram Frizer, the alleged killer, had no links with the world of espionage. Robert Poley was undoubtedly an agent with years of experience in covert operations. He played a crucial role in ending the Babington Plot, and was on a mission as a courier carrying diplomatic documents when he went to Deptford for what de Kalb thought could not be a social meeting.

Yet none of those at Deptford had current espionage experience save Poley. Skeres had only a tenuous link with espionage as a follower of the Earl of Essex, then trying to build an espionage network with dubious success, though David Riggs says he was involved in the Babington plot as a ‘bit player’ (7) – and so would have been known to both Francis and Thomas Walsingham. Frizer was a confidence trickster not a spy, who was employed by Thomas Walsingham. Thomas had known Poley as both had worked on the Babington Plot in 1586, but he had retired to pursue literary interests once he inherited the mansion at Scadbury.

No link apart from the episode in Deptford has been established between Poley and Marlowe, but it is argued by Nicholls in the 2002 The Reckoning that Poley was on a government mission when he diverted to attend the meeting in Deptford, and not just as a courier of important documents as the payment warrant has an unusual covering phrase stating he was allowed flexibility on carrying out the Queen’s service (8). The inquest did not examine why the four men were meeting, it is generally assumed this was a purely social gathering, but no evidence on why they met has ever been forthcoming.

Marlowe’s more recent espionage link at Flushing neither Hotson nor De Kalb or anyone else knew in 1925. It would be half a century before another random discovery in the form of a letter from the garrison commander in the Low Countries in 1591 (os) added a new dimension to the debate. The commander, Robert Sidney, reported that he had arrested Marlowe and another man for the capital offence of forging coin and was sending them home for investigation. (9) This curious report pointed towards a covert operation, though as Sidney had no knowledge of this, if it was authorised it had to be top secret. Did this mean Marlowe had contacts in the highest level of the espionage world? Indeed, what was the world of espionage, and could Marlowe have fitted in?

The Secret Theatre

The underworld which John Le Carre once called The Secret Theatre had little glamour or prestige during the late Tudor period and to enter it meant entering a world of suspicion and risk. Intelligence was a vital government priority because the turmoil of religious conflict made covert, access to information via secret activity was essential, but spying was difficult, dangerous and badly paid.

Espionage in the Elizabethan period certainly was not a career. It is anachronistic to speak of an “Elizabethan Secret Service”, as writers such as Alison Plowden do (10). Government ministers operated loose networks run by personal whim and little overall structure. There were no equivalents to MI5 or MI6 or Special Branch. But for someone of Marlowe’s limited finances it did offer additional funds desirable to an impoverished student who then sought a precarious living in the theatre. This was an era when plays lacked copyright protection, payment was spasmodic and rewards few.

The ministers who chose to do so worked with a casualised work force existing hand to mouth. Park Honan, arguing Marlowe fitted this world, commented that “…a new man did not necessarily learn much from any officer’s chit-chat or evasions. There was no network of intercommunicating agents for him to be aware of, no training programmes, no sessions on espionage or formal means of indoctrination, and the chances are that Marlowe bided his time” (11). Honan is right that there was no formal structure or career pattern, and the men who worked covert operations had little chance to meet other agents – the terms ‘officer’ and ‘agent’ are misleading.

Yet if the nature of the business of spying has changed, the nature of the spy has not changed. Honan perceptively quoted Kim Philby, from a later age of Cambridge subversives, stating that the first duty of a double agent “is to perfect his cover story as well as his cover personality”. (12). If Marlowe was a spy, he had to have a cover story which allowed him to penetrate into the worlds his employers wanted to infiltrate. Did Marlowe have a cover story?

Covert activities constituting espionage in Elizabethan England were driven by government priority for intelligence in the religious conflicts between Protestant and Catholic. In the Elizabethan period sources of information were varied, and not always undercover. As the spying world has become less James Bond or Reilly Prince of Spies and more signals intelligence and satellite surveillance, the term ‘intelligencer’ has become more fashionable than ‘spy’, covering a mix of activities. It is appropriate for Elizabethan England, full time spies being rarities (13) In the late Tudor world. Susan Doran has noted “Walsingham** and Burghley*** had been running networks of intelligencers for more than a decade, employing respectable diplomats, merchants, artists, artists, poets and musicians who travelled widely or were based in foreign cities, and they often paid for their information out of their own pockets”. (14) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Privy councillor, also had a network operating in the 1580s. Leicester’s stepson the Earl of Essex and Burghley’s son Robert inherited these networks and in the 1590s clashed, contributing to the downfall of the Earl.

Given the informality of arrangements in this murky world, links need to be established with a major politician if Marlowe is to be seen as a spy. The case for Marlowe being a spy must establish links with a major politician, without assuming this was Sir Francis Walsingham, the only major politician most historians know ran an espionage network.

In the 1580s, when Marlowe made his way to Cambridge and then London, the Elizabethan State’s priority was garnering information about Catholic activism in England and on the continent. Did Marlowe have the right attributes to survive in the secretive world of religious intrigue? Is it the case he was a Catholic himself? What could he offer? And what could spying offer him? Espionage was not a money rich activity. Honan states “nearly all agents were paid on a low pro rata basis for specific tasks or information… as a rule, a spy was rewarded with a signed warrant for anything between a few shillings and £30… Marlowe could expect £5 or £10 for a few weeks courier duty abroad, but nothing else unless he worked again” (15). Payment warrants for Marlowe have yet to be discovered. Unlike Robert Poley, whose payment warrants survived, Marlowe has no body of material easily available to study. Indeed, it was the very lack of material which made Hotson’s discoveries – and the later discovery of a mission in Flushing – so striking.

The problems facing researchers Marlowe’s life were first set out by Mark Eccles in 1934, in explaining why the developments which led to the state investigating Marlowe and playwright Thomas Kyd that spring were hard to research, Eccles wrote:

“Marlowe’s life has the fascination of the unknown. Such fragments of it as we do succeed in discovering only intensify the blackness of the rest. Of the six years of his prime, (ie 1587-93 TF) nothing is known beyond a few casual allusions and the charges made at the time of his arrest and death. Between the Privy Council’s letter on his behalf to the University of Cambridge in 1587 and the warrant issued for his arrest, only one definite record of Marlowe has been found. From this record we will take our start”. (16) Marlowe was not charged with anything by the Privy Council, and while writers including David Riggs (17) have supported the idea Marlowe was arrested – which he was not: to be arrested means being taken into custody- intense research still leaves Marlowe’s life shrouded in mystery. until the libellous placard placed on the wall of the Dutch church – signed Tamburlaine.

In the aftermath of the Dutch Church Libel, Marlowe’s companion Thomas Kyd was both arrested and tortured. Subversive religious literature was found in their joint lodgings and Kyd’s defence was that it belonged to Marlowe. What happened next is significant. Since the charge applied to him as much as Kyd, he should have had the same treatment – but he was allowed to roam. Kuriyama has argued “The fact that Marlowe was merely summoned than being imprisoned like his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd could be viewed as a positive rather than a negative sign” (18). Or could be proof that Marlowe was protected against heavy treatment by the state. The different treatments suggest Kyd had no favours to call in, but Marlowe did. I argued earlier that to prove espionage involement, links with powerful politicians have to be established. This episode raises just that prospect and could resolve the controversy of Marlowe’s extra curricular activities, though the Dutch Church libel episode is not about spying.

It has long been understood that the case for Marlowe as spy rests on limited foundations. Francis Walsingham’s biographer John Cooper has contended that “Marlowe’s time as a spy was brief: a few months while reading for his MA at Corpus Christi in 1584-85, and a reprise in the Dutch port of Flushing in 1592 (NS: 159l Old Style) (19). The focus is indeed on two episodes and still more, on two documents – the first from 1587 not 1584-5: though in addition the record of absences ferreted out of archival evidence at Cambridge, his spending recorded in the University accounts, and Marlowe’s ability to generate court records through falling foul of the law once he had left Cambridge are all suggestive and add to the mystery.

At Cambridge Marlowe was an impoverished student from an artisan background, without entree into politically active circles, which were invariably drawn from the gentry and other monied circles. There is no question that if he was spending more than his grant he had to have other sources of income. The need to earn money over and above the Parker grant is shown by the career of Stephen Gosson (20) like Marlowe a student from Canterbury who went to university – Oxford – on a Parker grant. He never graduated and in his polemic about drama Plays Confuted wrote that he was “pulled from the university before I was ripe” apparently because of financial pressures. However Marlowe survived and completed the six years of study needed for an MA. He does not seem to have been a sizar, the role of temporary servant to richer students used by students of restricted means to generate extra funds.

Issue 1: Marlowe at Cambridge

Marlowe’s time at Cambridge has come to be seen as the time when events brought him into contact with the world of espionage. There is widespread support for the idea the portrait of a young man now hung in Corpus Christi is of Marlowe and bought with government money, so ‘proving’ that Marlowe was a spy. However there is no certainty the picture is of Marlowe. The identification marks showing it came from Marlowe’s time at Corpus are not conclusive on who the sitter might me, cannot establish it was bought with secret funds, and raise long standing questions about the provenance of pictures. It has to be remembered that Corpus Christi college does not accept this is a picture of Marlowe. The picture has to be seen as a further mystery not evidence of any value. The Privy Council letter is totally different.

APPENDIX A: The Privy Council Letter (21)

APPENDIX A: the Privy Council Letter (21)

It is notable the letter shows that Burghley knew of Marlowe, but Walsingham did not sign and evidence Walsingham had heard his name has yet to be produced. Experts have determined this Morley was our man.

Xxxi Junii 1587 (29th June) – PRO/NA Privy Council Registers PC2/14/381. See also Acts Of the Privy Council, XV 1587-8 page 141.

Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames* and there to remain. Their Lordships thought good to certify that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaved himself orderlie and discreetly whereby he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing. Their Lordships request that the rumor thereof should be allaied by all possible meanes, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement**. Because it was not her Majesties pleasure that anie one employed as he has been in matters touching the benefit of his Countrie should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th’affaires he went about.

Signed the Lord Archbishop (John Whitgift), Lord Chancellor (Christopher Hatton), Lord
Tre(asur)or (William Hatton), Lord Chamberlaine (Henry Carey), and Mr Comptroller (James Crofts) *the reference is to the Catholic Seminary Rheims. Marlowe cannot have gone beyond the seas since he was still in Cambridge and wanted his MA degree. **A degree awarding ceremony at Cambridge

*the reference is to the Catholic Seminary Rheims. Marlowe cannot have gone beyond the seas since he was still in Cambridge and wanted his MA degree. **A degree awarding ceremony at Cambridge

The Privy Council letter is signed by some of the leading ministers and shows Marlowe was clearly not a conventional student. The background is that after applying for his MA degree to be awarded, supported by his college, Corpus Christi, the award had been blocked by the University and the news reached the Privy Council who responded on June 29th 1587. It is generally believed, though this is speculative, that Marlowe himself approached the Council to demand it intervene to secure the award.

The genesis of the dispute proceeded from developments in early summer 1587. In response the Privy Council, including Lord Burghley – but perhaps significantly not Francis Walsingham – wrote to the university authorities focussing on a rumour Marlowe was headed for Rheims. The key statements are “Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley**** was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheames and there to remain, their Lordships thought good to certify that he had no such intent”, continuing “he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next commencement because it was not Her Majesties’ pleasure than anie one employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his Countrie should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th’affairs he went about”. Burghley was the leading member of the Privy Council, chief advisor to the Queen and Chancellor of Cambridge University, so it is not surprising Marlowe’s degree was awarded; commencement being the awarding ceremony. However the letter touched on a highly political issue: students going to Rheims.

The reference to Rheims refers to the possibility that Marlowe was going to study to be a Catholic priest. The belief he was going “to remain” meant he was not going as a tourist: he was to be resident allowing him to train as a priest. The concern was at the level of the university, not the college which had primary knowledge of Marlowe and his character. The concern of the university was generated by the knowledge that a stream of students once graduated had gone to the seminary at Rheims to become Catholic priests, which made them traitorous to the protestant regime in England. A case in point was Richard Baines, who had gone in July 1579. (22) Baines arrived as a Catholic but rebelled against Catholicism, and we will hear more about him. But there were others who did become priests making the university fear that Marlowe was aiming to do likewise.

His college was unaware of any such concerns. Kuriyama published in her documentary section the supplicat – application – for the university to award the MA degree, signed by the Master (Norgate) and Marlowe’s tutor, the College having no concerns about Marlowe’s intentions. The Privy Council wrote at the end of June, so the block was placed in the relatively short time span between supplicat – which is not dated but notes he has concluded the nine terms MA required – provided in late spring.

The Privy Council letter is short on detail, but does establish two vital facts. Firstly Marlowe had been working for the government – and secondly that his name was known to William Cecil, Lord Burghley. He was not someone Burghley would forget. But does it prove Marlowe was involved in covert activities? Naturally if Marlowe was engaged in secret activities the Privy Council would not say so. But they state he worked for the Queen.

Peter Roberts, a historian who has examined the history of Corpus Christi (23), commented “the exact nature of the service specified is not specified… the most likely scenario is that it had happened in the recent past, and news of it reached Cambridge after he had supplicated for his MA at the end of March 1587. Marlowe may also have incurred suspicion by declining to take holy orders, as was expected of scholars who took the Parker award. It is conceivable that… Marlowe had served as an informer on the activities of secret Catholics, nor abroad but in England. The Canterbury school was known to be unreliably protestant and the regime was also concerned about crypto –Catholics in Cambridge.” The central issue of the rumour that Marlowe planned to go to Rheims after he received his degree, was if he had showed Catholic sympathies, essential to gain entrance. Marlowe may have posed as a Catholic, though the Corpus management had approved Marlowe’s degree award, others who did not know him were more suspicious.

It is significant that Marlowe could invoke the Privy Council. The mystery of how he had pulling power with the highest committee in the land has not been resolved but clearly the relationship did not start in summer 1587, though the crisis broke in early summer when he had left the College.

 C F Tucker Brooke (24) , argued in 1933 that “whatever unjust suspicion of Marlowe existed at Cambridge would appear to have arisen after his departure from the university, for on 31st March (1587) he seems to have been in perfectly good standing”. This comment is based on the supplicat (Appendix B) with the two documents relating to Marlowe – the 1584 application for BA, and the 1587 application for MA – supporting Marlowe. But unlike 1584 the central university administrators refused to approve. Tucker Brooke contends that Marlowe could have left Cambridge – the supplicat confirms he had finished the course. Where he was in the summer of 1587 is unknown but the one place he did not go to was Rheims. The Privy Council said so stating he did not have any ‘intent’ to go. Thus not only did he not go, but he never intended to go. Nicholl and others have searched the seminary records finding no entry for him. The theory however has attracted considerable attention.

Appendix B the supplicat

Kuriyama sets out the application form for both BA and MA degrees, the BA form being signed by his tutor and the MA by both the Master of Corpus, Robert Norgate, and his tutor Henry Rose, in the document section of her 2002 book pp201-202. These are not dated but the MA application is spring 1587 and shows that what happened to lead the university to deny Marlowe his MA happened in late spring.

Translation from the Latin

“Christopher Marley prays your honors that, having completed nine terms (after his final disputation) in which he heard all the regular lectures (not all of them, as permitted according to the statutes), together with all the opponencies, responsions and other exercises required by the royal statutes, they may suffice for him to commence in arts.

Robert Norgate, Henry Rose tutor

Something happened after Corpus Christi had signed off the supplicat approving the award. Some writers including John Cooper believe that the problems stemmed from issues in 1584-85, but evidence before 1587 has not been found. Constance Brown Kuriyama has argued “The Council often intervened in the most trivial affairs of individual students, and a threat to withhold someone’s MA degree was not trivial. Furthermore since Lord Treasurer Burghley was Chancellor of Cambridge, he was a person to whom Marlowe might logically appeal” (25). The Privy Council as a resort for student complaints seems unlikely, needs evidence, but cannot discount the fact he worked for the Queen; the Privy council letter is explicit.

The enduring mystery is how he had “done her majesty good service”, and whether the service involved covert activity. While the crisis of not having the MA awarded is the crisis of summer 1587, the chances of service to the Queen being only a matter of that summer are remote. Marlowe had to have worked for the Queen before the crisis broke. What had he been doing, and did it involve espionage?

The debate on the Privy council letter which emerged following the Hotson publication did not achieve a consensus establishing that Marlowe was a government agent engaged in covert activities, but the belief hardened. In 1928 Austin K Gray displayed complete certainty based on Hotson’s discoveries, (and drawing in Conyers Read). Gray started by asserting the proposition could not be proved, but ended the first section with the statement “after all, he was a government agent” (26) Gray’s confidence has been shared by later writers, but is not definitively proved by evidence. The patchy data from Corpus records does suggest more absences as his time at Cambridge passed, but to argue for these being exceptional and or espionage related is a different matter.

For the next half century, the short letter from the Privy Council would be pressed into service to argue for Marlowe as a spy. Nothing else emerged till in 1976 when the researcher R B Wernham demonstrated Marlowe was engaged in a highly suspicious mission in Flushing. (8 yes 8)

Issue 2 -The Flushing Episode (see appendix C- letter from Robert Sidney 26th January 1591(os) 1592 (NS)

In January 1591(os) the English Governor of Flushing, a garrison town in the Low Countries arrested Marlowe. The English had sent an army supporting Protestant rebels against the Catholic Spanish. Richard Baines, a companion or ‘chamber fellow’ of the two forgers informed the Garrison Commander, Sir Robert Sidney that Marlowe and a goldsmith were seeking to break the law. Marlowe and a goldsmith, named as Gifford Gilbert, were accused of coining – forging coin – which was petty treason, (an offence against the Crown prerogative rather than the Crown but a capital offence nonetheless). Robert Sidney, the commander, interrogated the Englishmen who denied the offence and Marlowe traded insults with the informer, Baines, both men claiming the other was planning to desert to the enemy, the Catholic Spanish. Baines and Marlowe were locked in a toxic relationship, a mystery which can be tracked through the writings of Roy Kendall, David Riggs and Constance Kuriyama (27). Sidney could not know the background of these men – though he must have seen their passports – but had to sort out who was telling the truth. Sidney believed Baines, partly because his story was credible and showed some grasp of how Marlowe had come to be in Flushing. Marlowe’s defence was the mission was only “to see the goldsmith’s conning” (cunning – skill) but there was no credibility in thinking he had travelled only to show his expertise to two men of unknown status. Coining was illegal and too dangerous to be parlour entertainment. Sidney’s priority was to sort out what these three men were doing planning a criminal act, he was not focussed on the underlying issues of why they were there in the first place. His conclusion, that they had forged several coins – “their money I have sent over unto yowr Lo:(rdship)” – but only uttered (issued) one, a dutch shilling: the plan may have been to issue more, but Baines informing stopped this happening.

Appendix C The Flushing Letter

PRO SP 84/44/60 discovered and transcribed by R B Wernham and first published in English Historical Review (1976) Vol 9, pp344-5.

(f60f) Right Honourable

Besides the prisoner Evan Flud, I have also given in charge to this bearer my ancient (1) twoe other prisoners, the one named Christofer Marly, by his profession a scholer, and the other Gifford Gilbert a goldsmith taken heer for coining, and their mony I have sent over unto yowr Lordship. The matter was revealed unto me the day after it was done, by one Ri(chard) Baines whom also my ancient shal bring unto yowr Lordship. He was theyr chamber fellow and fearing the succes, made me acquainted with all. The men being examined apart never denied anything, onely protesting that what was done was onely to se the Goldsmiths conning: and truly I ame of the opinion the poore man was onely browght in under that couler, whatever intent the other twoe had at that time. And indeed they do one accuse another to have bin the inducers of him, and to have intended to practise yt hereafter: and have as it were justified him unto me. But howsoever it hapned a dutch shilling was uttred (2), and els not any peece: and indeed I do not thinck they wold have uttred many of them: for the mettal is plain peuter and with half an eye to be discovered, Notwithstanding I thowght it fitt to send the(m) over unto yowr Lordship to take theyr trial as yow shal thinck best. For I wil not stretch my commission to deale in such matters, and much less to put them at liberty and to deliver the(m) into the towns hands being the Queens subjects, and not required neyther of this sayd town I knowe not how it would have bin liked, especially since part of that which they did counterfet was Her Ma(jesty’s) coine. The goldsmith is an eccellent worckman and if I should speake my conscience had no intent heerunto. The scholer sais himself to be very wel known both to the Earle of Northumberland and my Lord Strang. Bains and he do also accuse one another of intent to goe to the Ennemy or to Rome, both as they say of malice one to another. Hereof I thowght fitt to advertis yowr Lordship leaving the rest to their own confession and my Anciants report. And so do humbly take my leave at Flushing the 26of January 1591. (3)

 Yowr honor’s very obedient to do yow service

R Sydney (f.61v)

Addressed: to the Right Honorable my Lord of Burghley, Lord Treasurer of England

Endorsed: 26 Jan. 1591 Sir Robert Sidney to my Lord. He sends over by this bearer his Auntient one Evan Loyd and 2 others Christopher Marly and Gifford Gilbert a goldsmith taken for coynage, to be tried here for that fact. There hath bene only one dutch shilling uttered, the mettall playne peuter.

  1. Ancient = ensign
  2. Uttered – meaning put into circulation
  3. 1591 Old style, 1592 according to our calendar

Marlowe’s visit to Flushing is was clearly a deviation from his mainline activities – he was active in intellectual and dramatic circles, claiming to be known by Lord Strang and the Earl of Northumberland. How and why did he take time off from writing and drama, to make a trip to a war zone? If he was sharing accommodation with Kyd when Marlowe had the success of The Jew of Malta, staged by Lord Strange’s company, but was short of money (28) , he may have plotted the mission to make money in a scheme involving taking a goldsmith with him to Flushing. If this was simply a criminal activity, an attempt to make money, the need to get passports and the difficulty of operating in a war zone suggest otherwise. The goldsmith would need bullion to smelt down. Where would the raw material come from?

It is mysterious why Marlowe is in the Low Countries in mid Winter, but even odder why a goldsmith should be in a war zone with little demand for his expertise. The two agents are said to be in conflict over who had involved the goldsmith – “they do one accuse another to have been the inducers of him” as Sidney wrote, but more than verbal encouragement was needed to secure co-operation for an illegal act in a foreign country, powerful supporters had to be involved. If the aim of the Flushing mission was to produce coin, neither Marlowe nor Baines had metallurgical skills, so Gilbert was there by design. How did he become involved in the operation? While there is no evidence on how he was involved, it is very odd that his name was given as Gifford Gilbert, which several writers have noted is the reversal of Gilbert Gifford, Walsingham’s deceased key operator in trapping Mary Queen of Scots. Perhaps a made up name, on the spur of the moment? Nicholl did try to find a connection with someone who could have been in Flushing in 1591, writing he found in the records a “Bartholomew Gilbert, also a goldsmith… may be related to the Flushing goldsmith” (29) as he served a term of imprisonment in 1594.

Sidney does not see the Flushing goldsmith as a key player, but sees him as an honest worker who was not a key mover compared to Baines and Marlowe. Only one coin had been made, and Sidney wrote to Burghley this was almost “with a half eye to be discovered”. Sidney thought the goldsmith was being manipulated by the other two men and possibly Baines had decided to forestall putting forged coin into circulation. Sidney, clearly nonplussed was not willing to take responsibility – the Dutch authorities were already restless at the English sending troops. He understood the barely veiled threat from Marlowe that he was known to the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Strang (Strange) which posed a risk of annoying members of the nobility – so Sidney passed the buck to Lord Burghley, sending Gilbert back to England with Marlowe to be dealt with by the Lord Treasurer.

Once Marlowe and the goldsmith were sent home, the letter has served its purpose, but the
turn of events has its own logic. It is remarkable that historians have generally failed to understand coining carried the death penalty. One who did was Charles Nicholl, who realised coining was a capital offence when he wrote the later version of The Reckoning (2002). In this (30) he quotes the poet Thomas Lodge on coiners in the lines

“When other subtle shifts do fail
They fall to coining, & from thence by course
Through hempen windows learn to shake their tail”.

‘Hempen windows’ means the hangman’s noose. The brutal fact facing Marlowe as he went back to England arrested and probably in chains, was that he faced execution. The most mysterious event of all the mysterious events which happened to him was about to happen. Marlowe was sent back to be interrogated by Burghley – no record of which has been found. It is significant that Nicholl quotes a verbatim interview by Burghley of a Catholic captured at Flushing on 23rd December 1592 some months after Marlowe: Flushing was so important to the English that interrogation by the 70 year old Lord Burghley (31) was a priority. Marlowe could not have escaped interview by the Lord Treasurer, the Queen’s main advisor for over forty years. And then nothing happened: Marlowe is released.

Charles Nicholl, the writer who has done most to probe what happened when the prisoners arrived back in England, records that on the back of the letter there is a docket which records that Marlowe and Gilbert were ‘taken for coinage’ and were sent over ‘to be tried here for that fact’ written by one of Burghley’s secretaries (31 yes 31). who seems to have expected prosecution of an offence carrying a capital charge. This did not happen, though Burghley as chief minister always followed events abroad closely. Nicholl quotes a letter from a Catholic quoting another Catholic Thomas Dawbney, who was brought back from Flushing some months later, and was interrogated by Burghley. It is very likely the Lord Treasurer would interview Marlowe himself, though no evidence of this has been discovered. Charles Nicholl found a warrant for the expenses of David Lloyd, Sidney’s ensign, for bringing letters from Flushing and “three prisoners committed to his charge” (32). Nicholl states that the warrant was signed by Burghley himself.

The implication is that he knew Marlowe was one of the three men sent to England once he had received Sidney’s letter, as the issue of why Marlowe was not prosecuted for forgery lies at the heart of why Marlowe was in Flushing, and whether he was operating as a freelance with a personal (criminal) agenda, or as an approved agent on a government mission – which however was so secret that the garrison commander had not been informed. Unlike the questions that are raised by the Privy Council letter to Cambridge, there is no obvious authorisation by the state: why the secrecy? As with Sherlock Holmes and the Dog that Did Not Bark (33), Burghley’s inaction is a message which speaks volumes. By May Marlowe is tangling with the local constable in Holywell Street in Shoreditch, small beer compared to being excused a capital offence. As would happen with the conflicts two years later which destroyed Kyd, Marlowe was leading a privileged life. Was this because he was still working for the government?

Resume: Setting the Letters in Context

(a)- Appendix A – the Privy Council letter to Cambridge University.

 The letter from the Privy Council has been probed intensively, but the core issue has remained obscure – why did Cambridge University authorities block the award of Marlowe’s MA when the college had signed the form of authorisation, meaning the obstacles to awarding the degree were not academic?

However the process of awarding a degree required something more than academic proficiency – it required a pledge of allegiance to the Queen as head of the Church of England. The universities were open to Catholics, but they could not get a degree unless they swore the oath of allegiance to the Crown before Commencement, and Catholics habitually refused to do so so left university without degrees A notable example was Robert Catesby, the leader of the Gunpowder plot, who did not take the oath and did not get a degree. As Marlowe did, he could not be a Catholic. The point of decision was taking the oath of allegiance to the Queen. Marlowe clearly did so.

Yet the belief Marlowe was a Catholic surfaces repeatedly in sketches of Marlowe’s defining characteristics at this stage in his career, which is assumed to have forced action by the authorities, the university being fearful of becoming a staging post for enemies of the Elizabethan government. Nicholl endorses this possibility in his ODNB entry discussing the letter arguing:

 “This document seems to offer two contradictory accounts of Marlowe’s behaviour….reports circulating at Cambridge that he is a militant young Catholic intending to defect…. on the other hand, there is the council’s assertion that he really had ‘no such intent’…” (emphasis added) (34)

Nicholl glosses one interpretation that “Marlowe had been moving in Catholic circles as a spy or intelligencer for the government, an activity increasingly common in the 1580s, typically (but not exclusively under the aegis of Sir Francis Walsingham”. (2 yes 2) It is certainly possible Marlowe moved in Catholic circles, and later he was to be friendly with Thomas Watson, who was a Catholic, but something happened in the summer of 1587 which triggered action by the university. While he may not yet have taken the oath the very fact that the Privy Council supported him showed they had every expectation he would do so. This summer was only a year away from the expected Spanish Armada. The Privy council was not going to support a man who might convert to a religion which was hostile and intent on imposing that religion through a successful invasion force if the Armada landed.

Do reports on Marlowe’s Catholicism exist? Hardly in what the Privy Council writes, but even if he was a Catholic it is unlikely the university authorities refusing the degree would have any effect. It is unlikely that they could stop Marlowe going abroad if he chose to go. Cambridge, unlike the government, had no powers of arrest.

It is more relevant that Marlowe refused to take holy orders as the Parker regulations required. We do not know the grounds Cambridge decided to block the award: only examination of the university records could show the reason. However it is clear that Marlowe refused to take holy orders and enter the Church of England, but did take the oath of allegiance. Not taking holy orders would have upset the authorities as he had had a Parker grant – Parker having being Archbishop of Canterbury. Concern about Marlowe’s attitude to the Church of England, not the Roman Catholic Church, has a greater likelihood to have induced the university authorities to put a block on his award. Seeking to show Marlowe went to a Catholic seminary is a red herring.

If this is accepted, the issue of what work he had done for the government is narrowed to two options. Either he was spying on Catholic students at Cambridge, or he was a courier, or both. I incline to the courier theory, in part because Thomas Watson was a courier and a close friend- indeed, the man who struck the fatal blow in the Hog Lane brawl. In addition, the Massacre of Paris seems to show a familiarity with Parisian geography which could only have been acquired if he was paid to visit the town. This is the position Park Honan adopted, (35) arguing that in the play “he relies not only on printed texts, but, in its second part, on ‘hearsay’ evidence evidently picked up in France”. While this is speculative, courier work would be easy for Marlowe to take up, along with spying on fellow students. The two options here are the only ones that are worth considering.

If Marlowe was spying on other students, this could extend into visits to Canterbury. The King’s schools is often thought to have Catholic sympathies and the town generally was an issue for the government, being crucial to the defence of Kent, the most likely place for a Spanish landing. Being an informer is not glamorous and it is the case that payment warrants are yet to be found for Marlowe. As Poley does have payment warrants for courier work, this suggests that Marlowe was not a courier, but there is no conclusive evidence either way, though it is clear the Privy Council knew Marlowe was hard working and reliable. This may be relevant in considering the Flushing incident where the Sidney letter gives a view of the episode without the events before and after.

(b) Appendix B the letter from Sir Robert Sidney to Burghley 26th January 1591 (old style)

Sidney is sending to Lord Burghley “by his ancient” (ensign) “two other prisoners” in addition to one Evan Fludd detained under a different charge. Those being sent are Marlowe and Gilbert who have been “taken here for coining”. It is inconceivable that the three men arrived in the town in the middle of a war for recreation and indulged in an illegal activity just to see the goldsmith’s ‘conning’ (meaning skill). A front line garrison was an ideal location to attempt coining due to the unsettled nature of the population, but we do not know what took Marlowe and Baines to Flushing.

Given the difficulties in finding evidence on Marlowe’s movements and actions in 1590 and 1591, it is unlikely proof of what took him abroad can be found. The discovery of the Sidney letter in the Public Record Office in 1976, in the SP84 State Papers Holland file, may suggest more can be found there, but Sidney was not briefed on the activities of Baines and Marlowe and it is unlikely he wrote more. The most productive line of research may be to study how intelligence was being gathered after the death of Walsingham in 1590, and the resources available. Marlowe and Baines were not obviously agents – Alford has no index reference to Baines in his massive study of spying, and has only a vague reference to Marlowe, namely “for Marlowe the evidence of secret service is sketchy and circumstantial” (36) – but perhaps freelancers without a background in espionage fitted the bill. If the English wanted the kind of intelligence about Spanish invasion plans that they had had for the Armada of 1588 – Alford relates that Walsingham had been sent the order of the Armada from a diplomat, Sir Anthony Standen, by way of a Flemish valet in the service of a Spanish general (37) they would need to improvise. Although the 1588 Armada was the headline confrontation, several more were planned in the 1590s meaning preparation of naval and land defences was repeatedly necessary – Thomas Walsingham would secure his knighthood in 1596 by raising the militia in the vital county of Kent –and knowing the plans of the Spanish was vital.

The demand for intelligence was harder to meet after the deaths of Walsingham and Leicester two years earlier, meaning the networks they ran disintegrated. The Queen was reluctant to pay for spies, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 having lowered the immediate threat of invasion and Honan suggests that while spying continued “individual councillors (ie Privy Councillors TF) paid out of pocket for intelligence gathering while Burghley fretted over costs” (38). But the Lord Treasurer also ran his own network, and while there has been a lack of evidence Marlowe was paid for missions, perhaps scrutiny of the accounts of the Cecil family could prove productive?

Inside knowledge of the Spanish plans in the Low Countries involved knowing what Catholic dissidents were planning after the defection to the enemy of Sir William Stanley in 1587 taking two thirds of his troops. Stanley was an implacable advocate of the murder of Elizabeth 1, allegedly working with Catholic rebels at home. (39) In the winter of 1591-92 (ns) rumours of a new Ridolfi style plot – domestic rebellion backed by Spanish invasion – reached London. When Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned up to 1587 Elizabeth’s government had close contact with the key Catholic player, Strange could not be confined as he was not actively subversive, making knowledge of Catholic plots harder to track.

In his Oxford Dictionary entry on Marlowe, Nicholls suggests that as Marlowe claimed to know Lord Strange, who had Catholic leanings and royal blood, and was a candidate for the English throne if Elizabeth were assassinated in a Catholic uprising, he night have been employed to infiltrate the camp of Strange’s cousin, Sir William Stanley, whose exile group “was a target for spies and infiltrators, and possibly Marlowe was one of these” (40). He mentions the Stanley connection in chapter 24 of the 2002 version of The Reckoning, and this is worth further investigation. Certainly Stanley was a key Catholic conspirator with links both sides of the English channel. Alford in his 2011 article names Stanley as first among “the leading Catholic émigrés and exiles of the dangerous years of the 1590s” (41) naming the spy working in the Low Countries on Stanley and his plotting as none other than Robert Poley. Poley was employed in fishing for information – not something one man could do successfully. Was this the reason Marlowe went to Flushing, with coining an attempt to reach and bribe Catholic rebels?

Charles Nicholl comes close to arguing this case in the 2002 version of his book The Reckoning, suggesting the attempt at coining was not criminal but political as Burghley and his son Robert Cecil, alarmed by a letter carried by an intercepted Catholic priest, John Cycell, had turned to Marlowe. After discussing the ramifications of the Flushing episode, Nicholl argued “we arrive at conspiracy, rather than simple criminality… I believe he (Marlowe TF) is now at work again, a Cecil projector within the court of Lord Strange, and that this is what breaks to the surface in Flushing in 1592” (42).

Focussing on Marlowe does not account for the involvement of Baines and Gilbert Gifford, Nicholl does not speculate on their role. Unlike Cambridge, where Marlowe was a lone individual with only his personal actions to account for, there are three players and this complexity has to be addressed. Nicholl chooses not to do so, having nothing to say about the Goldsmith and seeing Baines’ conflict with Marlowe as a mere reflex of a personality clash.

The major question raised by Nicholl is why, if Marlowe were employed by the Cecils, he did not use the fact to exonerate himself. Nicholls has several answers, the most important being that Marlowe did not have “the all important warranty which would prove it” (42 yes 42) which only raises more questions. If employed by the Cecils, why was this unofficial? Clearly Sidney did not know about any mission, and if Marlowe kept quiet, he was risking summary punishment under martial law, which happened to another Burghley agent, Ralph Birkinshaw who had his ears cut off. But this did not happen to Marlowe and he escaped scot free. Nicholl has no explanation for what Marlowe is doing in Flushing, admitting “Whether Flushing was his only destination, or whether he was en route to or from other places in the Netherlands, we do not know” and that “I can find nothing about Gilbert”. (43)

Of the other three major authors to have published on Marlowe in the twentyfirst century, and have dealt with the Flushing episode Professor Kuriyama has nothing to say about the goldsmith or an attempt to reach Stanley’s Catholic rebels. She accepts Baines and Marlowe were agents, and possibly their business would involve counterfeiting writing “Baines was a government agent like Marlowe, he was presumably in Flushing on business, so why would Baines inform on Marlowe and abort the operation, and incense his superiors?” (44). She has no discussion of what their superiors might want. Kuriyama neglects to examine why Marlowe was in Flushing with a goldsmith.

Honan sees the relationship of Marlowe and the goldsmith as already prepared, with Baines accidentally falling in with the two – why he was in Flushing he does not examine – and “Sooner or later Baines posed a distinct problem for his chambermates… he might be very dangerous. The throttling of Baines… did not seem a viable option: and how to get rid of a corpse may not have been included in the Cecils’ instructions (45) a statement which like Nicholls assumes the mission had been approved by the de facto controllers of government activities.

The reasons for the mission are not discussed at length, Honan only hinting that Marlowe
was seeking to offer the goldsmith – and thus coining – to the Catholics but “Marlowe faced some difficulties: If he meant to reach the Brussels group, he had to advertise Gilbert’s skills discreetly… (and that TF) …in the enemy’s zone in Brussels, Sir William Stanley was little more than a figurehead” (46). Honan unusually does not see Stanley as having an important role to play and the objective of setting Marlowe to reach the Catholics in Brussels is not explained, but Honan is firm in his belief Marlowe and Gilbert were agents employed by Burghley.

This view is shared by David Riggs, whose sketch of the episode in his chapter 13 (47) covers the known facts clearly, but does not explain why the three men behaved as they did. He assumes that Marlowe’s passport was checked by Sidney and joined up with the other two “ When and how this trio came together is unknown” but that the Stanley plots could be a reason for Baines and Marlowe being in Flushing, to gain information from the Catholic rebels. Riggs argues “the counterfeiting scheme brings Marlowe a step closer to the Stanley conspirators at Brussels and Nijmegen” and Marlowe is “supposed to go to the enemy” (48) but Baines gets cold feet and brings the garrison commander to stop Marlowe working. After a brief unrelated discussion that Marlowe was looking for a publication for a seditious book, perhaps the one Kyd was to get in trouble for two years later, Riggs finishes by noting when Marlowe was sent to Burghley “Burghley had the authority to hang him” (49) but he is let free. Riggs concludes that Burghley had decided to hold both Baines and Marlowe in reserve – without providing any evidence for Baines being one of his agents. Marlowe is assumed to be an agent of the Cecils but again without evidence. We are back at the problem set out by Nicholl that if Marlowe was an agent – he lacked the warrant which would protect him from summary justice by the garrison commander, which could be savage indeed.

The Balance Of Probabilities

A final answer to whether Marlowe’s extra curricular activities can be seen as spying cannot be provided on the basis of the evidence currently available. It is clear that he was employed by the government while a student, and on the balance of probabilities his expedition to Flushing was a political not a criminal excursion, as he was breaking the law but was not prosecuted: Burghley released him, but this was an unofficial mission – the garrison commander had no knowledge of why he and the goldsmith had arrived. But the most important lesson of this survey is that if Marlowe had a controller, the name of Lord Burghley comes into focus time and again.

Riggs is perceptive in seeing “When Marlowe appears in government archives he is dealing with Burghley or his agents, not with Walsingham” (50). This observation is true for both the major documents surveyed in this paper. In 1587 Burghley signs the letter to Cambridge. After Flushing Marlowe is sent home to be interrogated by Burghley. Walsingham is not in the frame when decisions have to be made about Christopher Marlowe, but Burghley most certainly is, and his presence suggests a way to cope with the lack of payment dockets for Marlowe’s assignments, and lack of evidence for his activities, both of which could be privately organised. Only research into the private papers of the Cecil family and other archives could test that hypothesis. But it is clear Burghley had heard the name – there is no such certainty with Francis Walsingham who after his death in 1590 had no further part to play anyway. As a controller, Lord Burghley is by far the more plausible candidate. Without more archival research, this remains unproven. It is possible that there was contact with leading politicians after Marlowe received his degree, having proved he was reliable – but reliable in what? What counts as spying?

The service for the Queen and most likely route into payments from the state for a student at Cambridge would be spying on fellow students, and this could be supplemented in his MA years by work as a courier, if he had travel experience and some languages – there being a French exile community in Canterbury he is likely to have some spoken French which would make him employable in the same work as Watson whether or not Watson made the introduction. Watson met Walsingham in Paris,but there is no indication Marlowe ever met Francis Walsingham. The fact that Marlowe survived Flushing does not prove he was successful in the world of espionage – Riggs suggests Burghley kept him back to attempt to penetrate the Stanley conspiracy (51) but his cover had been blown and Honan is right that he had to face “the possibility that he had lost his chances as an agent” (52). Marlowe’s brief career as a spy was over. How important had it been?

It is perhaps most useful to study Marlowe’s activities in comparision with known operators in the murky world of counter-intelligence. The approach of Stephen Alford in his comprehensive study THE WATCHERS (53) surveys the whole range of espionage activities across Elizabeth’s reign. He compares Marlowe with Robert Poley who is undoubtedly a spy – and is unusually long serving in a short lived profession. Poley’s first sighting as a spy is Junw 1585, working for Leicester. The last payment is September 5th 1601, for Robert Cecil. Thus he worked for all three networks including Walsingham’s. Alford’s careful analysis of the data concludes that as an espionage agent Marlowe was hardly a player, but Robert Poley – the fourth man in the room in Deptford – certainly was. He gives Marlowe only 3 index entries but Poley 15- and when he contrasts the two , his verdict is compelling. He argues “Where for Marlowe the evidence of secret service is sketchy and circumstantial, for the unliterary Poley it is overwhelming. There is evidence of 26 missions in 13 years, with Poley having his own ciphers and a secret postal address in Antwerp. And yet “he was a teller of tales, something of a conman and a bully and an accomplished liar… Poley was cunning, mercurial and dangerously persuasive. But perhaps these were precisely the skills his masters needed him to employ… certainly Sir Robert Cecil kept him on the payroll till 1601.” (54) There has never been any doubt Poley was a spy: and he was a very successful one. Marlowe was also a spy, but success escaped him. As a spy he was someone who dabbled, perhaps to earn a little extra income, but when he went beyond courier work, then he was out of his depth. That may be the lesson to be taken from his work at Cambridge and at Flushing.

The attempt to see Marlowe as a spy – someone deeply immersed in the world of espionage is influenced by the notion that spying was glamorous and spiced with danger. The reality was very different and while Marlowe did flirt with danger, he neither had the skills of a Robert Poley to survive in this world nor the ability which Thomas Watson had, to realise when he was out of his depth and move on. Marlowe has come to be seen as logically part of the world of Francis Walsingham because the spycatcher has an aura, so this is held to mean they must have been in contact. The less charismatic William Cecil, Lord Burghley, appears far more regularly in the records as knowing Marlowe. It is time to see Marlowe as Burghley would have seen him, as a technician without glamour delivering on a mission carrying an investment. At Cambridge, Marlowe gave satisfaction and the Privy Council said so. For the last four years of his known life, the story is very different. After Flushing, the 16 months which Kuriyama rightly saw as being so markedly different that they constitute “the apparent shift in his behaviour” (55) can only be understood as Marlowe lived them as someone who had failed as a spy and lived on the edge, increasingly of concern to the authorities.

Yet did he fail in the final analysis? Honan hints that Poley’s mission which covered the Deptford incident is unusual and has a special phrase in the payment warrant saying he was him to take time off while being paid, which Nicholl also noted. Honan goes on to say

“The Cecil’s had evidently requested something special, in all likelihood that he prepare Marlowe for work. A plan to send the poet into Scotland had been mooted: Kyd suggests as much in his final allegation to the Lord Keeper” (56)

Honan is right, Kyd had discussed Marlowe’s willingness to consider going to Scotland where Kyd thought Roydon had gone: Roydon was a friend of Marlowe, who had served on an espionage mission to Prague who had also been bilked by Skeres for the sum of £150. There are unexplored links between Marlowe’s circle and the events at Deptford. What happened to bring Poley and Skeres and Marlowe into the room in Deptford is another topic: but possibly it is the last episode which can be seen as involvement in spying. The cultural significance of Marlowe – which is far from exclusively as a writer – does not lie in the world of espionage. But he was, as many writers in the twentieth century also showed, adept at dabbling in the world of covert activity. In this, Marlowe poses the question less whether he was a spy, but how far a freelance agent with other major interests could take on the role of a spy as and when it was offered to him.

Trevor Fisher 20 9 21


(1)-Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy (Oxford 2005), chapter 5 addresses the issue of covert activities under the heading Espionage.
(2) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) entry on Christopher Marlowe, by Charles Nicholl, 3rd January 2008. Section on “Government service c1585-87”- both the statement and the dates are questionable.
(3) ODND entry on Sir Francis Walsingham, Simon Adams, Alan Bryson and Mitchell Leimon, 21st May 2009.
(4) Hotson’s pamphlet was Death of Christopher Marlowe, J Leslie Hotson, London Nonsuch Press, Cambridge (USA) Harvard University Press, 1925
(5) Hotson, op cit, p67.
(6) Eugenie de Kalb, a graduate student studying Marlowe at Cambridge, in the Times Literary Supplement for May 21st 1925 reviewed the Hotson analysis of the events involving Marlowe in Deptford on May 30th 1593,– two months after Leslie Hotson had published – criticised the Coroner’s inquest and made connections between three men in the room and covert activities, in her view only the alleged killer Ingram Frizer was not a spy.
(7) David Riggs The World of Christopher Marlowe Faber and Faber (2004) states Skeres was a bit player in the Babington Conspiracy on p152.
(8) Charles Nicholl The Reckoning pp36-37 Vintage Books Revised edition 2002~
(9) The letter was discovered by R B Wernham and first published, with a critique, in the English Historical Review (1976) Vol 91 pp344-5 – Nicholl 2002 states in the uncatalogued recesses of the SP84 state papers Holland in the PRO. P279
(10) Alison Plowden, The Elizabethan Secret Service, Harvester Wheatsheaf, St Martin’s Press 1991
(11) Honan 2005 pp121- 122. He then discusses the Walsingham operation. pp122-130 arguing Marlowe worked for Walsingham(12) Honan 2005 p270. Quotes Philby My Silent War 1968 p154
(13) According to Alan Haynes Invisible Power Alan Sutton 1992 p97 in September 1592 Robert Poley went “twice through Canterbury at a time when Marlowe and Paul Ivey, the fortifications engineer and periodic intelligencer (ie spy TF) were both in the town”. Poley was an established, full time agent, Marlowe and Ivey had other strings to their financial bow but were willing to handle secret communications. Marlowe is not known to have met Poley at this time. Reilly Prince of Spies is a novelistic take on the career of Sidney Reilly, the real life model for Bond.
(14) Susan Doran Elizabeth’s Circle 2015-18 p270. (15) Honan on payment p127
(16) Mark Eccles Christopher Marlowe in London, Harvard 1934, Octagon New York 1967, p4.
(17) Riggs op cit p152- Riggs also alleges the Baines note itemised Marlowe’s ‘crimes’
(18) Kuriyama op cit p3 (19) John Cooper, The Queen’s Agent, Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth 1, Faber & Faber 2012, p179\
(20) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry on Stephen Gosson, Arthur F Kinney(21) Appendix A- given by Francis Brown Kuriyama in Christopher Marlowe, a Renaissance Life, Cornell 2010 pp202-03, from the Acts of the Privy Council.
(22) David Riggs, 2004 op cit p130
(23) Peter R Roberts, Christopher Marlowe at Corpus, IN Pelican The magazine of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, issue 26 – Easter 2014 p28
(24) C F Tucker Brooke, The Life of Marlowe and the Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage, London 1933 p20
(25) Constance Brown Kuriyama Christopher Marlowe, A Renaissance Life Cornell 2010 p7
(26) Austin K Gray, Some Observations on Christopher Marlowe, Government Agent, FMLA Sep 1928, Vol 43, No 3, pp682-700. Published by the Modern Language Association. Read is drawn in though his studies of Walsingham had no connection with Marlowe.
(27) Roy Kendall Christopher Marlowe & Richard Baines, Journeys through the Elizabethan Underworld, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004. David Riggs op cit 130-138 and Kuriyama 2002, pp64-69
(28) Honan 2005 pp241-2. Honan argues money was drying up, especially from Thomas Walsingham.
(29) Nicholl 2002 p281
(30) Nicholl 2002 p283 Poem A fig for Momus
(31) Nicholl 2002 p284
(32) Nicholl 2002 p285
(33) The quote is from the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Silver Blaze. The crucial passage is “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” “To the curious incident of the dog in the night time”. “The dog did nothing in the night time”. “That is the curious incident”. (34) Nicholl ODNB 2008 section Government Service c1585-1587 Nicholls cites 1585 as the year working for the Queen began. On what evidence?
(35) Honan 2005 p147 “The fact his payments were not recorded indicates what he did was secretive… … dire lack of couriers.. signs he was in France and the lowlands” What signs?

(36) Alford, Stephen The Watchers, Allan Lane 2012, p317
(37) Alford, Some Elizabethan Spies in the Office of Sir Francis Walsingham, IN Diplomacy and Modern Culture, ed Robyn Adams & Rosanna Cox, Palgrave Macmillan 2011 p48
(38) Honan 2005 pp241-242
(39) For Stanley’s mission see Nicholl 2002 pp273-277
(40) Nicholl, ODNB entry on Marlowe, 2008
(41) Alford 2011page 53.
(42) Nicholl, 2002 p294
(43) Nicholl 2002 p281
(44) Kuriyama 2002 p108
(45) Honan 2005 pp269-270
(46) Honan 2005 p271
(47) Riggs 2004 pp 273-279 gives the episode in full
(48) Riggs 2004 p277
(49) Riggs 2004 p279
(50) Riggs 2004 p181
(51) Riggs 2004 p279
(52) Honan 2005 p281
(53) Stephen Alford, The Watchers, A secret history of the reign of Elizabeth 1, Allen Lane 2012, Penguin 2013(54) Alford op cit p317
(55) Kuriyama 2002 p3
(56) Honan 2005 p345

1593 – Marlowe’s Disappearance

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.

A Report, a Historical Issue and the Shakespeare Authorship Red Herring.

It was largely by accident when in the early 1920s, the young Harvard historian J Leslie Hotson, trawling the court records of the 1590s in the Public Records Office for another purpose (7), happened on the name of Ingram Frizer, and made the first of two brilliant deductions. He put the muddled name from the church register together with the name provided by Vaughan to make Ingram Frizer the key person in the Deptford incident. He then made the even more brilliant deduction that if there was no record of a trial for murder, the assailant may have been pardoned, avoiding a trial. He decided to check the pardons for 1593 and discovered that Ingram Frizer had indeed been pardoned for killing Christopher Marlowe . Hotson then checked back through the coroner’s reports and discovered that on June 1st 1593 there had been a coroner’s inquest into the death of Marlowe, and this had established the killer as Frizer, but ruled he acted in self defence. The legal account was closed by a subsequent Royal Pardon, establishing the official account that Marlowe’s violent behaviour led to his death.

Hotson published his discoveries in 1925, but Hotson did not convince his contemporaries. Reviewing Hotson’s study shortly after it was published, Eugenie de Kalb questioned whether the account written by the coroner was plausible, and shortly after Samuel Tannenbaum developed a conspiracy theory that Marlowe was murdered because he was about to reveal that Sir Walter Ralegh* and his circle were atheists, a belief which was seen as seditious and thus was treason in that period. (8). Doubts about the inquest surfaced with remarkable speed, and Frederick Boas by 1929 was writing that “Miss Ellis-Fermor in her Christopher Marlowe sums up what is the prevalent attitude of Elizabethan scholars when she declares that the narrative of the eye witnesses ‘seems to have satisfied the 16 jurors; it is far from satisfying Marlowe’s present day biographers, among whom there is a prevailing impression that he was deliberately murdered’” (9) However it is fair to say that most commentators continue to accept the coroner’s report, but the view that Marlowe was murdered has never gone away. Death remains the view of the majority of experts, but the view he did not die in Deptford also gained ground buttressed by weaknesses in the official documents, but is very much a minority view, but one needing scrutiny.

Sadly the lack of consensus over Marlowe’s fate became linked to the Shakespeare Authorship question, an entirely different and speculative view that Marlowe’s death was faked and he then wrote Shakespeare’s works, a strand in the continuing Authorship dispute. The publication in 1955 of Calvin Hoffman’s The Murder of the Man who was Shakespeare (10) put Marlowe into the frame for being an alternative Shakespeare. Once Marlowe’s disappearance was embroiled in the Shakespeare Authorship controversy, the original issue of how Marlowe disappeared was lost in the wider historical battle of Stratfordians versus anti-Stratfordians. It is time to restore the original problem to the forefront of debate and this paper will attempt to do so. The analysis here will focus only on the questions raised by Marlowe’s disappearance in Deptford, leaving the issue of why there is a belief he could have written anything after May 30th 1593 as irrelevant to the historical analysis of the Coroner’s report and the issues flowing from it. The issue to be considered is whether Marlowe died on May 30th 1593, by the knife of Ingram Frizier.

Documents and Disputes.

Leslie Hotson believed that he had supplied the final answer to the problem of what happened to Christopher Marlowe by publishing the official documents. However the issue has become increasingly controversial, engaging many talented people. It has been the subject of two full length books – one of which, Charles Nicholls’ The Reckoning took two forms, (in 1995 and 2002) but both accepting that Marlowe did die in 1593. The other study, M J Trow’s Who Killed Kit Marlowe? – A contract to murder in Elizabethan England (Sutton 2001) also sees Marlowe dying at Deptford, but is even more explicit in arguing the slaying of Marlowe was not self defence but murder. (11)

It is necessary to review Hotson’s research and why it failed to supply a convincing answer to the problems of Marlowe’s disappearance. Hotson’s research certainly established the base line for all subsequent studies of Marlowe’s disappearance. The inquest report was detailed, and indeed it has been argued that it was longer than usual for a report of the Elizabethan period (12). Yet the report and the subsequent legal documents which allowed Ingram Frizer to gain the Queen’s pardon, were inadequate even without the fresh evidence discovered by later research. Frederick Boas took only four years to conclude that commentators found the work unconvincing. It is a vital first task to establish why Hotson’s research failed to penetrate mysteries surrounding Marlowe’s disappearance.

Hotson’s account of his discoveries and his analysis of why they provided a convincing arrount of events, was published in 1925 and endorsed by. G L Kitttredge a great Harvard professor of English Literature who worked with great influence on Chaucer and Shakespeare. (13) However while Kittridge was eminent, he was not a historian and his endorsement of Hotson’s discoveries did not proved definitive, though Hotson was ideally suited for researching the topic. A young scholar in his mid twenties, exceptionally tenacious and with a good grasp of the legal processes of the Elizabethan period if not its politics, he possessed the forensic skills for searching and assessing the often chaotic and piecemeal documents of the Public Record office in Chancery Lane, a somewhat Dickensian place with a random filing system. Above all his ability to decode – read in latin, especially legal latin of the Elizabethan period meant that as he worked in the Public Records Office in London and by accident hit on a key name he could link it to the obscure disappearance of a controversial poet and dramatist.

Hotson’s achievement remains impressive to this day. He was finding needles in an ancient haystack, a task made more difficult because Hotson had to read not just poor handwriting of clerks using latin but the legal latin known as court hand, so difficult even legally trained scribes sometimes resorted to writing in English when the text was too demanding. His discovery of the name of Ingram Frizer on a Calendar of Close Rolls led to the coroner’s report into the death of Marlowe, the legal document ordering an investigation into the finding that Frizer had killed in self defence, and the pardon itself. The brilliance of this research is unquestionable- his interpretation much less satisfactory.

The Coroner’s Report into the Death of Marlowe.

The key discovery was the Coroner’s report, held within the Chancery records at the Public Records Office (14), which was completed on 1st June two days after the alleged killing. No one wanted a corpse lying around in a plague year, so the speed with which the coroner’s jury of 16 men was assembled was not surprising. The actual findings of the jury, as written up and certainly framed by the coroner whose legal ability was well above average are reasonable on first reading, though from the start there are unanswered questions about why a court official, Sir William Danby, came to be in Deptford twenty four hours after the events which led to Marlowe’s disappearance. The first sentence notes that the inquisition – ie coroner’s court – had taken place ‘within the verge’, the legal provision which stated that any crime within twelve miles of the Monarch’s person was within the competence of a Court official (15)

While the proceedings were perfectly legal, however, it remains to be explained how the Court had been notified of the death and were able to provide a leading official, Sir William Danby, ‘Coroner of the household of our said lady the Queen’, two days after the death which allegedly had taken place in the early evening of May 30th.

The empanellment of a jury of 16 men, two of whom were gentlemen, was also undertaken with speed, and it reasonable to assume that the men who attended had been forced to drop their own business and were anxious to get a distinctly unpleasant task, involving inspecting a corpse, over as quickly as possible. Danby was in the driving seat.

While the inquest was understandably speedy – this was a plague year- the coroner is said to have cut corners, and it has been alleged that he failed to involve local officials as the law required , but recent research has found that the law was often flouted, Honan quoting Peter Farey’s research that in six cases where inquests took place ‘within the verge’, the County Coroner was not involved so this is not suspicious. (16). To justify the appearance of a court official, the phrase ‘within the verge’ (the latin – infra virgam) occurs four times in the coroner’s report The inquest was called with great speed, and some 36 hours after the alleged death the investigation was completed and the corpse was buried the same day. It was sensible in a plague year for a body to be buried as quickly as possible, but it was however a remarkable coincidence that a court official was able to take charge of the investigation, and so quickly.

The coroner’s report (17) an account of a meeting which took place between ten in the morning and six at night “in a room in the house of a certain Eleanor Bull, widow”. The four men who met were Ingram ffrysar (normally written Frizer), and Nicholas Skeres, both from London and described as gentlemen, Robert Poley, described as a gentleman but also from London, and Christopher Morley – the form of Marlowe’s name used in the report – who is not described as a gentleman, the only one of the four not so described – yet Marlowe, as a Cambridge graduate, was entitled to gentle status. No indication is given as to why they were meeting, only that they lunched together, walked in the garden, and had an evening meal together.

The four were together from 10 in the morning till 6 at night. It is alleged that at this point a quarrel broke out between Frizer and Marlowe, in the words of the report “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:”, and the quarrel turned nasty.

Marlowe was “lying upon a bed in the room where they supped”, while Frizer was sitting “with his back turned towards the bed”, but near to the bed – written twice for emphasis – and trapped with his back to the bed, the report saying “the aforesaid Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley sitting on either side of the said Ingram in such a manner that the said Ingram ffrysar could not take flight”. The unarmed Marlowe then seized the dagger of Frizer, which was “at his back”, and with Frizer’s dagger dealt two superficial head wounds, of a depth of a quarter of an inch and two inches long.

The most curious part of a curious report is Frizer’s response. The report states that “the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, and sitting in the manner aforesaid between the said Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley so that he could in no wise get away….struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid: in which affray the said Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley”.

How Frizer was struggling with Marlowe if he was sitting and trapped between the rwo others is not explained, but although he had his back to Marlowe and could not see where the dagger was, (no mirror is said to be in the room to help him), somehow Frizer got hold of the dagger and “gave the said Christopher then and there a mortal would over his right eye of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch, of which mortal wound the aforementioned Christopher Morley then and there instantly died”.

On this basis, and with nothing more written about the events in the room, the jurors resolved that Ingram killed Marley “in the defence and the saving of his own life”, noting that Frizer did not flee or withdraw from the room. This curious account was sufficient to allow a court official, one Powle, to issue on June 15th an order for the coroner to send an indictment to the Chancery, and with unusual speed the Crown issued a pardon thus Ingram Frizer was set free.

The Assessment

Hotson’s research effort was impressive, but he failed to probe beneath the surface of the legal documents. Hotson did however admit there were two alternatives (18). Either (a) the story was true and corroborated by wounds to Frizer’s head ‘inflicted by Marlowe before Marlowe’s death blow” or (b) the three men “after the slaying, and in order to save Frizer’s life, (ie from a charge of murder which carried a capital sentence, TF) on a plea of self defence concocted a lying account of Marlowe’s behaviour”. Hotson knew from the text that there were two possibilities for Marlowe’s death, and one was that he was murdered. He chose however to accept the coroner’s conclusion, supported by a the Royal Pardon issued to Frizer, that the killing was self defence.

Hotson thought it significant that as the “first consideration is that there were two witnesses to the killing, evidently friends of Marlowe and Frizer (there is no evidence to support this TF), who had been feasting with them. The finding of ‘homicide in self defence’ in the case is based on an examination of Marlowe’s body, of the dagger wounds on Frizer’s head, of the dagger itself, and upon the testimony of the two eye witnesses, Poley and Skeres” . None of this this is proof that they had not concocted the story to save Frizer from a murder charge. If Frizer had made an unprovoked attack on Marlowe, all the rest including the superficial head wounds he exhibited were plausibly part of the exercise of covering up what had happened.

Hotson believed the account the three men put to the jury, arguing that the wounds on Frizer’s head “must have been inflicted before Marlowe received his death blow”, which is an unsupported assumption. The wounds were so superficial they would have been easy to stage after the event. Painful certainly, but better than being convicted of murder and executed.

Overall, Hotson dismissed the idea Marlowe had been murdered, and by implication the idea that the whole scenario had been predetermined, as “a possible but rather unlikely view of the case,”, believing that drink had fuelled the argument and that ‘the bitter debate over the score (ie reckoning or bill TF) had roused Marlowe’s intoxicated feelings’. There were questionable assumptions here, notably that Marlowe was intoxicated. The coroner did not mention drink. Indeed, if the four men had all been drinking, there is no reason to believe that Frizer was not as drunk as the others and so he could have launched a drunken attack. After all, he had come to the party armed with a dagger. Marlowe had come without a weapon.

It is another unsupported assertion by Hotson that Widow Bull’s house in which the events too place was a tavern. Hotson set in train the deep seated belief that this was a drinking establishment. Park Honan is specific in his later biography, of Marlowe that it was “not a tavern but a rooming house in which meals were served” (19). The idea this was a social occasion fuelled by drink coloured his subsequent interpretations and has become deeply ingrained but is not part of the inquest report. Drink should have been cited if it were a factor. The idea that the scenario was an unpremeditated outcome of a drink fueled argument over who paid the bill becomes even more implausible when the description of the crime scene is considered,

A Questionable Account.

The story produced by the inquest report of four men meeting for over eight hours – 10am to 6pm – then falling out over the payment of the bill produced a very odd crime scene. According to the coroner’s report, Marlowe and Ingram had started arguing while Marlowe was lying on a bed in the room where they supped, with the other three having their back to him with Frizer’s body being ‘towards the table’. The other two men sat either side so close that Ingram could not avoid being attacked.

Eugenie de Kalb was the first to point out that the story of a drunken Marlowe seizing Frizer’s dagger from his belt and inflicting two superficial wounds raised more questions than answers. She pertinently argued “Friser (sic), though seated between Poley and Skere’s ‘so that he could not in any wise get away’, is able to grapple with Marlowe… to struggle with him for the dagger and give him a mortal wound – and this without interference from the other two men who (apparently) remain passive’. The immobility of Poley and Skeres, keeping Frizer locked in instead of moving away and turning to separate the two fighters is remarkable. This was not the only implausibility.

The key phrase in the coroner’s report was that ‘the same Ingram ffrysar in no wise could take flight’. How could this be? Why not knock the table over to gain space to defend against what appears a savage onslaught? Was the table fixed to the floor? And what sort of dining room has a bed in it? Frizer was said to have had his dagger ‘at his back’ so Marlowe was able to seize it and make two wounds on Ingram’s head. Ingram then took his dagger back and killed Marlowe with a single blow above the eye, the dagger penetrating two inches and causing instant death. This was a detailed statement of a fatal struggle, but it is hard to conceive how this could have taken place. It is inconcievable that anyone being attacked from behind would not stand up and turn to face the attacker.

The wounds on Ingram’s head were slight and could have been inflicted by the other two men in the room. It is curious no doctor was called to dress them. The only witnesses called were the other two men, both of whom were involved in either the dark world of espionage or dubious property scams. There is no explanation of why the four men spent eight hours together. Neither Skeres nor Poley tried to intervene or call help. Keeping the evidence to a minimum, the coroner failed to call any witnesses apart from those in the room. A notable absentee was the landlady, Eleanor Bull, who could have given evidence of whether the room looked as though a violent quarrel had taken place – and identify the body. There was undoubtedly a body. But of whom?

Hoffman Prize winner, Peter Farey, taking at face value the inquest’s insistence that Frizer could not turn to face Marlowe but still struck a fatal blow, argues that Marlowe had reversed the dagger so that he did not kill Frizer – but with the blade upright it had easily been used to kill him almost accidentally. This is a fair point – knives can be reversed, hilt down to avoid inflicting a fatal wound. Farey argued that:

“What is rather implausible… is the description of Frizer’s wounds. That these should be a quarter of an inch deep on the scalp without the skull being broken sounds rather improbable. Although the latin (profunditatis quartii unius policis) is clear enough, could he perhaps have intended to say a quarter of an inch wide? In either case it is quite possible that Marlowe attacked Frizer with the hilt of the knife rather than the blade. With the blade thus pointing upwards…. it would have been quite feasible for Frizer, without turning round, to have grabbed Marlowe’s wrist and , almost as a reflex action, to have thrust it away from his own scalp and, probably unintentionally, straight into Marlowe’s eye socket”. (20)

But for Frizer to grasp Marlowe’s wrist when he could not see Marlowe is almost impossible. Then to strike upward with enough force to kill is profoundly difficult – muscles give most force when a blow is delivered down not up.

The description of Frizer’s wounds does not suggest fatal intent, but this conclusion is also compatible with the idea that the wounds were inflicted by the other participants to fake an attack by Marlowe – the interpretation Hotson rejected but which is not contradicted by the evidence in the coroners’ report. Farey is clearly wrong to claim the fatal wound was delivered through the eye socket – which could have been instantly fatal – the blade went through a thick bone where death was unlikely to be instantaneous. Hotson’s translation is quite clear: “a mortal wound over his (Marlowe’s- TF) right eye, of the depth two inches, and width one inch”, so the knife did not go through the eye socket. It is remarkably difficult to establish how the fatal blow was delivered, if indeed there was a fatal blow, and previous writers have left the question open. It remains open. (21)

The Inquisition and Those Quizzed.

The basic assumption that the body observed by the jury was that of Marlowe was never established. It is remarkable that the most basic procedure was not carried out and the body was not identified. Identification was taken on trust from the three men inside the room who had strong reasons for being economical with the truth. None of Widow Bull or her servants, or Thomas Walsingham ten miles away at Scadbury and easily called, who could have identified the body as that of Marlowe testified. There was without any doubt a dead body. It was simply not identified as that of Christopher Marlowe. Hotson should have queried why.

All commentators have seen the personnell as significant, and Hotson looked at their background, but not how they came to be in Deptford that day. Hotson argues the meeting place was a tavern, which it was not, and misunderstands the significance of Eleanor Bull. Hotson observes that “there is a woman in the case, Mistress Eleanor Bull, hostess of the tavern… the inquisition unfortunately does not give the name of her house, and I have been unable to find any list of the sixteenth century public houses in Deptford…” Such a list would not have been helpful to him as domus is not translated as tavern so searching for one was a will of the wisp, but might have caused him to realise that Mistress Bull was not a tavern keeper. Later research has shown she was very well connected, with strong links with Elizabeth’s entourage and the court, far more than the usual lodging house keeper could boast. However even without knowing her court connections, the fact that neither she nor her servants, if there were any, were called to give evidence was significant.

Hotson cannot be expected to know what later research discovered about Eleanor Bull. But the fact that she was not called should have been seen as a material fact raising questions about whether a fight had taken place and what the identity of the corpse was.. Trow points out that while the body was viewed by the jury “We do not know exactly where this too place. Was it in situ, in the room of Eleanor Bull’s…. Was it elsewhere in the house, perhaps in a coffin? Was it in the charnel house which may have stood in St Nicholas’s churchyard” (22). These are relevant questions, and more relevant is whether the body was clothed, naked or in a winding sheet which could have covered up other wounds – particularly to the neck if the corpse had been strangled, the knife wounds inflicted later.

It is even more remarkable that the inquest did not question the three men closely about why they were there and what had led up to the allegedly fatal quarrel, and that Hotson asked no questions either. The assumption that these are simply friends in a social setting is not tenable, even without looking at Marlowe’s recent history and the fact that his room mate, Thomas Kyd had been tortured on the orders of the Privy Council for allegedly having subversive religious tracts which he claimed to have come from Marlowe. An inquest could not probe such issues. But if the cause of death is to be established, then knowing why the party had assembled was a relevant question. Had this come together to take forward a hidden agenda? From Hotson onward scrutiny of some way at the company Marlowe was keeping has been a feature of commentaries on the incident. Seventy years after Hotson published his study, A D Wraight wrote that “It seems that it was a day’s business of some kind that engrossed them,rather than mere pleasure in each other’s company… But this the inquisition does not vouchsafe to tell us, but confines the report…. to the circumstances of the death struggle….” (23) Whether the four men were transacting business has come to be an increasingly important question, particularly given the links three of them had with Thomas Walsingham at Scadbury.

Charles Nicholls, after assiduous research into the Deptford Incident had produced material for two books, found there were problems with the evidence given by the three survivors, the only witnesses taken at the inquest, but particularly Robert Poley. His comment that “Even more than Frizer and Skeres, Poley’s reputation undermines the reliability of the evidence – his slipperiness under questioning was well known. He bragged of it” (24). However Poley’s evidence was not given any more than the other two were quoted. The relevant issue was the reason why the four men met there in the first place. This was not tackled by the coroner or Hotson himself. It is clearly vital for any serious analysis to assess who the three men were meeting Marlowe and for what reason. Hotson did pursue research into the background the these men: but in doing so missed vital issues relating to Walsingham and Frizer – and sowed seeds of misunderstanding about their relationship to Marlowe’s patron which bedevil analysis to this day. Hotson “everything points to an association between Marlowe and Frizier as dependants of the same wealthy gentleman” (25) . There is no evidence the two men met before Deptford and Marlowe’s relationship with Walsingham was literary – there is no sign the other three men had any literary interests. Hotson did not understand these relationships, and made the astonishing mistake of thinking there were two Walsingham’s at Scadbury – as I note in the Appendix,

The Privy Council Context

Analysisng the inquest report and pardon for Frizer did not limit Hotson to just the documents. There was a context which made Marlowe not merely a literary figure. Hotson was well aware that Marlowe was summoned to see the Privy Council just before the events in Deptford. Alas his throw away comment – “Scholars have long been aware, from the Privy Council summons of May 18th 1593, that Marlowe was known to be staying at Mr Walsingham’s house at Scadbury, Chislehurst” (25), shows Hotson only saw this crucial fact as useful in locating Marlowe, ignoring the more important question of precisely why Marlowe had been summoned to the Privy Council. Persons summed to the Privy Council were not arrested and imprisoned in the first instance, but had to attend to be interrogated. Marlowe was unable to attend a mere social meeting while required to attend the Privy Council and yet he appeared to take French Leave. Even without going into the issues surrounding Marlowe’s summons, the fact is that failing to attend the Privy Council was a deeply contentious thing to do. The council had the power to torture, as Kyd had found out. Hotson appeared unaware that he should have been with the Privy Council, not attending a social event in Deptford. The well established fact that the Privy council had summed Marlowe for interrogation, and that Marlowe was staying with Thomas Walsingham, is more than just an indication of Marlowe’s whereabouts.

Marlowe’s is the only summons containing an address in 14 summons in a six week period in the early summer. Thus it is clear that Walsingham and Marlowe were both known to the court, Walsingham being a former espionage officer and in fact the cousin of the greatest Tudor spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham (26). This fact has considerable significance. The Privy Council knew exactly where Marlowe was, and that he was staying with a former intelligence officer less than twenty miles from where the Queen – and the Privy Council – were operating. It became clear, particularly in contrast with Thomas Kyd who was imprisoned and claimed to be tortured, that Marlowe seemed to be dealt with very leniently. But the fact that the Privy council had summoned Marlowe 12 days before the Deptford incident, and that from May 20th Marlowe was instructed to attend the Privy Council daily was clearly a fact of major importance. (27) Marlowe was not imprisoned. No charges were laid against him. But he could not simply absent himself for a day out by the sea.

Hotson knew enough of this to realize that the meeting raised enough questions to make the second possibility – that Marlowe was murdered – one which needed serious consideration. It is a tribute to Hotson that having found documents which finally explained why Marlowe was never heard of after the end of May 1593, he took the official statement at face value. Within weeks, Eugenie de Kalb in the Times Literary Supplement, had began the unpicking of Coroner Danby’s account which has continued to the present day. There is no final conclusion to the debate and no simple explanation of why Marlowe went to Deptford and was never heard of again. The evidence presented to the inquest on June 1st 1593 was plausible enough for local men to accept the verdict which the Coroner clearly wanted of lawful killing. That this could not survive intense questioning was the outcome of Hotson’s discoveries. His assiduous digging of documents in the archive was exemplary. The examination of what he found deserves to be probed further than has been the case so far, as they result has only been the creation of ongoing disputation. Marlowe deserves better than this.

13 4 21

* sometimes spelt Raleigh or Rawley

Appendix: Two Walsinghams Not Three

Hotson made the remarkable gaffe of thinking there were two Thomas Walsingham’s living at Scadbury – Father and son. He wrote:

“Marlowe… enjoyed the friendship and protection of Mr Thomas Walsingham, of Sir Thomas Walsingham his son, and of Sir Walter Ralegh”.

(op cit p10)

Whether Marlowe ever met Ralegh is unknown – Park Honan only says he met some of his circle (Honan 2005 p235) but Marlowe did meet and was staying with Thomas Walsingham at Scadbury in spring 1593. And there was only one. Elizabeth knighted him in 1597 according to Kuriyama (op cit p100) so he was not the son of an original Thomas.

He was however a cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Secretary of State. Thomas did some work for his cousin but was a minor player in Elizabethan politics. Confusing the two cousins happens and is hard to see why. Sir Francis was a major player in European politics. Thomas an important gentry figure in Kent and no more.


(1) Constance Brown Kuriyama Christopher Marlowe, a Renaissance Life, Cornell University Press 2002 Paperback 2010, p3

(2) J Leslie Hotson The Death of Christopher Marlowe, London (The Nonesuch Press) and Cambridge (USA) Harvard University Press, 1925.Reprinted by Kessinger publishing, See note 13

(3) Dedication to Marlowe, Honan op cit p318. Dedication to Lady Walsingham, 1598, Chapman structured the poem into two sestiads, added four more of his own, prefaced each with an argument, and dedicated the whole to Lady Audrey Walsingham, Sir Thomas’s wife. Chapman later produced the classic translation of Homer.

(4) Francis Meres Palladis Tamia 1598

(5) William Vaughan GOLDEN GROVE 1600

(6) Account of search for the death in Deptford church records from Hotson op cit pp 14-21ff.

(7) Hotson op cit. The background to his discovery is on pp 11-18,

(8) Eugenie de Kalb in the Times Literary Supplement May 1925. Tannenbaum’s first version of his book questioning the inquest appeared in 1926. cf Samuel Tannenbaum, The Assassination of Christopher Marlowe, The Shoe String Press Inc, Hamden, Conneticut. Second edition April 1928.

(9) Frederick S Boas Marlowe and his circle OUP, 1929, p6

(10) Calvin Hoffman, The Murder of the Man who was Shakespeare. Julian Messsner Inc, New York, 1955, Grossett & Dunlap, New York 1960.

(11) Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning Vintage Books 2002 has a sub title The Murder of Christopher Marlowe which leaves no room for doubt. . M J Trow, Who Killed Kit Marlowe? (Sutton 2001). Trow’s sub- title A contract for murder in Elizabethan England is explicit. Honan’s chapter 10 – A little matter of murder – is equally explicit.

(12) A D Wraight claims in In Search of Christopher Marlowe p292 note 4 that a study of inquests of the time established this.

(13)George Lyman Kittridge (1860-1941) Professor of English at Harvard, eminent scholar specialising in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Kittridge wrote a short note supporting Hotson published as an introduction.

(14) PRO Chancery C260/14/27.

(15) Hotson comments “The verge was an area 12 miles around the body of the sovereign, in which officials of the royal household temporarily supplanted the local officials in their duties”. Op cit p75 note 6. The person of the Sovereign is the crucial mark for measuring the extent of the verge. Nickoll comments the palace of Greenwich was a mile away, suggesting Danby was readily available. But the Queen and the court were a dozen miles away, a much greater distance given the poor communications of Tudor England. How then did Danby arrive on the scene so quickly?.

(16) Honan op cit, p354

(17) The Coroner’s report translated into English is on pages 31-34, the pardon 34-37

(18) Hotson;s discussion of the options pp39-40.

(19) Hotson seems to have mistranslated the latin in interpreting the word ‘domus’ as meaning a tavern. It is likely Mrs Bull’s domicile was a house, possibly a lodging house. Park Honan Christopher Marlowe Poet and Spy Oxford 2005/ paper 2007 p344

(20) Peter Farey MARLOWE’S SUDDEN AND FEARFUL END. Web site of Peter Farey:

(21) Charles Nicholls, The Reckoning, Vintage 2002. second edition gives medical evidence appendix 2.1 p435-6. One of his sources describes the weapon entering the eye socket or orbital, roofed by ‘a thing plate of bone’ thus the dagger could just reach the carotoid artery causing death. Another witness discuses the possibility of death through oculo-cardiac reflex, essentially shock to the system caused by a wound to the eye. M J Trow in Who Killed Kit Marlowe? (Sutton 2001) cites a case from World War 2, – the Wigwam murder – in which a soldier made holes in his girlfriends skull with a small army issue knife. Op cit p216. An odd comparison- presumably the woman was dead by the time the holes were made. None of the comments touches on the problem of a blow through the forehead delivered with sufficient force by a man apparently sitting down with his back to his assailant.

(22) M J Trow op cit pp 214-215

(23) A D Wright op cit p292

(24) Charles Nicholl op cit 2002, p37 “his slipperiness under questioning was well known. He bragged of it. He even claimed that he had outwitted Sir Francis Walsingham…”

(25) Hotson op cit p49.

(26) The Acts of the Privy Council, 1542- 1604, Vol 4, ed J R Dasent, BL HLR 941 (RS 173). Summons for Marlowe, May 18th 1593. Report he attended and is on a daily report back, May 20th.

(27) Acts of the Privy Council, op cit p244.

1568 Mary and Elizabeth

The research for my book Mary Queen of Scots in Staffordshire threw up many puzzles that were not about Staffordshire. The most puzzling was and is the reasons why she left Scotland after defeat at the battle of Langside in 1568, which current writing cannot explain. None of her advisors were in favour. She hoped to gain support from two states she thought would help regain the throne, France and England, but she had no real reason to think either would help. France had never suggested they might come back to help butthe England of Elizabeth 1 was slightly more hopeful.

Although protestant like the majority of the English and Scots , Queen Elizabeth had made the principle of support for monarchy her most firmly held belief. This had led her to suggest that she might send an army to help Queen Mary if the Scots forced her off the throne. Mary took these suggestions as firm commitments, but as the following article shows, this assumption was one that Mary would come to regret.

NB The spelling STUART rather than the Scottish Stewart will be used as John Guy says The Queen used this and both major biographies of the last sixty years – John Guy and Antonia Fraser – use this spelling.

Losing Control

Mary Stuart aka Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in England from February 3rd 1569 when she arrived at Tutbury castle in Staffordshire to her execution at Fotheringhay on February 8th 1587. When she arrived at the grim fortress of John o’Gaunt it was plain that she was not a guest of Elizabeth 1: the castle, being used for the Royal Stud, was clearly a prison. How had she lost control of her fate? Her first months in England, which are still highly controversial, must be examined taking into account the conflicted relationship of Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth Tudor before and after Mary arrived in England The English Queen had made Mary a prisoner, despite their shared view of monarchy and the duties of the monarch uniting them – but once Mary had arrived in England in 1568 – this could not prevent them being torn apart.

The conventional view of Mary as victim has a basis in historical reality as she argued consistently, up to and at the trial which finally condemned her to be executed, that she was imprisoned without trial and was a refugee from injustice. However civil war, imprisonment by her own subjects, defeat at the battle of Langside (13th May 1568) ) and the flight in panic showed her judgement was poor. She made consistent failures of statecraft which made her in large part complicit in her own downfall. Thus victimhood is an easy case to make but is not the full picture. As the legacy of the Stuarts in England was to show, there was a fatal history of short sighted judgements in her family with only her great grandson Charles able to look ‘outside the box’ when he fled from defeat at the battle of Worcester. Perhaps Charles looked back at his ancestor and understood the value of taking advice.

It is true that Mary had arrived in England voluntarily, and had expected to be treated according to what we might see today as the principles of Natural Justice. Her repeated requests to Elizabeth to meet to discuss her imprisonment were always rejected – the two Queens never met, whatever dramatists may allege – and it may be suspected that Elizabeth felt unable to meet her cousin because she would be unable to make a reasonable answer to the claim that Mary would undoubtedly have made that her imprisonment could not be justified.

Or at least, not justified without resort to alleging Mary practised real politik involving disasterous miscalculations. While Mary was indeed a voluntary exile as a refugee from rebels, she could be accused of self destructive behaviour involving optimistic expectations of people she hardly knew – notably Elizabeth 1 and the Earl of Bothwell *- showing wildly unrealistic choices. This paper will focus on the events which led her to imprisonment in Tutbury castle in February 1569.

Calculation and Miscalculation

Mary had arrived in England as a fugitive from Scottish rebels on May 16th 1568 expecting that her cousin Elizabeth 1, would provide an army to put her back on the Scottish throne. This expectation alone was totally unrealistic. While Elizabeth was thoroughly opposed to rebels deposing anointed monarchs, once her cousin had arrived asking for aid she carried a history which could not be ignored. Elizabeth certainly wanted to return her to be Queen of Scotland, but the first months of her time in England through into 1569 were the months when the exiled Queen found unexpected challenges developing. Faced with the prospect of having their Queen returned, the Scottish power elite responded with accusations of scandalous behaviour and malpractice which Elizabeth could not ignore.

The Queen had become an exile because she had made political mistakes generating civil war, something her grandson Charles 1 did with the same eventual result – he also lost his head to the executioners axe. The most serious mistake of her time in Scotland was her weak response to the murder of her second husband Lord Darnley generating suspicions she was involved. As the sensation developed, Elizabeth and indeed her French mother in law Catherine de Medici stood by her expecting her to prosecute suspects. When these expectations failed, rebels protesting at the murder of Darnley, and her marriage to the man accused of organising his killing, Lord Bothwell gained support. Mary faced a rebellion which was as brutal and unjust as mediaeval politics ever were: Scotland being very much a mediaeval society. The Scots power elite made an almost unprecedented judgement on her character that she was morally unfit as a mother to have the right to bring up her own child, and she would never again see her son.

These were sensations which even the sympathetic John Guy agrees “tarnished her reputation for ever, and rightly so. She (Mary TF) made no serious effort to bring Darnley’s killers to justice” (Guy 2018 p314= see the rest of the page for his analysis of the damage caused to her reputation). She had finally united her famously divided country as Guy concludes “Even the Catholics deserted Mary in her hour of need” (op cit p311). What happened in Scotland followed her into England. While the Catholics turned back to her later the legacy which she brought to England was a blackened reputation, which made Elizabeth hesitate to support her.. Catherine de Medici had abandoned her long before – something Mary did not seem to grasp. Nor did she grasp that putting her fate in the hands of her cousin was seriously foolish.

It was an unforced error to come to England with her advisors opposed to such a move, as she had no real reason to believe that Elizabeth while sympathetic was going to put her back on the Scottish throne. The Scots Queen assumed that she could put her whole future in the hands of her cousin though she had never met her and had no understanding the beneath her deep rooted principled support for monarchy the English Queen had an even deeper rooted commitment to holding onto the English throne, and her future was threatened by Mary’s demand to be returned as Scottish Queen. Leading English protestants agreed with the Scots protestants that Mary’s relationship with Bothwall was intolerable and may have been a cause of Darnley’s murder

The complexity of the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary, rests on the fact their blood ties meant she was clearly the strongest candidate to succeed Elizabeth as Queen, which was not an asset for Mary as this factor made Catholic rebellion highly likely, and the political agreements and disagreements arising from the religious divisions should have shown Mary her cousin could never support her. But Mary appeared incapable of making objective decisions which as Antonia Fraser wrote was to become a profoundly damaging family trait. Antonia Fraser comments that Mary’s nature showed “that streak either of the romantic or the gambler, which leads the subject ever to prefer hope and high adventure to the known quantity, and which Mary Stuart passed on so dramatically to many of her later Stuart descendants”. (Fraser 2002 p456). The history of her descendants in England confirms that this is so – with just one brilliant exception. Her great grandson, Charles II was faced with just the problem Mary faced after Langside: how to escape after defeat in battle.

Charles II was in worse straits after the Battle of Worcester than his great grandmother was after Langside, having seen his army destroyed by Cromwell’s highly skilled troops while his great grandmother still had potential forces that would rally to her. But Charles, the morning after the battle when tired, hungry and demoralised, evaluated his options and decided to dismiss his entourage and rely on the illiterate working people of the Forest of Brewood. He did not know them, could not be certain they would not betray him, and was unclear whether they had the skills he needed. But caught between a rock and a hard place, ie Cavaliers who could not help him and Forest People who might, he gambled and his choice saved his life. It was not just the Royal Oak that saved him but his intelligent appreciation of the right choice to make to escape a trap. He was the only Stuart in two centuries to have that skill.

His great grandmother was nowhere near as realistic. She knew she shared the assumptions with Elizabeth 1, that monarchy could not be challenged and monarchs should therefore support each other against rebels, and this was the trigger for Mary’s disasterous decision as she fled from the battlefield at Langside – that she should leave Scotland for England and plead for support of her cousin. She relied on Elizabeth’s stated policy as in 1567 Elizabeth had told her ambassador Sir Nicholas Throckmorton to tell the Scots they had no right to rebel whatever the circumstances saying:

“they have no warrant or authoritie by the law of God or man to be as superiors, judges or vindicators over their prince and soverayne, howsoever disorders they do gather or conceyve mater or disordere against her” (

Doran 2015-18 p76)

Elizabeth was only persuaded not to threaten to go to war to prevent Mary’s deposition (which the ambassador knew could not be stopped) when Throckmorton pointed out Mary would be killed if an English army crossed the border. Mary was fully aware this could happen, as the rebels threatened her with this fate during her imprisonment in Lochleven Castle, Throckmorton believed only his presence would save her, (Fraser p425) and Elizabeth realised there was little she could do to intervene in Scotland.

When in July 1567 Mary had been finally deposed and her infant son crowned King (July 29th ), Mary’s half brother the Earl of Moray being declared regent, Elizabeth chose to be a passive witness to the events in Scotland – Moray being an acceptable governor to the English especially after he sold Mary’s jewels to Elizabeth, a development which Mary was unaware of. However Mary escaped from Lochleven and rapidly mobilised an army. With her supporters outnumbering those of her half brother, Moray, the odds at the Battle of Langside sugggested Mary would win and regain her throne without needing Elizabeth to have to fulfil her promise to mobilise to help her cousin in battle. But Mary lost.

Mary’s best option after the battle even if she was to appeal for English aid was to remain in Scotland, regroup her supporters to produce armed forces which the English could assist if need be. Certainly Mary’s advisors argued she should not go into exile, but Mary was determined to go across the border and seek the assistance of her cousin. Panic and the trauma of the events of her deposition and failure in battle influenced her decisions making a bad situation worse. Towards the end of her life Mary wrote in a letter to the Catholic Archbishop Beaton “But I commanded my best friends to permit me to have my way….” (Fraser 2002 p456) a mistake she would regret for the rest of her life.

A Queen In Exile

Elizabeth certainly did not expect that her strongly expressed views against rebels ousting monarchs would lead to Mary arriving in her territory. A Catholic monarch ousted by protestant rebels gave the protestant government of England a major headache. Why did Mary make so stunning a decision? Mary left Scotland as she believed Elizabeth would send an army to put her back on the throne, convinced that the English would act immediately, or just as unrealistically that the French government of Catherine de Medici would assist her as she was a former French Queen. On 20th May 1568, seven days after Langside, she wrote from Carlisle to the earl of Cassilis (Fraser 2002 p459) saying she was “right well received and honourably accompanied” and expected to be back in Scotland with a French or English army “about the fifteenth day of August”. There is no other word but “delusional” to explain her belief that armies could be magically produced in three months. The French would have to create both an army and an invasion fleet but Mary’s grasp of military logistics was limited.

Mary should however have had a firm grasp of the politics of France – but despite having lived there as the wife of the King, the obstacles to the French intervening had escaped her. As her mother was a Guise, and the current King under the control of the Italian Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici was hostile to the Guise faction, the internal politics of the French court meant that the French were not inclined to help Mary as this meant bolstering the Guise element within their divided polity. Hopes of French assistance were clearly delusional.

Mary remained convinced Elizabeth was inclined to help her. But the common assumption of both Queens that monarchy was divinely appointed and the subjects could not choose who would occupy the throne was overridden in Elizabeth’s case by a keen awareness of political reality. A protestant English army could never be sent to fight a protestant Scots army to impose a Catholic Queen. Thus the Scots would have to accept Mary back voluntarily and while talks about talks took place Mary was moved from Carlisle, where an invasion north of the border was feasible, to Bolton Castle in North Yorkshire, ending the prospect of an invasion as the castle was too far south to be a base for an invasion force. The rest of the year was involved in tortuous attempts to clear a way for Mary to be accepted back in Scotland.

Although Mary was upset when moved to Yorkshire she did not waver in her belief that Elizabeth would support her, She relied on her blood tie – she was Elizabeth’s nearest relative, both being descended from Henry VII – she was an anointed monarch and her deposition threatened Elizabeth who also faced potential rebellion. But the political reality overriding these factors was that Mary was Catholic and Elizabeth protestant and armed support for a Catholic against Protestant rebels would be a bridge too far for the daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn. Not that she openly admitted this.

Mary’s initial confinement was not technically imprisonment despite her being close guarded – Guy says Bolton Castle after arriving from Carlisle “may have seemed less a place of imprisonment than a place of refuge ” (op cit p440). Warm physically (it had a primitive form of central heating) and in Lady Scrope a welcoming aristocratic hostess. As the sister of the Duke of Norfolk she may have put the dangerous idea of marrying her brother into Mary’s consciousness. Certainly the months in the north of England did not seem captivity. However Mary was confused by the preparations for a commission of inquiry which was taking on the appearance of a trial.

Elizabeth was acutely aware that the Scots objection to their former Queen was based on the accusation she had colluded in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley. Elizabeth adopted the position that she could not support Mary until this slur was removed, and promised that after an inquiry, all would be straightforward in restoring her to the Scots throne. Mary who assumed this was a foregone conclusion had no choice but to accept that this was the road ahead, and she was comforted by a letter in which Elizabeth explained they would not meet but:

“If you find it strange not to see me you must make a ‘metamorphose’ of our persons, and then you will see it would be ‘malaise’ for me to receive you before your justification… But once honourably acquitted of this crime, I swear to you before God that among all worldly pleasures that will hold the first rank”. (J B Black, 1959 p110)

Thus Elizabeth was still claiming she was prepared to back the restoration of her cousin to the Scottish throne. She told the French ambassador that “She would take the cause of her sister the Queen in hand, and was resolved to place her again in her country in her former degree and authority royal, either by a good appointment and reconciliation… between her and her subjects, or by force” (op cit p111-112).

Mary replied on the 13th June refusing to take part in a confrontation with her accusers, writing “Here I neither can nor will answer their false accusations, although I will with pleasure justify myself voluntarily as friend to friend, but not in the form of a process with my subjects”, but the Privy Council stated that “her majesty can neither in honour or with surety aid her (Mary), nor permit her to come into her presence, nor restore her, nor suffer her to depart without a trial” (Black 1959 p111)

Elizabeth was able to take from the views she was given the device of a commission in inquiry – it was never called a trial – which Mary had to accept as giving the chance to clear her name, and allowed Elizabeth to maintain the apparently clear position of imposing Mary on the Scots if Mary was found innocent of the charges made by Moray and her opponents in Scotland. However this compromise position was not to survive the commission which began in York in October. This was clearly biased against Mary, who was forbidden to attend and make her own case while her half brother Moray was allowed to attend bringing with him the ‘Casket’ letters which he claimed were written by Mary and showed she colluded with Bothwell with whom she was in an adulterous relationship. Mary was furious that she could not attend, while the bias of the process was shown as Darnley’s father was not allowed to come though as Jenny Wormald comments, “At Elizabeth’s insistence, the matter to be discussed was whether Mary was innocent or guilty of the murder of Darnley; for that alone provided straightforward grounds for deciding whether she should be restored to her throne or not” (Wormald 2001/2017 p183). The inquiry was not designed to hear both sides in an even handed way.

The Casket letters were produced by Moray when the commission – or more realistically ‘trial’ – moved to Westminster to bring in additional commissioners. Whether they were forged or not is still a major issue, and one which cannot be decided since the originals vanished in 1584 when in the possession of James Stuart. It is a material factor that he had no desire to see his mother continually accused of aiding the killing of his father so it is not surprising the original letters vanished. The Duke of Norfolk who was one of the original commissioners is supposed to have said the casket letters were too extensive to have been forged (Fraser op cit 2002 p480). (The casket was said to contain eight letters allegedly from Mary to Bothwell, a long love sonnet and two marriage contracts). Norfolk’s conclusiond meant that Mary was guilty, so Mary’s defenders argue they were forged. Whether they were genuine or forged is not really the main issue. If forged, then the conclusion was that powerful interests in Scotland would go to any lengths to stop Mary coming back – which would be proven the next summer when a vote of the nobles barred her returning.

Mary still believed that Elizabeth was on her side, despite the obviously partisan nature of the way the conference proceeded. On the transference of the conference to London, Mary wrote to her cousin showing total trust in her good behaviour, writing “ Since you, my good sister, know our cause best, we doubt not to receive presently good end thereof: where through we may be perpetually indebted to you” (Fraser 2002 p481). Relying on Elizabeth was foolish. Through into December Mary’s representatives did little to press for her to be allowed into the hearing. Elizabeth was aided in ignoring Mary by heavy snow which made her ability to travel 250 miles to Westminster out of the question, giving Elizabeth a breathing space to consider how to solve the problem Mary posed while at Bolton Castle.

Late in December 1568 Elizabeth suggested that Mary hand over the throne of Scotland to her infant son – meaning Moray would run the government – and live in England with all parties accepting that if James died before his mother she could return as Queen. This attempt to keep the throne occupied by a Stuart, albeit an infant, was rejected by Mary and Elizabeth washed her hands of the problem. The Conference was ended by Elizabeth on January 11th 1569 without Mary or her representatives having even seen the casket letters.

Moray was sent home with £5000 to pay for his expenses, and Elizabeth wrote that both Moray and the Queen had done nothing to compromise their honour. This was ridiculous, since Moray had accused his half sister of complicity in murdering Darnley, and finally awoke Mary to the fact she had been abandoned. The treatment of the two key characters in the civil war which had followed Darnley’s murder were treated in such vastly different ways that while Elizabeth would sanction further talks to see if Mary could be returned to Scotland, the reality that she was now to be in prison in England. She was now moved from Bolton and pleasant aristocratic company to Tutbury Castle where the presence of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick, could not conceal the brutal fact Mary was now a prisoner with no time limit on the sentence.

Mary was therefore sent to Tutbury castle, arriving on February 3rd 1569 and finally could have no doubt that she was a prisoner, not a guest. Not suprisingly, she plotted to gain her release. She had already told Francis Knollys, her first jailer, at Bolton Castle in October 1568 though she hoped Elizabeth would back her as Scottish Queen if things went badly “as a desperate person I will use any attempts that may serve my purpose”, (Fraser p477). She kept her promise and now began to explore ways to escape.

Once it was clear she would not be supported in going back to Scotland she had appealed to the Spanish for help using her Catholic faith as a bargaining counter. She wrote in early January 1569 for a message to go to the Spanish Ambassador De Spes “Tell the Ambassador that if his master will help me, I shall be queen of England in three months, and Mass shall be said all over the country” (JB Black OUP p130). The timing was absurdly unrealistic with no understanding of how much support Catholicism had in England, the wish was very much the father to the thought, and Spain was unable to invade in 1569 anyway, but De Spes added her call to the conspiracy known as the Ridolfi plot. There was no doubt Mary had returned to the idea of taking Elizabeth’s throne which the Guise family had proposed when she was in France. This could be achieved in theory by marriage to the Duke of Norfolk. This was to be the major priority through 1569 though Elizabeth was to be understandably hostile.

Mary bowed to force majeure and abandoned any idea of returning to Scotland in the immediate future, though talks with Elizabeth’s ministers about some way out to allow her back home would continue for several years. But it was now clear to Mary once under the control of the Earl of Shrewsbury that she had made a disasterous miscalculation in putting herself in Elizabeth’s hands – and losing control of her fate. The reason why she took this fatal decision remain without any plausible answer. There is plenty of evidence that Mary Stuart was a charismatic figure with a sharp and creative mind skilled in writing poetry. She was undoubtedly clever. Her tragedy – unlike that of her great grandson Charles Stuart – was that she was clever, but not intelligent.

*In fact Mary hardly knew either of her Scottish husbands – Darnley she met only when she arrived in Scotland and he had arrived from England. Bothwell she had met in France briefly. Elizabeth 1 was wholly unknown to her save through letters..

Selected Bibliography

Doran Susan Elizabeth and Her Circle Oxford University Press 2015- 2018 ed)
Fraser Antonia Mary Queen Of Scots Phoenix 2002
Guy John My Heart is My Own Fourth Estate 2004, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS 2018
J B Black The Reign of Elizabeth – Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1959

5th April 2021

Gilbert Gifford – Double Agent

The Chillington Estate in South Staffordshire, where the Gifford (currently spelt Giffard) family have lived since 1178, is a classic example of a gentry household – the people there were rarely the Great and the Good but staged memorable developments none the less. The best known incident in the history of the estate, the day Charles II spent in the oak tree at Boscobel on the estate escaping from defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651, happened through the fortunes of war. But the previous. significant event involving the family followed the equally momentous visit of Elizabeth 1 in 1575.

When Elizabeth discovered that the family defied the Reformation to remain Catholics it was a blatant insult. Suffering the penalties of recusancy, the family remained defiant and sent their fourth son, Gilbert, to Rome to become a Catholic priest. He then shocked them by emerging as a key player in the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots. To this day, what he did is controversial, providing challenging historical research.

In Rome, Gilbert refused to toe the line: while never taking rebellion to the logical conclusion of become protestant, he became involved in a feud with the all powerful Jesuits, the shock troops of the Counter Reformation. When he returned to England at the end of 1585 he secretly sealed his rebellion against Catholic orthodoxy by agreeing to work as a double agent for Sir Francis Walsingham, the puritan diplomat who was Elizabeth’s principal spy catcher. And this is where the research problems begin.

There is no doubt that in 1586 Gifford was Walsingham’s key agent in the struggle against Mary’s conspiracies, notably by setting up the secret communication channel for her coded letters to plotters in London and the Continent which I have termed the ‘Brewer’s Sting’. Walsingham awarded him a pension of £100 per year – unheard of wealth for a freelance spy. The channel opened the way to the Babington plot, when Mary’s supporters realized that they could communicate with the Queen in her captivity in Chartley Manor in East Staffordshire. The Queen had been cut off from receiving letters, her French correspondence piling up in the French Embassy in London, but a brewer in Burton on Trent agreed for a price to smuggle letters in and out of Chartley in the bung of the weekly beer barrel. However he could not travel to and from Burton to London, which required a trusted courier. That role was taken by Gilbert Gifford, who convinced Thomas Morgan, Mary’s French emissary in Paris, of his loyalty. The plotters against Elizabeth 1 relied on Gifford’s courier service to communicate with Chartley, completely unaware that Gifford was passing all the letters to Walsingham.

The complexities of what Gifford was doing and the question of whether Walsingham controlled the Babington plot are notoriously puzzling. In her entry on Gifford in the Oxford History of National Biography, Alison Plowden coped by choosing to ignore Gifford’s history as a Babington plotter. She accepts that Gifford knew what was going on, and briefed Mendoza, the former Spanish ambassador, but ignores the way he had acquired the knowledge. As he was heavily involved in the plotting and Walsingham’s main agent this aids those who argue Mary was not guilty of plotting the murder of her cousin with Gifford aiding Walsingham in inventing the conspiracy. This is not supported by the two best recent biographers of Mary, Antonia Fraser and John Guy, but Fraser contends “The assassination plot against Elizabeth… changes character as it becomes clear that much of the plot consisted of mere provocation by which Walsingham hoped to entangle Mary” (Fraser 2002 p598). Whether what Walsingham – and by implication Gifford – did was provocation, cannot apply to what happened in Staffordshire. A courier is not an agent provocateur, and what Plowden describes is his work as a courier*.

The current block to my research is the difficulty of working out how Gifford got involved in Walsingham’s plan for the Brewer’s sting. The accepted view is that Gifford arrived back in England in December 1585 – probably the 4th though it is argued as late as the 20th – and was interviewed and turned by Walsingham. This provides an eye wateringly tight schedule in which Gifford had to agree to work for the Sting, go to the French Embassy – twice according to Fraser – convince the diplomats he was on the side of the Scottish Queen, obtain the letters, organize a Burton visit to see the Brewer, then visit him some hundred and fifty miles north of London and convey the letters. The date given by Fraser for receipt at Chartley is mid January “On the 16th January 1586… Mary Stuart **… received the first secret communication she had had for over a year”. (p600). Chartley of course – not Tutbury – had to be the location of the Brewers Sting – the washerwomen could not be isolated at Tutbury as they had to move out of the Castle to do the washing – there was no moat – but there was a moat at Chartley..

The current interpretation creates two problems. Firstly, if Walsingham had no contact with Gifford till December 1585 the Sting risked not having a courier. The Brewer is clearly in post much earlier, indicating Walsingham had a suitable courier in mind – and Gilbert Gifford was the perfect choice. Secondly, if Gifford did not agree to work for Walsingham till early December 1585, there was not enough time to make the arrangements before Mary received the Brewer’s first consignment on 16th January. Until Christmas Eve the Queen was at Tutbury and was only completely isolated when at Chartley.

It is the first factor which is the major stumbling block. The Sting had to be a real possibility before Gifford went to see Thomas Morgan in Paris on the way home from his seminary at Rheims. He left Rheims after becoming a deacon of the Catholic Church on 5th April 1585 and it is logical to assume after that point he could plausibly pose as a Catholic agent. When he arrived in England that December at Rye, Plowden argues “Gifford may or may not have already been employed by Walsingham’s secret service”, but this cannot be left open as a maybe if we are to understand how the Sting was set up. Gifford was undoubtedly a devious character willing to sell his services to the highest bidder. Plowden quotes Sir Edward Stafford, English ambassador in Paris stating Gifford was “the most notable double treble villain that ever lived”, and he had reason to say so. But to understand the nature of a double agent needs more than pantomime psychology and a willingness to play Judas. For Gifford, there is more to grasp than merely the character of a confidence trickster. He calculated what he could do and convinced others – notably Walsingham – that he could deliver. How, when and why he was doing this are the nuts that will not crack.

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* The key point relating to Chartley is that neither Walsingham nor Gifford visited though Mary knew Walsingham’s code breaker was a visitor – she described him – (Fraser 2002 p600) but no one in Mary’s camp knew why Phellipes was visiting.

**Both Fraser and Guy use the English not the Scottish spelling

Lettice & Walter- Happy Ever After?

Chartley Manor in Elizabethan England, was a place of mystery with historians still arguing over what happened when Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned there. But even more mysteries surround Lettice Devereux, nee Knollys, the chatelaine of the Manor in the middle years of Elizabeth 1’s reign who lived there at least until Queen Elizabeth 1, her cousin, visited in 1575. Thereafter with the death of her first husband Walter Devereux the miasma of rumour and misinformation affecting her becomes a fog.

It is difficult to bring her life at Chartley into focus as Lettice- short for Letetia – has only recently had proper attention paid to her – via Nicola Tallis’s 2018 biography ELIZABETH’S RIVAL – and her focus is on the second marriage to Robert Dudley, triggerin Elizabeth’s fury- Dudley was her favourite. Yet the first marriage, which produced her son Robert Devereux later executed for high treason, should not be neglected. Lettice was important in the life of the Court, with major issues of evidence and interpretation to resolve. Was Lettice the model for Hamlet’s murderous mother as has been alleged?

It is only possible to gain some hard fact of the life Lettice lived with her first husband,the aristocratic Walter Devereux who was Viscount Hereford when they married, when they were at Court .Their meeting at court and marriage gives some evidence though when precisely in the early 1560s this happened is yet to be discovered. That they went to Chartley, the Devereux main house lying next to Chartley Castle in Staffordshire, is not in dispute. Walter was made an Earl and was one of the nobles trying Norfolk in 1572 and the birth of children indicated a healthy marital life. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth 1 visited Chartley and saw what seemed to be a happy domestic scene.

But rumours developed that Lettice was too close toEarl of Leicester. Mutual attraction is undeniable – they married after her first husband, the Earl of Essex, Walter Devereux, died in 1576 – but whether they were lovers and she provided the inspiration of the adulterous wife for Shakespeare and the fictional death of Hamlet’s father is an enduring controversy.

The rumours that Lettice was having an affair with the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley have cast a shadow on her life with her first husband at Chartley. Indeed, it is sometimes assumed that she was always unhappy. Derek Wilson in his biography of Robert Dudley SWEET ROBIN (Alison & Busby 1997) claimed

“The couple lived quietly in the countryside, but it seems there was little domestic harmony” (p227)

Something did go wrong with the marriage, but until he became an Earl and invaded Ulster, it is a mistake for historians to see the marriage as a failure. In fact Devereux was a rising star in Elizabeth’s court for the first dozen years of their marriage and till he went to Ireland seeking conquest was well regarded by Queen and other courtiers. Yet the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Walter Devereux only devotes a single paragraph to their marriage, and gets several facts wrong. For example, the Dictionary writer, J J N McGurk says Walter

“married Lettice (1543-1634)… both were in their early twenties. For the next seven years they lived at Chartley Hall in Staffordshire. It was during this period that their eldest child, Penelope Rich, was born. His first call to public service came in 1568 when ordered to keep a body of horse in readiness to prevent any attempt to release Mary Queen of Scots from Tutbury…”

Five mistakes in only four sentences. Firstly, Lettice was 18 if they married in 1561, still a teenager. They lived at Chartley together till 1573 when Walter went soldiering in Ireland – twelve years in which Lettice bore five children, of whom the first four are unlikely to be fathered by anyone but Walter. The last died and was buried at the local church at Stowe by Chartley. Penelope was Penelope Devereux while at Chartley, Rich was her married name. And while Walter did guard Queen Mary, it was 1569. Mary did not reach the castle till February 3rd 1569 as Antonia Fraser records (MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS 2002 p509). While neglecting the other children is not an error, it is odd that McGurk ignores Robert Devereux, who as Earl of Essex was executed for high treason in 1601 – a major event in Elizabethan history, and both Dorothy and Wat lived eventful lives. A more serious error is noted below*.

It is a common error to see Walter’s life at Chartley as not very important but Lettice was unsurprisingly impressed when she met him and marriage, which meant leaving the Queen’s paid service, was clearly a step up for a girl whose father was a knight – Sir Francis Knollys – but had not great social position. Walter belonged to an old aristocratic family, with a Norman background. He had been born in Camarthen Castle, to a wealthy family with Welsh roots though their main house was at Chartley. His father died before his grandfather allowing Walter to inherit his grandfather’s title of Viscount Hereford at age 19. He inherited a substantial fortune on maturity aged 21, plus the chief family home at Chartley, and spent his money on brushing up his image. His tailor’s bill survives and Nicola Tallis in her book ELIZABETH’S RIVAL estimates that the total of £150 spent before coming to court is £34,000 at today’s prices.

When Lettice first met him at Elizabeth’s court, where she was an attendant of the Queen as Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, he had great prospects. This was confirmed when Walter was involved in defending Mary Queen of Scots in 1569 at Tutbury, twenty miles from Chartley, then raised an army from Staffordshire to join the battle against the Earl’s revolt in 1569. For this the Queen promoted him to become Earl of Essex and made him a Knight of the Garter. This confirmed his prospects, and Lettice would have seen this as confirmation she had married a man with a bright future. The portrait of Walter painted around the time he came to Court shows him handsome and well turned out in dress armour. There is no reason to think the first dozen years of the marriage were unhappy.

As late as 1574 Walter was satisfied with his marriage and when he went soldiering in Ireland still thought about looking after his wife. He wrote back to say he wanted Lettice to have one third of the estate if he died. He did not have to do this and when his will was revised later it was not as generous. He had changed his mind, and we don’t know why.

What happened to damage the marriage probably happened in 1575 when he was in Ireland, and it is not yet known what it was. Significantly only one letter to her three hubands she outlived survives, and as many other have been found the fact that as Nicola Tallis says (page xxix) Lettice had all her letters at Drayton Bassett, the house on the Staffordshire Warwickshire border she moved to when forced out of Chartley after Walter’s will was shown to give her no right to live there. The fact that her correspondence with her husbands has vanished suggests she destroyed them. This strongly suggests she had something to hide, though whether this was the case while her children were being born and Walter lived at home is a different matter.

Unless the dozen years Lettice and Walter spent at Chartley are seen as important, and not written off as a disaster, we will never know. Chartley was remote and a backwater, later used as a prison for Mary Queen of Scots – but we cannot assume that this meant that Lettice and Walter were unhappy so Walter wanted to leave. We know that Lettice married the Earl of Leicester after her husband died in 1576. But what happened in the last two years of Walter’s life remains to be discovered – and it did not happen at Chartley

*McGurk states that Walter Devereux was “first Earl of Essex”. He was first Earl in the eighth creation, the first having been in c1139. There have been nine creations, each creation having a first Earl, the best known apart from Robert Devereux of the Essex rebellion being Thomas Cromwell, made famous by Hilary Mantel. Walter, who had no connection with the county of Essex, chose the title from a remote connection with the Bourchier family who had held it earlier in the Fifth creation. The title is still alive in the ninth creation, which was created in 1661 and has managed to keep going through to the present day.

It is remarkable that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography does not seem to know the history of the English aristocracy.

21st March 2021

Chartley Before The Earls

Chartley on the Stafford-Uttoxeter Road (A518) is deeply mysterious – there was once a medieval market next to the castle, but the usual signs of an English village – a church or pub – cannot be seen in Chartley. It is easy to think nothing has ever happened here despite the medieval castle, as there is so little to see. The one legend told about the place is that Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in the Castle but that is wrong – she was kept in the Old Manor, which burned down in 1781. Nowadays Chartley is largely deserted and as Tim Cockin says in the Staffordshire Encyclopaedia* it is “an extremely dispersed hamlet in undulating country” (p129), in fact there are so few houses it hardly counts as a hamlet. It is hard to believe that before the Civil War two Queens visited and three Earls** lived in the Manor House.

There was once a mediaeval village next to the castle, but the usual signs of an English Village – a Church or Pub – can be seen in Chartley. When the castle was built the Lord gained a charter on 26th September 1221 to hold a market there every Thursday. After the Wars of the Roses the castle like all castles was out of date, cannonballs could knock the walls down, so the Village vanished. By 1500 the market had disappeared.

When visitors came in the late Tudor period it was to the Old Manor, which remains mysterious as it was totally isolated apart from the abandoned castle and did not even have a Church or chapel – the church for the people of the Old Manor was at Stowe by Chartley The Devereux family had moved to the Old Manor House next to the castle. The Devereux family worshipped at St John the Baptist’s church in Stowe By Chartley, where the tomb of one of the Lords of Chartley stands with monuments to him and his two wives. When a de Ferrers daughter married a son of the Devereux family in 1446, named Walter as many Devereux sons were, her husband became a Lord Ferrers in 1461, but he was still not a top member of the nobility.

One of the reasons Chartley was never very important was that after the Earl of Chester built the castle only minor Lords lived there – the Earls of Chester died out and the Castle passed to the Earls of Derby who had a much more important castle at Tutbury. Chartley Castle was a prize to be captured in the wars of the Middle Ages, but the Barons who lived at the castle from 1299, as Lord de Ferrers, were not high-ranking aristocrats.

The Devereux had come over with Duke William at the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the Devereux men were always at the King’s side – but never as advisors or ministers. While the Devereux were valued as good soldiers and loyal followers, they were not the sharpest tools in the Royal Tool Kit. The First Lord Ferrers was a good example of this, as he died fighting for the King in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth. A smarter man might have noticed that Richard III was about to lose the battle and switched sides, as the Stanley family did. This Walter Devereux did not and died in a lost cause.

The victorious Tudor King Henry VII had no time for The Devereux family and ignored Walter Devereux’s son John who died in 1501. Henry VIII took a different view as the Wars of the Roses were now over and the Devereux family did not pose a threat and employed the latest Walter Lord Ferrers in his army. This is the Lord buried in Stowe church promoted by Henry to be Viscount Hereford. This was a clear sign the Devereux family was on the way up – but it made no difference to Chartley, which was largely unknown though Elizabeth 1 visited her cousin Lettice Knollys there in 1575. After Mary Queen of |Scots left for her trial at Fotheringay no one important apart from the Devereux family ever visited Chartley again.

Chartley Moss is probably better known than Chartley itself. A old ice age bog this is extremely dangerous – 70 feet deep and covered in peat and moss three metres deep, and many people have been drowned in the bog. A ghostly apparition of a horseman and hounds has been reported riding over the moss, perhaps a real hunt was drowned riding over the surface and plunging into the depths. Oddly, it is said a bulldozer and railway engine are believed to have sunk in the bog (Cockin p131). Perhaps a bulldozer is possible but the old railway line is over half a mile away- so how could a railway locomotive sink into the bog?

Certainly, no ghosts have been said to walk at Chartley, and it is easy to think nothing much has happened there. This is not true, and it clear that the Devereux family made their bid for fame from Chartley. Walter the First Viscount Hereford started their power surge and his grandson and two more Devereux became Earls of Essex. Their story has still not been fully told.

* Tim Cockin The Staffordshire Encyclopaedia Malthouse Press 2000

** Walter 1st Earl of Essex 1540-1576 (Earl from 1572)
Robert 2nd Earl of Essex 1566-1601
Robert 3rd Earl of Essex 1591- 1646