According to Paul Hyland, the poet and dramatist, Christopher Marlowe was a member of "a collection of thinkers, tightly knit or loosely grouped, whose passion was to explore the world and the mind". The group included the geographers, Richard Hakluyt and Robert Hues, the astrologer, Thomas Harriot, the mathematicians, Thomas Allen and Walter Warner, and the writers, Thomas Kyd, George Chapman and Matthew Roydon. The men would either meet at the homes of Walter Raleigh, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland. (1)
It has been claimed that these men were atheists. In reality they were sceptics (someone who doubts the authenticity of accepted beliefs). For example, at various times the Earl of Oxford was quoted as saying the Bible was "only... to hold men in obedience, and was man's device" and "that the blessed virgin made a fault... and that Joseph was a wittol (cuckold). Oxford did not believe in heaven and hell and declared "that after this life we should be as we had never been and the rest was devised but to make us afraid like babes and children of our shadows". (2)
Robert Persons, a Catholic priest, published Responsio. Published first in Latin, over the next two years it went through eight editions in four languages. It included an attack on Raleigh's group. "There is a flourishing and well known school of Atheism which Sir Walter Raleigh runs in his house, with a certain necromancer as teacher." It then went on to predict that some day an edict might appear in the Queen's name in which belief in God would be denied. Persons claimed that this information came from testimony from "such as live with him, and others that see their lives". He also alleged that William Cecil and other Privy Councillors lived as "mere atheists, and laughing at other men's simplicity in that behalf". (3)
It has been argued that Raleigh was "prone to expressions of rational scepticism, a potentially dangerous trait given the company he sometimes kept and his inclination towards discussion and debate". He was also known to be in contact with other freethinkers such as Marlowe, Harriot and Hakluyt but Robert Persons was unable to provide any hard evidence against Raleigh. (4)
It has been argued that while at university Christopher Marlowe developed an interest in atheism. Marlowe wrote that "the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe" and his advice "not to be afraid of bugbears and goblins" came from his reading of "Ovid, Lucretius, Polybius and Livy". (5) In one of his plays, Jew of Malta, Marlowe wrote: "I count religion but a childish toy". (6)
Richard Baines, a government spy, later reported that Christopher Marlowe was definitely an atheist. He claimed that he definitely heard Marlowe say that "Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest". He also said that Marlowe once remarked that "if he were put to write a new religion, he would undertake both a more excellent and admirable method". Finally, he stated that Jesus Christ was a homosexual and "St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ... and that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma". (7)
In the autumn of 1592, Thomas Drury, was interviewed by the authorities about his knowledge of this atheist plot. He made a statement that revealed details about what Richard Cholmeley had told him about figures such as Christopher Marlowe, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Charles Howard and William Cecil. Drury claimed that Cholmeley made accusations against most of the leaders in the government. (8) One of his most important claims was that Marlowe "is able to show more sound reasons for atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity, and that Marlowe told him, he hath read the atheist lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others". (9)
On his deathbed, Robert Greene, admitted that he once was like Marlowe "a scoffer at religion" and had denied the existence of God. He had finally repented and urged Marlowe and other Tudor dramatists to turn aside from this "diabolical atheism". He warned Marlowe to repent while there is still time, for "little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited." (10)
In March 1593, Walter Raleigh upset Queen Elizabeth and her Privy Council, by making a speech in the House of Commons against proposed legislation to enforce religious conformity, aimed at both Catholic and Puritan dissenters. "He (Rayleigh) denounced the bill as inquisitorial, an invasion into realms of private opinion and belief that neither could, nor should, be policed." As Charles Nicholl pointed out, his opponents said he was "arguing against religious enforcement in order to protect his own illicit belief: atheism. His plea for tolerance becomes a weapon to use against him, an instance of his own non-conformity." (11)
It is believed that the authorities decided to deal with the people they considered to be atheists. Richard Baines, a government spy, provided information to the Privy Council about his activities. (12) On 20th May 1593 Christopher Marlowe was arrested and charged with blasphemy and treason. His friend, Thomas Kyd, was also taken into custody and after being tortured he made a confession where he claimed that "it was his (Marlowe) custom… to jest at the divine scriptures and strive in argument to frustrate and confute what hath been spoken or written by prophets and such holy men". He also suggested that Marlowe had talked about Jesus Christ and St. John as bedfellows. (13)
Marlowe was allowed bail, on condition that he report daily to the Star Chamber. On the 30th May, 1593, Marlowe was drinking in a tavern in Deptford with Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. The four men walked in the garden before having a meal together. Frizer had originally said he would pay for the food but later changed his mind. During the argument that followed Frizer stabbed Marlowe above the eyeball. The blade entered Marlowe's brain, killing him instantly. (14)
An Inquest was held on 1st June. William Danby, Coroner for the Queen's Household, presided over the Inquest. In doing so, he acted illegally, since the country coroner was required to be on hand, according to statutory law. (15) According to the report by Danby, "Marlowe suddenly and of malice... unsheathed the dagger... and there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram Fritzer two wounds on his head of the length of two inches and of the depth of a quarter of an inch." Danby claimed that Frizer, "in fear of being slain and sitting on the aforesaid bench between Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley so that he was not able to withdraw in any way, in his own defence and to save his life... gave the aforesaid Christopher Marlowe then and there a mortal wound above his right eye of the depth of two inches." (16)
David Riggs has questioned this account: "Since the scalp consists of skin and bone, Frizer's wounds can hardly have been a quarter of an inch deep, nor does Coroner Danby say that Marlowe attacked his companion with the point of his knife. The deposition rather indicates that Marlowe (or someone) pummelled Fritzer's scalp with the hilt of his dagger. This was a common practice in Elizabethan brawls and it had a precise connotation. Pummelling meant that you intended to hurt, but not to kill your adversary. Had Marlowe wanted to kill Fritzer, he would have stabbed him in the back of the neck. Fritzer's scalp wounds were the result of a beating rather than a stabbing." (17)
It was later claimed that Frizer, Skeres and Poley were all government agents. (18) Poley had worked for Sir Francis Walsingham and was a key figure in uncovering the Babington Plot. (19) As well as being spies, Frizer and Skeres, were both involved in money-lending swindles. (20) "Poley, Skerres and Frizer were used to operating in teams and had worked with one another before. They had practical experience in manipulating the law; they knew how to fabricate a trial narrative and maintain it under interrogation." (21)
On 1st July 1593 Frizer was found not guilty of murder for reasons of self defence. (22) Queen Elizabeth pardoned Frizer just two weeks later, a remarkably brief interview for a capital offence. In normal circumstances, people responsible for the death of another individual, would be kept in prison for a much longer period. (23)
Paul Hyland, the author of Raleigh's Last Journey (2003), has suggested that Marlowe was murdered because he was suspected of being about to provide evidence against Walter Raleigh: "Marlowe had had a choice that fatal day at Deptford: to betray Raleigh or be gagged for good. Several gentleman slept more easily once he was dead." (24)
M. J. Trow, the author of Who Killed Kit Marlowe? (2001) argues that government spies such as Richard Cholmeley had discovered evidence that William Cecil and other government figures were "sound atheists", and that Marlowe was killed as part of a cover-up of this fact. (25)
Another theory is discussed by Charles Nicholl in his book, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992). "The affray was a blind: the body that was viewed by the coroner's jury was someone else's. Marlowe was spirited out of the country, and thereafter dedicated his life to writing plays. These plays went out under the nom de plume of William Shakespeare. They contain many acrostics and anagrams that prove they are Marlowe's, but people still go on thinking they are by Shakespeare." (26)
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 "licensed to the contrary"...
The case against Marlowe was probably further strengthened by Kyd. Although his statement of Marlowe's "monstrous opinions" was certainly written down after Marlowe's death, it doubtless echoes what Kyd told his interrogators in mid-May.
Christopher Marlowe suddenly and of malice... unsheathed the dagger... and there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram Fritzer two wounds on his head of the length of two inches and of the depth of a quarter of an inch... In fear of being slain and sitting on the aforesaid bench between Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley so that he was not able to withdraw in any way, in his own defence and to save his life... gave the aforesaid Christopher Marlowe then and there a mortal wound above his right eye of the depth of two inches.
Since the scalp consists of skin and bone, Frizer's wounds can hardly have been a quarter of an inch deep, nor does Coroner Danby say that Marlowe attacked his companion with the point of his knife. The deposition rather indicates that Marlowe (or someone) pummelled Fritzer's scalp with the hilt of his dagger. This was a common practice in Elizabethan brawls and it had a precise connotation. Pummelling meant that you intended to hurt, but not to kill your adversary. Had Marlowe wanted to kill Fritzer, he would have stabbed him in the back of the neck. Fritzer's scalp wounds were the result of a beating rather than a stabbing.