08 June 2015

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

A handsome, successful, popular twenty-nine-year-old man is murdered in a tavern brawl. It is barely past six in the evening. The sun has not even set as yet. He has just enjoyed supper and a game of cards. It has been one of those languorous, wine-addled afternoons that seem to go by in fine company and the sort of stupor that powerful intoxicants can induce. The bill arrives. And it is steep. Clearly, much has been consumed by way of food and drink, especially drink. And of course, as on many such evenings, no one wants to pay the bill. An argument ensues which turns, unexpectedly, into a physical fight … and, chillingly, into the death of a twenty-nine-year-old playwright. His name was Christopher Marlowe. And, aside from being a playwright, a poet and a brawler, he was, probably, a spy.

Under Elizabeth I, university graduates were frequently recruited on her majesty’s secret service: they were intelligent enough for intelligence work and inconspicuous enough for espionage. Best of all, who would ever have suspected ‘sweet Kit Marlowe’ of anything more underhanded than a dangling modifier? Presumably recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham, the original badass spymaster of all over-the-top spy movies – let’s call him FW – Marlowe, one of whose characters wisely says, in Edward II, ‘You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute, / And now and then stab, as occasion serves,’ possibly served the Crown as an intelligence courier through his frequent trips to Europe. Later, he came under the literary patronage of a relative of FW, Thomas Walsingham – let’s call him TW.

Marlowe, who some contend was a homosexual and an atheist, was possibly murdered for one or both of these two aberrances. Ten days before his murder, his flat-mate Thomas Kyd was arrested and tortured for the possession of heretical documents written by Marlowe that propounded his serious, almost academic, speculations about the divinity of the Christ and the sodomy of the saints. Kyd finally gave Marlowe up as the author of the documents and Marlowe was arrested, but out on bail at the time of his murder. Heresy, being a capital offence in Elizabethan England, was taken seriously enough for the punishments to be as horrific as public disembowelment. Marlowe might have simply been spared that humiliation and been assassinated in a seemingly innocent tavern brawl.

More insidiously, Marlowe might have been targeted for murder by his own patron, TW, who, along with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh, was part of a heretical group that promoted studies in rationalism and atheism. TW, no longer under the steadfast protection of FW – FW had died by this time and had been replaced as spymaster by Robert Cecil, who took a much sterner approach to heresy and treason than his predecessor – might have feared Kit Marlowe’s big mouth and sharp memory. Not only was Marlowe in possession of the knowledge that Raleigh, TW and others engaged heavily in heretical studies, he was also privy to several of the intrigues engineered by FW. The man simply needed to be silenced. What hugely aids this theory is the fact that the three men present in the tavern at the time of the murder were all in the employ of one or both of the two Walsinghams. And so, he was murdered.

Of course, every so often, a conspiracy theory will emerge that Marlowe faked his own death, escaped to the continent and wrote the plays that were later attributed to William Shakespeare, never mind that their styles and metres were drastically different and never mind that Marlowe, an intellectual snob who loved attention and wore his Cambridge education as a badge of honour, would never have borne kindly the idea of a glover’s son with nothing more than grammar school education taking credit for his greatest work.

Conspiracy theories, it would seem, haven’t evolved much since Elizabethan times since even today there are claims that Michael Jackson faked his own death and is busy buying cotton candy at Disney World, that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the CIA for knowing too much, and that Paul McCartney died in a car crash and was replaced by that guy who won the Paul McCartney lookalike contest (as conspiracy theories go, this one is particularly egalitarian). 

But no, the coroner’s report from 31 May 1593 makes it abundantly clear that Marlowe – spy, playwright, atheist, bachelor – did indeed die the previous night for refusing to pay a hefty tab at a downtown bar.