Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, the son of a shoemaker.
In 1578 (14) he gained a scholarship to The King’s School in Canterbury, where the syllabus included religion, music and Latin grammar, Latin and Greek literature and ancient and modern history. The boys were also encouraged to write poetry in Latin and to perform plays. In 1580 (16) he gained a scholarship to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, the requirements of which stipulated that the candidate must not only be well schooled in Latin grammar, but also be able to compose a Latin verse and sing plain song. His ability to qualify for this scholarship after such a short period suggests that he must have received some form of formal education elsewhere prior to his entry into The King's School, though it is not known where. He studied at Corpus Chisti for more than six years, receiving his MA in 1587 (23) after some hesitation on the part of the University authorities on account of his non-attendance. A letter to the University from the Privy Council (no less) explained his absences as necessary and to his country’s advantage, and was signed by five of its members, including the Lord Treasurer Lord Burghley, the Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift and the Chancellor Christopher Hatton.
Connections in high places
It appears that, whilst at Cambridge, Marlowe had become a friend of Thomas Walsingham, nephew of the Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who was Elizabeth I’s spymaster. It is probable that he had spent some time in Douai and Rheims in France, collecting information about the seminaries there, which trained English (Catholic) priests, and had developed into centres of Catholic opposition to the Protestant government of Elizabeth I, though Walsingham had contacts in most European countries, and his agents travelled widely.
The first plays, and translations of the poetry of Ovid and Lucan
By 1588 (24) he had already written the plays Dido, Queen of Carthage, and both parts of Tamburlaine the Great, and completed his translations of Ovid’s Amores and the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia. Tamburlaine was performed by the Admiral’s Men in 1587 (23), and featured the blank verse (unrhymed lines of ten syllables) which was to become characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays.
In the summer of 1589 (25) he became involved in a quarrel in a London street with one William Bradley. The quarrel ended in Bradley’s death by the hand of Marlowe's friend, the poet and scholar Thomas Watson. Marlowe spent two weeks in Newgate Prison, Watson six months.
The School of Night
He was a member of a loosely associated group later nicknamed the ‘School of Night’, which included freethinkers such as the Duke of Northumberland, Sir Walter Raleigh and Thomas Hariot, who challenged accepted religious beliefs, carried out scientific experiments and were involved with the development of an attitude of scientific enquiry, sometimes also flirting with practices associated with magic and alchemy.
Further plays followed, including Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II.
The net tightens : Marlowe disappears
On 13 May 1593 (29) the playwright Thomas Kyd was arrested, and interrogated concerning heretical writings which were discovered at his lodgings. Under torture he claimed that they belonged to Marlowe, and had been inadvertently shuffled in with his own papers when they had shared a room in 1591 (27). On 20 May Marlowe himself was arrested on charges of blasphemy and atheism, at that time a heresy which was punishable by burning at the stake. He was not, however, imprisoned, but required to attend daily at the court until licensed otherwise. An informant, Richard Baines, was sent to gather evidence against him, but Marlowe was apparently killed the day before he was due to re-appear before the court, stabbed by Ingram Frizer in the house of Eleanor Bull in Deptford. Records from the inquest state that he had been stabbed above the right eye in consequence of an argument about the bill, and that the fracas had been witnessed by two others, Nicholas Skenes and Robert Poley, who had also spent the day with Marlowe. All three of Marlowe’s companions on that day seem to have been connected in some way with the secret service: Frizer as previously an agent of Walsingham, Skenes as the servant of the Earl of Essex, and Poley as a government agent working for Robert Cecil. The coroner accepted that the killing had been done in self defence, and Frizer, though initially sent to prison, was quickly pardoned.
Speculation about Christopher Marlowe
More recently, the question as to whether Marlowe actually died in this incident has been the subject of some speculation. For some commentators, his 'death' occurs at a too convenient moment, one day before he was due to appear before the Star Chamber to answer charges of heresy and blasphemy during the course of which he might be tortured, and for which the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake. His contacts with the secret service were not only capable of carrying out the required deception, but also in a position to know what was coming, and act before it was too late. The faith placed in the reliability of the inquest carried out at the time seems to some to be misplaced given that none of the jurors knew Marlowe, that the body itself had been disfigured by a wound to the eye and that the coroner was, exceptionally, the Queen's coroner due to the fact that the death had occurred within a radius of twelve miles of the Queen, who was at Nonesuch at the time. The latter fact makes it more likely that the coroner was known to and, possibly, could be influenced by, Marlowe's friend and protector, Thomas Walsingham.