The Marlowe Society

The Government Agent

The Government Agent

2. Good Service & Rheims

Marlowe's first important assignment as a secret agent was probably in 1584/5, after he had successfully gained his BA (a hurdle many students evaded or failed), and when his normally constant residence at his college was suddenly interrupted by lengthy absences. We have the invaluable records of the college buttery and audit books to confirm this. The weekly one shilling stipend for the purchase of extra food and drink at the buttery bar was not collected, and the Audit book records all presences and absences term by term, covering also the vacations, for the students were required to remain at college all year except for the summer vacation.

Contemporaneous with Marlowe's absences was the plotting of the most dangerous conspiracy yet hatched, the Babington Plot, which was conceived at the Catholic Seminary at Rheims run by Cardinal Allen. Students who were not Catholics were also admitted there, probably in the hope of converting them, and the rumour spread at Cambridge that Christopher Marlowe had gone to Rheims as a Catholic convert. When this reached the ears of the Cambridge authorities they decided to withhold permission for him to receive his MA degree. In dismay it appears that Marlowe appealed to the Privy Council to intervene and clear his name, which they did, and handsomely, in the following letter1 dated 29 June 1587:

"Whereas it was reported that Christopher Marlowe was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims, and there to remain, their Lordships thought good to certify that he had no such intent, but that in all his actions he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly, whereby he had done Her Majesty good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing. Their Lordships' request was that the rumour thereof should be allayed by all possible means, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement, because it was not Her Majesty's pleasure that anyone employed, as he had been, in matters touching the benefit of his country, should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th' affairs he went about."

The letter is signed by:-

  • Lord Archbishop (of Canterbury), John Whitgift;
  • The Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley;
  • The Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton;
  • The Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon;
  • Mr. Comptroller, Sir James Croft.

The Queen is mentioned twice, citing her personal interest in this young man's attainment of his MA without hindrance from the authorities who are "ignorant of th' affairs he went about," and testifies that he had done good service and "deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing". This letter is unique in the annals of Elizabethan espionage records.