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.
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.
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
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.