The Marlowe Society

The Government Agent

The Government Agent

3. Debating Marlowe's Espionage Role

Marlowe had clearly been engaged in an important assignment for the Government and had acquitted himself worthily, and all the evidence of the circumstances strongly suggests that it was in connection with the uncovering of the Babington Plot, which aimed directly at the assassination of Queen Elizabeth and her chief ministers and purposed the enthronement of Mary Queen of Scots as England's Catholic Queen. It was the most daring and dangerous plot conceived to date over which Mendoza, the Spanish Ambassador in Paris, was rubbing his hands with glee!

However, Charles Nicholl, author of The Reckoning1, claims that Marlowe never went to Rheims at all. Yet since the letter states that he did not intend "there to remain", obviously he must have been there!

Nicholl claims that Marlowe's government employment was to do some 'snooping' on his fellow students at Cambridge to find any who were harbouring Catholic Sympathies which might lead them to defect to Rheims and there indulge in plotting with Elizabeth's enemies. That is what he claims constituted "matters touching the benefit of his country", which drew from the Privy Council their letter of commendation and praise from Her Majesty! This does not make sense as 'snooping' and would not justify his well- documented absence from Cambridge.

Several other scholars, less hostile than Nicholl, find it difficult to accept that Marlowe was the discreet, well-behaved, patriotic young man described in the Privy Council's letter of commendation, to whom an important task "touching the benefit of the country" had been entrusted.

English Jesuit College at Rheims

Part of the English Jesuit College at Rheims still exists behind this 17th century façade. William Allen established the seminary here after a similar college at Douai was forced to close in 1578. Richard Baines enrolled that same year, but was imprisoned in May 1582 for being an under-cover English agent. Amongst other allegations was a plot by Baines to inject poison into the college well. The Privy Council's letter to the Cambridge University authorities in June 1587 mentions that "it was reported that Christopher Marlowe was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims, and there to remain."

  • Note 1: Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (Jonathan Cape 1992/revised edition Vintage 2002). Back to Text