A Brief Biography of Christopher Marlowe

By Tim Lambert

The early life of Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe was a great Elizabethan playwright. He was baptised in Canterbury, Kent on 26 February 1564. The exact date of his birth is not certain but he was born the same year as William Shakespeare during the reign of Elizabeth I. His father John Marlowe was a shoemaker and the family must have been quite well off because Christopher was sent to the Kings School.

Today Canterbury is a rather small town but in the 16th century, it was quite large. When Christopher Marlowe was born Canterbury probably had a population of over 4,000. To us, it would seem no more than a village but by Elizabethan standards, it was a respectable size. The main industries in Canterbury were weaving wool and working leather.

In 16th century England the Renaissance, the cultural movement that revived interest in classical art and literature reached England. During the lifetime of Marlowe, the theater in England flourished.

However, England was deeply divided in the 16th century. Elizabeth I introduced moderate Protestantism. Yet a small minority of the English people remained Catholic and they were viewed with deep distrust.

Christopher Marlowe was also accused of being an atheist, which was a serious charge. Today we believe that religion is a private matter but in the 16th century, it was very different. Everybody was expected to have the same religion as the king or queen. Not surprisingly in an age when most people believed that kings (or queens) ruled by divine right atheism was not tolerated.

Before that happened Marlowe went to Cambridge University and he was granted a BA in 1584. However, in 1587 the university refused to give Marlowe an MA because he was suspected of being a Roman Catholic. At that time the privy council intervened on his behalf. (The privy council was a group of men appointed by the Queen to advise her). They said that Christopher Marlowe had ‘done her majesty good service’. It has been suggested that Marlowe spied for the queen during his absences from university but we cannot be certain if that is true.

From Cambridge, Marlowe went to London where he became a playwright. In 1587 he wrote the play Tamburlaine based on the great and ruthless Central Asian conqueror Timur the Lame (1336-1405). Other famous plays by Christopher Marlowe include The Jew of Malta, which was loosely based on a Turkish invasion of the island in 1565.

He also wrote Dr Faustus, which was based on a real person, a German scholar called Johann Faust who lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in return for magic powers. Marlowe also wrote Edward II, based on the English king who reigned 1284-1327, and the Massacre at Paris, which was based on the massacre of Protestants by Catholics in Paris in 1572.

However, in May 1593, Marlowe was accused of atheism. A man named Thomas Kyd was arrested and heretical notes were found in his room. Kyd claimed the notes belonged to Christopher Marlowe.

However, before the Privy Council could take action Marlowe was stabbed and killed in an argument in a house in Deptford on 30 May 1593. Afterward, Christopher Marlowe was buried in Deptford. However, in 1891 a monument to Marlowe was erected in Canterbury.

Some people think that Marlowe was killed in some kind of conspiracy but violent death was common in the 16th century. As there was no police force most people carried knives for protection. Unfortunately, arguments often resulted in bloodshed.

An inquest into the death of Christopher Marlowe was held on 1 June 1593. They heard that on a fateful day, Marlowe spent time at the house with 3 other men, Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres, and Ingram Frizer. Eventually, Marlowe and Frizer argued over the bill. Marlowe seized Frizer’s knife and cut his head. The two men then struggled and Marlowe was stabbed above the eye. The jury decided it was self-defence and Frizer was soon released.