"The Man Who Killed Christopher Marlowe"
Marlowe was dead! There was no doubt about it, and no one knew this better than the man who had put a dagger through the late poet’s heart.
The renowned playwright now known as Christopher Marlowe, deceased, was born in Canterbury in 1564. His parents were a cobbler and a Katherine who, little to her knowledge, had given birth to one of the most important babes in the country that year. Her boy was handsome in his youth and grew into an even more handsome man: tall, dark, and dashing with a wavy mane of brown hair, large brown eyes, and a thin mustache perched atop a mischievous smirk. Considering his many endowments, the young buck had plenty to smile about—or at the very least, to flaunt. Marlowe acted as if the world were a stage and he its star player. But in all fairness, who could blame him? Some men and women just seem to be born loving life, as was clearly the case with this ill-fated poet.
Before his death, Christopher Marlowe was the most lively person alive. He was strong for his frame, nimble, and as fit as a fencer. He had the agility of a cat, quickly graduating from climbing trees in his youth to scaling Roman walls and stone towers throughout Canterbury. When no one was looking, he even enjoyed a grand view of the country from atop the highest points of Canterbury Cathedral. The boy was daring, but also generous, gregarious, and gifted with a mind as razor-sharp as his tongue. A precocious student, young “Kit” attended the King’s School in Canterbury and Corpus Christi College in Cambridge—on scholarship, he would boast. By the time he was twenty, the bright lad was already a bachelor of arts, a master of six languages, and a Machiavel overflowing with ideas and ambition. However, the low rooftops of Cambridge soon proved a small summit for Marlowe. Like a conqueror, his thoughts turned to the Channel and how best to cross it. He wanted to climb higher and see farther than even he could imagine. He wanted an adventure. Fortunately, adventure found him in college.
The trouble started during Marlowe’s fifth year, when his postgraduate studies were interrupted by frequent and mysterious trips to the Continent. The naughty rumor was that Kit planned to enter the priesthood, but the more accurate description was that Marlowe became involved “in matters touching the benefit of his country.” Specifically, the clandestine kind. War had broken out between England and Spain, and students of promise quickly became important commodities to the Crown. In 1585, Marlowe was approached in his dorm room by Thomas Walsingham, an intelligence operative not much older than he was. The young man offered Kit a unique opportunity to experience how the world worked during wartime in the service of Thomas’s cousin Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s legendary secretary of state and spymaster. The eager young student graciously accepted, and so began Marlowe’s little-known but life-changing semesters abroad.
Truth be told, Marlowe did enter the priesthood during these years, but it was more for the thrill and the money than for the wine or the women. He was an agent in Sir Francis Walsingham’s extensive spy network as the war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain exploded. Now on Her Majesty’s secret service, Marlowe crisscrossed the Continent under the guise of a Jesuit to gather intelligence about Spain’s plans to invade England. This wolf in priest’s clothes was in Florence when Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded. He eavesdropped on the Vatican when Sixtus V granted Philip II papal authority to depose Queen Elizabeth. And when the Spanish Armada finally moved against England, it was Marlowe’s contacts in Italy who provided the Walsinghams with the information they needed to destroy the great fleet. The war made Marlowe a hero to the most powerful people in England, and for his services, the scholar returned to his studies with friends in high places and more money than even a college student could spend.
So, how did such an upstanding young man ultimately find himself arrested for heresy, a capital offense? Simply put, Marlowe liked spending his free time getting himself into trouble.
After completing his education at Cambridge and “elsewhere,” Marlowe quickly established himself as the most celebrated playwright in London—and the most controversial. His play The Jew of Malta featured a prologue delivered by the ghost of Niccolò Machiavelli himself. After that, he chose the seven deadly sins as his muses and Mephistopheles as his mentor for his inflammatory Doctor Faustus. His play The Massacre at Paris not only lived up to its title but contained a warning to the queen that the play might encourage murders—which it did. However, it was Tamburlaine the Great, a comedic discourse about the most brutal conqueror since Genghis Khan, that ultimately resulted in the brash playwright’s inconvenient demise.
In the year 1593, someone in London began posting unfriendly comments about Protestant refugees living peacefully in the city. The bills were written in blank verse—Marlowe’s favorite—referenced several of his most famous works, and were suspiciously signed “Tam-berlaine.” Whether Marlowe was behind these vicious libels or not, a warrant was issued for his arrest on May 18. Two days later, the dramatist surrendered himself without any drama. With Sir Francis Walsingham dead and any chance of a pardon unlikely, the situation appeared grave for the ill-fated poet.
As Marlowe awaited his impending trial, torture, and death, he was taken to a Deptford establishment owned by Dame Eleanor Bull. The building was a safe house for government agents and its owner was well connected to the Crown. With London under lockdown due to plague, the otherwise teeming Deptford Strand was deathly silent and still.
It was May 30, 1593. The coroner’s report said it was still daylight, but it was actually nighttime.
Christopher Marlowe’s last meal was wine. Lots of wine.
Three armed men guarded Marlowe as he dozed on his bed. They played backgammon on a table while the condemned playwright snored loudly behind them. All three guards at some point had worked for the Walsinghams. Robert Poley was the largest and most dangerous man in the group: a seasoned spy and double agent, and the English government’s unrivaled expert on the London underworld. Sharing his bench was Nicholas Skeres, a con artist and saboteur who occasionally proved a reliable henchman for Poley. Together, the two had played key roles in exposing the Babington Plot, which ultimately cost Queen Mary her head. Ingram Frizer was the only man in the room who had never worked for the great Sir Francis Walsingham. His employer was Thomas Walsingham, the same operative who had recruited Marlowe at Cambridge nearly ten years before. Thomas had spent the greater part of the last decade foiling Catholic plots against England, but with his famed cousin dead, even those days were reportedly behind him. Frizer was nothing more than Thomas’s business agent, and as he played backgammon that evening, he knew Marlowe’s death would be a painful financial loss to his master. Thomas had been Christopher Marlowe’s chief patron ever since they retired from the secret service. But then, how could anyone retire from the world of espionage without being dead?
There was a knock at the door, and the three guardsmen looked up from their game.
“Who goes there?” called Poley.
“Ale!” came a voice from behind the thick door.
“I pray you remember the porter?” Skeres teased.
“Of course I do,” Poley snapped. “Skeggs, go open the door.”
“I move for no man,” Skeres scoffed. “And don’t call me ‘Skeggs.’ I’m only Skeggs when I’m working.”
“You are working.”
“No, I’m not. I’m playing ‘tables’!” Skeres smiled with a roll of the dice.
“The only thing you’re playing is yourself for a fool, so get off your foolish arse and open the door.”
“Even my foolish arse moves for no man,” Skeres replied with a wink.
At an impasse, the squabbling guardsmen looked down to small Frizer, who sat cheek by jowl between the two larger men. The agent struggled on his bench. “I cannot move left or right.”
“Then fly!” Skeres laughed.
Frizer grimaced as he pushed himself up from the table, careful not to bump his twelve-pence dagger into the silent playwright behind him.
“Morley, you still with the living?” Skeres asked while Frizer walked toward the door.
The dramatist snored in response.
“He’s sleeping,” observed Poley.
“Ah, sleep … Perchance to dream?” Skeres mused.
“Not while we’re working,” spoke the expert.
“Aye, there’s a rub!” Skeres sang as he scratched at his crotch.
Frizer opened the door and a thin, dark-haired porter entered the room carrying four frothy beers on a tray. He placed three beers on the table and balanced the fourth on his tray as he waited for Ingram Frizer to sit. However, something made the otherwise indifferent third man go rigid. He turned his head and fixed his eyes on the window above Marlowe.
“What is it?” asked Poley.
“I thought I saw a horseman outside.”
Poley and Skeres turned around and stared out the dark portal. An uneasy silence filled the room as the men listened for hoofbeats. However, the tension was diffused by one of Marlowe’s loud snores.
“Morley must be dreaming about men on horseback again,” Skeres snickered. “Come! Let’s finish our game.”
Frizer shrugged and returned to the bench, but as he was about to sit, Poley caught him. “Where’s your dagger?” he asked.
Frizer felt his belt and found his leather sheath empty. Alarmed, the three men looked up at their mysterious porter.
The porter slammed the door and then smashed his last beer on the floor, causing an explosion that engulfed the whole room with thick smoke. Poley and Skeres leaped to their feet and drew their weapons with such speed that Frizer was accidentally slashed on the head by one of their rapiers. The agents coughed fiercely and stabbed their swords through the smog until a loud shriek filled the air.
“Marlowe!” a bloodied Frizer cried out.
The three spun around to see the window above the playwright thrown open. As smoke escaped from the room, their prized prisoner gasped helplessly from his blood-covered bed. Marlowe’s face had been mutilated and Frizer’s dagger was buried deep in his chest. Blood was shooting in streams with every pulse from the dying man’s heart.
“Morley!” the guards gasped.
The men rushed to his aid, but Marlowe twisted when one of them reached for Frizer’s blade. The playwright gripped the dagger and writhed violently, spurting blood all over the guardsmen. Skeres and Frizer stumbled backward while Poley braved the horror up close. “Hold him steady!” he shouted. “Marlowe! Can you speak?”
The gored man tried to form words, but there was no breath left in his lungs. Only a sinister hiss seeping from the fleshy hole in his chest. And then, silence. The playwright’s lips parted and his body went limp as the last of his life faded from the one eyeball he had left.
Christopher Marlowe was dead. Brutally murdered with a dagger. Frizer’s dagger.
The three guards stared at one another in panic. Each one of them had Marlowe’s blood on his hands.
At that moment, the wooden door behind the men was thrown open. A tall, hooded figure rushed into the room with a glowing lantern held high.
“Who are you!” screamed Poley while accidentally cutting Frizer a second time. “Show yourself!”
The dark figure pulled back his hood. The three agents recognized him immediately.
“Master Thomas!” gasped Frizer, who was now sporting two nasty wounds on his head.
“What are you doing here?” asked Poley while lowering his bloodied rapier.
“Might I ask you the same?” replied Thomas Walsingham. “Marlowe was marked for assassination this evening, and you dullards are letting his killer escape!”
“He’s right.” Skeres nodded, albeit out of confusion.
“I rode here as soon as I learned of the plot,” Thomas continued with urgency. “You must pursue this villain! Take my lantern! Ride with all haste!”
“But master…” stammered a blood-soaked Ingram Frizer as he backed away from Christopher Marlowe’s maimed corpse.
“Fear not. The queen’s coroner will absolve you. Just find the assassin! Fly, you fools! Fly!” Walsingham shooed the men out of the room and smacked Frizer on the backside with his sword, inadvertently giving him a third and final wound for the evening. The trio leaped onto their horses and galloped into the evening, not knowing which direction would lead them closer to their unknown assailant.
As the three blood-covered riders scattered into the distance, Thomas closed the window above Marlowe and looked down at the deceased. The intelligence officer shook his head: the poor playwright was not even thirty. His right eye was horribly bloodied and more closely resembled a small liver. His other eye, agape and bloodshot, stared vacantly into the heavens. A single teardrop trickled from it. And then there was the knife sticking out of the foul-smelling wound in his chest: a deep cavity of red carnage that still gurgled with blood.
Walsingham fell to one knee and whispered: “Alas, poor Marlowe.”
The dead man said nothing.
Walsingham furrowed his eyebrows and spoke louder. “I said: ‘Alas, poor Marlowe!’”
Still no response.
Walsingham’s eyes widened. He angrily twisted the dagger sticking out of the dead man’s chest.
“Ow!” Marlowe winced.
“Enough with the theatrics.” Thomas scowled. “The show is over. There is no more audience.”
Marlowe grinned with delight as he slipped the cat liver off his face. “I am sorry, my friend, but I never performed my own death before. I figured it should be the death of a lifetime!”
“You’ll have plenty of time to play dead where you’re going,” Thomas chided. He pulled his friend up by the hand so that the dead man could sit.
“Ah, Venice…” Marlowe sighed with the dagger still stuck in his chest. “Is the boat ready?”
“Yes, but we have to move quickly.”
“Va bene.” The sprightly playwright bounced up from his deathbed and removed the blood-filled pig’s bladder hidden under his shirt. “These methods are malodorous,” acknowledged Marlowe, who often used the same props in his plays. “Fortunately, my companions complained that I reeked of wine this whole evening! They’ll suspect nothing.”
“They’d better not,” said Walsingham as he wrapped Marlowe’s false dagger in a handkerchief. It was not Frizer’s, but a duplicate with its blade broken off. For only twelve pence, such weapons were easy to come by. “And what of your assailant?”
“Oh, I’d nearly forgotten!” Marlowe stomped his boot twice. “Will! Take a bow.”
Right on cue, a dagger slid out from under the bed. It was Frizer’s missing dagger, and Thomas picked it up from the floor.
“Are you sure he’s up to this?” Thomas asked as he smeared the weapon with blood.
“Of course he is!” assured Marlowe as he helped his attacker up from his hiding place. “He keeps his nose out of trouble, this one! Believe me, he’ll be less of an arse-ache than I was.”
“That’s a relief, but I’m referring to whether he has the stamina for this. He won’t fizzle out on his own, will he?”
“Such a doubting Thomas!” Marlowe teased as he handed Walsingham the pig’s bladder. “Put your fears to rest for one evening. He’s already rewritten our history! Give this man enough ink, and he’ll rewrite our whole language.” Marlowe clapped his killer on the shoulders while covertly wiping some of the blood off his hands. “He’ll be a worthy replacement. He even scripted this little performance himself!”
Walsingham raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“Of course! There’s no way I could have staged my own death. Had I authored this, it would have taken me a fortnight to die!”
Walsingham nodded. “I don’t doubt that. Now come. We must depart.”
The comrades tossed a pouch of gold to Dame Bull on their way out the door and raced on foot to Deptford Dockyard, where a boat was waiting to take Christopher Marlowe into the afterlife. As the dead man boarded the barge, Thomas offered his former friend one last handshake. “It seems like only yesterday we were discussing what good you could do for this country.”
“Yes, well. What good was it?” Marlowe sighed as he shook Thomas’s hand.
Walsingham tightened his grip and narrowed his eyes. “Good enough.” The man smiled. “Enjoy your retirement.”
The poet bowed his head with gratitude for the second life he had been given. Not even England’s own agents would know where Marlowe was going: exile in Italy. It was the best punishment he could have hoped for.
And then the poet turned to his killer.
The two fell into each other like brothers and shared a long, silent embrace. Their speechlessness spoke volumes about the times they had shared: every subject they studied, every song and sonnet they swapped, all the ideas they exchanged, and all the hopes they once harbored. All their love’s labors, lost.
It was the end of a friendship, an apprenticeship, and a partnership for the ages.
“I don’t know where to begin,” choked the dead man.
His killer smiled. “No matter where you go, I hope you find a happy ending.”
Marlowe beamed brightly at his successor. “To be continued!” he promised as he danced up the ship’s plank. Without a moment to lose, Thomas signaled the skipper and sent the vessel into the Thames to begin its race against the daybreak. Fortunately, the winds favored the men and their mission, and the ship drifted east until it was swallowed by the glowing horizon. The boat disappeared from all record, taking Christopher Marlowe with it, while Thomas Walsingham and Marlowe’s patient killer observed from the dock.
“You will receive a stipend,” began Walsingham to the silent assassin. “And the necessary license to write and perform your works free from censors. In return, you will report any activity you encounter of concern to the Crown. Failure to do so will result in your immediate termination. Understood?”
“Yes, Master Walsingham.”
“‘Master W’ will suffice,” Thomas puffed as he lit himself a pipe. “Marlowe said you have a publication pending. I assume this is for income until the plague passes?”
“It is,” confirmed the killer, who had a wife and family to provide for in Stratford.
“What’s the title?”
“Venus and Adonis.”
Walsingham nodded as the conversation became shrouded in smoke. “I assume the Stationers’ Company has it?”
“And is your name attached to it?”
“No, Master W.”
Walsingham smiled. The young man was behaving precisely as he had been instructed. It was a welcome change from Marlowe. “It is now, master bard.”
“Thank you,” the assassin replied while masking his excitement.
“How do I spell your name again?” asked Thomas as he returned to his pipe.
The man who killed Christopher Marlowe handed Walsingham a small piece of parchment. The spy-chief looked down at the signature scrawled on it.
“William Shakespeare,” he read.