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date: 28 February 2024

Marlowe [Marley], Christopherfree

(bap. 1564, d. 1593)

Marlowe [Marley], Christopherfree

(bap. 1564, d. 1593)
  • Charles Nicholl

Marlowe [Marley], Christopher (bap. 1564, d. 1593), playwright and poet, was baptized at St George's, Canterbury, on 26 February 1564, the second of the nine children of John Marlowe (c.1536–1605), shoemaker, and his wife, Katherine (d. 1605), daughter of William Arthur of Dover (d. 1575). His father was a native of Ospringe, near Faversham; he had migrated by the late 1550s to Canterbury, where he was apprenticed to an immigrant shoemaker, Gerard Richardson, and where he married in May 1561. The spelling of the family name was fluid: John Marlowe was often called Marley and sometimes Marle, while 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.

Early years, 1564–1580

Christopher was the eldest son and, after the death of his sister Mary in 1568, the eldest child of the family. A couple of months after his birth, his father became a freeman of the Shoemakers' Company; he progressed through a series of minor offices to become ‘searcher’ (inspector) of leather in 1581, and warden of the company in 1589. Though never prosperous, the family typified that aspirant artisan class which nurtured so much of the literary talent of the period, not least that of Marlowe's exact contemporary, the glover's son William Shakespeare. Other future writers growing up in Canterbury at this time were John Lyly and Stephen Gosson. Local records contain many instances of John Marlowe's pugnacity and quarrelsomeness, qualities inherited by his son, who was involved in violent ‘affrays’ and in other more dangerous confrontations with authority. Nothing is specifically known of Marlowe's boyhood, though it is possible that he is named in a Canterbury court case of 1573, in which a serving girl brought a case of sexual assault against one John Roydon, and mentioned in the course of her evidence that he employed 'a boy named Christopher Mowle' as a waiter or pot boy in his 'victualling house' (Canterbury Cathedral, archives, MS DCc X.10.4, fols. 165v–166; Butcher, 1–16). Mowle is conceivably another variant of Marlowe, though the deponent estimates the boy's age as twelve, while Marlowe was then only about nine.

About Christmas 1578 Marlowe was enrolled as a scholar of King's School, Canterbury. Scholarships worth £4 per annum, paid quarterly in arrears, were provided for 'fifty poor boys … endowed with minds apt for learning'; the earliest payment to Christopher ‘Marley’ was on Lady day 1579 (Canterbury Cathedral, archives, CAC misc. accounts 40), indicating his admission the previous Christmas. He was then about fourteen, unusually late to be entering the school; he may have been a fee-paying pupil before this. If so, he probably received some financial assistance, possibly from the rich Kentish judge Sir Roger Manwood, MP for Canterbury: an element of gratitude might explain the rather uncharacteristic Latin elegy he wrote on the occasion of Manwood's death in 1592. His first headmaster was John Gresshop. An inventory of Gresshop's library, drawn up on his death in 1580 (Urry, appx 2), offers a glimpse of the intellectual world opening up to the cobbler's son. Among its 350 volumes were editions of Ovid, Petrarch, Chaucer, and Boccaccio; Munster's Cosmographia and More's Utopia; the comedies of Plautus and the Neoplatonic philosophy of Ficino. The inventory hints also at the dangers of these broadened horizons, for on these same shelves was an old theological tract, John Proctour's Fal of the Late Arrian (1549); Marlowe was later accused of owning a 'vile hereticall' manuscript which was, in fact, a transcript of part of Proctour's book.

Marlowe's documented period at King's lasted for less than two years, for in late 1580 he went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a Parker scholarship. The scholarships had been endowed by Archbishop Matthew Parker, a former master of Corpus; one of them was reserved for a King's scholar native to Canterbury. The recipients, it was stipulated, 'shalbe of the best and aptest schollers, well instructed in the gramer, and if it may be such as can make a verse'; they should also be 'so entred into the skill of song that they shall at the first sight solf and sing plaine song' (Wraight and Stern, 63). These indicate Marlowe's accomplishments by this time; the fact that the scholars were intended for holy orders was perhaps less congenial to him. Marlowe's departure for Cambridge did not quite sever his links with his home town or family—he is recorded in Canterbury at least twice after this—but it was undoubtedly a decisive moment.

University, 1580–1587

The first notice of Marlowe at Cambridge occurs in the Corpus Christi ‘buttery books’ detailing the students' expenditure on food and drink. They show that he spent 1d. during the first week of December 1580. As the accounts were reckoned weekly, and 1d. was an average spending in the buttery for one day, he perhaps arrived on the last day of the week, Saturday 10 December. He was chambered with three other Parker scholars in a converted 'stoare-house'. A sketch plan of the college dated c.1576 (Corpus Christi College, archives, Misc. MS 138; Roberts, 23) shows that this room was in the north-western corner of what is now Old Court. He matriculated on 17 March 1581. On 7 May he was formally elected to his scholarship, though he had already received his first quarterly allowance on Lady day (25 March); the scholarship entitled him to 1s. for every week in residence. His academic career proceeded smoothly enough. He graduated BA in March 1584, though with no great distinction: in the ordo senioritatis he was 199th out of 231 candidates (J. Venn, Grace Book Δ‎, Containing the Records of the University of Cambridge, 1542–89, 1910, 372–3).

In the following year, the evidence of the buttery books and scholarship payments suggests that a change had taken place in Marlowe's circumstances. From 1585 his attendance became irregular, and his spending at the buttery conspicuously higher. This implies some paid employment which took him away from Cambridge, and a privy council memorandum of 1587 offers some clues to its nature, but the only certain sighting of him away from Cambridge is almost piquantly parochial. From the will of Katherine Benchkin of Canterbury (CKS, PRC 16/36) it is known that on a Sunday in November 1585 Marlowe was present at her house on Stour Street, together with his father, his maternal uncle Thomas Arthur, and his brother-in-law John Moore. There they witnessed Mrs Benchkin's will; Marlowe himself read it out to the company 'plainely and distincktly'. Discovered in 1939, this document contains Marlowe's only extant signature. The hand is graceful and unpretentious; its similarity to the handwriting of the 'Collier leaf'—a single-page manuscript of a scene from Marlowe's Massacre at Paris (Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library)—seems to confirm that this too is holograph.

There were literary stirrings at Cambridge in the 1580s of which Marlowe was doubtless a part. Two writers later associated with him in London, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe, were both at the university, as was his future antagonist, Dr Gabriel Harvey. Nashe recalled a throwaway remark about Gabriel's brother, the astrologer–parson Richard Harvey: 'Kit Marloe was wont to say that he was an asse, good for nothing but to preach of the Iron Age' (Have with You to Saffron-Walden, 1596, sig. N3v).

Although there is no consensus on the chronology and dating of Marlowe's works, some are traditionally associated with his period at Cambridge. An early date for his verse translations of Ovid's Amores (or 'Elegies') is certainly plausible, though there is no direct evidence for it. These translations have a curious publishing history. A selection of them first appeared in an undated edition, Epigrams and Elegies 'by J. D. and C. M.', the epigrams being by John (later Sir John) Davies. According to the title-page this was printed 'at Middleborough' (that is, Middelburg, Netherlands); this is generally thought to be a false imprint, disguising an unlicensed edition printed in England, but the fact that Marlowe and Davies were both separately in the Netherlands in 1592 raises the possibility that it was genuinely printed there. The book was among the 'unsemely' works banned by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1599 (Arber, Regs. Stationers, 3.677). A later edition, All Ovids Elegies, datable to 1602 or after, contains the full complement of forty-eight poems, including the much anthologized 'In Summers Heate'. Another translation, from Lucan's Pharsalia, is less certainly ascribed to Marlowe's university days; it was published in 1600 by Thomas Thorpe, who wrote a preface in memory of the author, 'that pure elementall wit' (Complete Works, 2.279). No trace remains of Marlowe's translation of Coluthus's Helenae raptus, described by the eighteenth-century bibliophile Thomas Coxeter as done 'into English rhime' in 1587 (Bodl. Oxf., MS Malone 131; Bakeless, 2.293–4).

Marlowe's choice of Latin models—the risqué Ovid and the rebel Lucan—is suggestive of his mentality at Cambridge. So too, perhaps, is the opening scene of his earliest play, Dido Queene of Carthage, a languorous vignette featuring Jupiter and his 'female wanton boy', Ganymede. That Marlowe was homosexual is implied by the informer Baines, who famously quotes him as saying 'all they that love not tobacco and boies were fooles' (BL, Harley MS 6848, fol. 185), and can be inferred from some of his writings, notably Edward II: these do not constitute proof, but add up to a convincing probability. Dido, also close to its Latin source (Virgil's Aeneid), is generally thought to have been written at Cambridge. The mounting of plays and entertainments was part of university life; they were mostly in Latin, but it is possible Dido was some kind of spin-off from a college production. It was first published in 1594; Nashe is named as joint author, but it is uncertain whether he collaborated with Marlowe on it, or merely edited it for publication. According to the title-page it was performed by the 'Children of Her Majesties Chapel': they are recorded as having been in East Anglia in May 1587, and may possibly have played Dido then (C. Tucker Brooke, Life of Marlowe, 1930, 116).

The last payment of Marlowe's scholarship allowance was on 25 March 1587; as the buttery books are not extant for the period immediately after this there is no way of knowing how long he remained at Cambridge. He received his MA degree in July, not without some difficulty, but had probably moved to London before then. In his last weeks at Cambridge he may have met Thomas Fineux of Hougham, near Dover, who entered Corpus in the Easter term. According to a well-informed contemporary, Simon Aldrich (a native of Canterbury, and from c.1593 a student at Cambridge), young Fineux fell drastically under Marlowe's spell. Aldrich's comments were recorded by the diarist Henry Oxinden in 1641:

Mr Ald. said that Mr Fineux of Dover was an atheist, & that he would go out at midnight into a wood, & fall down upon his knees, & pray heartily that the Devil would come … He learned all Marlowe by heart, & divers other books. Marlowe made him an atheist.

Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS 750.1

The influence was perhaps mainly literary—Dr Faustus springs to mind—but may also have been the result of their personal acquaintance at Corpus in 1587; the earliest printed allusion to Marlowe's 'atheism' appears in the following year.

Government service, c.1585–1587

It is at this point of transition, in the summer of 1587, that there is the first indication of Marlowe's involvement, during his time at Cambridge, in certain political 'affaires'. On 29 June, meeting at St James's Palace, the privy council considered the case of a Cambridge student named Christopher ‘Morley’, who had been the subject of defamatory reports, and whose MA degree, 'which he was to take at this next Commencement', was being called into question. There is little doubt that the Morley due to graduate in mid-1587 was Marlowe; he cannot have been the Christopher Morley of Trinity College who had commenced MA without discernible difficulty in the previous year. The testimonial issued in Marlowe's favour has not survived, but a digest of its contents is found in the council minutes:

Whereas it was reported 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.

TNA: PRO, PC register Eliz. 6.381b

This document seems to offer two contradictory accounts of Marlowe's recent behaviour: on the one hand, there are those reports circulating at Cambridge that he is a militant young Catholic intending to defect to the English seminary at Rheims in northern France; on the other hand, there is the council's assertion that he really had 'no such intent', and had been acting on the queen's service for 'the benefit of his country'. One interpretation is that Marlowe had been moving in Catholic circles as a spy or 'intelligencer' for the government, an activity increasingly common in the 1580s, typically (but not exclusively) under the aegis of Sir Francis Walsingham. The document drawn up by the council on Marlowe's behalf is by no means unique: it is a certificate or 'warranty' of the kind often issued by the government to safeguard its agents—see, for example, the ‘certificate of allowance’ for the spy John Edge, 9 October 1590 (J. Strype, Annals of the Reformation, 1822, 4.30); its wording is very similar to that of the Marlowe memorandum. The latter is vague, no doubt intentionally, as to where, when, and how Marlowe had performed his 'service'. He could have done so at Cambridge itself, where the covert recruitment of graduates to Rheims certainly worried the authorities; but those recorded absences of 1585–7 suggest he also travelled elsewhere on government business, perhaps to France (though probably not, given the council's statement to the contrary, to Rheims itself). Four men later associated with MarloweRichard Baines, Robert Poley, Thomas Watson, and Thomas Walsingham—were all involved in intelligence work in France during the 1580s, and Marlowe may have first met them in this context. Nicholas Faunt, a ‘secretary’ of Walsingham's from c.1578 who was both a native of Canterbury and a former student at Corpus, may have employed him; he was on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1587, at a period when Marlowe was absent from Cambridge.

Marlowe's status as a government servant or agent is the only possible context for the supposed portrait of him, discovered at Corpus in 1953 during refurbishment of the master's lodge. Its only indisputable link with Marlowe is that the age of the sitter ('Anno Dni 1585 Aetatis sua[e] 21') is correct for him. The circumstances of the discovery suggest that it had been in the college for some time, concealed or forgotten, though it is unlikely to have been there continuously since 1585. The rather dandified figure in the portrait does not look like an impoverished student, but may look like an ambitious young political servant whose 'faithfull dealinge' has brought its rewards. The portrait's motto reads, (Quod me nutrit me destruit'That which feeds me destroys me'); the emblem associated with this motto was a torch 'turning downeward' (S. Daniel, A Worthy Tract of Paulus Jovius, 1585, sig. Hvii), an image of doomed brilliance which seems apt for Marlowe. The painting now hangs at Corpus; the college correctly describes it as a 'putative' or 'apocryphal' likeness, but it is hard now to remember that this sardonic young man in a slashed velvet doublet may not be Marlowe at all.

There are further hints of political dealing in Marlowe's later career, but two red herrings can be conveniently discarded. Mention of a Mr Morley in a letter written at Utrecht in 1587 (Robert Ardern to Lord Burghley, 2 Oct 1587, TNA: PRO, SP 15/30, fol. 85) has led to a mistaken belief that Marlowe was then in the Netherlands on a mission for Burghley. In fact the letter concerns a property dispute in Northumberland, and the man referred to is probably John Morley, who was dealing with properties on Burghley's behalf in 1587 (Salisbury MSS, 3.277, 287). Nor is Marlowe the ‘Mr Marlin’ who couriered dispatches from Dieppe in March 1592; this is now known to be a sea captain, William Marlin or Mallyne (Nicholl, 340).

Fame and controversy, 1587–1590

Marlowe's first theatrical success in London was his thunderous drama of conquest and ambition, Tamburlaine the Great, based on the exploits of the fourteenth-century Tartar warlord Timur-i-leng. The exact date is uncertain, but a first run in the summer of 1587 is indicated. According to the title-page of the first edition (1590) it was performed by the Admiral's Men; its eponymous hero certainly suits the declamatory talents of the troupe's lead actor, Edward Alleyn, who would be associated with other Marlowe roles—Dr Faustus, Barabas in The Jew of Malta, and the Duke of Guise in Massacre at Paris. The play's success led to the swift cobbling-up of a sequel, The Second Part of the Bloody Conquests of Mighty Tamburlaine. It was probably during a performance of the latter that an accident occurred, as described in a letter dated 16 November 1587: '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' (Letters of Philip Gawdy, ed. I. Jeayes, 1906, 23). A scene in act 5, where the governor of Babylon is executed by firing squad, seems to have been the likely occasion. With success came controversy, and early in 1588 Robert Greene, jealous of his position as chief literary lion, complained:

I have had it in derision for that I could not make my verses jet upon the stage in tragical buskins, every word filling the mouth like the fa-burden of Bow Bell, daring God out of heaven with that atheist Tamburlan.

Perimedes the Blacke-Smith, in Complete Works, ed. A. Grosart, 1881–6, 7.8

The allusion is to Tamburlaine the Great, act 1, scene 2: 'his looks do menace heaven and dare the gods'.

Greene also speaks of Marlowe 'blaspheming with the mad priest of the sun', possibly referring to the controversial occultist Giordano Bruno; and to 'mad and scoffing poets that have propheticall spirits as bred of Merlins race' (a pun on Marlowe or Marlin is certainly intended). It has been observed that these cryptic notes of blasphemy and magic seem less appropriate to Tamburlaine than to another play, Dr Faustus. The dating of Faustus is an enigma and its textual history a maze. The earliest recorded performance on 30 September 1594, over a year after Marlowe's death, was certainly not the first. The earliest known printed edition (1604) may not have been the first either; the copy had been entered at Stationers' Hall three years previously. A different and longer text was published in 1616. The relationship between these two versions (known as the 'A-text' and 'B-text') is controversial. Some of the material unique to 'B' is probably by Samuel Rowley and William Birde, who were paid £4 for 'adicyones in doctor fostes' in 1602 (Henslowe's Diary, ed. W. W. Greg, 2 vols., 1904–08, 1.172). 'A', long considered inferior, is now thought closer to Marlowe's original text; some of its structural defects may be the results of censorship (see W. Empson, Faustus and the Censors, 1989). Stylistic arguments over the date of composition are unresolved, but the play's monolithic structure and scholarly trappings tend to favour an earlier date, c.1588–9. A sourcebook used by Marlowe was The Damnable Life of D. Iohn Faustus, translated from the German by 'P. F., gent', but the date of the lost first edition of this is not known.

In his acerbic preface to Greene's Menaphon (1589), Thomas Nashe seems to renew the attack on Marlowe when he speaks of certain 'Alcumists of eloquence' who 'mounted on the stage of arrogance, thinke to out-brave better pennes with the swelling bumbast of bragging blanke verse' (sig. A2), but these rivalries must not be taken too seriously. Nashe was certainly more a friend than an enemy: he later defended the memory of 'poore deceassed Kit Marlow' from the slanders of Gabriel Harvey (Christs Teares, 2nd edn, 1594, 2*1), and recalled Marlowe as one 'that usde me like a frend' (Have with You to Saffron-Walden, 1596, sig. V2v). Other members of this literary group—the so-called 'university wits'—who were personally associated with Marlowe were Matthew Roydon and Thomas Watson, both of whom also had connections with government service, and George Peele. Shakespeare was not of this set; his relations with Marlowe are unrecorded except in the form of Marlowe's literary influence on him, though their collaboration on the Henry VI cycle, or some antecedent version of it, remains a possibility.

In the summer of 1589 Marlowe and Watson were both living, perhaps as room-mates, in Norton Folgate, Shoreditch. On the afternoon of 18 September, in nearby Hog Lane, Marlowe fought William Bradley, son of the landlord of The Bishop inn on Gray's Inn Road, with sword and dagger (TNA: PRO, chancery misc. MS 68/12/362; Eccles, Marlowe in London, 9–101). It appears that the real quarrel was between Bradley and Watson, and when Watson appeared on the scene, Bradley called: 'Art thou now come? Then I will have a boute with thee'. In the course of this 'boute' Bradley was killed. Marlowe and Watson were detained by the constable of Norton Folgate, Stephen Wyld, brought before a local JP, and committed to Newgate. At the inquest the following day, the Middlesex coroner recorded a verdict of self-defence. Marlowe was now eligible for bail, and on 1 October he was released, bound on a surety of £40 to appear at the next sessions at Newgate. The surety was provided by 'Richard Kytchine of Clifford's Inn, gentleman, & Humfrey Rowland of East Smithfield, horner': Kitchen was a lawyer, and was perhaps already associated with the theatre owner Philip Henslowe, whom he later represented; Rowland was probably a professional surety lender. During the twelve days he spent in Newgate, Marlowe seems to have met John Poole, a Catholic imprisoned there in 1587 'on suspicion of coigninge'. Among the charges later laid against Marlowe by Richard Baines was 'that he was acquainted with one Poole, a prisoner in Newgate, who hath great skill in mixture of metals, and having learned some things of him, he meant … to coin French crownes, pistolets, and English shillings' (BL, Harley MS 6848). On 3 December Marlowe appeared at the sessions; the judge presiding was Sir Roger Manwood, who may already have known him. This marked the end of the case for Marlowe, though Watson remained in Newgate, awaiting the queen's pardon, until the following February.

Patrons and politics, 1590–1592

Between his appearance at the Newgate sessions in December 1589 and his arrest in the Netherlands in January 1592, there is virtually no biographical knowledge of Marlowe's movements. The possibility that he acted as a tutor to Arabella Stuart has been aired, further to a letter from her guardian, Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury (‘Bess of Hardwick’), who wrote to Burghley on 21 September 1592 concerning 'one Morley', who had 'attended on Arbell, and read to her for the space of three year and a half', but had now been dismissed and was 'much discontented'. The countess wrote that she had 'some cause to be doubtful of his forwardness in religion, though I cannot charge him with papistry' (BL, Lansdowne MS 71.2; E. St John Brooks, TLS, 27 Feb 1937). Without further evidence the identification with Marlowe is doubtful; he could not have been employed continuously since early 1589, as the countess's wording suggests.

Other than this, there is only a glimpse of Marlowe in mid-1591, writing plays in a ‘chamber’ which he shared with the dramatist Thomas Kyd. In the summer of 1593, in a letter of self-justification concerning his relations with Marlowe, Kyd explained:

My first acquaintance with this Marlowe rose upon his bearing name to serve my Lo: although his Lp never knew his service but in writing for his plaiers, ffor never could my L endure his name or sight when he had heard of his conditions, nor wold in deed the forme of devyne praiers used duelie in his Lps house have quadred wth such reprobates.

Kyd to Sir John Puckering, BL, Harley MS 6849, fol. 218

This 'Lord' was almost certainly Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, whose company gave the first recorded performance of The Jew of Malta at the Rose Theatre on 26 February 1592. The Jew is Marlowe's most cynical play, a tale of greed and betrayal suggestive of that Machiavellian demi-monde of 'policy' or realpolitik, that world of 'climing followers', which was in some measure his own milieu. The 'ghost of Machevil' speaks the prologue, voicing sentiments that would soon be dangerously associated with Marlowe himself:

I count religion but a childish toy,And hold there is no sinne but ignorance.

prologue, 14–15

Whether Marlowe could have been present at the play's opening in February is uncertain, for a month earlier he had been arrested for 'coynage'—coining money—in Flushing, or Vlissingen, in the Netherlands, and deported back to England 'to be tryed'. A letter from Sir Robert Sidney, governor of Flushing, to Lord Burghley, dated 26 January 1592, explains something of the circumstances. Sidney had sent, under the escort of his ensign David Lloyd, two prisoners:

the one named Christofer Marly, by his profession a scholer, and the other Gifford Gilbert a goldsmith, taken heer for coining, and their mony I have sent over to yowr Lo: … A Dutch shilling was uttred [circulated] and else not any peece … Notwithstanding I thowght it fitt to send them over unto yowr Lo: to take theyr trial as yow shal thinck best.TNA: PRO, SP 84/44, fol. 60; Wernham, 344–5

The man who had informed on Marlowe and Gilbert was 'one Ri: Baines … their chamber fellow'. This was the spy Richard Baines, who later compiled the notorious 'Note' about Marlowe's blasphemous opinions. Baines also accused Marlowe of 'intent to go to the Ennemy or to Rome'; there was, Sidney noted, 'malice' between them. Coining was accounted treason (‘petty’ rather than ‘high’ treason, but none the less punishable by death) and the allegation that Marlowe intended to defect to the Catholic enemy made it doubly so. The fact that he escaped serious punishment—he was certainly at liberty by May—suggests there may have been some political dimension to his presence in the Low Countries, and that he could claim, as he had in 1587, that he was working for 'the benefit of his country'.

Under questioning at Flushing Marlowe named two noble patrons in his favour. As Sidney reported it: 'the scholer sais himself to be very wel known both to the Earle of Northumberland and my Lord Strang'. The latter relationship is confirmed by the theatrical connections mentioned above, and may also have been relevant to Marlowe's presence in Flushing. Lord Strange, of royal blood and Catholic extraction, was a figurehead for English Catholic exiles, chief among them his cousin, Sir William Stanley; the exile group at Brussels, of which Stanley was a leading part, was a target for spies and infiltrators, and possibly Marlowe was one of these. The other patron named was Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, whose philosophical and scientific pursuits earned him the nickname ‘the Wizard Earl’. This places Marlowe with other poets—Peele, Roydon, George Chapman—who expressed their praise of 'deep-searching Northumberland' in the early 1590s. The earl was a close friend of Sir Walter Ralegh, with whom Marlowe's name is traditionally associated. Ralegh's poem 'The Nymph's Reply' is an answer to Marlowe's famous lyric 'The Passionate Shepherd', but neither piece can be securely dated. Also part of this circle were the scientists Thomas Harriot and Walter Warner, whom Kyd named as Marlowe's friends, 'such as he conversed withal' (letter to Sir John Puckering, BL, Harley MS 6849, fol. 218). This grouping is sometimes called the ‘Durham House set’, after Ralegh's town house on the Strand; and sometimes the ‘School of Night’, after a supposed allusion in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.

Two further brushes with the law mark this as a troubled year for Marlowe. On 9 May 1592 Christopher ‘Marle’ was bound over in the sum of £20 to 'keep the peace' towards Allen Nicholls and Nicholas Helliott, constable and beadle of Holywell Street, Shoreditch (London Guildhall, Middlesex County Records, session roll 309/13). It is not recorded what incident or behaviour occasioned this, but it clearly took place in Shoreditch, where Marlowe had been living in 1589. He was ordered to appear at the next session of the peace, to be held at Finsbury court at the beginning of October, but he does not seem to have done so, probably because he was by then detained on court business in Canterbury following a street fight with a tailor, William Corkine. This took place on 15 September 1592, near the corner of Mercery Lane, in Westgate ward. It may have involved Marlowe's arrest by his father, then acting constable of Westgate; the 'mainprise' of 12d. which kept him out of gaol was certainly paid by his father. In a civil suit filed on 25 September, Corkine alleged that Marlowe had assaulted him 'with staff and dagger', causing 'loss and damage' to the value of £5 (Canterbury Cathedral, archives, BACJ/B/S/392; Urry, appx 4). On the following day Marlowe's attorney, John Smith, made a counter-charge at the quarter sessions, claiming that Corkine was the assailant; this indictment was thrown out, however. The case came to court on 2 October but was adjourned for a week; in the interim the litigants seem to have patched up their differences, and no further action was taken. In 1612 a composer named William Corkine, probably the tailor's son, published an 'air' to Marlowe's 'Passionate Shepherd'.

Two occasional pieces in Latin belong to late 1592. The dedication signed ‘C. M.’ prefixed to Thomas Watson's Amintae gaudia is almost certainly by Marlowe. It is addressed to Mary, countess of Pembroke; it seeks her patronage for 'this posthumous Amyntas', and was therefore written after 26 September, the date of Watson's funeral. The copy was licensed at Stationers' Hall on 10 November and was published by the end of the year. Another death, that of Sir Roger Manwood on 14 December 1592, occasioned a twelve-line epitaph in Latin hexameters, celebrating the judge as the 'terror of the night prowler' and 'scourge of the profligate'. A seventeenth-century copy, ascribed to Marlowe, survives in the commonplace book of Henry Oxinden (Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS 750.1); another version was written (probably also by Oxinden) in a copy of the 1629 edition of Hero and Leander, though this has since disappeared.

The Massacre at Paris was apparently performed by Lord Strange's Men in late January 1593; the entry in Henslowe's diary is difficult to interpret in detail. This lurid account of the St Bartholomew's day massacre in 1572 (an atrocity ingrained in the mind of English protestants, and no doubt in the mind of the young Marlowe in Canterbury, a city which received a large share of Huguenot refugees) is the most topical and overtly political of his plays. A truncated version of it survives in an undated octavo edition of some 1200 lines, but the fragmentary nature of the text is in part a deliberate technique, in which the brevity and rapidity of the scenes create a vivid kind of reportage: this has been likened to the cinematic style of ‘jump-cutting’.

Edward II, with its sophisticated narrative structure and controlled poetic intensity, is generally considered Marlowe's last play. The first edition (1594) describes it as played by Pembroke's Men, but there is no record of a performance during Marlowe's lifetime. It is the only Marlowe play set in England. Its account of Edward's homosexual infatuation for Piers Gaveston may contain an undertone of comment about James VI of Scotland and the earl of Lennox; the play thus touches obliquely on the question of the succession, and on the pro-Jacobean factions already forming in the early 1590s. Marlowe's interest in the latter is suggested by Thomas Kyd, who wrote: 'he wold pswade wth men of quallitie to goe unto the K of Scotts whether I heare Royden is gon and where if he had livd he told me when I sawe him last he meant to be' (BL, Harley MS 6848, fol. 154). There are glimpses again of a hidden stratum of political activity, faintly reflected in his writings, but no corroboration of Kyd's claim has been discovered.

Another late work, perhaps Marlowe's last, is the lushly evocative Hero and Leander, a narrative poem based on the sixth-century Greek poem by Musaeus. The work, consisting of two sestiads totalling 818 lines, is apparently unfinished. It was one of a clutch of Marlowe manuscripts copyrighted by John Wolfe shortly after the author's death, but the first edition (1598) was published by Edward Blount, with a dedication to Sir Thomas Walsingham, recalling how Marlowe had enjoyed 'the gentle aire of your liking', and how 'in his lifetime you bestowed many favours, entertaining the parts of reckoning and woorth which you found in him' (Complete Works, 2.430). The wording suggests some warmth of friendship. There is evidence that Marlowe was resident at Walsingham's house at Scadbury, Kent, in the last weeks of his life; he may have written Hero there. Another edition of 1598, dedicated to Walsingham's wife, Lady Audrey, contains a continuation of the poem by Marlowe's friend George Chapman. His comment about Marlowe's 'late desires' (Hero and Leander, sestiad 3.207–9) has been misinterpreted: the desire that Chapman should 'to light surrender [his] soules darke ofspring' refers to the publishing of Chapman's own poem, The Shadow of Night (1594), not to the writing or publishing of his continuation of Hero. There is no reason to suppose, therefore, that Chapman began his sequel in Marlowe's lifetime.

'Monstruous Opinions', 1592–1593

The last year of Marlowe's life was clouded by allegations about his controversial religious and political views. The locus classicus of these is the infamous 'Baines note', a signed statement itemizing nineteen instances of Marlowe's atheistic and seditious talk. But this was delivered to the authorities just a few days before Marlowe's death, and was the culmination of other, vaguer charges which had been circulating for some time.

Late in September 1592, while Marlowe was in Canterbury, there appeared Greenes Groatsworth of Witte, a collection of writings by Robert Greene, edited after his death by the printer and playwright Henry Chettle. In a letter to 'those Gentlemen his Quondam acquaintance' who 'spend their wits in making plaies' (sig. E4v–F2v), Greene addressed Marlowe ('thou famous gracer of Tragedians'). He accused him of having said 'There is no God', and of embracing 'pestilent Machivilian pollicy' and 'diabolicall Atheism'. It seems that Marlowe reacted to this, for later in the year Chettle wrote: 'The letter written to divers play-makers is offensively by one or two of them taken … With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them I care not if I never be' (Kind-Harts Dreame, 1592, sig. A3v). The latter was almost certainly Marlowe (the other being Shakespeare, who had been derided as 'an upstart Crow' in the same passage.) Chettle admired Marlowe (his 'learning I reverence') but wished to be dissociated from him: a taste of attitudes to come. He claimed he had actually toned down the attack: '[I] stroke out what then in conscience I thought he [Greene] had in some displeasure writ: or had it beene true, yet to publish it was intollerable'. This suppressed material may have been more about Marlowe's atheism, or a reference to his homosexuality.

About the same time a Catholic broadside was circulating, which spoke of 'Sir Walter Rauleys schoole of Atheisme', and of the 'Conjuror that is M[aster] thereof', and of Christ and the Bible being 'jested at' (‘A. Philopater’, An Advertisement, 1592, 18). The 'conjuror' was Marlowe's friend Thomas Harriot, and Marlowe himself was doubtless suspected of involvement—a suspicion later made explicit by the spy Richard Cholmeley, who asserted that Marlowe 'hath read the Atheist lecture to Sr Walter Raliegh & others' (BL, Harley MS 6848, fol. 191).

The links, if any, between Marlowe's supposed atheism and the circumstances of his death on 30 May 1593, remain a matter of debate. He was certainly under some kind of government surveillance at the time of his death, having been called before the privy council on 18 May, and ordered to report daily until 'lycensed to the contrary'. Three documents offer some clues to the nature of the council's suspicions about him. The first is the so-called 'Dutch Church Libel', an inflammatory doggerel poem posted on the wall of the Dutch church in Broad Street, London, on the evening of 5 May 1593. It was one of a series of ‘placards’ advocating violence against immigrant traders, but was deemed by the authorities to 'exceede the rest in lewdness'. The text, which survives in a manuscript copy of c.1600, bears the hallmarks of being written by an admirer of Marlowe: it is signed ‘Tamberlaine’, and it contains overt reference to what was then probably his latest play ('Weele cutt your throtes, in your temples praying,/ Not paris massacre so much blood did spill'). A council directive of 11 May (APC, 24.222) ordered the immediate apprehension of suspects, who were to be 'put to the torture in Bridewell' if necessary, and by the following day Marlowe's former room-mate Thomas Kyd was under arrest, 'suspected for that Libell that concerned the State'. In his lodgings was found a three-page transcript from Proctour's Fal of the Late Arrian, which he correctly described as 'some fragments of a disputation', but which his interrogators endorsed as 'vile hereticall Conceiptes denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ or Savior fownd emongest the paprs of Thos Kidd prisoner, wch he affirmeth that he had ffrom Marlowe' (BL, Harley MS 6848, fols. 187–9). Kyd surmised that this document had been 'shuffled' with his own papers 'by some occasion of our wrytinge in one chamber twoe years synce', and said it contained an 'opinion' (Arian or anti-Trinitarian) which Marlowe was known to hold. A third document, almost certainly in the authorities' hands by this time, is an unsigned report detailing the seditious and blasphemous utterances of Richard Cholmeley, spy and provocateur (ibid., fols. 190–91). Among these is Cholmeley's reported belief 'that one Marlowe is able to showe more sounde reasons for atheisme then any devine in Englande is able to geve to prove devenitie'. This was later corroborated by Baines, who said Cholmeley 'confessed that he was perswaded by Marloe's reasons to become an Atheist' (ibid., fols. 185–6).

The case against Marlowe was probably further strengthened by Kyd. Although his statement of Marlowe's 'monstruous opinions' (BL, Harley MS 6848, fol. 154) was certainly written down after Marlowe's death, it doubtless echoes what Kyd told his interrogators in mid-May: 'It was his custom … to jest at the devine scriptures, gybe at praiers, & stryve in argument to frustrate & confute what hath byn spoke or wrytt by prophets & such holie men'. Among Marlowe's alleged 'jests' was that St John was 'Christs Alexis' and 'that Christ did love him with an extraordinarie love'; this homosexual blasphemy is repeated by Baines, who quotes Marlowe as saying St John was 'bed-fellow to C[hrist] and … used him as the sinners of Sodoma' (BL, Harley MS 6848, fols. 185–6).

These accumulated allegations and innuendoes resulted in the issuing of a warrant, dated 18 May, directing a messenger of the chamber, Henry Maunder

to repaire to the house of Mr Tho: Walsingham in Kent, or to anie other place where he shall understand Christofer Marlow to be remayning, and by vertue hereof to apprehend and bring him to the court in his companie. And in case of need to require ayd.

APC, 24.224

(The last phrase is conventional and does not indicate special powers.) Maunder found his man (whether at Scadbury or elsewhere), and on 20 May the council clerk noted: 'Christofer Marley of London, gent, being sent for by warrant from their Lps, hath entered his appearance accordinglie for his Indemnitie herein; and is commaunded to give his daily attendaunce on their Lps untill he shalbe lycensed to the contrarie' (ibid., 24.225). He thus remained at liberty, albeit on bail and under watch. Given the treatment meted out to Kyd a week earlier this leniency seems surprising. It suggests, once again, that Marlowe had some kind of protection, or could claim some kind of usefulness if kept at liberty.

A few days later the most damning of the indictments against him was delivered: the charge sheet compiled by Richard Baines, entitled 'A note containing the opinion of one Christopher Marley concerning his damnable judgment of religion and scorn of Gods word'. It succinctly itemizes Marlowe's heretical views—'that the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe', 'that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest', 'that the sacrament … would have bin much better being administred in a tobacco pipe', and so on—and concludes darkly: 'I think all men in Cristianity ought to indevor that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped'. The 'Note' survives in two manuscripts: one (BL, Harley MS 6848, fols. 185–6) is autograph; the other (ibid., 6853, fols. 307–8) is a scribal copy, endorsed 'Copye of Marloes blasphemyes As sent to her H[ighness]'. The copy has some alterations in the hand of Sir John Puckering, lord keeper of the privy seal, who together with another court official, Lord Buckhurst, played an important role in the investigation of Marlowe and his associates. A contradictory annotation states that the 'Note' was delivered three days before Marlowe's death (that is, 27 May) and that it was delivered 'on Whitsun eve last' (2 June).

The proportion of truth and invention in the Baines 'Note' is hard to gauge. It can be interpreted as an accurate report of Marlowe's opinions (and even as a précis of that 'atheist lecture' he was supposed to have given); or it can be seen as the final act of an orchestrated campaign of black propaganda against Marlowe and Ralegh. The involvement of another professional snoop, Thomas Drury (younger brother of Sir William Drury of Hawstead, Suffolk), is revealed in a letter to Anthony Bacon, dated 1 August 1593, in which he claims a leading role in the production of the Baines 'Note':

There was a command layed on me latly to stay on[e] Mr Bayns, which did use to resort unto me, which I did pursue … and got the desired secrett at his hand … Ther was by my only means sett doun unto the Lord Keper [and] the lord of Bucurst the notablyst and vyldist artyckeles of Athemisme [sic] that I suppose the lyke was never known or red of in any age.

LPL, Bacon MS 649, fol. 246

Some support of Drury's claim is found in a letter from Buckhurst to Puckering, dated 8 November 1592, in which Drury's fitness to do some unspecified 'service' is discussed (BL, Harley MS 6995, fol. 137). Drury's previous connection with another figure involved in the case, Richard Cholmeley, is also documented (APC, 21.119, 291, 354).

Death and aftermath, 1593

On the evening of Wednesday 30 May 1593 Marlowe was stabbed to death at a house in Deptford Strand, near London. He was about twenty-nine. The circumstances are generally described as a 'tavern brawl', but there is no evidence that the house was a tavern, and since the killing occurred in a private room it can hardly be called a ‘brawl’ either. The events of that day can be partially reconstructed from the inquest, held on 1 June, by the royal coroner, William Danby, and a jury of sixteen local men (TNA: PRO, C 260/174, no. 27; Hotson, 28–34). At 10 o'clock in the morning Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, Robert Poley, and Christopher Marlowe met at a house in Deptford Strand belonging to a widow, Eleanor Bull. Rather than the shabby alehouse keeper of legend, Mrs Bull was of an ancient armorial family, the Whitneys of Herefordshire, and was the cousin of the queen's confidante Blanche Parry; her husband, Richard Bull (d. 1590), had been under-bailiff of nearby Sayes Court.

The four men dined together, and in the afternoon walked in the garden; they were in a 'quiet' mood. At six o'clock in the evening they returned to the house, and had supper in a room there. After supper Marlowe lay down on a bed; his companions were seated at the table. There was an argument over 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, 'moved with anger', leapt from the bed, snatched Frizer's dagger from its sheath, and struck him twice about the head: the wounds (measured at the inquest) were shallow, and were perhaps inflicted with the hilt of the dagger. A struggle 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.TNA: PRO, C 260/174, no. 27; translated in Hotson, 28–34

From this wound, Marlowe 'then & there instantly died'. The actual cause of death was probably a brain haemorrhage. On the basis of this account the coroner found that Frizer had killed Marlowe in self-defence; on 15 June a writ of certiorari brought the case into Chancery, and on 28 June Frizer received a royal pardon (TNA: PRO, patent rolls 1401).

The discovery of the inquest by Leslie Hotson in 1925 scotched three centuries of rumour and romance. The earliest independent accounts of the killing proved to have been approximate at best. Thomas Beard (Theatre of God's Judgement, 1597, 147–8) described it as a street fight: Marlowe died 'in London streetes, as he purposed to stab one whom he ought a grudge unto with his dagger'. Francis Meres (Palladis tamia, 1598, sig. Oo6) had Marlowe 'stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love'. The most accurate account was William Vaughan's (The Golden Grove, 1600, C4v–C5), which correctly named the killer ('one Ingram') and the location ('at Detford'). Vaughan had family connections with Mrs Bull's cousin Blanche Parry, and with the earl of Northumberland, and perhaps had privileged information. His statement that it was Frizer who invited Marlowe to Deptford, for a 'feast', may also be correct; the fact that Frizer was a business associate of Marlowe's patron Thomas Walsingham—the connection is documented from 1593—lends credence to this.

The authenticity of the inquest is not in doubt, but whether it tells the full truth is another matter. The nature of Marlowe's companions raises questions about their reliability as witnesses. Nicholas Skeres was a swindler who, a month previously, had been accused in Star Chamber of 'entrapping young gents' (TNA: PRO, STAC 5/S9/8); in another case he 'combined' with Frizer to 'undermine and deceive' a young heir, Drew Woodliff (Hotson, 69–73). Robert Poley was the Walsingham spy who had infiltrated the Babington conspiracy; contemporary accounts of his cunning and 'knavery' abound (Nicholl, 31–3). Frequently employed on missions abroad, he had recently returned from the Netherlands, and was still nominally 'in Her Majesties service' when present at Deptford (chamber accounts, 12 June 1593, TNA: PRO, E351/542, fol. 182v). That the inquest's account depended on these two men—the only independent witnesses of the fatal 'affray'—is at the least unsatisfactory. They also brought to the scene certain high-up political connections: Skeres served the earl of Essex, whom he described in Star Chamber as his 'Lord and Master'; Poley reported to Sir Robert Cecil, who correctly described him as 'no fool' (Cecil to Sir Thomas Heneage, 25 May 1592, TNA: PRO, SP 12/242, no. 25). That these links betoken some covert intrigue against Marlowe has yet to be proved, but they add to a sense that something more complex is concealed beneath the story of the 'recknynge'. The involvement of the royal coroner has no sinister connotation, however: he automatically dealt with cases that fell 'within the verge' (that is, a 12-mile radius of the queen), as this one did.

Marlowe was buried on 1 June 1593 at St Nicholas's, Deptford; the location of the grave is unknown. The publisher Blount, dedicating Hero and Leander to Thomas Walsingham, wrote: 'Wee thinke not our selves discharged of the dutie wee owe to our friend when wee have brought the breathlesse bodie to the earth … albeit the eye there taketh his ever-farwell of that beloved object'. This possibly indicates their presence at the funeral. The entry in the Deptford burial register states that Marlowe was 'slaine by ffrancis ffrezer', an error compounded by a nineteenth-century vicar of St Nicholas's, who misread the surname as ‘Archer’; in the century before Hotson's recovery of the inquest Marlowe's assassin was called either Francis Frazer or Francis Archer.

The earliest epitaph, calling Marlowe 'Marley the Muses darling', is in Peele's Honour of the Garter, dedicated to the earl of Northumberland and datable to mid-June 1593. Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller, also completed in June but not published until 1594, has a tribute to the dramatist and reputed atheist Pietro Aretino (sig. F3v–F4v) which has been interpreted as referring to Marlowe (who had been compared to ‘Aretine’ by Gabriel Harvey):

His pen was sharpe pointed lyke a poinyard; no leafe he wrote on but was lyke a burning glasse to set on fire all his readers … He was no timerous servile flatterer of the commonwealth wherein he lived … His lyfe he contemned in comparison of the libertie of speech.

By contrast, Nashe's comments about 'scripture-scorning' atheists in Christs Teares, published in October 1593, suggest his desire to distance himself from the Marlovian taint of irreligion. His 'elegy' on Marlowe, perhaps in Latin, was seen in certain copies of Dido in the eighteenth century, but is now lost. In As You Like It (c.1599) Shakespeare calls Marlowe the 'dead shepherd' (iii.v), and seems to refer to the circumstances of his death: 'It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room' (iii. iii; cf. 'infinite riches in a little room'; Marlowe, Jew of Malta, i.i). The most beautiful epitaph is Michael Drayton's:

neat [unadulterated] MarlowHad in him those brave translunary thingsThat the first poets had; his raptures wereAll ayre and fire.

Of Poets and Poesy, 1627However, the anonymous author of the Returne from Parnassus (part 2, c.1601) perhaps summed up his reputation more accurately: 'Wit lent from heaven but vices sent from hell'.

During the seventeenth century Marlowe's fiery raptures and 'high astounding termes' (Tamburlaine the Great, prologue, 5) fell swiftly out of fashion. Ben Jonson derided 'the Tamerlanes and Tamer-chams of the late age' which offered nothing but 'scenicall strutting and furious vociferation to warrant them then to the ignorant gapers' (Discoveries, ed. G. Harrison, 1923, 33), though in his ode to Shakespeare (1623) he coined the famous phrase 'Marlowes mighty line'. The eighteenth century cared little for the line and less for the man. William Hazlitt was among the first to reshape Marlowe in a semi-daemonic Romantic mould: 'There is a lust of power in his writings, a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination, unhallowed by any thing but its own energies' (Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, 1820, 43). Alfred Tennyson called him the 'morning star' which heralded Shakespeare's 'dazzling sun', while for Algernon Swinburne he was 'the most daring pioneer in all our literature'. The twentieth century discerned in the plays more ‘modern’ subtexts of irony and dissidence; T. S. Eliot redefined the dominant mode of his plays as 'serious, even savage' farce, rather than tragedy (The Sacred Wood, 1920, 92). Behind the exalted poetry and the lurid reputation Marlowe remains an elusive, troubled character. One senses a personal flair both magnetic and dangerous; he was, said Kyd, 'intemperate & of a cruel heart'. Learned, sardonic, aggressive, and reckless, Marlowe leaves more questions than answers, and the profoundly questioning temper of his plays suggests that this is as he would have wanted it.


  • J. Bakeless, The tragicall history of Christopher Marlowe, 2 vols. (1942)
  • The complete works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. F. Bowers, 2 vols. (1981)
  • F. S. Boas, Christopher Marlowe (1940)
  • W. Urry, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (1988)
  • M. Eccles, Christopher Marlowe in London (1934)
  • L. Hotson, The death of Christopher Marlowe (1925)
  • C. Nicholl, The reckoning: the murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992)
  • A. D. Wraight and V. Stern, In search of Christopher Marlowe (1965)
  • A. Butcher, ‘“Onelye a boye called Christopher Mowle”’, Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance culture, ed. D. Grantley and P. Roberts (1996)
  • P. Roberts, ‘“The studious artisan”’, Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture, ed. D. Grantley and P. Roberts (1996)
  • Calendar of the manuscripts of the most hon. the marquis of Salisbury, 24 vols., HMC, 9 (1883–1976)
  • R. B. Wernham, ‘Christopher Marlowe at Flushing in 1592’, EngHR, 91 (1976)
  • parish register, Canterbury, St George's, 26 Feb 1564 [baptism]
  • parish register, Deptford, St Nicholas's, 1 June 1593 [burial]


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