Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

The Official Story

Portrait: Christopher Marlowe, age 21
Portrait: Christopher Marlowe,
age 21

It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

"As You Like It" Act III, scene 2

May 31, 1593. A widow's house in Deptford, three miles from London. She rents rooms for meetings, and provides food and drink to those who wish to spend the day in contemplation. It is just after six in the evening, the sun not yet set, the room suffused in a pale, golden light. Supper is over. In a matter of minutes, Christopher Marlowe will be dead.

Three of the men are seated on a bench, "cheek by jowl," as one of them is to report later, in front of a trestle table. They are playing an Elizabethan version of backgammon. The only other furniture in the beamed, dark, low-ceiling room is a bed, upon which the fourth man, recovering from too much wine, is reclining. One of the men at the table, the one sitting in the middle of the three, says, over his shoulder, that the bill for their day's food and drink must be paid to their hostess. The young, drunken man on the bed protests. His share of the reckoning is too large, he says. The man at the table replies that the share is only right. The young man lurches to his feet and grabs the dagger from the seated man's belt — kept in his belt at the small of his back, "Spanish style" — and strikes him on his head, a superficial gash that bleeds profusely. He strikes him again, opening a second wound. The man struggles to his feet, grabs the wrist of the young man, and forces the dagger into the eye of his assailant. He falls to the floor, instantly dead. The man at the table had no choice. He had to defend himself.

Portrait: Queen Elizabeth I
Portrait: Queen Elizabeth I

This is the account of the three men, given to the coroner the next day, June 1, 1593, as the coroner and his jury of 16 men view the room and the body. It is a case of self-defense. The next day, June 2, in the churchyard of St. Mary's, Deptford, the dead man is buried. The grave is unmarked.

Death was a common event in Elizabethan London. Plague, violence, execution — each day brought the end of life to more than a few 16th century Londoners, with little regard to rank or station. Death hovered above the city day after day. Why should the death of this one man concern us?

Two weeks later, the man who thrust the fatal blow is pardoned by Queen Elizabeth I.

Who is he, the man who is dead on the floor of a chamber in a widow's house? And how did he really die?

He must have been important.

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