Marlowe's death in Deptford, 30 May 1593

The established account of Marlowe’s demise

A great deal of mythology has gathered around the death of Christopher Marlowe and it is perhaps inevitable that the sudden and violent death of a great playwright, who was also a spy, should be represented in dramatic terms.

For many years, the accepted account was that Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl, in a quarrel over the bill being accidentally stabbed in the eye, probably with his own dagger. Recent research, however, suggests that, not only are several of the accepted facts incorrect, but that Marlowe’s death may have been less ‘accidental’ than it appears.

The findings of new research

Book-length studies have been written about the circumstances surrounding Marlowe’s death (see Booklist) and the following is the briefest summary of the latest thinking:

  • Marlowe did not die in a tavern but in a kind of boarding-house kept by a woman called Eleanor Bull, who also supplied meals for visitors
  • Marlowe and his three companions were her only guests on that day, and it may be that the house was specially reserved for the meeting
  • The four men present spent the day in intense and apparently peaceful conversation, both inside the house and while strolling round the garden
  • Marlowe’s companions were not tavern acquaintances but people he had already met or knew about. All three men, in fact, were deeply involved in either espionage work, shady business dealings or criminal activities.

Marlowe’s companions on the day of his death

Ingram Frizer

Ingram Frizer, who actually killed Marlowe, was a property speculator, a money-lender and a man whose dealings loitered on the edge of legality. Like Marlowe, he had been, in some sense, under the protection of Francis Walsingham.

Nicholas Skeres

Nicholas Skeres had worked with Frizer, particular in various fraudulent schemes to tempt young men into debt. He also handled stolen goods for numerous thieves in the City of London and seems to have taken part in some espionage. He was also in the service of the potentially rebellious Earl of Essex (who did, in fact, lead a rising against the Queen in 1601, for which he was executed).

Robert Poley

Robert Poley was an experienced government agent, who had worked for Walsingham and travelled widely in Europe on secret missions. He had served sentences in political prisons and had been a double agent and an informer and also, some thought, a poisoner.

All three men, therefore, belonged to a murky world of which Marlowe had also been a part. It is reasonable to assume that their long and earnest discussions at Deptford were in some way connected with future underground activities. This was a time of great anxiety for the Elizabethan monarchy, when it was feared that James VI of Scotland was planning to support Spain in any future invasion plan.

Accidental death or murder?

We cannot know exactly what the four conspirators discussed, of course. What we can be sure of is that the apparent provocation for Marlowe’s death had nothing to do with politics, but was about how much the four men should contribute to the bill:

A - One account suggests that the dispute was begun by Marlowe himself and that he threatened the others with his own dagger, which was turned against him in the ensuing struggle.

B - More recent biographers, however, have assumed that:

  • Ingram Frizer deliberately provoked Marlowe
  • In response, Marlowe then seized Frizer’s dagger
  • In the ensuing struggle, Frizer made sure that the dagger entered Marlowe’s eye and then into his brain
  • This killed Marlowe almost instantly. He was twenty-nine years old

The former is the more moderate explanation, while the latter has all the sensation and drama that we might desire for the end of a writer whose life was so eventful and mysterious and whose plays are so extraordinary. The authorities, who quickly arranged a pardon for Ingram Frizer, certainly wanted it to appear to have been an accidental killing. Frizer went on to enjoy some success and prosperity not only in the rest of Elizabeth’s reign, but also under James (VI of Scotland and I of England), who succeeded her in 1603.