Wednesday 3 September 2008

The mystery around Deptford's most famous murder

Gatepost, St Nicholas, Deptford
One of the most famous incidents in Deptford’s history is the murder of playwright Christopher Marlowe in Eleanor Bull’s tavern there. He died on 30 May 1593 and is buried in St Nicholas’s churchyard, in an unmarked grave.

Marlowe was stabbed just above the eye in a fight with his companion Ingram Frizer, but why?

  1. The official version: Marlowe and Frizer fought about the bill. Marlowe pulled a dagger; Frizer grabbed the playwright’s hand and turned the weapon on him. Marlowe died instantly from a wound just about the right eye. His assailant, who on this account was acting in self-defence, was later pardoned by the Queen.
  2. Or was Marlowe a spy? Frizer was an agent for the Walsinghams, family of England’s late spymaster; he and Marlowe were drinking with Nicholas Skeres, servant of the Earl of Essex, and the government agent Robert Pooley. In this version, fictionalised in Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, Marlowe was not murdered but assassinated. The exact reason why depends upon Elizabethan political intrigues: maybe he was an embarrassment to his masters with his controversial views, or maybe an accusation of heresy made against him meant that he risked being tortured and revealing details of his secret activities.
  3. A variation on this theme is that Marlowe was killed because he knew too much about certain members of the Privy Council who shared his atheistical views. Once he started dropping hints, he had to be silenced.
  4. Perhaps the murder was motivated by Marlowe’s love life, although this idea seems to be based on vague rumours: it’s not even agreed whether the lover in question was male or female.
  5. Murder, what murder? About to be charged with atheism, which could carry the death penalty, Marlowe faked his own death in order to escape. By coincidence, Shakespeare’s plays began to be published the following year...

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