The Massacre at Paris
Sources: Marlowe's Own Experience?
One wonders whether any of Marlowe's own experience provided input into the play, especially with the tantalising appearance of the "English Agent" in the final scene. The Agent has no lines in the extant play text, but is summoned to Henry III's death-bed to take a message to Queen Elizabeth.
There are records of Marlowe's activities which suggest strongly that he was at least involved in a minor way with the Elizabethan secret service. Whilst at University he may well have spent some time at the seminary in Rheims as an English undercover agent. That is certainly one interpretation from the letter that the privy council were moved to write to Cambridge University regarding allegations that the student had spent time in Rheims, assuring the University authorities of Marlowe's "faithful dealing", and that "he had done Her Majesty good service."1 Marlowe is again seemingly involved in espionage activities in Flushing in January 1592, and a similar view might be taken of his acquaintance with Robert Poley, a regular carrier of important diplomatic correspondence, in the fateful gathering in Deptford on 30 May 1593.
Julia Briggs quotes English diplomatic correspondence sent back to the Queen by William Lyly, who worked for the English Ambassador in France, Sir Edward Stafford, from 1583 to 1590, with a message from the French King Henry III prior to his death: "I am sure the Queen, your mistress, will be sorry for this, but I hope it shall quickly be healed, and so I pray write unto her for me."2 Briggs sees3 a similarity with the message that Henry requests the English Agent deliver to Elizabeth in Marlowe's play before he knows that his wound is fatal: "Tell her for all this, that I hope to live" [XXIV.57]. On the other hand, this sentiment may well have been hinted at by other sources.
If Marlowe was involved in the espionage services, even on a part time basis, it is possible that he made (other) journeys into France. The Earl of Essex commanded an English force that headed to Dieppe and was then involved in the siege of Rouen in 1591-2 alongside the army of Henry IV. Messengers would have been needed to carry correspondence to and from England. A letter written on 17 March 1592 by Sir Henry Unton4, Queen Elizabeth's Ambassador to Henry IV, is recorded as being carried back from Dieppe to Burghley in England by one "Mr Marlin". This Marlin has carried a letter to Unton from the English forces complaining of an urgent lack of victuals on "her Majesties pinasses", delivering it on 16 March, and Unton is worried that if victuals cannot be supplied soon, the ships may be forced to return to England. Unton forwards the original complaint (which has not survived) to Burghley, and adds a covering letter of his own, via the same messenger Marlin: "this bearer also they send, by whom I thought good to write to your Lordship..."5 Marlin is an established variant of Christopher Marlowe's surname, although it is highly unlikely that it is him.6
Sir Francis Walsingham himself was in Paris at the time of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. He was sent by Elizabeth on a diplomatic mission to negotiate alongside the Huguenots with Charles IX, and soon after became Ambassador to France. He had regular contact with Joan of Navarre during the wedding negotiations prior to her death, and his house in Paris became a refuge for some during the Massacre itself. However, there is no evidence that Marlowe had the kind of direct relationship with Sir Francis that might have facilitated the sharing of recollections about those events.
These are intriguing connections, but on balance we can say no more than that the content of Marlowe's play is based on information that was available in the contemporary sources cited by Kocher.
- Note 1: PRO PC2/14/381. The letter is dated 29 June 1587. See a transcript at Peter Farey's site. Back to Text
- Note 2: Calendar of State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth XXIII, 394 (22 July/1 Aug. 1589: William Lyly to the Queen). Back to Text
- Note 3: [Briggs] p.271 footnote 38. Back to Text
- Note 4: See brief biographies of Unton at the Tudor Place and Royal Berkshire History websites. Back to Text
- Note 5: The extant letter from Unton is transcribed in [Stevenson] (letter CCVII pp.388-390). The suggestion that this Mr Marlin might be Christopher Marlowe was first made by [Henderson] in a letter to TLS in 1953. Back to Text
- Note 6: [Nicholl] p.340: Charles Nicholl's research finds this reference is almost certainly to a sea captain, William Marlin or Mallyne, who was paid 100s by Burghley on 23 March 1592 for bringing letters from France, and a week later returned to Dieppe with letters from the same. Back to Text