Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Evidence Marlowe was Silenced

The facts of the case, at best, lead one to select the most plausible resolution to the question of the murder of Christopher Marlowe. This, I believe, is that Marlowe had to be silenced in order to save the skin of his patron, Thomas Walsingham. However reluctantly he felt about disposing of the poet that had been under the protection of his patronage, the political baggage that Marlowe carried was not to be endured.

Hence, Marlowe had to go. For this purpose, Walsingham had Marlowe lured to a meeting with three of his loyal servants, and there, in Deptford, silenced him once and for all. The fact that Frizer was quickly pardoned suggests that Walsingham persuaded the queen of his loyalty, and either urged upon her the necessity of getting rid of Marlowe, or convinced her that the coroner's jury was correct, and that Marlowe's death was the result of self defense.

Portrait: Sir Robert Cecil
Portrait: Sir Robert Cecil

It is entirely possible that Robert Cecil was concerned about Marlowe, and was involved in the attempt to silence him. If the Privy Council decided to further question Marlowe, and subject him to the same instruments of interrogation that they had used so effectively on Thomas Kyd, was it not likely that Marlowe would reveal the machinations of Cecil's secret service? Could the wily Cecil afford to have his various plots known?

Another interested party in the effort to silence Marlowe was the Earl of Essex. In his battle of wits with Raleigh, Essex needed to establish his credibility with the queen, while the two factions jockeyed for advantageous positions in the question of Elizabeth's successor. Further, Nicholas Skeres, a member of that strange quartet at Deptford, was a faithful servant of Essex. Was it he who arranged the meeting?

Portrait: Earl of Essex
Portrait: Earl of Essex

Nicholl suggests that the murder was unplanned, that the goal of the meeting was to seek the volatile Marlowe's silence by persuasion, and that things got out of hand. Either a genuine disagreement and fight began, or Skeres saw no alternative but the ultimate silencing of Marlowe.

The murder of Christopher Marlowe remains a mystery, but it seems unlikely that the great dramatist's death was the result of an argument over a few shillings. Considering the magnitude of late 16th century intrigue, Marlowe was most likely a victim in the struggle for political survival of Thomas Walsingham, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex. It is interesting to note that eventually Essex (by order of Elizabeth) and Raleigh (by order of her successor, James I) were beheaded. Clearly, it was an era where the principal players played for keeps.

On July 11, 2002, a memorial window in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, was dedicated to Christopher Marlowe. It gives the date of his birth as 1564, and the date of his death as "?1593." Even his memorial refuses to acknowledge the fact of his death.

A few yards away from the Marlowe Memorial window sits the bust of William Shakespeare.   

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