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Fatal Vespers: The Dismall Day at the Black-Fryers


On 26th October (os dating), 5th November (ns dating) 1623, a fatal accident occurred in London. The location of the accident was a gatehouse in the precinct of Blackfriars. Between two and three hundred Catholics gathered together in a small garret room, to hear the Jesuit Robert Drury deliver a sermon, and to celebrate evensong. Half way through Drury’s sermon, the wooden floor gave way and the priest and almost a hundred people fell two storeys to their death. Some people survived the fall, others were trapped in the rubble, and some managed to break through a wall surrounding the collapsed floor itself and escape into an adjacent house. Crowds quickly assembled, many to assist in the rescue of survivors, and others merely to taunt the unfortunate Catholics victims. The following day the dead were extracted from the rubble, but due to an order from the Bishop of London, which prohibited their burial in any consecrated city ground, sixty or so corpses were interred in two common pits near the spot where the accident had occured. A large pair of black wooden crosses were hastily erected, only to be subsequently removed.

There is some extant contemporanous evidence of the event. A ballad exists, entitled The Dismall Day at the Black-Fryers, the illustration from which can be seen at the top of this post, and one account, written by a supposed Catholic, Thomas Goad, describes the accident itself:


The floare, whereon that assembly stood or sate, not sinking by degrees, but at one instant failing and falling, by the breaking asunder of a maine Sommier or Dormer of that floare; which beame, together with the Joyces and Plancher thereto adjoyned, with the people thereon, rushed downe with such violence, that the weight and fall thereof, brake in sunder another farre stronger and thicker Sommier of the Chamber situated directly underneath: and so both the ruined floares, with the people overlapped and crushed under, or betweene them, fell, (without any time of stay) upon a lower third floare, being the floare of the said Lord Ambassadors withdrawing Chamber; which was supported underneath with Arch-work of stone, (yet visible in the Gate-house there) and so became the boundarie or terme of that confused and dolefull heape of ruines, which otherwise had sunke yet deeper by its owne weight and height of the downfall: the distance from the highest floare, whence the people fell, to the lowest, where they lay, being about two and twentie foot in depth.

Here some bruised, some dismembred, some onely parts of men: there some wounded, and weltering in their owne and others bloud, other some putting forth their fainting hands and crying out for helpe. Here some gasping and panting for breath, others stifled for want of breath. To the most of them being thus covered with dust, this their death was a kinde of buriall. Have the gates of death beene opened unto thee? Or hast thou seene the doares of the shadow of death? Verily if any man could looke in at those gates, and returne, he would report such a pourtrait as was this spectacle.

Such was the noise of this dreadfull and unexpected downefall, that the whole city of London presently rang of it, and forthwith the Officers of the city (to whom the care of good order chiefly appertaineth) and in speciall Sergeant Finch the Recorder, repaired thither the same evening. With all speed possible some were employed for the relieving and saving such as yet struggled for life under this heavy load. Which could not so soone be effected, as they in charity desired; for that the ruines, which oppressed the sufferers, did also stop up entrance to the helpers: who thereupon were faine to make a breach in through an upper window of stone. From hence they hasted downe with pickaxes and other instruments, to force asunder, and take of, by peecemeale, the oppressing load of beames, joyces, and bords.

In this dolefull taske of withdrawing those impediments, laying forth the dead bodies, and transporting the maimed, all that night, and part of the next day was spent, though charitie and skill did whet their endevours with all dexteritie and expedition.

A young girle of the age of ten yeeres, or thereabout, who then crying said unto him [a rescuer], O my Mother, O my sister, which are downe under the timber and rubbish. But hee wishing her to be patient, and telling her that by Gods grace they should get forth quickly, the child replied, that this would prove a great scandall to their Religion.


Contemporary engraving of the ‘Fatal Vespers’ of 1623 –  an impression of the collapse of the interior


Given the date of the accident, so near to the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, many believed it was the result of divine providence; God punishing Catholics for the conspiracy of 1605. In a touching tribute to the victims in his account of the event, Thomas Goad lists their names and occupations, which I have reproduced at the end of this post.

However, there is a curious Shakespeare connection to this story. In 1613, Shakespeare bought a property near the Blackfriars theatre from Henry Walker, ‘citizen and minstrel of London’. Shakespeare paid £140 for the property on 10th March 1613. It had originally belonged to Mathias Bacon from about 1590, until he sold it to Walker in 1604. The property had long been regarded as a centre of Catholic agitation and intrigue. Part of it was built over ‘a great gate’, and in 1586, Richard Frith reported that ‘It hath sundry back doors and bye-ways, and many secret vaults and corners. It hath been in time past suspected and searched for papists but no good done for want of good knowledge of the back doors and bye-ways and of the dark corners.’ Shakespeare bought the property with other men; possibly a William Johnson (identified as landlord of the Mermaid Tavern), John Jackson, a shipping magnate, and John Heminges. However, it was Shakespeare alone who put up the cash, the others serving as his trustees. Of the extant Shakespeare signatures, one is on the purchase deed, the other on the mortgage. There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever lived in the house. Could the contemporaneous illustration above be the same house Shakespeare bought in 1613? It’s tempting to speculate.


A list of the dead, taken from Goad’s account of the accident. The names, occupations, and in some cases, addresses, provide some lovely detail.


 Mater Drurie the Priest that preached. Mr. Redy the Priest, whose lodging was under the Garret that fell: the floore of which lodging fell too. Lady Webbe in Southwarke. Lady Blackstones daughter, in Scroops Court. Thomas Webbe her man. William Robinson Taylor, in Fetter lane. Robert Smith, Master. Anne Davison, Mr. Davisons daughter, of the Middle-row in Holburne, Tayler. Anthonie Hall his man. Anne Hobdin. Marie Hobdin, lodging in Mr. Davisons house. John Galloway Vintener, in Clarkenwell Close. Mr. Peirson, Jane his wife, Thom. & James, his two sonnes, in Robbinhood Court in Shooe lane.


Mistris Udall. Katharine Pindar, a Gentle woman in Mrs. Udals house in gunpowder alley. Abigal her maide. John Netlan a Taylor of Bassingborne in Cambridge shiere. Nathaniel Coales, lying at one Shortoes in Barbican, Tayler. John Halifaxe, sometimes a Waterbearer. Mary Rygbie, wife to John Rygbie in Holburne, Confectioner.


John Worralls sonne in Holburne. Thomas Brisket, his wife, and his sonne, and maide, in Mountague close. Mistris Summers, wife to Captaine Summers in the Kings Bench. Marie her maide. Mistris Walsted in Milkestreet. John Raines, an Atturney in Westminster. Robert Sutton, sonne to Mr. Worral a Potter in Holburne. Edward Warren, lying at one Adams a Butcher, in Saint Clement Danes. A son of Mr. Flood in Holborne, Scrivener.


Elizabeth White, Andrew Whites daughter in Holburne, Chandler. Mr. Stoker Tayler, in Salisburie Court. Elizabeth Sommers in Graies-Inne lane. Mr. Westwood. Judeth Bellowes, wife of Mr. William Bellowes in Fetter lane. A man of Sir Lues Pembertons. Elizabeth Moore widow. John James. Morris Beucresse Apothecarie. Davie Vaughan, at Jacob Coldriches, Tayler in Graies Inne lane. Francis Man, brother to William Man in Theeving lane in Westminster.


Richard Fitzgarrat, of Graies Inne, Gent. Robert Heifime. Mr. Maufeild. Mr. Simons, Dorothy Simons,Thomas Simons a boy, In Fesant Court in Cow lane. Robert Parker, neer Lond stone, Merchant. Mistris Morton, at White-fryers, Mistris Norton, Marrian her maide at Mr. Babingtons in Bloomesburie. Francis Downes, sometimes in Southamp|ton house, Tayler. Edmond Shey, servant to Robert Euan of Graies Inne, Gent. Josilin Percy, servant to Sr. Henry Carluile, lying at Mistris Ploidons house in high Holburne. John Tullye, servant to Mr. Ashborn, lying at Mr. Barbers house in Fleetstreeet.


John Sturges, the Lord Peters man. Thomas Elis, Sr. Lewis Treshams man. Michael Butler in Woodstreet, Grocer. John Button, Coachman to Mistris Garret in Bloomesberry. Mistris Ettonet, lying at Clearkenwell greene. Edward Revel, servant to Master Nicholas Stone the Kings Purveyor. Edmund Welsh, lying with Mr. Sherlock in high Holborne, Tailer. Bartholomew Bavin, in White Lyon Court in Fleetstreet, Clarke.  Davie an Irish man, in Angell Alley in Graies Inne Gent. Thomas Wood, at Mr. Woodfalls over against Graies Innegate. Christopher Hopper, Tailer lying there.


George Cranston, in Kings street in Westminster, Tailer. John Blitten. Jane Turner, lying at one Gees in the old Baily. Frithwith Anne. Mistris Elton. Mr. Walsteed. Marie Berrom. Henry Becket, lying at Mistris Clearks house in Northumberland Alley in Fetter lane. Sarah Watsonne, daughter to Master Watsonne a Chirurgian. John Bevans, at the seven Stars in Drury lane. Master Harris. Mistris Tompson, at Saint Martins within Aldersgate, Habberdasher. Richard F[…]guift. George Ceaustour.


Master Grimes, neere the Hors-shooe taverne in Drury lane. Mr. Knuckle a Painter dwelling in Cambridge. Master Fowell, a Warwickshire Gent. Master Gascoine. Francis Buckland and Robert Hutten, both servants to Master Saule Confectioner in Holburne. John Lochey, a Scriveners sonne in Holburne. One William seruant to Master Eirkum. John Brabant, a Painter in Little-Brittaine. William Knockell, A man-servant of Mr. Buckets a Painter in Aldersgate street. One Barbaret, Walter Ward, Richard Garret, enquired after, but not found.


From Anon, Death’s Universal Summons (1650)



Anon, THE Dismall Day, at the Black-Fryers. Or, A deplorable Elegie, on the death of almost an Hundred Persons, who were lamentably slaine by the fall of a House in the Blacke-Fryers, being all assembled there (after the manner of their Devotions) to heare a Sermon on Sunday-Night, the 26. of October last past (1623)

Thomas Goad, The dolefull euen-song, or A true, particular and impartiall narration of that fearefull and sudden calamity, which befell the preacher Mr. Drury a Iesuite, and the greater part of his auditory, by the downefall of the floore at an assembly in the Black-Friers on Sunday the 26. of Octob. last, in the after noone Together with the rehearsall of Master Drurie his text, and the diuision thereof, as also an exact catalogue of the names of such as perished by this lamentable accident: and a briefe application thereupon (1623)

Mathew Rhodes, The dismall day at the Black-Fryers, or, A deplorable elegie on the death of almost an hundred persons, who were lamentably slaine by the fall of a house in the Blacke-Fryers (1623)

Arthur Freeman, ‘The fatal vesper and The doleful evensong: Claim-Jumping in 1623’, Library (1967) s5-XXII(2): 128-135

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, OUP (2001)

Ben Jonson Handwriting Playwrights

Though thou write with a goose-pen

Three examples of famous handwriting form today’s fragments. The first is a page from Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris. The second is an epistle by Ben Jonson which includes his signature, and the third, a letter written by the poet John Donne.

Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris (1593) (Folger Shakespeare Library)
Ben Jonson’s Epistle From Masque of Queens (1609)
Letter to Sir George Moore from John Donne 1602 (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Further examples of early modern handwriting can be found here at my post on Hand D, and here at Handwriting.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Playwrights Theatre

Enters the devil, murder.

These fragments form an overview of the life of one of Jacobean England’s most intriguing playwrights, John Webster. Famously depicted as the bloodthirsty young actor in the film Shakespeare In Love, Webster was the author of two of  the most successful Jacobean tragedies of all time, The White Devil, and The Duchess of Malfi.

John Webster was born c.1578 in London, son of John and Elizabeth. The family lived in the parish of St Sepulchre, Newgate, in a home which John would have shared with his parents and five siblings. John’s father ran a successful business in Cow Lane, Smithfield, loaning carriages and wagons, and became a well-respected member of the Guild of Merchant Taylors.

No complete school records for the period survive but as a result of his father’s membership of the guild, John may have attended Merchant Taylors’ School. Like most boys of the period, he would have received a classical education, and a record from the Middle Temple, dated 1st August 1598, refers to the admission of ‘Master John Webster, formerly of the New Inn, gentleman, son and heir apparent of John Webster of London, gentleman’. The Inns of Court, often referred to as the Third University, attracted many young men who lived and studed at the Inns as an addendum to their education. There is no evidence Webster studied the law, although it is possible, and legal references are scattered through his plays, but given his father’s business background it seems likely Webster trained at the Inns of Court in order to join the family business. Whether he worked alongside his father and brother in the coaching concern is impossible to determine, but a famous reference to Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ suggests he spent some time at least toiling away on Cow Lane.

Middle Temple today

An entry in Henslowe’s diary, dated 22nd May 1602, marks what was perhaps Webster’s first foray into theatrical composition: £5 ‘unto antoney monday & mihell drayton webester & the Rest mydelton in earneste of A Boocke called sesers ffalle’. The following week, £3 was paid to‘Thomas dickers drayton myddellton & Webester & mondaye in fulle paymente for ther playe called too shapes’. The entries refer to the same play, which is now lost, but is thought to have been based on the fall of Julius Caesar. In October of the same year, Henslowe paid Chettle, Dekker, Webster, Heywood and a ‘mr smythe’ £5.16s for two parts of a play entitled ‘A playe called Ladey Jane’, and a month later, another £7 for ‘a playe called cryssmas comes but once A yeare’. Collaboration was a common element of playwriting, and Webster is clearly serving an apprenticeship in the theatre, perhaps with one of the more experienced playwrights acting as his tutor.

In 1604, Webster was involved in two city comedies with Thomas Dekker, Westward Ho! and Northward Ho!, plays which were performed frequently and proved very popular with audiences. However it is not until 1612 we have evidence of Webster’s first solo effort, The White Devil. A gap of seven years does not indicate Webster turned his attention away from the theatre after 1605, indeed it is possible he continued to write but those those plays have simply not survived. He may have chosen to return to work for his father in order to support a growing family. We know from existing records Webster married in March 1606 in Islington, to a woman named Sara. A marriage outside the family parish may have been the result of a rushed celebration, for only two months later Sara gave birth to their son, John, baptised on Fleet Street in May. John and Sarah went on to have at least three more children.

Title Page: The White Devil (1613)

Webster returned to the theatre (if indeed he ever left) in 1612 with The White Devil. It was first performed by Queen Anne’s Men at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell. It was not a success, as evinced by Webster’s rather bitter address to the reader in the printed edition of the play, ‘most of the people that come to that Play-house, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting Stationers shoppes their use is not to inquire for good bookes, but new bookes)’. The Red Bull was known for its low-brow, rather bawdy entertainment, and Webster’s complex and lyrical play was clearly not to the audience’s taste. In the same year Webster also wrote A Monumental Column in response to the death of Henry, Prince of Wales.

Webster’s second great tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was performed in 1614 at the Blackfriars by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. Its reception was far more positive, perhaps because audiences at the Blackfriars, and the Globe, where it was subsequently performed, were more sophisticated. The death scene in The Duchess of Malfi has been heralded as the climax of Webster’s writing career, and one of the most powerful moments in Jacobean tragedy.

Title Page: Duchess of Malfi (1623)

In the same year audiences were enjoying The Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Overbury’s satirical The Wife appeared in print, becoming a runaway hit. Overbury, who had died in the tower a few months before, was later suspected of having been poisoned by Francis Howard (for further reading, my post on the Overbury Affair is here). The Wife went through eleven editions by 1622, and Webster made significant contributions to the text in 1615. Some scholars have suggested Webster may even have been Overbury’s literary executor, since they both attended Middle Temple at the same time and probably knew each other well.

Webster continued to write for the theatre. His last solo play was The Devil’s Law-Case, after which he returned to collaboration with other London playwrights. The rather vicious caricature painted of Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ describes him as a man who:

‘drawes his mouth awry of late,
How he scrubs: wrings his wrests: scratches his Pate
and as a critic:
Heer’s not a word cursively I have Writ,
But hee’l Industriously examine it.
And in some 12. monthes hence (or there about)
Set in a shamefull sheete’

Countering this, his biographer insists Webster worked successfully and harmoniously with his fellow playwrights. He had a good relationship with the companies which performed his plays, particularly the actor Richard Perkins, and he praises his fellow authors in his introduction to The White Devil

‘I have ever truly cherished my good opinion of other men’s worthy labours, especially of that full and heightened style of Mr. Chapman, the laboured and understanding works of Mr. Johnson, the no less worthy composures of the both worthily excellent Mr. Beaumont and Mr. Fletcher; and lastly (without wrong last to be named), the right happy and copious industry of Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Dekker, and Mr. Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light: protesting that, in the strength of mine own judgment, I know them so worthy, that though I rest silent in my own work, yet to most of theirs I dare (without flattery) fix that of Martial’

The date of Webster’s death is uncertain, as is his place of burial. An entry in the parish register of St James, Clerkenwell, states ‘John Webster was buried’ on 3 March 1638 which may plausibly refer to the dramatist. As his biographer states, the ‘parish of St James adjoined that of St Sepulchre, and it was there that both Dekker and Rowley were buried. There would be nothing surprising in Webster, in his last years, living close to old friends and colleagues.’

St James, Clerkenwell

Webster’s literary output was modest in comparison with playwrights like Shakespeare, Fletcher and Middleton, but his lyricism remains second only to Shakespeare.

‘O that this fair garden
Had with all poisoned herbs of Thessaly
At first been planted, made a nursery
For witchcraft; rather than a burial plot
For both your honours.’

The White Devil (1.2.263-269)

Source: Multiple, especially David Gunby, DNB.
For further reading see John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist by M C Bradbrook – an excellent book on his life and works.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Crime Murder Playwrights Underworld

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.

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