The situation in Marlowe's day

Protestant resurgence

Elizabeth IWith the Protestant Elizabeth I on the throne, services were again held in English. A new Book of Common Prayer, which contained the prayers to be used uniformly throughout the Church of England, was introduced in 1559.

When, in 1570, the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth (largely in order to please Philip II of Spain), there were anti-Catholic riots in England, some of them very violent. Indeed Elizabeth's reign was overshadowed by concerns about Catholic plots against her life. In 1586, a plot led by Anthony Babington, to assassinate the Queen was uncovered. It was uncovered because of the excellent intelligence-gathering on behalf of the Queen by Sir Francis Walsingham. Marlowe was one of Walsingham's agents. (See Author > Marlowe and Corpus Christi > Marlowe as a spy).

Another threat to Elizabeth among Catholics was the claim to the throne of her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. From the 1560s, there was pressure on Elizabeth to have Mary executed. However, it was only in 1587, when Mary was accused of being implicated in the Babington plot, again on the basis of evidence gathered by Walsingham, that Elizabeth finally overcome her hesitations about executing an anointed monarch and had Mary beheaded.

Marlowe will, of course, have been well aware of these events – and might even have been one of Walsingham's agents in the matter. From a dramatic point of view, however, they will have given him a good insight into the workings of power and the dilemmas of rulers as they struggle to maintain their position.

Elizabeth reigned until 1603, when she was succeeded by her Protestant relative, James VI of Scotland (son of Mary Queen of Scots) who became James I of England.

Marlowe and the Church

Marlowe was brought up in Canterbury, one of the most important centres of Christianity, with pilgrims from all over the world flocking to the shrine of Thomas Becket. As a pupil at the King's School, he followed a curriculum shaped by the pattern of Christian worship and he went to Cambridge on a scholarship established by a former Archbishop of Canterbury. (See Author > Canterbury, family background and King's School)

His work as an agent for the government was always connected to the religious controversies of the times. The most significant was the perceived threat from England's Catholic enemies, who were known to be plotting both invasions from continental Europe and rebellion at home. (See Author > Fighting, blaspheming and spying, 1590-1593).

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