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Dates: 22/08/2017 - 31/08/2018

Location: Drama in Two Acts


A play in two acts

A companion piece to Tenebrists

“The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike”
     Christopher Marlowe,
Dr. Faustus

Thomas' bed-chamber, Scadbury, Chislehurst, Kent
The Anchor Tavern, London
Eleanor Bull’s house and garden, Deptforth, 1593

Christopher Marlowe (29)
Thomas Walsingham (32)
Nicholas Skeres (30)
Ingram Frizer (32)
Robert Poley (42)
Eleanor Bull (43)
Stable boy (16)

In the Spring of 1593, playwright Christopher Marlowe escapes the growing complexity of his life in London to the relative sanctuary of Scudbury Manon, in Kent, the home of his patron (and one-time lover) Thomas Walsingham, a courtier and patron of the arts; a relative (first cousin once removed) of the recently deceased Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham.
While he attempts to distract himself with a new project (the writing of a lyric treatment of the Greek legend of Hero and Leander) Marlowe’s thoughts are never far from the predicament of his life and his career; he’s at a cross-roads.
Kit - as Thomas referred to Marlowe in these intimate surroundings - had just celebrated his 29th birthday on a theatrical high; his most recent work, The Tragedy of the Guise - a unique and confronting play concerning contemporary events in France - was premiered by Lord Strange's Men at The Rose playhouse and had reportedly broken a box-office record in the month long season, earning £3.14.0 (beating the revival of his own play The Jew of Malta given two weeks earlier, with Edward Alleyn as Barabas). This had otherwise been a bad time for the London theatres, with an extended and serious outbreak of the plague forcing them to close in June the previous year until a brief respite occurred with the cold of mid-winter; The Rose re-opening on 29 December 1592. But a renewed outbreak of plague triggered an order from the Privy Council on 28 January ‘for the suppression of all assemblies for the purposes of amusement within seven miles of London.’ Either news was slow to travel, or the theatre owner, Philip Henslowe, deaf to the order managed to slip in two more performances before closing; fortunately for Marlowe, his premiere was one of them on 30 January. By all accounts it confirmed him a success as a writer of plays; it brought him notoriety, and coin but also unwanted controversy. Thomas worried that it was unnecessary attention-seeking and avoidable, but, Kit playfully argued otherwise: the Cambridge post-graduate and enfant terrible relished that it was in his nature to be a shit-stirrer!
Some weeks into his stay in the country, news filtered through to Walsingham that Walter Raleigh was one of the few to have opposed a new Bill presented to the parliament proposing an extension of various privileges to Immigrant Traders; immigration (and Flemish, Walloon, Huguenots and German refugees), along with succession, were the two big political topics in the years leading up to the new century. The immediacy of the situation hit home when Tom’s man, Ingram Frizer - of dubious reputation, but useful as both his ‘business agent’ and confidential link back to the intelligence world - arrives with news of an anti-immigrant poem that had been posted on the wall of the Dutch Church in Austin Friars, off Old Broad Street, on the 5th of the month, and that Marlowe was implicated: the document was in Marlowe’s style, referenced both the plays just seen in the January season at the Rose, and signed “Tamburlaine”, one of his most infamous characters. The libel comprised fifty-three lines of rough, rhyming verse albeit written in iambic pentameter, that was essentially a fairly crude and racist rant against foreign merchants (‘strangers’), their exploitation of the poor local inhabitants via usury, rents, and the stock piling of produce in times of shortage, and their perceived protection by the state. Kit knew nothing of it, and, of course, he’d been in Scudbury on that Wednesday. But Frizer further reported that the Privy Council were angry because the libel implied that the Government were profiteering from their protection of the immigrant merchants and had consequently issued a directive to ‘apprehend every person so to be suspected’ of responsibility for the spate of ‘divers lewd and malicious libels’ against foreigners, especially the one ‘set upon the wall of the Dutch Churchyard, that doth exceed the rest in lewdnes.’ What was most concerning however, was that, based on a tip-off, Marlowe’s colleague and playwright Thomas Kyd’s room was searched, and allegedly heretical papers found, which apparently Kyd said must have belonged to Marlowe, from a time when they were 'writing in one chamber' together a year earlier. Both Tom and Kit understood the implications, especially when told that Kyd had been placed in the hands of Thomas Topcliffe, the Rack-master at the Tower, and that Kyd had accused Marlowe of being an athiest!
This was clearly a set up; but who was behind it? Tom’s first inclination was to contact his old intelligence service colleague Robert Poley for background information and advice; they’d worked together in London a few years earlier as the net closed in on the Babington conspirators. Unfortunately, according to Frizer, Poley was already in the Low Countries on assignment; he’d been despatched by Lord Burghley on 8 May.
The situation escalated when Henry Maunders, a messenger from Her Majesty’s Chamber, arrived at Scadbury Manon a few days later. He came with a warrant and was to escort Marlowe to Nonsuch in Surrey to appear before the Star Chamber, as far as they were concerned, atheism was seditious. Marlowe attends as required and his presence recorded on Sunday 20 May, but because the Council wasn’t meeting on that day he is required to attend daily, until they convened the following Wednesday at Westminster Palace. What Marlow finds strange is that he is not officially under arrest, rather on bail.
Meanwhile, Thomas travels to London and is able to give Kit an update when they eventually meet at the Anchor Tavern: the Privy Council had since been given another document that apparently corroborated the charge of atheism against Marlow; an anonymous report containing ‘Remembrances of words and matters against Richard Cholmeley.’ Cholmely was know to Thomas and Marlowe as an anti-Catholic agent working for the government, but one who was a loose canon. The report itemised Cholmeley’s ill deeds as a libeller, a corrupt government servant and an atheist. More damaging for Marlowe was that Cholmeley incriminates Marlowe as being his instructor in atheism, and is also said to have incited other including Sir Walter Raleigh. The case against Marlowe was building and it was difficult for Kit to avoid the conclusion that an orchestrated campaign had been mounted again him. But the worst is yet to come.
The next Sunday, 27 May, Marlowe’s nemesis Richard Baines handed in a report to the authorities. Baines and Marlowe had history. In Flushing the year before they were arrested for coining and Marlowe returned to England in disgrace, both accusing the other ‘out of malice’ of being a traitor. Now Baines had his opportunity to gain revenge, and reeled off a string of accusations about Marlowe's heresies, amongst others that: ‘religion was invented only to keep men in awe’; ‘all protestants are hypocritical asses’; ‘all they that love not tobacco and boys were fooles’; and generally ‘that this Marlow does not only hold these views himself, but attempts to convert everyone he meets to Atheism.’ Kit laughs at the swagger and humour in the quotes, but both he and Thomas know Bains to an an untrustworthy agent (he had confessed to many similar accusations himself at Rheims a decade earlier) with a grudge to bear. Unfortunately for Marlowe, the evidence is mounting, and the authorities are unlikely to see any funny side to what are very serious allegations.
There is no time to waste; he can either sit and wait to be arrested, put to trial and taken to the tower or he can be pro-active and arrange an ‘exit strategy’.
In the first instance, and despite Thomas’s objections as being too dangerous, Kit needs for him to schedule a meeting in secret with Robert Cecil, Lord Burley. He also needs Frizer to make some other specific arrangements, including getting a message to the Earl of Essex through his colleague (the confidence trickster and government informer, and then servant to Robert Devereux) Nicholas Skeres. Each meeting, he advised provocatively, would touch on fellow-spy Anthony Bacon. If Thomas would allow it, Frizer and Skeres were then to meet him the following Wednesday afternoon (30 May) at Eleanor Bull’s lodging house in Deptford; but he needed them to collect a certain item from St Thomas-a-Watering on the way. Meanwhile, Kit had his own preparations to make.
He knew he was playing a very dangerous game, but, he confides to Thomas, his enemies are closing in and can see no other option.