Richard Cholmeley

Richard Cholmeley, the younger brother of Sir Hugh Cholmeley, of Malpas, Cheshire, was born in about 1560. The evidence suggests that he was employed by Robert Cecil and the Privy Council as an anti-Catholic agent in about 1591. (1)

Cholmeley told his friends that he was involved in the "apprehension of papists and other dangerous men". (2) Charles Nicholl, the author of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) claims that agents such as "Richard Cholmeley, emerge as pseudo-Catholics, using their origins and connections to entrap Catholics." (3)

Cholmeley had informed on a friend, Thomas Drury, and accused him of being a Catholic subversive. In May 1591 Drury was arrested and imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. (4) His lodgings were searched and certain documents were found that suggested he was guilty of treason. (5)

Richard Cholmeley - Double-Agent

David Riggs has argued that Cholmeley "worked on the margin where state service intersected with double-dealing and sedition". He was later accused of supplying the Privy Council "with information about recusants, while using the Council's warrant to extort money from his victims". Cholmeley's reputation was so bad that Cecil refused to meet with him in public. (6)

In 1592 Sir Hugh Cholmeley wrote to Cecil warning about his brother's actions accusing him of "conceit of hatred". Another agent, Richard Baines, claimed that Cholmeley was now an atheist and the leader of a political gang of sixty followers. He went on to argue that this group believed there will soon be "as many of their opinion as of any other religion". These were men of "resolute murdering minds" whose aim was to murder Queen Elizabeth and to "crown one of themselves as king and live by their own laws". (7)

Atheist Plot

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 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 Christopher 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)

Roderigo Lopez
Christopher Marlowe by unknown artist (c. 1585)

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." (10)

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. (11)

Death of Christopher Marlowe

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. (12)

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. (13) 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." (14)

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." (15)

It was later claimed that Frizer, Skeres and Poley were all government agents. (16) Poley had worked for Sir Francis Walsingham and was a key figure in uncovering the Babington Plot. (17) As well as being spies, Frizer and Skeres, were both involved in money-lending swindles. (18) "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." (19)

Cholmeley was arrested on 28th June, 1593. He was tortured so that he would reveal the names of other members of his "sect". As he was being led away he shouted: "I do know the law, and when it comes to pass I can shift well enough." (20) According to Park Honan, the author of Christopher Marlowe - Poet and Spy (2005) "the sect... of sixty, turned out to be just four men, all of whom at one time or another had been government spies or turncoat Catholics." (21)

Richard Cholmeley disappeared from the public record after entering prison and his ultimate fate is unknown.

Primary Sources

(1) Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe - Poet and Spy (2005)

Richard Cholmely is one of the keys to this story. He is an ambiguous character: he served the government as an anti-Catholic agent, yet he himself professed wildly seditious and atheistic views. But there is nothing ambiguous about his reported statement concerning Marlowe. It amounts to a charge much more pointed than Greene's: not just that Marlowe held "athestic" views, but that he was an active propagandist of them. This document was in the government's hands in May, and this talk of Marlowe giving an atheist "lecture" may have connected in their minds with the heretical "disputation" found in Kyds's room. page 52-53

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(1) Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) page 330

(2) Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe - Poet and Spy (2005) page 127

(3) Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) page 330

(4) David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004) page 320

(5) Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) page 332

(6) David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004) page 320

(7) Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe - Poet and Spy (2005) page 337

(8) Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) page 330-332

(9) Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe - Poet and Spy (2005) page 337

(10) Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) pages 361-362

(11) David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004) page 152

(12) Paul Hyland, Ralegh's Last Journey (2003) page 68

(13) Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe - Poet and Spy (2005) page 354

(14) Inquest into the death of Christopher Marlowe (1st June, 1593)

(15) David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004) page 333

(16) John Leslie Hotson, The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925) page 65

(17) William Urry, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (1988) page 68

(18) Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (2002), pages 26-30

(19) David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004) page 331

(20) Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (2002), page 342

(21) Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe - Poet and Spy (2005) page 338