The Mysterious Death of Christopher Marlowe

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 30, 1593, writer Christopher Marlowe arrived at a lodging house for drinks with friends and never emerged. At least, not alive.

Legend has it that Marlowe and a few acquaintances spent the day at the lodging house, where they “passed the time together,” walked in the garden, and “in company dined,” according to the report found in the Public Record Office. When the time came to pay up, an argument erupted, and the other two witnesses claim Marlowe pulled out Ingram Frizer's knife first. That’s when Ingram Frizer took back control of his dagger, and, he claimed, in self-defense, plunged it into Marlowe’s head just above his right eye. It pierced his brain and the writer died instantly.

At first glance, it appears to be a bar fight, a stupid disagreement escalated to an irrational level by a long day of drinking. But modern-day scholars aren’t so sure that’s what really happened. Many believe that Marlowe’s death was really an assassination, ordered by no less than Queen Elizabeth I herself.

Marlowe had been getting quite vocal about his belief in atheism, and apparently used his way with words to convince others. “Into every Company he Cometh he persuades men to Atheism, willing them not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and his ministers,” one informant said. This was obviously a big faux pas in Elizabethan England, and the Queen herself gave orders to shut Marlowe up—“prosecute it to the full,” she ordered. Adding credence to this theory is that Elizabeth pardoned Marlowe’s murderer about four weeks later.

Queen Elizabeth I, however, is far from the only person who may have wanted Kit Marlowe out of the picture. Just a few of the suspected assassin backers include Sir Walter Raleigh, who was worried about being implicated during Marlowe's inquisition; Sir Robert Cecil, who believed Marlowe’s plays contained Catholic propaganda, and even Audrey Walsingham, whose husband employed Marlowe. It’s said she was jealous of her husband’s relationship with the playwright.

But here’s another thought for the conspiracy theorists: People who subscribe to Marlovian Theory believe that Marlowe faked his death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition. Once he was safe, the playwright continued to produce, and sent his works back to England to be performed. Of course, those plays couldn’t be attributed to Christopher Marlowe, who was supposed to be dead, so a front man had to take credit. That man: William Shakespeare.