New contacts and 'the School of Night'

New contacts

Once Marlowe had moved to London it was inevitable that he would make new friends. He seems particularly to have mixed with individuals who were interested in new knowledge:

  • Mathematicians
  • Travellers
  • Scientists
  • Free-thinkers of one kind and another.

Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) was a mathematician and astronomer who taught mathematics to Sir Walter Raleigh (see below). Raleigh sent him to survey Virginia on the ship with the earliest explorers in 1588. He used telescopes to observe sunspots and other phenomena and his patron was Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (see below).

Henry Percy

Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632) was known as ‘the Wizard Earl’. He delighted in scientific experiments and was a member of a family that had been troublesome to successive English monarchs. Many of his ancestors were either executed or died in battle. His father died in the Tower of London in suspicious circumstances and his grandfather was executed supporting the claims of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. Harriot tutored and assisted Percy in his scientific and mathematical studies.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter RaleighBoth Harriot and Percy associated with Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618). He was a writer who had also been a successful military commander on both land and sea. From 1581 to 1588, he was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, but was expelled from court for marrying against the Queen’s wishes. During these years, he was much involved in the exploration and exploitation of Virginia, although he never visited the colony.

After his expulsion from court, Raleigh sailed on both military and exploratory journeys. He lost all political influence with the accession of James I in 1603, and spent many years in the Tower of London on charges of conspiring against the King. After a brief spell of freedom, during which he undertook further expeditions, he was re-imprisoned in the Tower, where he was beheaded in 1618.

The ‘School of Night’

In Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost (1595), there is a mention of ‘the School of Night’ which from the early twentieth century, was supposed to be a satirical allusion to the Harriot / Percy / Raleigh / Marlowe group of free-thinkers, thought by their contemporaries to practise alchemy and the occult as well as more legitimate scientific enquiries.

It is true that free-thinkers often felt it necessary to meet in secrecy, because of official suspicion about activities which might prove a threat to the government. However, it is now thought to be unlikely that such a group as ‘the School of Night’ ever existed. Nonetheless, Raleigh and Percy were thought to be somehow using mathematics to undermine religious belief and, like Marlowe, both were accused of heresy and atheism.

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