Canterbury, family background and King's School

Canterbury in 1564

Photo by Hans Musil available through GNU Free Documentation LicenseChristopher Marlowe grew up in a lively and busy city, but one which had passed its peak of power and reputation. In 1564, the year of Marlowe’s birth, Canterbury was a centre of political and religious tension. After the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Cathedral in 1170, the city had become one of England and Europe’s principal places of pilgrimage, attracting visitors from all over the world. Consequently, it was seen as a place where pilgrims might seek special access to God and where miracles might occur.

However, like many medieval shrines, it was also a very mercenary city, with traders of all kinds exploiting the pilgrims with the sale of souvenirs, false holy relics and indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. The monks who looked after Becket’s shrine were accused of vice and profiteering and by the time Marlowe was born Canterbury had lost much of its reputation as a holy place.

The county of Kent was regarded as a centre of religious dissenting. There was a strong vein of anti-clericalism and anti-idolatry. There were accusations of heresy among both priests and believers. Canterbury itself suffered from religious persecution. Henry VIII pillaged the city in 1538, while in the reign of Mary I (1553-58), its Protestants were persecuted. Catholic influence remained strong for some years after the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558.

Canterbury: a theatrical and cosmopolitan city

In spite of its problems, however, Canterbury continued to be a centre of culture and performance. The young Marlowe would have seen the pomp and splendour of the main religious festivals, which often included processions through the city. Travelling actors’ companies often visited Canterbury and there were also the city’s own mystery plays, performed on the feast of Corpus Christi in June. So Marlowe witnessed both official ceremonies and popular performances, each with their own kind of theatricality.

Canterbury, with its proximity to the sea, was also full of foreign visitors. There were many Flemish and Dutch émigrés, fleeing the brutality of political reprisals after the Dutch rose against Spanish rule. Many street names reminded the citizens of the previous presence of a Jewish community in the city, expelled with all other Jews living in England by Edward I in 1290.

Marlowe’s family

Both Marlowe’s parents had their origins in Kent. His mother, Katherine Arthur, came from the port of Dover and in 1561 she married John Marlowe, who was born in Faversham and moved to Canterbury in 1556. John Marlowe was a shoemaker, well-known in the city. Although he was often short of money, he seems always to have had plenty of friends and he rose to be Warden (or president) of the shoemakers’ guild.

It is impossible to know what kind of relationship Marlowe had with his parents. Some possible pieces of evidence are that he made no use in his plays of imagery or terms drawn from the craft of shoe-making and that words like ‘leather’, ‘boots’ and ‘sell’ tend to appear in his work in negative contexts.

Education and King’s School

Photo by Oosoom available through the GNU Free Documentation LicenseMarlowe’s earliest education was in reading and writing, but by the age of about nine he was likely to have been studying Latin grammar quite intensively. To acquire a good education, it was essential to have a thorough knowledge of the ancient languages of Greek and Latin and of the texts written in those languages.

At the age of fourteen, Marlowe was elected a scholar of the celebrated King’s School (it was actually known as the Queen’s School when Marlowe studied there, changing its name with the gender of the monarch). He would have continued this intensive training in the classics.

Christianity and humanism

The routine of Marlowe’s school was determined by a pattern of Christian worship following the rituals of the Church of England. Nonetheless, there was a strongly humanist element in the conduct of the school. The headmaster at the time, John Gresshop, was a notable and widely-read scholar. He made use of texts by the humanist scholar Erasmus, who was known for sceptical views on a variety of religious subjects. (See Religious / philosophical context).

The centrality of the individual

Humanism prioritised individuals and their capacity for independent thought, unhampered by existing codes of belief. It also recommended classical, pre-Christian texts by Greek and Roman authors as providing a sound basis for a philosophical and literary education.

At the same time, Protestantism also tended to emphasise the role of the individual with regard to conscience and salvation. This combination of secularism and religion was a heady mix and studies of Marlowe’s contemporaries suggest that some boys at the school became religious doubters and came into conflict with the authorities as a result.

The curriculum: poetry and drama

The curriculum at the King’s School would have encouraged any aspirations of Marlowe to become a poet and dramatist. A great variety of classical poetry was taught and Marlowe was especially drawn to:

  • The Latin poetry of Ovid and Virgil
  • The translation into Latin of the Greek poet Lucan
  • The great Greek epic poet, Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Students at the school were required to develop their skills in both translating and writing poetry in Greek and Latin. There was also a tradition at the school of performing plays. The school fell outside the powers of the city authorities and therefore enjoyed a certain amount of freedom in the choice of plays it could produce, which ranged from classical dramas to modern works.

So Marlowe’s pre-University experience and education prepared him for his life as a writer. His thorough knowledge of the classics, his boyhood reading of English romances and his participation in drama as audience and participant had laid the foundation for a literary career in which he would draw on all these forms and practices.