Playwright, poet and spy Christopher Marlowe

Feb 26: Birthday of Canterbury’s most remarkable son

On this day in 1564, a child called Christopher was baptised at the Church of St George the Martyr in Canterbury. Today his surname is immortalised in the title of our principle theatre, a shopping arcade and a city centre street.

His dramas are masterpieces of Elizabethan theatre, with some critics rating them as superior to the works of his contemporary William Shakespeare.

In his book The Reckoning, biographer Charles Nicholl outlines the extraordinary fame this son of a Canterbury cobbler was to achieve.

St George’s clock tower is that remains of the historic church

“In his brief heyday,” writes Nicholl, “Christopher Marlowe was probably the most popular dramatist in England. He packed them in at famous London playhouses like the Theatre and The Rose and at the makeshift auditoria of the provincial circuit.

“On one level his success was shrewdly commercial. He gave people what they wanted: spectacular action, exotic locations, patriotic sentiments and plenty of violence.

“He thrilled them with his poetry and he fascinated them with a series of charismatic heroes who were usually more villain than hero.”

Yet few in Canterbury outside his most ardent fans know anything about him.

Part of a family originally from the Ospringe area of Faversham, Marlowe was born at a time when there were high rates of infant mortality due to an outbreak of the plague between 1563 and 1565.

His family house stood at the corner of St George’s Lane, Canterbury, until it was destroyed during a German raid in 1942.

The young Christopher went to King’s School, which had been founded almost a millennium earlier, before obtaining a Matthew Parker scholarship which allowed him to study at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. His university fees were almost certainly paid for by the local philanthropist Sir Roger Manwood.

Sir Francis Walsingham by John De Critz the Elder

In the 1580s, Marlowe was drawn into Queen Elizabeth’s espionage network by her spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, who recruited the brightest young men from university.

It was a time of political intrigue with Protestants pitted against Catholics. His first major assignment is believed to have been in connection with the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and have her replaced by the devoutly Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.

Marlowe soon became an established figure in government circles and by the time he was 23 he was already acknowledged to be a poet and playwright of immense talent.

Among his published works are The First Book of Lucan, Ovid’s Amores, Tamburlaine the Great, Edward the Second, The Massacre at Paris, Hero and Leander and Dido, Queen of Carthage.

But his most famous plays are undoubtedly the Jew of Malta and The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

The former is a story of revenge and intrigue set on the island of Malta during the war between Spain and the Ottomans for control of the Mediterranean. Marlowe’s portrayal of the central character Barabas is understood to have inspired Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with its Jewish protagonist Shylock.

Doctor Faustus, meanwhile, is a moral tale of a man who sells his soul to the Devil. Themes of power and temptation ensure it still resonates today, Jude Law being among those to have played Faustus on stage in London.

There are contradictory accounts about the death of Marlowe on May 30, 1593. He is often said to have been stabbed during a pub brawl in Deptford, then part of Kent.

But records show the building Marlowe was in at the time was not a tavern, but a respectable house owned by one Dame Eleanor Bull.

Although the date of Marlowe’s death at the age of 29 is known, the reasons for it are unclear. One theory is that the Queen had him assassinated on account of his alleged atheism. Another holds that Sir Walter Raleigh arranged his murder out of fear for information Marlowe held about him while a third suggests the playwright was accidentally killed by people to whom he owed money.

Some have even contended that his death was faked and that he subsequently went on to write for Shakespeare.

Today a bronze memorial statue to Marlowe stands in The Friars outside the theatre which bears his name, a name forever synonymous with this city and its cultural heritage.

Looking back at the life and works of Canterbury’s remarkable son, we can detect that Marlowe was not just a writer of genius, but an actor in his own potent drama.

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