Fighting, blaspheming and spying: 1590-93

Throughout his career as a playwright in London, Marlowe continued to work occasionally as a government agent. Thus, he found himself susceptible to the twists and turns of English politics. He was also clearly an impulsive individual and sometimes found himself in trouble with the authorities.

Arrest and imprisonment, 1590

Marlowe was arrested in 1590 when his friend Thomas Watson intervened in a duel between Marlowe and William Bradley. In the ensuing fight, Watson killed Bradley, and both Marlowe and Watson were arrested.

They spent thirteen days in Newgate prison before it was decided that Watson had killed Bradley in self-defence and both he and Marlowe were cleared of any blame. Duelling and its consequences were regular occurrences in Elizabethan England. However, Marlowe was a celebrated figure in the London theatres and known at the highest level of power to be involved in clandestine activity. Such an incident would have brought further, less welcome attention.

Walsingham and Kyd, 1590-1

Sir Francis Walsingham, who had been Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and head of her secret service for almost two decades, died in 1590. This left a dangerous gap in the highest reaches of the government and, for a while, the secret service drifted without an effective leader. Marlowe had also lost a powerful patron and protector.

In 1590-1, Marlowe shared his lodgings with his fellow-playwright Thomas Kyd (1558-94). Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) had proved as popular on the stage as Marlowe’s own work. Kyd was conventionally religious and found Marlowe’s free-ranging conversation disturbing and blasphemous. After Marlowe’s death, Kyd, wishing to protect himself from being suspected of atheistic views, wrote a note about what his room-mate had said. This included accusing Paul of being a juggler and Christ of harbouring homoerotic feelings for John. It’s possible that Marlowe, who seems to have enjoyed stirring things up and creating confrontation, may have spoken in this way deliberately to shock the more conventional and timid Kyd.

Counterfeiting in Flushing, 1592

By 1592, Marlowe was again working for the secret service, now under the command of Robert Cecil, the new Secretary of State. He was despatched to Flushing (Vlissingen) in Holland, a town which had been granted to England in return for assistance given to the Dutch in their struggle against Spain.

English Catholics were in the town, hoping to gather money and other resources for an invasion of England. Marlowe’s mission was to arrange for the manufacture of counterfeit money which would be given to Catholics as the price for information about their plans.

In Flushing, he shared lodgings with a fellow-agent, Richard Baines. However, Marlowe’s mission was regarded as being so delicate that he did not share the details even with his supposed colleague. Nonetheless, Baines knew what Marlowe was doing and reported him to the authorities. The playwright was arrested and returned to England, but was freed almost as soon as he arrived, presumably on the orders of Cecil, who no doubt did not wish the truth of the episode to become public.

These events seem to have left Marlowe not only short of cash but also in a rather disturbed state. Twice in the later months of 1592, he again found himself in trouble with the authorities following incidents in London and Kent.

Arrest and release, 1593

In the early months of 1593, the political atmosphere in England was very tense:

  • There were concerns about the ambitions of James VI of Scotland
  • The Queen’s favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601) was regarded as having too much power
  • In spite of the Armada victory in 1588, Spain was still regarded as a potential threat
  • It was thought that spies were reporting on England’s religious disputes.

These events affected Marlowe in a number of ways:

  • The Puritans were among the groups persecuted by the authorities, and several, including friends of Marlowe, were hanged for sedition
  • Thomas Kyd, Marlowe’s former room-mate, was accused of writing an anonymous libellous pamphlet which attacked usury and foreign traders, particularly those from the Low Countries
  • When Kyd’s rooms were searched, he sought to clear himself of guilt by producing supposedly heretical papers written by Marlowe
  • Marlowe was briefly arrested and interrogated but was soon released
  • Although many secret operations at this time were directed at the activities of Catholics, there were also concerns about the seditious activities of alleged heretics and atheists.
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