Marlowe and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Corpus Christi: Marlowe as student

Photo by Jerzy Kociatkiewicz available through Creative CommonsMarlowe enrolled at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in the autumn of 1580 and stayed there for almost six and a half years. He received financial support from a recently established scholarship. This drew on funds from the estate of Archbishop Parker of Canterbury, who had died in 1575. He won the scholarship partly for his skills in music and writing poetry.

He found the college a congenial environment for an inspiring writer. Corpus Christi was know for its tolerant attitude towards students of many opinions and ambitions, and was also enthusiastic about the production of plays. He graduated with his BA in 1585 and continued to MA studies with further assistance from Archbishop Parker’s fund. He graduated for the second time in July 1587.

Corpus Christi: Marlowe as author

Marlowe took full advantage of the opportunity offered by college life to embark on a serious career as an author. It was at Corpus Christi that he worked on translations from Ovid and Lucan. These enabled him to develop his skills as a poet, since the work of translation also involved a change in metre - Marlowe rendered the hexameters and pentameters of the originals into iambic heroic couplets.

He also began his work as a dramatist. He completed Dido, Queen of Carthage (possibly in collaboration with Thomas Nashe) in 1586 and the first part of Tamburlaine the Great in 1587. Together with his translations, this represents a remarkable body of work, unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries at a similar age – Marlowe was only 23 when he left Cambridge in 1587.

Corpus Christi: Marlowe as spy

Francis WalsinghamIt was while Marlowe was at Cambridge that he was recruited into the service of the government, working for Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s Secretary of State. He may have been recruited by Nicholas Faunt, who already worked for Walsingham and was, like Marlowe, a Parker scholar from Canterbury. Also, the government was dominated by Cambridge graduates.

The late sixteenth century was a turbulent time in Europe, with ever-changing political alliances and religious controversies. England, like its neighbours, maintained a wide network of spies both at home and in other countries.

Several things point to Marlowe having been an agent (on a part-time basis, paid for each job) from about 1584:

  • His lengthy and otherwise unexplained absence from Cambridge in 1584-5, a period it is now known he spent in the France and the Low Countries
  • He seems to have had more money to spend than most undergraduates
  • He clearly enjoyed the protection and patronage of Walsingham. For instance, Walsingham intervened on his behalf when Marlowe was initially refused his MA degree in 1587.

Spying and Marlowe’s career

Marlowe’s work as an agent brought him extra money, the support of a wealthy and powerful patron and enhanced his career as a dramatist in a number of ways:

  • He gained some inside knowledge about the workings of the government and developed his interest in politics
  • His travels on government service brought him knowledge of other countries
  • He came to understand more about power and the operations of ambition and betrayal.

Most important of all, however, was the formation of a new acting company in 1583. This was called the Queen’s Men, and was under Walsingham’s patronage. Elizabeth’s Secretary of State saw that such travelling companies offered excellent cover for other kinds of activity. He also believed that drama was valuable as a way of communicating with a large number of people. He, therefore, encouraged the performance of plays with historical subjects that would convey political or religious messages to their spectators.

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