The Marlowe Society

Death in Deptford

Death in Deptford

6. Conspiracy Theories

A Marlowe/ Shakespeare Debate Page

The two main conspiracy theories are either that Marlowe's killing was a government sponsored assassination, or that his death was faked.

An Assassination?

Marlowe was involved as a secret service agent in the dark Elizabethan world of spying, double-dealing, disguise, plotting and political assassination. His death, viewed in this light, would apparently make more sense. However, to accept this motive for his murder we have to make a plausible attempt at identifying both the real murderers or authors of the plot, and the reasons why they wanted Marlowe out of the way.

It is, of course, absolutely certain that there was secret service involvement in the plot, and this accounts for the group of extraordinary personalities that gathered together that day in Deptford. Only Frizer is not known to have had any specific secret service connections, but, of course, his master, Thomas Walsingham was a master spy in his own right, and Frizer would be there to do his master's bidding.

The next question that has to be asked is whether the secret service involvement was professional or private. In other words, were the events at Deptford the result of government orders to the secret service (or at least the orders of one political faction) or were individuals using their own initiative, adopting secret service methods?

It is difficult to imagine what the Privy Council or those members of it most actively involved with the secret service such as Lord Burghley, his son Robert Cecil, and the Earl of Essex, could have gained by their involvement in an assassination plot. Marlowe was already a doomed man, and could easily carry his secrets to the grave. Perhaps there may have been a fear that certain shady transactions might have been revealed under torture but these too could have been hushed up? Moreover such a ham-fisted method of disposing of him would have provoked more sensation and notice than a quiet dagger in the back in the street on a dark night, which was a more usual secret service mode of operating.

Thomas Walsingham almost certainly had links with the circle of freethinkers that grouped themselves around Sir Walter Raleigh, the "Wizard" Earl of Northumberland, and Ferdinando, Lord Strange, and which we know now as The School of Night. Rumours of atheism, heresy, and black magic that gathered around them indicate how the ignorant came to regard their insatiable quest for knowledge and debate. Marlowe, as a member, would have known their secrets, and had they had something to hide might have revealed it under torture. However, the idea of murdering Marlowe to protect themselves seems totally out of character, and would surely have never been accepted by this brave band of free-thinking pioneers. Nevertheless the idea cannot be totally dismissed.

Finally we have briefly to examine the idea of a secret service punitive killing, directed against a betrayer or double-dealer. For this to be a possibility Walsingham himself has to become an arch double-dealer, inveigling his friend into a false sense of security and then killing him. However, the secret murder in the street on a dark night or even a typical Renaissance poisoning would have been far more appropriate and easy to hush up.

Clearly a secret service assassination required skill and guile, born of long experience; this plot exhibited neither.