On our walks of London that take us down to Greenwich we cover several intriguing stories.However, with the birthday of William Shakespeare on 23rd April drawing ever closer, we thought we would take you back to the intriguing world of 16th century London.
Walks that cover this exciting era include, Shakespeare’s London and, an occasional tour that we do for groups entitles Deadly Doings in Deptford. On that London walk we cover the murder of Christopher Marlow, the leading dramatist of his age, who career came to an abrupt halt when he was cut down in a tavern in Depfort.
Those of you who take a riverboat from Central London down to Greenwich, will pass on the right, shortly before arriving at Greenwich Pier a line of warehouses that gaze out across the river.
In the 1590′s the site now occupied by these warehouses was occupied by the house of a widow by the name of Elizabeth Bull.
Deptford was then a busy naval dockyard and port from which ships voyaged back and forth to the Continent, and Elizabeth Bull’s house was not, as is often alleged, a low-life tavern.
Dame Bull was not your average London landlady but a lady of some standing whon had important Court connections. Her sister, Blanche, was the god-daughter of Blanche Parry, who had been the much loved nanny of the infant Elizabeth 1st and was a “cousin” of Lord Burghley, one of Elizabeth 1st’s most powerful Statesmen.
Now widowed, Dame Bull hired out rooms and served meals. It is highly likely that her home was a safe house for Government Agents or spies.
On 30th May 1593 a murder was committed in that house, in a room that had been hired for a private meeting by four men:- Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Christopher Marlow.
All of them had dealings on the shady side of the Elizabethan spy world. One of them, Christopher Marlow, was acknowledged as the greatest poet and playwright of his generation. If he is known at all today, it is vaguely that he is remembered as a playwright who wrote the immortal lines about Helen of Troy: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”
But Marlow was also a braggart and a drunkard, a man of fiery temperament who loved to shock and who, as he arrived for his fateful meeting on that long ago May day, was about to be arraigned on charges of atheism, the ultimate punishment for which was burning at the stake.
At around 6pm on the evening of May 30th Frizer, Ingram and Poley were seated on a bench, “cheek by jowl,” as one of them later reported, in front of a trestle table. They were playing an Elizabethan version of backgammon. The only other furniture in the beamed, dark, low-ceiling room was a bed, upon which Marlow was recovering from too much wine.
Ingram Frizer, sitting in the middle of the three, said over his shoulder, that the bill for their day’s food and drink must be paid to their hostess. Marlow protested loudly. His share of the reckoning is too large, he slurred. Frizer replied that the share was only right.
Suddenly Marlow lurched to his feet and seized Frizer’s dagger — kept in his belt at the small of his back, “Spanish style” — and struck him on the head, a superficial gash that bled profusely. He struck him again, opening a second wound. Frizer struggled to his feet, grabbed Marlow by the wrist, and forced the dagger into his eye. Marlow fell to the floor, instantly dead.
Frizer claimed that he had had no choice and had acted purely in self defence. At least that is what he insisted to the coroner the next day, June 1, 1593, as the coroner and his jury of 16 men viewed the room and the body.
On June 2, in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Deptford, Christopher Marlow was buried in an unmarked grave. Two weeks later, Frizer was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth I.
There is something very suspicious about the death of Marlow and the haste of the burial coupled with the Royal pardon meted out to Frizer have the whiff of a government cover up about them.
It seems highly likely that during and immediately after his studies at Cambridge University, Marlow had been employed abroad as an anti Catholic spy. He knew an awful lot about the seedier side of the Elizabethan police state. The day before his death an informer had supplied the Privy Council with concrete evidence of his blasphemies. Is possible that Marlow panicked and made for Deptford intending to take ship and flee abroad? Did the Privy Council set the spies Frizer, Skeres and Poley on his trail and, fearful of the embarrassment his testimony might cause the government, instruct them to assassinate him? Did the men waylay him in Deptford and invite him to join them for a days carousing before he set sail? And as the day wore on, did Marlow suddenly realise that the smiles and ribaldry of his companions were false and that they were in fact his gaolers and executioners? Was it this sudden realisation that caused him to grab Frizer’s dagger in a desperate attempt at self preservation?
The truth is, we’ll never know for sure, just as we’ll never know what literary treasures Marlowe’s untimely death robbed us of. For, as he himself wrote, almost prophetically, in Dr Faustus, “Cut is the branch that might have grown full strength.”