These notorious manuscripts appear to support the idea of Christopher Marlowe as the wild boy of Elizabethan literature. They present the playwright as a controversial figure, with subversive views of religion and sexuality.
The manuscripts include a famous note from the double agent and informer Richard Baines, making damning accusations that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ with too much love for ‘Tobacco & Boies [boys]’. Baines suggests that Marlowe’s ‘dangerous’ mouth should ‘be stopped’ (f. 186r) and, a few days later, the playwright was fatally stabbed at Mrs Bull’s lodging house in Deptford. The inquest said there was a fight about the bill for food and drink. But some critics have suggested that the manuscripts offer other clues about why Marlowe died on 30 May 1593.
Why was Marlowe under suspicion shortly before his death?
In the spring of 1593, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth ordered a crackdown on Catholics and atheists. In particular, she wanted to punish those who were hostile towards Protestant immigrants.
On 5 May, a poem promoting violence against immigrant traders was posted on the wall of a Dutch church in London. It was signed with the name of Marlowe’s character, ‘Tamburlaine’. Initially, the playwright Thomas Kyd was suspected of involvement. But when he was arrested and tortured in mid-May, Kyd pointed the finger at Marlowe, who had been his room-mate in 1591.
The Privy Council ordered the informer, Thomas Drury to find further evidence that Marlowe was an atheist. Drury seems to have persuaded Richard Cholmeley and Richard Baines to make charges against Marlowe. On 18 May a warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest, but he was placed on bail and put under government surveillance, up to the time he was killed.
What did Marlowe’s accusers say?
Transcript of Thomas Kyd’s accusations against Marlowe (f. 154r)
This document was written after Marlowe’s death, but it probably reflects what Kyd said about ‘Marlowes monstruous opinions’ when he was interrogated in May 1593. Kyd claims that Marlowe would ‘jest at the devine scriptures’ and make shocking suggestions that Christ had ‘an extraordinary love’ – or sexual relationship – with St John.
Accusations against Marlowe, signed by Baines and handed to the authorities, probably on 27th May 1593 (ff. 185r–86r)
This is the infamous statement by Richard Baines, a known enemy of Marlowe’s. Baines and Marlowe had shared a room in the Dutch town of Flushing, c. 1591–92, where they got embroiled in counterfeiting coins. When Baines informed on his fellows, Marlowe was arrested and deported to England.
Here, Baines seems to take pleasure in characterising Marlowe as the most outrageous of atheists, listing all the scandalous things that he (allegedly) said: religion was invented just ‘to keep men in awe’, ‘Christ was a bastard’, St John ‘was bedfellow to Christ’, Marlowe had as much right to make coins as ‘the Queen of England’, ‘the sacrament … would have bin much better being administred in a Tobacco pipe’.
Papers found in Kyd’s room, which he said he had from Marlowe (ff. 187, 188, 189r–v)
When Kyd was arrested, three pages copied from Proctor's The Fall of the Late Arrian were found in his room. The interrogators wrote, in a note on the back, that the text contained ‘Vile Hereticall’ ideas ‘Denyinge the Deity of Jhesus Christe’, which Kyd said he had got ‘From Marlowe’. Kyd argued, in another letter (Harley MS 6849, ff. 218r–v), that the pages were just ‘fragments of a disputation’, which must have been ‘shufld’ [muddled up] with Kyd’s papers when he and Marlowe were ‘wrytinge in one chamber’ two years before.
The ‘Remembrances’ against Richard Cholmeley (ff. 190r–v; 191r)
These two documents list accusations against the spy and double agent, Richard Cholmeley, probably made by Richard Drury. Cholmley is said to have argued that Marlowe gave persuasive ‘reasons for Atheisme’.
Pleaseth it yo[u]r Honorable L[ordshi]p toching Marlowes monstruouce opiniones as I
cannot but w[i]th an agreved conscience think on him or them so can I but p[ar]ticulariz
fewe in the respect of them that kept him greater company, Howbeit in
discharg of dutie both tow[a]rd[es] god yo[u]r L[ordshi]ps & the world thus much have I though[t]
good breiflie to discover in all humblenes
First it was his custom when I knewe him first & as I heare saie he
contynew[e]d it in table talk or otherwise to iest at the devine scriptures
gybe at princ[es], & stryve in argum[en]t to frustrate & confute what hath byn
spoke or wrytt by prophets & such holie men
1 He wold report St. John to be o[u]r savior Christes Plexis [?] I cover it w[i]th reverence
and trembling that is that Christ did love him w[i]th an extraordinary love/
2 That for me to wryte a poem of St Paule’s conversion as I was determined
he said wold be as if I shold go wryte a book of fast & loose, esteming
Paul a Jugler.
3 That the prodigall Child[es] portion was but fower nobles, he held his
purse so neere the bottom in all pictures, and that it either was a iest
or els fowr nobles then was thought a great patrimony not thinking it a
4 That things esteemed to be donn by devine power might have aswell been don
by observation of men all w[hi]ch he wold so sodenlie take slight occasion to
slyp out as I & many others in regard of his other rashnes in attempting
soden pryvie iniuries to men did overslypp though often reprehend him for it
& for which god is my witnes aswell by my lord[es] comanndm[en]t as in hatred
of his Life & thoughts I left & did refraine his companie
He wold p[er]swade w[i]th men of quallitie to goe unto the K[ing] of Scotts whether
I heare Royden is gon and where if he had liv’d he told me when I
sawe him last he meant to be
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