Mystery of Shakespeare’s dead ‘spy’: why was ‘Kit’ Marlowe murdered?

Playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe was the enfant terrible of the Elizabethan stage. Talented, precocious, violent, hot-tempered and frequently drunk (and particularly when he was with his friend, William Shakespeare), he died in a Deptford tavern brawl on May 30, 1593 in what might easily have been a drunken ruckus gone too far. That said, there are some very interesting and well-founded speculations suggesting there was more to his death than met the eye.

FU WIKI Marlowe
A Deptford churchyard plaque, commemorating Marlowe’s death. The inquest records that he was stabbed in the eye

Suspicions linger that he spied for Elizabeth I’s chief spymasters Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil. For example: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge reluctantly awarded him his Master of Arts degree, suspecting he was about to decamp to France for ordination as a Catholic priest. Catholics were seen by many in Elizabeth’s court (especially Walsingham and Cecil) as the enemy within. It’s strange, then, that Marlowe got his degree after a letter from the Privy Council (Walsingham and Cecil were members) suggested to university authorities that Marlowe had performed unspecified secret services for his country. Records show that he disappeared for lengthy periods from college, far longer than regulations normally allowed.

Marlowe’s killer, Ingram Frizer, was a con-artist and had business dealings with Thomas Walsingham, cousin of Francis. Thomas and Francis had both been involved in espionage. The other two witnesses at the inquest, Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres, were equally suspect. Skeres was also a con-artist. Poley had been one of Walsingham’s agents and openly admitted that he lied whenever, wherever and however it was convenient. None of their testimony, based on their characters, could be considered reliable, although the inquest itself records that these men whose vocation involved skilled lying on a daily basis, were ‘gentlemen’. With Frizer claiming self-defence and Skeres and Poley supporting him, it’s no surprise that many are sceptical about Marlowe’s death.

That said, it was a violent time and ‘Kit’ Marlowe was exactly the kind of person likely to die violently, as he seldom refused a fight and was often ready to start one.

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