There is much speculation about Marlowe’s involvement with Queen Elizabeth’s government. Many scholars theorize that Marlowe was a spy working under the disguise of a young university student.
If the rumors are true, Sir Francies Walsingham would have recruited Marlowe for his intelligence service sometime around 1585. There’s no solid evidence to construct an infallible narrative as to why Marlowe became a spy, but there are two major theories supporting the conjecture.
One theory emerges when we wonder where Marlowe got his money while at Cambridge University. He was a scholarship student, yet appears to have spent far more than his income permitted. Marlowe never published during his lifetime, so his writing did not offer a source of income. In addition to his conspicuous spending, Marlowe was conspicuously absent from university for extended periods of time, notably from July to December 1584, and from July to December 1585. The university was going to deny him his degree but received a letter from Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council
Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims and there to remain, their Lordships’ though 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, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing. (Rutter 8)
His degree was conferred shortly thereafter.
Another theory supporting Marlowe’s career in espionage is based on his suitability. Marlowe was born in Canterbury, a Catholic stronghold even in Elizabethan London; it would be simple to persuade people that he adhered to the “old faith” to get their confidence. His own intelligence and ambition were also qualities that would make him a good spy. Walsingham could’ve felt as if he found the perfect candidate.
Although these theories lead many to believe that Marlowe worked as a secret agent, some scholars suggest that there are completely innocent reasons why Marlowe would have left school for so long. Firstly, while we don’t know the reasoning behind his absences, we do know that many other students were gone for long periods of time as well, and some were away during the same time as Marlowe.
Finally, Marlowe may have absented himself to avoid the 1585 plague in Cambridge.
Speculation about Marlowe’s work as an intelligencer was mostly fueled by rumors. Some said that he had planned to go to Rheims, a French university that had been known to convert
young men to Catholicism and train them for priesthood, with the aim of sending them back to England and helping return the country to the “old faith.”
Marlowe was fatally stabbed in May of 1593, and many speculate that these rumors may have been the cause of such a fate. Much research has been conducted on who was at Marlowe’s death, and what connections can be made. For instance, Marlowe and Ingram Frizer, one of the men present, were both being paid by Thomas Walsingham – cousin of Spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.
In June 1593, Richard Baines, who spied on students from the English College, signed a manuscript blatantly accusing Marlowe of being an atheist – quite a heinous crime for the period.
Almost into every company he cometh he persuades men to atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and his ministers … and as I think all men in Christianity ought to endeavor that the mouth of so dangerous a members may be stopped (Rutter 18)
Park Honan’s theory in Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy suggests that by creating a rumor in which Marlowe was a spy, less attention could have been called to the fact that he was spying on his peers throughout Cambridge – the Richard Baines note was simply a cover-up for a much larger espionage scene.
Interestingly enough, Poley, a man that was in the bar at the time of Marlowe’s death, was known to be a spy working for the Elizabethan government – quite notable at that.
Baines was a significant player in the “Babington Plot,” a plan concocted by Anthony Babington to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. The plan was to assassinate Elizabeth so that Queen Mary of Scots could be released from prison and take her place – bringing Catholicism back to England.
Baines had subsequently told authorities about Babington, and this led to the imprisonment of Queen Mary of Scots.
We will never truly know what “side” Marlowe was working on, or if he really had any strong political goals in mind during his espionage years. His works are steadfastly non-conformist and, regardless of Marlowe’s personal position, offer readers rich insight into sixteenth-century social, political, and theological hypocrisies.