Where in the world was Christopher Marlowe?

If you want to put a guy like Christopher Marlowe into your book, you have to do your homework. A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out if he was really a spy, and if so, what sort of spying he did. Little is known, but what there is, is tantalizing, and those sparse facts are well known to Marlovians. The wise novelist is wary of putting Kit in the wrong place at the wrong time. Besides, writers of historical fiction are little obsessive by nature. Once you start digging into something, it’s hard to stop.

I wanted to feature Marlowe in Death by Disputation, which is set in Cambridge in the spring of 1587. I chose this place and year because he was there — that’s the year he graduated Master of Arts — but he wasn’t there the whole time. He had mysterious absences, noted at the time and by all later historians. I had to study his schedule carefully and then I had to study the evidence relating to his alleged intelligencing activities, so I could form my opinion about where he went and what he did. I ended up leaving it ambiguous. He doesn’t tell, having learned the art of discretion, although he does hint.

The evidence

Honan, p.85
Honan, p.85

What kind of evidence might there be, you ask? The major sources are the account books at Corpus Christi College, where Marlowe lived most of the time from 1581 to 1587. He won the Parker Scholarship; otherwise, he couldn’t have gone to university and might never have written his plays. His father was a shoemaker in Canterbury; not poor, but not rich enough to send his only son away to read books for six years.

Colleges are lovely stable institutions, able to hold on to their records for centuries. Funny to find oneself grateful for a tenacious bureaucracy! The audit book shows him entering the college. The buttery books, kept by the bursar to note food and drink purchased by students and masters, note his absences. The entries concerning Marlowe are examined in detail in Park Honan’s excellent biography, Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. Everything about this chapter in the book is fascinating. It’s wonderful how much you can learn from an account book.

Charles Nicholl also goes over these orts of information in his highly-recommended exploration of Marlowe’s death, The Reckoning. I read that book twice and may read it again just for pleasure.

The absences

Even with all of that, I still had to make my own table to be sure I had the dates right. Nobody else seems to have done this, which strikes me as just plain odd. He was resident in the college almost always between arrival in Dec 1580 and graduation BA in April 1584. Then the mysterious absences begin.


Missed most of the academic year. Away for 32 1/2 weeks.

Absent mid-April to mid-June           8 weeks (Easter term)

Absent July to September                   9 weeks (Trinity term)


The audits are missing from Michaelmas 85-Summer 86.

Absent 2 weeks in early Nov 1585 (known to be in Canterbury. 2 weeks is about how long it would take to walk from Cambridge to Canterbury, sign the document he signed for his father, and walk back.)

Absent April – June      9 weeks


Present for 9 weeks after Michaelmas (late Sept – early Dec)

Present for 5 1/2 weeks during Lent term (12 Jan – 22 Mar)

31 March, 1587. MA supplicat signed. Used up scholarship funds

Absent 7-8 weeks during Easter term: between Jan & May

The conclusions

Doesn’t it just leap out at you that he was gone for a couple of months during Easter term every year? I think he was recruited to carry messages for someone on the Privy Council. March is when the spring negotiation season began, according to Lawrence Stone*. Warfare was out from October to March because of the weather. Negotiations would begin in March, sometimes culminating in warfare in late summer. The prevailing winds change in March, blowing west to east instead of east to west.

Austin Gray* suggests Lord North as a likely employer. That’s Roger North, 2nd Baron North, who lived in Kirtling Tower, about 10 miles from Cambridge. Lord North was a great friend of the earl of Leicester, who was fighting in the Low Countries during this period. Marlowe could have run letters between these two. He probably also went to Paris, probably with letters for the ambassador. He may have been sent hither and thither on the Continent during the prime negotiation season. I can imagine having a job like that when I was in my early twenties — young, fit, curious, eager to travel. Marlowe would have met many important men, and a few important women. They would have noticed him and remembered him, if they heard him speak. He was wittier than nearly everyone in an age that placed a high value on verbal agility.


*Gray, Austin K. 1928. “Some observations on Christopher Marlowe, Government agent,” PMLA, Vol. 43, No. 3., pp 682-700.

* Stone, Lawrence. 1956. An Elizabethan: Sir Horatio Palavicino. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Poets and spies: intelligence work in the sixteenth century

The Elizabethans loved news — the stranger, the better. London presses cranked out pamphlets carried by chapmen to every village, to be read out loud beside the hearth in the local public house. Everyone loved reports of marvelous fish washed up in Cornwall or the bizarre tribes encountered in the New World. The latest depredations of the Spanish Inquisition were guaranteed to gather a crowd.

But those whose interests, whether commercial or political, extended beyond the village green needed real news, solid information on which to base their plans. Should I send my corn to Spain or have they closed the ports to foreign ships? Is Philip truly assembling an armada to land troops on England’s shores? How can I transfer money from Antwerp to Poland? Will the French side with England or Spain this time?

Intelligence wanted

Christopher Marlowe

The men hired to seek answers to such questions were called intelligencers. The OED gives us two definitions: “A person who is employed to obtain confidential information; an informer, a spy, a secret agent,” and “A bringer of news or information; a messenger; an informant.”

Writers of popular fiction tend to emphasize the former meaning, imagining under-cover agents infiltrating Catholic seminaries and penetrating underground networks. There were such persons, undoubtedly. Every government made efforts to insert spies into the households of ambassadors or prominent merchants like Sir Horatio Palavicino. One gets the impression that the spies were known to both sides and used by both sides to distort information, as well as disseminate it.

This sort of spy would typically be a servant or a clerk, engaged for the long term. Men of importance had several secretaries. Every letter had to be drafted, redrafted, fair-copied, and re-copied for record-keeping; sometimes encrypted and decrypted as well. A lot of paperwork!

Intelligence, yes; but why poets?

The second sort — messengers who kept their eyes and ears open — must have been employed by the dozen. Travel was hazardous in every way, with outlaws, bad weather, war, and disease; not to mention seduction, distraction, and defection. What were the odds your messenger would reach his goal? How would you know? The careful merchant or privy councilor would send important messages by several different routes, thus requiring several messengers. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, kept a stable with 60 horses for the use of his vast network of intelligencers.

These messengers had to be strong, healthy, and free to travel. They had to be literate and it helped if they were fluent in Latin, the lingua franca of Europe. Since everyone assumed there were spies at each end, messages were usually encrypted and terse, so the messenger delivered the crucial bits verbally. Intelligencers thus had to be able to memorize information. They also had to have comely looks and gentle manners, to be admitted into the presence of the great.

Where might you find a ready supply of educated, courteous young men in need of money? At a university, of course. Most biographers believe Christopher Marlowe was recruited as an intelligencer while at Cambridge. We know he was away from the university for months on end, year after year. If that really is Kit in the portrait, he somehow found the money to buy that brave doublet with the brass buttons and the cobweb collar; far too costly for a scholarship boy. We also know his college (Corpus Christi) tried to deny him his Master of Arts degree on the grounds of excessive absences and suspicion of Catholic sympathies, but someone on the Privy Council intervened to be sure he got the title he had earned.

Some modern biographers and novelists think Marlowe was the first sort of intelligencer, sent to Rheims to infiltrate the Catholic school or some such dangerous deception. I think he was the other kind, employed by one or more members of the Privy Council to carry letters to and from the Continent. Those who have studied his plays in microscopic detail believe he may have visited Paris himself. I love thinking of him entering a strange city with his quick eyes and agile wits, ready for adventure, soaking it all up and transforming into timeless verse.

If you want to read more about Marlowe and spies, you can’t do better than Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, which won the Crime Writer’s Association Non-fiction Golden Dagger Award in 1992. Or you could try my fictional take, limited to Kit’s last year in Cambridge, in Death by Disputation.

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