Category Archives: Underworld

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.

©2009-2014 All Rights Reserved

Custom Entertainment Games London Underworld Vice

We play with dice

Evidence of gambling in London goes all the way back to the Romans, with dice carved from bone and jet having been excavated by archaeologists. Medieval London also had its fair share of gaming activity; Hazard was played in taverns and brothels, along with another dice game known as Tables. Playing cards were introduced into London in the 15th century; John Stowe remarks on their popularity during feast days. Playing cards were also kept in most taverns, often with the name of the tavern printed on them. In fact playing cards became such big business that over four and a half million packs were sold in the mid-17th century. Here is a contemporary description of some popular tavern games:

We play with Dice either they that throw the most take up all; or we throw them through a casting-Box upon a board marked with figures, and this is the Dice-players game at casting Lots.  Men play by luck and skill at Tables and at Cards.  We play at Chesse on a Chesse-board where only art beareth the sway.  The most ingenious Game is the game at Chefs, wherein as it were two Armies fight together in Battell’ (Early Modern Risk!).

Lincoln’s Inn was had a particular reputation for gambling in London; and even children played each other for oranges and coins. One game known as Wheel of Fortune was especially popular. However, gambling was frowned on by many and seen as a vice fit for the devil. This comment is fairly typical:

O how happy were it for your posterity, if all Dicing-houses, and allies of gaming were suppressed in, and about this Citty… The delights of these Tabling-houses are so pleasant and tempting, that a man when he hath lost all his money, will be most willing, even in the place of his undoing, to stand money-lesse, and be and Idle looker on of other mens unthriftinesse.

By the early 18th Century there were over forty gaming houses in London; gambling had evolved from a tavern sport to a recognised industry. These early casinos had a fancy lamp outside the entrance which made them immediately recognisable to passers-by. Gaming was eventually outlawed in London, but this merely drove it underground, and despite regular raids by the authorities, the gaming houses prospered. At Almanacks, a famous casino in Pall Mall, the players turned their coats inside out for luck and wore leather wristbands to protect their lacy cuffs.Outside the door of White’s gaming house, when one player dropped dead, members of the club ‘immediately made bets whether he was dead or only in a fit.’

Sources: Peter Ackroyd, London The Biography; John Stowe, Survey of London (1598)

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

London Prostitution Sex Underworld Vice Women

The Wandering Whore

Today’s snippets come from a very popular early modern text on prostitution, but in order to give it some context, here is a little overview of the history of brothels in London from John Stowe, whose survey of London in 1598 describes the history of Bankside stews:

Next on this bank was sometime the Bordello, or Stewes, a place so called of certain stew-houses privileged there, for the repair of incontinent men to the like women.

Under Henry II parliament ordained certain rules for the maintenance of these brothels:

That no stew-holder or his wife should let or stay any single woman, to go and come freely at all times
No stew-holder to keep any woman to board, but she to board abroad at her pleasure.
To take no more for the woman’s chamber in the week than fourteen pence.
Not to keep open his doors upon the holidays.
No single woman to be kept against her will that would leave.
No stew-holder to receive any woman of religion, or any man’s wife.
No single woman to take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow.
The constables, bailiff, and others, every week to search each stew-house.

These brothels were subsequently closed down by the authorities under Henry VIII, but were once again legalised under Edward VI. By the reign of James I, Bankside in Southwark was an area known area for its vice and crime. The theatres had been established here since it was outside the jurisdiction of the City Fathers, and brothels and stew-houses flourished alongside the bear-pits and numerous taverns. Whorehouses were also prominent in other areas of London, most notably Westminster, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Whitefriars.

A popular text which was translated from the Italian in the 1570s, and had been in heavy circulation ever since was Arentino’s The Wandering Whore. Pornographic and entertaining, it takes the form of a dialogue between a pimp and a whore, and sheds light on the practise of prostitution in early modern London:

Betty Lawrence… will serve the Cure [for the ‘standing ague’]; suffering you to whip the skin off her buttocks, onely paying her Crowns apiece for her patience and punishment.

A list of ‘Common Whores’ includes the names:

Green Moll, alias Joan Godfrey, Toothless Betty, Shards wife in Dunning Alley, Long-haired Mrs Spencer in Spittle-fields, Taylor the Prigg, Dutch Whore, Wilkins a weaver’s Wife at Smack Ally End.

Male names feature too, including: Little Taffy, Dick Steckwel, Ned Brooks, Green by Newgate, Frank Ashburn, and the alluringly-named ‘Ralph Asbington, alias Shitten-arse.

The young Gallant in the text discusses this list of names, claiming ‘I’ll visit their Quarters one after another, though I’m clappt three times over with the Pox.’ He enquires about a prostitute in Moorgate, ‘a teasing Girl with Silver-lace upon her Petticoat a Quarters bredth, with Lemmon-colour’d Ribbons a-la-mode-france, with Pendants in her eares, neck-lace of counterfeit pearl, and dres’t with a Caul in her hair.’

There is a description of a prostitute who ‘stood upon her head with naked breech & belly whilst four Cully-rumpers chuckt fifteen Half-crowns into her Commodity.’

Prostitutes are advised to be clean. They need to ‘paint, powder, and perfume their clothes and carkasses’ and have ‘fine clean Holland-smocks’. Descriptions of typical acts between prostitute and client include kissing with their mouths open, putting their tongues into his mouth, and putting their ‘left hand in his Cod-piece, the right hand in his Pocket.’

But perhaps the most moving aspect of Aretino’s tract is the description of the fate of many children born as a result of prostitution:

what children are got in Bastardy amongst us, are educated, if you are but minded to go to a certain stately building, where there is a grate, and one continually there placed to receive it [the baby], the Priests have a place peculiar to themselves, for what Brats they get are carried, where on the outside of the wall hangs a rope with a basket at the end on’t, where they are drawn up in a basket if you ring the bell which hangs close by.

For more on seventeenth century brothels see here or search the tag Prostitution.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Crime Playwrights Underworld

The Canting Crew

Cant, or the language of thieves and scoundrels, was a popular lexicon in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. By speaking in slang, the criminal underclass was able to distance itself from detection by the authorities. There were several Canting dictionaries published in this period; the first by Thomas Harman, both in his Caveat for Common Cursitors (1567) and in his The groundworke of conny-catching, the manner of their pedlers-French, and the meanes to vnderstand the same with the cunning slights of the counterfeit cranke : therein are h[a]nd[l]ed the practises of the visiter, the fetches of the shifter and rufflar, the deceits of their doxes, the deuises of priggers, the names of the base loytering losels, and the meanes of euery blacke-art-mans shifts, with the reproofe of all the diuellish practises / done by a iustice of peace of great authoritie, who hath had the examining of diuers of them (1597).

Thomas Dekker, playwright and pamphleteer republished Harman’s dictionary in 1608, at the end of English Villainies; a harrowing text in which he describes the conditions inside London prisons. Dekker himself had personal experience of incarceration, having been a prisoner in the King’s Bench for bad debt. What follows are some of the more colourful Canting terms described by Dekker:

To Scoure the Crampring – to wear boltes (leg irons)
Stuing Ken – a House to receive stolne goods
Ruff-Pecke – Bacon
Ruffian – the Devill
Roger, or Tib of the buttry – a Goose
Niggling – Companying with a Woman
To cut bene whiddes – To speake goode words
Margery Prater – a Hen
Pratt – a Buttocke
Bing a Wast – get you Hence
Wyn – a Penny
Boung – a Purse
Gentry Coses Ken – a noblemans house
Bowse – drinke
Dub the Giger – open the dore
Bowsing Ken – an Ale House
Chates – Gallowes
Heave a Bough – Rob a Booth
Maunding – asking
Mill – to Steale
Yraum – milke
To cly the Jerke – to be Whipped
Harman-Beck – a Constable
Harmans – stockes
Light-mans – the Day

He also includes several Canting songs, one of which goes as follows:

A Canting Song

The ruffian cly the nab of the Harman-Beck
if we Maund Pannam, lap or Ruffe peck
Or poplars of yraum: he cuts bing to the Ruff-mans,
Or else he sweares by the light-man’s
To put our stampes in the Harmans.
The ruffian cly the Ghoste of the Harman-beck,
If we heave a Booth we cly the Jerke,
If we niggle or mill a Bowsing Ken,
Or nip a boung that hath but a wyn,
Or dub the giger of a Gentrey Coses Ken,
To the quier Cuffing we bing,
And then to the quier Ken to Scowre the cramp-ring,
And then to be trin’de on the Chates in the light-mans,
The babe and the ruffian cly the Harman-Beck and Harmans.

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