Category Archives: Crime

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All ayre and fire

This portrait, believed to be of Marlowe, was discovered in 1953 at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The life of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe.

Christopher Marlowe (bap.1564, d.1593) was born in Canterbury, the second of nine children to John Marlowe (c.1536-1605), a shoemaker, and his wife Kate (d.1605). Like their immediate contemporaries the Shakespeares, the Marlowes were not a rich family, but John succeeded to the role of inspector of leather in 1581, and became warden of the Shoemakers’ Company in 1589, and the family belonged to an artisan class which was both respectable and financially comfortable.

Over Christmas 1578, Christopher enrolled at King’s School, Canterbury. The archives show that he was in receipt of a scholarship worth £4 a year. These scholarships were paid to ‘fifty poor boys … endowed with minds apt for learning’. By 1578 he would have been fourteen, so he may have previously attended the school as a fee-paying scholar until the family fell on temporary hard times. Two years later, Marlowe left King’s School and went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This too was on a scholarship. Archbishop Matthew Walker, a former master of the college, provided scholarships for promising students, one of which was to be awarded to a King’s scholar born in Canterbury; a scholar who was expected to be of the ‘best and aptest schollers, well instructed in the gramer, and if it may be such as can make a verse’; he should also be ‘so entred into the skill of song that they shall at the first sight solf and sing plaine song’.

By 1587, Marlowe had slipped away from academic pursuits into the shadowy recesses of political intrigue. On 29th June, the privy council was called to investigate the case of a Cambridge student named Christopher ‘Morley’, who was the subject of some damning reports and whose Master’s degree ‘which he was to take at this next Commencement’ was under scrutiny. (Spelling of the family name, as is so often the case, was not exact. John Marlowe was often called Marley and sometimes Marle. Christopher appears as Marlowe, Marlow, or Marlo on his title-pages, Marley in his only extant signature, Marlin or Merling in Cambridge University records, and Morley in the coroner’s inquest on his death.). The minutes of this meeting report that:

Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames [Rheims] and there to remaine, their Lps thought good to certefie that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaved himself orderlie and discreetlie, wherebie he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithfull dealinge. Their Lps request was that the rumor thereof should be allaied by all possible meanes, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take at this next Commencement, because it was not Her Majesties pleasure that any imployed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those who are ignorant in th’affaires he went about.

This report suggests there were two conflicting accounts circulating about Marlowe. One, popular in Cambridge, warned he was planning to defect to the English Seminary at Rheims in France. During the reign of Elizabeth I and subsequently that of James I, it was illegal for Catholic parents to educate their children within the Catholic religion at home. As a result, many Catholic families sent their offspring overseas. It was also necessary for those wishing to become Catholic priests to study abroad, and Rheims, in the north of France, was a major centre for Catholics wishing to train in the priesthood. However the conflicting report suggested Marlowe was occupied on government business, ‘for the benefit of his country’. The truth is, Marlowe had been employed as a spy, or ‘intelligencer’ for Sir Francis Walsingham since coming up to Cambridge. Spying, or simply moving in Catholic circles and passing on pertinent information regarding seditious activity, such as the recruitment of students into the Catholic church, was a common activity. Ben Jonson, for example, acted as an intelligencer for the Earl of Salisbury, perhaps to supplement his income, perhaps in order to guarantee patronage of his work. That Marlowe was engaged in similar activity does not necessarily mark him out as a Catholic activist. 

Tamburlaine (1590)

Marlowe was variously absent from Cambridge during 1585-7, probably travelling overseas on government business, since he could have easily passed on information to Walsingham about local Catholic activity without ever leaving the city. Four men who would later come to be associated with Marlowe; Richard Baines, Robery Poley, Thomas Watson, and Thomas Walsingham, were also involved in passing on information to the authorities from France in the 1580s, and Francis Walsingham’s secretary, Nicholas Faunt, was both a Canterbury man, and engaged in a government mission to Paris in 1587, the year Marlowe was reported absent from the university.

Tamburlaine the Great, based on tales of the fourteenth century warlord Timur-i-leng, was Marlowe’s first theatrical success. Dating the play is problematic, but it was probably first performed by the Admiral’s Men in 1587. The success of the play encouraged Marlowe to write a sequel, The Second Part of the Bloody Conquests of Mighty Tamburlaine. A letter dated November 16th provides some fascinating detail about this play’s staging: ‘My L. Admyrall his men and players having a devyse in ther playe to tye one of their fellowes to a poste and so to shoote him to death’, one of the ‘callyvers’ (muskets) proved to be loaded; the player ‘swerved his peece being charged with bullet, missed the fellowe he aymed at, and killed a chyld and a woman great with chyld forthwith’. This account corresponds with a scene in Act Five of the play when the governor of Babylon is executed by firing squad, and perhaps demonstrates the potentially dangerous lengths to which the Elizabethan theatre could go in order to achieve realism.

In 1589. Marlowe was living in Shoreditch with fellow intelligencer Thomas Watson.  During the afternoon of September 18th, Marlowe was involved in a dagger fight with William Bradley, son of the landlord of a pub on Gray’s Inn Road. Bradley was killed, and both Marlowe and Watson were sent before the JP and committed to Newgate. The inquest the next day returned a verdict of self-defence and Marlowe was released on bail. Nothing is known of his activities for the next three years. However in 1592, he was arrested in the Netherlands for ‘coynage’, that is, counterfeiting money, and deported back to England to stand trial. The man who alerted the authorities to Marlowe’s coynage was Richard Baines, fellow Cambridge spy and author of the ‘Note’-  a list of Marlowe’s seditious views, which was delivered to the authorities in the days before the playwright’s death. Coining was a treasonous offence which carried the death penalty, and in addition, Baines accused Marlowe of ‘intent to go to the Ennemy or to Rome’. Despite this he was freed in May of the same year, perhaps after the intervention of Walsingham.


Dr Faustus (1663)

Only days after his release, Marlowe was bound over to keep the peace towards Allen Nicholls and Nicholas Helliott, constable and beadle of Shoreditch respectively. He was ordered to appear at court in Finsbury at the beginning of October, but failed to appear, due to yet another court case involving a street fight with a tailor in Canterbury. By the beginning of the following year Marlowe was again in the theatre, this time with The Massacre of Paris, based on the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, in which thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered on the streets of Paris and elsewhere by the Guise faction, under the command of Catherine De Medici. The play was performed by Lord Strange’s Men in late January 1589 and is the most political of Marlowe’s works. A version of it survives in an undated octavo edition of 1200 lines. Other plays by Marlowe performed in this year include The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus. His next play, regarded by many as his last, Edward II, followed shortly afterwards. The first printed edition of 1594 records it as acted by Pembroke’s Men but no account of its performance survives.

The Massacre at Paris (1594)

Another late work is Marlowe’s narrative poem Hero and Leander, which is unfinished. It was one of several of his manuscripts copyrighted by John Wolfe shortly after Marlowe’s death, and a first edition was printed in 1598. The poem, which would subsequently go on to influence Shakespeare, is dedicated to Sir Thomas Walsingham, and there is evidence that Marlowe lived at Walsingham’s house in Kent in the last weeks of his life, perhaps even composing Hero and Leander during this time.

In May 1593, Marlowe was under government surveillance, having been appeared before the privy council and been ordered to report daily until further notice. On Wednesday May 30th, he was stabbed to death in Deptford. Usually described as a ‘tavern brawl,’ the circumstances under which he died were reconstructed during the inquest held on June 1st. At 10am, Nicholas Skeres, Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, and Marlowe, met at a house in Deptford belonging to a widow, Eleanor Bull. The men ate together and walked in the garden in the afternoon, in a ‘quiet’ mood. They had supper in the house at 6pm, after which Marlowe lazed on a bed while the others remained seated round the table. What followed began with an argument about the bill. Frizer and Marlowe ‘uttered one to the other divers malicious words’ because they ‘could not agree about the sum of pence, that is, ‘le recknynge’. Marlowe was so ‘moved with anger’ that he jumped off the bed, grabbed Fritzer’s dagger and stabbed him twice in the head.  The wounds, which were measured at the inquest, were not deep. A tussle ensued, and ‘so it befell, in that affray, that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of twelve pence, gave the said Christopher a mortal wound above his right eye, of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch.’ Marlowe died instantly. Fritzer was charged with self-defence and received a royal pardon on June 28th.

Marlowe was buried on June 1st at St Nicholas’ Deptford, in an unknown grave. His fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd described him as a man ‘intemporate and of a cruel heart’. The earliest epitaph, calling Marlowe ‘Marley the Muses darling’, is in Peele’s Honour of the Garter, dedicated to the earl of Northumberland, dating to mid-June 1593.

In 1627 Michael Drayton wrote of him:

neat Marlow …
Had in him those brave translunary things
That the first poets had; his raptures were
All ayre and fire.

©2009-2014 All Rights Reserved

Crime Execution Stage Women

A fine wit, a charming Tongue, and a humour brisk and gay


These snippets form an overview of the exploits of Mary Carleton (1634-73), one of the most fascinating women of the 17th century.  Fraudster, thief, and multiple bigamist, Mary’s life reads like a Hollywood film. Her quick wit and sheer audacity demonstrate that not all early modern women were models of convention and respectability.

Little is known of Mary’s early life.  As a young woman she married a shoemaker from Canterbury, and had two children who died.  Unhappy in her marriage, she charmed a ship’s mate into allowing her to join a voyage to Barbados, but at the last minute her plans were discovered by her husband and she was forced to abandon her travels.  Thwarted in her attempts to escape, Mary retaliated by simply marrying someone else, in fact a surgeon from Dover.  Indicted for bigamy, the case was dropped when Mary managed to convince the authorities she had at the time believed her first husband to be dead.

Following this brush with the law, Mary travelled to the continent, and quickly acquired a knowledge of several European languages. Establishing herself as Maria de Wolway, she returned to London with a flash new wardrobe and an array of fine jewels. She also carried several fake letters which attested to her ownership of rich estates and land.  Passing herself off as a wealthy eligible woman, she soon attracted the attention of several men, including an inn keeper called King.  He told his father-in-law, Carlton, of Mary’s wealth and it wasn’t long before Carleton’s son John, a lawyer’s clerk aged eighteen, had acquired some posh clothes of his own, and charmed Mary into marriage. However, once it became apparent that Mary wasn’t all she seemed, the Carletons had her dragged off to prison, where she became something of a celebrity.  She was even visited by Pepys on 29th May 1663.  Her subsequent trial was something of a farce.  The Carletons could only produce one witness, and Mary insisted on her noble status, claiming the Carletons had invented her vast wealth themselves.  She was acquitted on all charges, to the great delight of the general public.  A play about her, A Witty Combat, was soon in production, and she even appeared on stage, playing herself at the Duke’s Theatre in 1664.  Pepys records in his diary ‘saw The German Princess acted—by the woman herself … the whole play … is very simple, unless here and there a witty sprankle or two’ (15 April 1664; Pepys, Diary, 5.124).

For the next seven years Mary exploited her celebrity status and acquired a string of lovers, deceiving and defrauding them  all. In addition she created several new identities supported by more false papers. In 1670 she was caught stealing a silver tankard and sentenced to hanging, which was eventually commuted to transportation to Jamaica in 1671.  However she somehow managed to return to England, having adopted yet another identity, and she went on an audacious crime spree, committing a spectacular fraud, which gained her over £600 in cash and goods (roughly £50,000).  Mary was eventually apprehended for stealing a piece of plate, and when the turnkey from Newgate recognised her as The German Princess, she was once more incarcerated.

She appeared at her trial dressed in an Indian gown, a silk petticoat, and white shoes tied with green laces. Her hair had been crimped according to the latest style.  Having confessed her sins, Mary was hanged at Tyburn on 22nd January 1673.  Her story was told repeatedly in the years following her death, and she was the inspiration for more pamphlets than any other domestic criminal of the age. One author declared her to be ‘a Looking-glass, wherein we may see the Vices of this Age Epitomized’.

Her epitaph reads as follows:

Under this Cannopy of Stone,
Who lies? if you would have it known,
‘Tis German Princess, no worse Body,
Come now to her last Hole, at Noddy:
She was a Woman Great and High-born,
But late advanc’d higher at Tyborn:
Where by the Hangman, and the Carter,
She was Instaul’d Lady o’th Garter:
She came a Lass, as far as Bantam,
And now she sups with Margret Trantam.

Sources: Janet Todd – DNB; Memories of the life of famous Madam Charlton (1673)


© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

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Carnivalesque 64

Fragments is very pleased to be hosting the 64th edition of Early Modern Carnivalesque, a gathering of some of the most interesting blog posts from the early modern blogging community.

First up we have the fate of the Wedgewood Museum over at the award-winning Georgian London. Lucy Inglis considers the plight of the Wedgewood Collection, and its formation under artisan Josiah Wedgewood, who died in 1725.


From the decorative arts, to art of a very different nature, Caroline Rance at The Quack Doctor explores the unusual medicinal practise of diagnosis via urine from 1815.


Taking a detour from urine to royalty, Nick, at Mercurius Politicus, reveals some intriguing royalist graffiti in Cheam.


Odd fellows from Roy, at Early Modern Whale, who takes a look at the early modern Fortune Teller.


‘My appetite is sick for want of a capacity to digest your favours.’ Women in Medieval and Early Modern History offer up some extraordinary early modern chat up lines.

Once you’ve wooed your beloved, you might like to make them a John Evelyn salad. The Gentleman Administrator reveals all you need to know.


The World Cup may be over, but the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have devised a means to keep your interest alive. Iago is in mid-field in Shakespeare’s Fantasy Football

From Iago to a villain of a different kind, Executed Today examines the hanging of pirate John Quelch.    
Speaking of villains, cartoonist Ade Teal kindly provides us with caricatures of two early modern rogues:


On the other side of the Atlantic, Warren, artistic director of early modern music ensemble Magnificat, recently visited Spain, and reports back on the 18th century composer Martini’s enormous collection of music manuscripts and partbooks  

More printing, this time from the Two Nerdy History Girls, who witnessed the early modern printing process in action.
Sally, over at Travels and Travails in Eighteenth Century England, has been exploring medicinal recipes, including the Lady Puckring’s salve for sore brests.
From sore breasts to slippery weather, Emily at The Artist’s Progress reveals the history of early modern caricature.


Art of a different nature from the engraver Mr Read, who entertains with more spectral escapades at The Cogitations of Read.


And Ben, at Res Obscura, has been getting to grips with some 17th century  apothecary poetry.


Finally, here at Fragments, I’ve been exploring the last will and testament of Mr William Shakespeare, gent. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about Carnivalesque, or would like to be a host, contact the lovely Sharon at Early Modern Web
Crime Death

Two children in the wood

These sad fragments are from a 17th century account of the murder of two children. Their parents having died, the children are given over to the custody of their uncle, Mr Truelove, who hires two thugs to dispatch the children so he can claim their fortune.  Only one of the thugs survives, and he is subsequently executed for his crime.

The Ruffians, having got the Babes in their Possession, and the Reward that Truelove promised them, rid some Miles towards London, the little prating Travellers (who now, poor Innocents! were travelling to their long Home) entertaining their Murtherers with such pritty innocent Discourses, as would even have mollified a Heart of Stone, and softened the Breasts of Tygres, but these were far more hard and savage.  At last they came to a great Wood, by which there was a narrow Lane turned out of the Road, into which they went, and there alighting, took the poor Children down, and went into the Wood together, the Children talking to them all the while; which made the milder Villain of the two persuade the other to save their Lives, since they had had already their Reward; and that ’twas best to carry them and leave them near some unfrequented Village were somebody might see them and take them in.  But this the other Relentless Rogue refused; alleging Truelove had paid them largely, and therefore upon Honour they were bound to perform their Word (See what mistaken Notions some Men have of Honour; when nothing can be Honourable, but what is honest, just, and virtuous.)

But in this Contest the Quarrel grew so high, that they from Words fell to their Swords, and he that was for killing of the Children, was first killed himself; whilst the poor Babes stood crying by, frighted to see them quarrel.  The surviving Villain, after the other’s Death, came to the Children, and bid them leave their crying, and go along with him, and he would have them where they should have some Victuals.  And after he had led them about two Miles farther in the Wood, he bid them sit down upon the Grass, and he would bring them presently some Sugar-plumes, and Bread and Butter, with which, the Children being pleased sat down, expecting it accordingly.

And there he left these harmless Babes to perish; as surely (though not so kindly) killing them, as if he had cut their Throats. Tired with their Journey, and their Expectation of the Man’s Return, as it grew dark they fell a crying, which they continued so long till they fell asleep; and waking in the Morning, they got up, and sought to get out of the Wood. Which when they could not do, they searched for Food, and found some Black-berries, and some few wild Apples, which not sustaining Nature, they soon dyed with Hunger; and although they had none to bury them, the kinder Robin-red-breast buried them with Leaves.
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