Dial M For Marlowe

South-east London’s most mysterious murder may not have been murder at all, or so goes one of many theories on the life and death of the poet and playwright, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).

The wildest of them has Marlowe fake his death in a Deptford guest house before escaping to France to produce the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, along with Wang Chung’s 1986 hit, Everybody Have Fun Tonight.

Christopher Marlowe
It was acceptable in the 80s

The Coroner’s Report states he was fatally stabbed by Ingram Frizer, in self-defence, following a row over the bill. But the two witnesses were spies, and therefore, professional liars. Frizer also had form in the fibs department and may also have had reason to want him out of the way. Marlowe was staying with Frizer’s client, Thomas Walsingham, and Marlowe’s reputation as a bawdy, drunken atheist could have damaged his business interests. So might his alleged rogering of Walsingham, up the Chislehurst, of all places.

Marlowe was already effectively out on bail, as investigations continued into allegations of heresy and blasphemy. Atheism was a dangerous belief in the 16th Century, close to treason. People couldn’t quite get their head round it and thought it ‘anti-God’. As if atheists really did believe in an omnipotent, supernatural creator, but just thought He was a knob.

Marlowe had also been a spy. And there are plenty of reasons for bumping off spies, all just as plausible as a fight over who ordered the fruits of the forest cheesecake.

Deptford

In tracing the footsteps of Kit Marlowe, we started at the end.

‘You can tell the football season’s over,’ opined Deserter ex-squeeze, Roxy. ‘This is the second literary walk in a week.’

Indeed, after a giddy afternoon ‘helping’ research The Ballad of Peckham Rye, I expected attendance to suffer. Today it was only me and Rox and she only came because she’d run out of gear.

‘When did you lot become book cunts, anyway?’

‘After the Champions League Final,’ I told her. ‘What are we supposed to do? Talk about feelings?’

Welcome to church
Welcome to church

We met at St Nicholas’ Church in Deptford, where Marlowe (if it was him) is buried in an unmarked grave. He’d spent all day at Eleanor Bull’s house, a sort of private pub – not open to the public, exactly, but someone’s home where you could eat, nap and drink all day with friends. Sounds lush. I say bring them back, though without the head stabbing, thanks.

The account of the brawl that led to Marlowe’s death didn’t sound terribly convincing, but Frizer was given a swift pardon by the Queen and went back to work for Walsingham, whose bessie mate he had just killed. It must have made for an interesting Employee Appraisal that year.

Marlowe was being investigated by the Privy Council at the time and, though he had escaped previous brushes with the law, including accusations of murder and counterfeiting coins, he must have been terrified that the future promised gaol and torture, like many of us are of a Monday morning.

After visiting the plaque that commemorates him, we headed towards Deptford Strand, the riverside site of Mrs Bull’s house. Roxy insisted on a detour to the Dog & Bell, despite my vehemence that there was no proof it was a pub in Marlowe’s day.

‘It’s what he would have wanted,’ said Roxy, supping a pint of Finchcock’s Original.

She may have been right. Anthony Burgess wrote of him in the fictional A Dead Man In Deptford: ‘He ate little, but drank much and vomited proportionally.’

Marlowe was also a keen smoker, being a pal of fellow alleged atheist Sir Walter Raleigh, who had just brought the stuff over from the New World, with little idea what he had started. Consequently, we had to stop in Upper Pepys Park and honour them both with a biftoire.

Pepys park pot spot
Pepys Park pot spot

‘Booze, boys and baccy,’ sighed Roxy. ‘My kind of writer.’

Simultaneously calmed and excited, it was time to stare at water. From the Strand we could see the Old Royal Naval College, where, in its previous incarnation as Greenwich Palace, Marlowe had reported daily while the Privy Council figured out a way to punish him for being a clever clogs.

Our last stop in SE8 was The Bird’s Nest, previously lauded on Deserter as the Best Pub on a Roundabout, and once the site of Deptford Theatre. Its claim to have some connection to Marlowe is feasible, back when the pub sat next to the theatre and was known as the Oxford Arms. Happily, it remains dedicated to booze and the arts, though mostly of the noisy, punky variety. It’s opposition to orthodoxy seemed refreshingly appropriate on a Marlowe stroll.

For the sake of completeness, we went on to the Naval College, where quite possibly Marlowe began his final walk, along the river to his doom in Deptford. If The Old Brewery had been there then, we would like to think he would have stopped, had a drink and smoked on the lawn whilst composing a couplet.

Predictably, I began quoting Marlowe:

‘Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove…’

‘Get me a sodding pint and skin up and I’ll think about it,’ interrupted Roxy, without the slightest intention of thinking about it.

Scadbury

At the time of his death, or living end, Marlowe was staying at Scadbury, the Walsingham estate. I was astonished to find it was only 8 miles from Deptford, in leafy Chislehurst, Kent. While little remains of Walsingham’s moated manor house, the grounds have become Scadbury Park, a lovely 300-acre nature reserve of ancient woods and grasslands. Some eejits believe the remains are haunted. It’s a dreamy place to pause, with the scents you only get in old woods and the constant birdsong. Roxy described it as a ‘fucking racket’ and hastened me towards the exit, where we found the Sydney Arms, a pub that looks like it was once pretty but has had too much work, like a pouty actor. Sadly, I could only date the pub back to the 18th Century, so we only stayed for one. Or two.

Scadbury Park
Just a load of old trees

At Chislehurst Common though, there are several more boozers including the 18th century Tiger’s Head on the site of a 15th century pub that was owned by the Walsinghams. It’s hard to imagine Kit didn’t have a drink there before watching the cockfighting on the common. Today, you can celebrate his poetic spirit with their gourmet chicken burger.

Dulwich

One of Marlowe’s great friends in the theatre was Edward Alleyn, the renowned actor who played the lead role in many of his plays. Alleyn was also a successful businessman, part-owning several theatres and bear pits and possibly brothels. With this fortune he founded the College of God’s Gift, at Dulwich, inspired by Marlowe’s experiences at school in Canterbury, where he, a shoe maker’s son, won a scholarship to Cambridge. The college began life as a school for the education of poor scholars, a tradition that was honoured well into the twentieth century, by which time it had become Dulwich College. It produced such comedy giants as PG Wodehouse and Nigel Farage.

The college has a Day House named after Marlowe, making it a genuine Marlowe tour destination, but given the nearby Dulwich Village has zero pubs, we thought Kit would not approve. Furthermore, Roxy said: ‘Balls to that,’ when I suggested it.

Bankside

The sight of London to my exiled eyes,
Is as Elizium to a new come soule.

Christopher Marlowe, Edward II

We didn’t make it to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner where there is a memorial to Marlowe, giving the dates of his life as 1564-?1593. Shame, as St Stephen’s Tavern is always worth a visit, even if it is in the north. We kept it south, in Bankside.

Built by Alleyn’s father-in-law, Philip Henslowe, The Rose Theatre put on several of Marlowe’s plays, including Doctor Faustus, a play which summons the Devil to the stage, spooking and thrilling audiences that had never seen anything like it, like an Elizabethan Channel 4. Southwark was the heart of louche London then, with theatres, animal baiting and whore houses all over the shop. The pious thought theatre immoral and it was banished from the City of London, suggesting that it has always been full of arseholes, as suspected. The church in Southwark, by contrast, ran the brothels.

Excavation of The Rose
Excavation of The Rose

The Rose was excavated late last century and its remains are open to the public. There’s no bar, so we left immediately and had one outside The Swan, with its stunning view of St Paul’s and the Thames, next to The Globe.

The oldest tavern on Bankside though, is The Anchor, now a tourist Mecca for those wanting to experience an authentic British pub with prices from the future. It’s still a lush place to have a riverside pint, especially in winter when you can do so without half the world for company. In Marlowe’s day it was called the Castle-on-the-Hoop and was also a licensed stew (brothel). There, we drank to his bones, wherever they may lay.

It felt strangely noble following the echoes of such a powerful, fearless, groundbreaking writer who liked booze and fags and offered his middle finger to the mighty and Almighty. Doubtless his death was suspicious, but the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory still seems outlandish. And anyway, we had come to praise him, not bury him.

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Image Credit: The Rose Theatre by David Sim via Creative Commons

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