Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Was Christopher Marlowe a spy?

Christopher Marlowe
It is the birthday of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564), who is best remembered for his plays Tamburlaine the Great [Parts 1 and 2] (1587), The Jew of Malta (1592), Edward the Second (1593), The Massacre at Paris (1593), and the Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1604). He is also remembered as a contemporary of William Shakespeare and something of an influence on him. They were about the same age.

The most intriguing aspect of Christopher Marlowe's life story, however, is his suspected secret life as a spy for Queen Elizabeth I and his mysterious death. Scholars don't really have hard evidence that Marlowe was a secret agent, just a lot of circumstances that seem to point in that direction. There is speculation, for instance, that he was recruited when he was a student at Cambridge. He was gone a lot from the university—longer than a student was normally allowed. He seemed to have extra money to spend on food and drink at the university dining room. He denied that he planning to switch to an English Catholic college in France, rumors that cropped up because of his absences. He said he was dealing with matters that would benefit the country.

Some scholars have suggested that he was the tutor to Arbella Stuart, the niece of Mary, Queen of Scots, once thought to be a threat to Elizabeth's throne. Court records put him elsewhere during the time he might have been a tutor but there are still unexplained gaps. He was arrested in connection with counterfeiting coins in the Netherlands in 1592, but never charged. Some suggest he was trying to infiltrate a ring of seditious Catholics but there is no hard evidence of that either.

In any case, the following year, Marlowe was in the company of three men who had been employed as espionage agents for either Sir Francis Walsingham, who was Queen Elizabeth's principal secretary, or Walsingham's cousin, Thomas Walsingham. Marlowe, according to witnesses, had had a heated argument with one of the men over a bill. The argument became physical and Marlowe was stabbed in the right eye with a dagger. He died instantly, according to inquest records.

Still, some scholars say there was more involved than just a simple quarrel. Marlowe had been arrested for heresy and ordered to appear before the Privy Council but he had been released while still facing charges. The cover story of the men involved that they were on a holiday didn't match the circumstances. All the men were connected with spying and London's underworld. The house where they were staying had connections to the government's spy network. Undoubtedly, scholars will continue to debate the matter.

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