One of the most popular theories surrounding Marlowe’s life is that he was employed as a spy under the supervision of Sir Francis Walsingham, and may also have worked with Thomas Walsingham after his elder relative’s death. Although Marlowe was employed by Sir Francis Walsingham in the 1580’s, and had close association with Thomas Walsingham, who was also involved in Elizabethan intelligence, the nature of Marlowe’s service to England was not specified by the council.
The argument that he was a spy is based on his good reputation with his school despite his lack of attendance:
Surviving Cambridge records from the period show that Marlowe had several lengthy absences from the university, much longer than allowed by the school’s regulations. Dining room accounts indicate that he spent lavishly on food and drink while there, greater amounts than he could have afforded on his known scholarship income. Both of these could point to a secondary source of income, such as secret government work. (Biography.com).
The other argument supporting the theory that Marlowe was a spy is that he was able to graduate on time despite his many absences due to a “council’s letter [that] clearly suggests that Marlowe was serving the government in some capacity” (Biography.com). However, this does not mean that he was an informant, he could have been serving the crown in another capacity that did not have to be revealed publicly.
However, the fact that he was often absent from the university, plus the evidence that ate and dressed lavishly, does not suggest that he was indeed, a spy. If he was living so well as a spy and making so much progress, then why would he give up that lifestyle to become a meager playwright? Despite the “scant hard evidence and rampant speculation, the mystery surrounding Marlowe’s service to the queen is likely to remain active. Spy or not, after attaining his master’s degree, Marlowe moved to London and took up writing full-time” (Biography.com).
In reality, this bodes the opposite idea, considering that the life of a spy in Elizabethan England was not as glamorous as we might imagine. It was a stressful responsibility that weighed on the shoulders of those who were responsible for delivering information to the Crown. They had to make sure that the information was reliable or else they would be in eminent danger along with their family members, and as much as we might want to believe that the Crown paid generously for spy services, it was not the case. In fact, most the people who wanted to work for the Crown were struggling university students who saw this alternative as a way to wealth and fame, but they were highly disappointed:
Many spies were ambitious undergraduates recruited from Oxford and Cambridge who saw this as a route to fame and fortune. But the reality was quite different. Long journeys, low pay and the logistical difficulties of delivering information meant that, unless involved in a high-profile success, the work of a spy was often thankless and mundane. More challenging was the area of intelligence-gathering. This kind of work included travelling abroad to gather information on national security. (Alexandra Briscoe, BBC)
Due to insufficient evidence to support this theory or lack thereof, it is safe to say that it is not well-founded. The facts show that Marlowe was involved with people who worked close to the Crown, but they do not necessarily suggest that he was a secret agent of any sort. But if you’d like to read more about Marlowe’s reputation as a spy, please see our Espionage exhibit.