Part Two of Reason 95: Christopher Marlowe and Why Oxford was “Shakespeare”

Christopher Marlowe was one of the “university wits” recruited from Cambridge and Oxford by the Elizabethan government, during the 1580s, to serve as informants or spies for its wartime intelligence service. These young men also worked as secretaries-scribes-writers under the financial support of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who provided them with writing space and materials as well as plots, themes, language and even entire works to be published either anonymously or under names that were either fictitious or their own.

This portrait may be of Christopher Marlowe ... Made in 1585, it was found at Corpus Christi College, where Marlowe was a student that year at age twenty-one

This portrait may be of Christopher Marlowe …
Made in 1585, it was found at Corpus Christi College, where Marlowe was a student that year at age twenty-one

“During his studies at Cambridge,” Daryl Pinksen writes in Marlowe’s Ghost: The Blacklisting of the Man Who was Shakespeare (2008), “perhaps as early as 1585, Marlowe was recruited into the English secret service headed at that time by Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham.” Records indicate a “marked increase of spending” as if he “suddenly had a new source of income” and “frequent absences from Cambridge beginning in 1585 for longer and longer periods, also consistent with work as an intelligence agent …

Francis Walsingham  Secretary of State and England's Spymaster

Francis Walsingham
Secretary of State and
England’s Spymaster

“Lord Burghley, England’s Lord Treasurer – and the de facto head of the Privy Council, the governing body of England – was also Chancellor of Cambridge, and worked closely with Walsingham in directing and funding intelligence operations. During Marlowe’s years at Cambridge it is likely he made numerous trips, perhaps to the continent, at the behest of Walsingham and Burghley to spy for his country.”

William Cecil  Lord Burghley

William Cecil
Lord Burghley

Marlowe received a Bachelor’s degree in 1584, but a few years later Cambridge authorities heard rumors that he was collaborating with Catholic enemies of Queen Elizabeth. The whispers of treason, Pinksen suggests, had been “instigated by Marlowe himself as part of an effort to entrap Catholic sympathizers, part of a mandate given him by Walsingham and Burghley.” So when the university hesitated to give Marlowe his Master’s degree in 1587, the Council sent a written command to confer it upon him because he had “done her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing.”

“In the fast-expanding arena of Elizabethan espionage, writers were an obvious source of recruits,” explains Charles Nicholl in The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. “They were intelligent, educated, observant young men. They knew the international language, Latin, and the literary tastes of the day gave them a good smattering of French and Italian.” They were geographically and socially mobile, as well as continually in need of cash, so “it is perhaps not surprising that a number of Elizabethan writers crop up in the files of the intelligence services, both foreign and domestic. They are remembered as poets, pamphleteers and playwrights, but down there in the reality of their lives they had to profess other skills if they were to survive.”

Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere
17th Earl of Oxford

Nicholl mentions writers such as Anthony Munday and John Lyly, both working from the late 1570s as Edward de Vere’s private secretaries, and he devotes a single chapter to “another poet glimpsed in the secret world of the 1580s … an elusive and engaging figure” – Thomas Watson, who was “a close friend of Marlowe” as well as of Lyly and others. Watson also worked under the patronage of Oxford, to whom in 1582 he dedicated Hekatompathia, or the Passionate Century of Love , a 100-sonnet sequence that the earl had “favorably perused” when it was “as yet but in written hand.”

There is increasing evidence that many if not all of the works attributed to Thomas Watson were in fact written by the earl himself; but for Reason 95 the point is that Watson can be viewed as one of many “intermediaries” linking Oxford and Marlowe by just one “degree of separation” – making the odds overwhelmingly in favor of Edward de Vere and Christopher Marlowe not only knowing each other but working together on plays such as Tamburlaine the Great, Parts One and Two and on poems such as Hero and Leander. But it would not have been an equal relationship; Lord Oxford, being some fourteen years Marlowe’s senior, would have been guiding the younger man in various ways.

In 1564, the year of Christopher Marlowe’s birth, Oxford received his honorary degree from Cambridge at fourteen; in 1575, when Marlowe turned eleven, Oxford was twenty-five and spending a year in Italy; and in 1581, when Marlowe entered Cambridge at seventeen, Oxford, at thirty-one, was already recruiting young disciples who, during wartime, would help achieve the great renaissance of English literature and drama leading up to “Shakespeare” in the 1590s. The truth about Marlowe becomes clear only when viewed within the context of the crucial chapter of England’s history in which he appears; and it begins with Oxford’s pivotal role at the center of those former and current students who helped create a new language, a new cultural and national identity, leading to a strong sense of English pride and patriotic fervor.

Philip II of Spain

Philip II of Spain

England’s naval forces turned back King Philip’s armada of 150 ships carrying 30,000 troops intent on conquering the island nation, crushing the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance and overturning the Protestant Reformation. If any single aspect of English life created the immediate, fertile ground from which “Shakespeare” sprang, it was that prolonged expectation of the dreaded invasion. Once the Anglo-Spanish war became official in 1584, the arrival of the armada loomed ever closer; and during the crucial four years that followed, Burghley and Walsingham were determined to employ “the media” – books, pamphlets, ballads, speeches and, above all, plays (especially plays of royal history) promoting unity in the face of religious and political conflicts threatening to render England too weak to survive.

The phenomenon of “Shakespeare” involves not only the solitary figure of Edward de Vere; it includes an array of those other figures who wrote works for him or with him or who even simply lent their names to creations that were entirely his. These others contribute to a body of work that is much larger than the high priests of academia have allowed “Shakespeare” to claim. As we should expect in the case of the world’s greatest and most influential writer in English, or perhaps in any other language, his labors ripple out to include a vast body of translation as well as original poetry, prose, stage works, dramatic literature, song lyrics, musical compositions, political tracts – all presented anonymously or under different names of real persons living or dead and, too, of fictitious persons whose “biographies” are skimpy and tentative at best.

England defeats the Spanish Armada - 1588

England defeats the Spanish Armada – 1588

Christopher Marlowe fits into this picture as one of Oxford’s satellite figures who may – or may not! – have contributed his own literary labors to anonymous works such as Tamburlaine. (All works later attributed to Marlowe were either unpublished or anonymous during his brief lifetime until 1593.) This work, actually two separate plays, could well have been written much earlier by a much younger Oxford, who could have given it to Marlowe (who was twenty-three in 1587) to work on; and it was performed on the public stage before the armada sailed in 1588. The speeches roused audiences to a fever pitch; the character of Tamburlaine, according to Frederick Boas, seemed to Englishmen to embody Philip of Spain himself. He is, after all, a tyrant calling himself master of the lands and seas, confident he will conquer “all the ocean by the British shore” and that “by this means I’ll win the world at last!”

tamburlaine poster

Such arrogant confidence and raging, bloodthirsty ambition might well have served to further alarm Englishmen over the danger they faced from Philip II of Spain and, thereby, might have further motivated them to join together to defeat the armada.

Part Three will continue this story, explaining in more detail how Christopher Marlowe contributes to the evidence that “Shakespeare” was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

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