How the Dictionary of National Biography Manipulates History


Ok,  the new edition of the prestigious DNB is out.  Like many I had awaited its publication with great anticipation.  In my case because of major changes in the biography of Christopher Marlowe (1563/4-?).

From Friday 23 September through Sunday 25 September 2005, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography will be available free--yes, free--online. Make a point of using it liberally during that brief window of free access...unless, of course, you plan to purchase the print edition of the work which, for the moment, is priced (with a 10% discount) at £6750 (or $12,130)--the price, normally is £7000 or $13,000. You will be able to begin the process by going to on Friday, to register.

The DNB proved secretive about who was writing its entry for Marlowe.  So I did not know until I read the essay that Charles Nicholl, the talented mystery writer, would prove the author of this important profile.

Nicholl, a Cambridge educated chap with an interest in Elizabethan writers, had written The Reckoning, one of several recent books about Marlowe's life and death, which had gained a wide readership and some scholarly notice, both positive and negative.  

So he seemed a reasonable choice.  

Unfortunately, as his essay proves, Nicholl has what should be regarded as a "proprietary  interest" in what one must call his own view of history.  Nicholl concludes The Reckoning holding the opinion Marlowe's death was "murder." (327-8)  While this viewpoint is not as radical as those Marlovians who suppose Marlowe and his powerful friends counterfeited his death to avoid pending capital charges, then being leveled against him by Whitgift and his agents, so he could continue to work for the Cecils and, importantly, to write the works now attributed to Shakespeare, it is, nevertheless, a significant departure from orthodox views and the extant records.

In fact as I shall show here, Nicholl does not have a high regard for fact.  Below are two scans that show why there has been schollarly debate about Marlowe having been the tutor of Lady Arbella Stuart.  The first one is Boas, the second one Durant.  Boas rejected the connection because he believed Arbella to have been imprisoned in Hardwick Hall during the period Marlowe is known to have been mainly in London.  But Durant proves that Arbella and Bess were both in London during this period, i.e., 9 September 1589 until 12 July 1592.

The scan on the left is from Durant (Bess of Hardwick, 1978)and proves that Bess moved her headquarters from Hardwick Hall to London on the 9th of September 1589, ten days before the Bradley duel. Durant writes, "In effect Bess was moving the operational centre of her business empire from Derbyshire to London." The scan on the right is from Boas' biography of Marlowe (Oxford, 1940) and argues that Marlowe could not have been Arbella's tutor because Arbella was at Hardwick hall during this period. Boas rejects the claim in this footnote writing, "The documentary evidence of Marlowe's residence in London between September and December 1589 is alone sufficient to dispose of a suggestion Made by E. St. John Brooks [that Marlowe was Arbella's tutor for 'a space of three years and a half.'"   Boas was wrong.  But we can excuse his error because Durant had yet to write his biography of Bess.  We cannot excuse Nicholl or the DNB.  
My Note in September 1997 for Oxford's Notes and Quires, proving all this. Roundly ignored by fools like Nicholl and Riggs.  It runs over to the next page, but if the fools wouldn't read it in the original, why should they read it here?

Nicholl, oddly enough, suspected Essex,  the prime mover in the plot to murder Marlowe.  Oddly, because Marlowe was killed, at least according to the records, by a retainer of Marlowe's patron and friend Sir Thomas Walsingham.  One Ingram Frazer.  How Essex would have induced Frazer to have done this, while working for Walsingham, both before and after the "murder," Nicholl does not say.  

Indeed under pressure from critics, Nicholl revised his opinion and changed the book to suggest Ralegh was actually behind the plot on Marlowe's life.   Though this still does nothing to suggest how Walsingham's trusted servant Frazer would have been the instrument.

Nicholl is hardly alone in his suspicion the official inquest covers up events different than those given in the records.  Professor David Riggs supposes the Queen had Marlowe killed.  Though Riggs offers no reason as to why he was released from custody and then murdered in Deptford, by Frazer, rather than in custody by the Crown.

Indeed none of the "Marlowe was murdered" theoreticians have an explanation why hired killers would have stayed with his body.  Surely assassins, regardless of who they were working for, would have done their "wet work" in private and left the body to be found by others.   

Nicholl seems to almost agree here, "if murder had been intended [by Essex] it could have been accomplished more anonymously." (328)  But if murder was not intended, surely whoever's agents these men were, would have checked back with their principles before engaging in it.   It is one thing to ask a man to identify Ralegh, as Nicholl supposes they were doing for Essex, and another thing entirely to kill him if he refuses.  

Even if these men had the "authority" to have killed Marlowe, if the proposition went south, they should have walked him out to the river to have accomplished it and left him in it.  We know, since no other witnesses were called, that only the three witnessed these events.  So I've long ago concluded from this that they stayed solely to identify a body.  Whatever their motivations were, they wanted to make it perfectly clear that "Christopher Marlowe" was dead in Deptford.  

So Charles Nicholl proves part of the speculative crowd on Marlowe's life and death.   

Thus  his choice as author for the DNB's sketch of his life seems dubious. This is particularly the case when we notice Nicholl has also been forced to reverse himself regarding the circumstances of Marlowe's arrest and deportation from Utrecht as well.  In The Reckoning, Nicholl was convinced the circumstances were as they were reported to have been by Sidney's dispatch to Lord Burghley.  But forced by the open record and commentaries by his critics, including myself, Nicholl reversed himself and came to the more likely conclusion Marlowe's arrest and deportation was part of an elaborated ruse cooked up by the Cecils.  (CMERC...1999)

The key to this insight is the fact Marlowe remained in the good graces of his master Lord Burghley, after his return to England and was, at the time of the Deptford events, in place to represent the Cecils in Scotland, as Haynes and Nichols have both conceded.  Indeed Marlowe may have already been representing them there, since we know nothing solid of his whereabouts between October 1592 and May 1593. Poley who was with Marlowe in Deptford during this charade is known to have been in Scotland during this period.

Marlowe's Edward II, like Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream, bristles with then secret (ciphered) diplomatic materials about James VI and can be considered an oblique study of James' male introversion and its effect on the Crown.  All three are proof positive the author was privy to diplomatic materials about Scotland and James VI.

So Nicholl does not have an unimpeachable record as to the efficacy of his historical acumen. 

With this in mind we must return to his DNB opinion disallowing Marlowe's position as Burghley's procurator for Lady Arbella Stuart.  In an after note to the The Reckoning, Nicholl dismisses the possibility Marlowe was "attendant" and "reader" to Arbella on the odd grounds "that I cannot have him be Marlowe simply because I want him to be."  Surely the reverse is true as well?  Nicholl cannot reject Marlowe simply because he wants him not to have been her tutor.  Nicholl's and the DNB's position on him as Arbella's mentor should base on hard facts and the open record.  

As it turns out Marlowe is not only identified as Arbella' tutor by extant period records, he proves exclusively identified by them.   Since his tenure as her tutor covered "a space of three years and a half" this constitutes well over fifty percent of Marlowe's post university life.  Or an exceedingly important portion of his mature life, a portion that should be at the fore of any serious investigation. 

Indeed so much so Nicholl's overall opinion about Marlowe's life would have to be revised, as he concedes, since "this would place Marlowe in the center" of Elizabethan dynastic affairs, rather than in the shadows. Hence his proprietary interest in rejecting these new discoveries.  Interestingly Nicholl and thus the DNB do not cite these discoveries.  The extended record will prove Editors of the DNB and Charles Nicholl were aware of these discoveries and elected to ignore them.  (Personal correspondence.)

The materials made their first public appearance in 1997, well before the deadline for DNB essays. (September 1997, N&Q)  Indeed these discoveries took two forms.  One involved Marlowe's analog Nicholas Faunt, while the other involved Marlowe.  Faunt's life was brought into conformity with the new records, while Marlowe's was not.  So one must ask why the problem with Marlowe?

The answer is revisions to Faunt's life do not necessitate Charles Nicholl  to significantly revise his opinions about Marlowe.

So what were the discoveries and why do they prove the case "exclusively?"  The dispatch to Lord Burghley naming "one Morley" as Arbella's "attendant" and "reader" has long been known.  It was, as Nicholl remarks in the DNB essay, first brought to attention by E. St John in the TLS in 1937, as Nicholl noted. (341)  However Nicholl failed to understand the dispatch, though he quoted the enabling phrase, exclusively identified the poet as Arbella's mentor.  Just as the Privy Council's entail about "Morley" exclusively identified the poet as the object of the Queen's pleasure.

This was first pointed out in 1925 by Harvard's Professor Leslie Hotson in his study, The Death of Christopher Marlowe, which printed many of these primary records for the first time.  Hotson considered the Privy Councils entail to Cambridge, demanding "Morely's" degree, certifying his good standing with the Crown and stipulating to his previous service for Her Majesty in "matters touching the benefit of his Country [which the Dons were] ignorant in the affairs he went about," exclusively identified the Poet because only the poet's dates at Cambridge matched with the entail.  

Hotson writing, "Likelihood is all very well; but identification of the Christopher Morley named in the certificate with the poet Marlowe does not rest upon a balancing of probabilities.  The proof is exclusive, made by pointing out the chronological impossibility of any other explanation. 'Christopher Morley' here, as in the Coroner's inquisition, means Christopher Marlowe the poet." (61)  The same proves true for Bess Talbot's "one Morley".  He proves exclusively the poet  because he and he alone is the only "Morley" to have left a university standing c. 1588/9.  And, as I have said before, Nicholl should have noticed this.

Let's look at the language of Bess' dispatch to Burghley, which Nicholl quoted in modern spelling,  "One Morley, who hath attended and read to her [Arbella] for the space of three year and a half, showed to be much discontented since my return into the country, in saying he had lived in hope of having some annuity granted him by Arbella out of her land, or some lease of grounds to the value of L40 a year, alleging that he was so much damnified by leaving of the University."  

There is simply no question Lady Arbella's tutor, supplied to her by Lord Burghley, as Master of Wards, would have been a credential scholar, either from Cambridge or Oxford.  Since the lists are well known, and Marlowe is the only "Morley" to have left a university standing c. 1588/9, Marlowe proves Arbella's tutor.  Just as he proved the subject of the Privy Council's entail, demanding his M.A.  

To be on the safe side, I even broadened the search, including Scottish and French universities.  Arbella's tutor had been "damnified by leaving of the University" c. 1588/9 and Marlowe, the poet/translator/ dramatist is the only "Morley" in the records who left his university about this time and interestingly in a standing poor enough that the Privy Council, acting under Lord Burghley's authorization, was called upon to secure his M.A. 

So while the case needs no additional support, it is worth noting Marlowe's known movements correspond during this period, i.e., between 1588/9 and August/September 1592 with Lady Arbella's.  Including his presence in Utrecht.   For example Marlowe is supposed to have been arrested on the 18/28 September 1589 for his involvement in the killing of William Bradley in Hogs Lane, along with Doctor Thomas Watson. It was the same day Lady Talbot's steward, Whalen, opened her London account record, proving Bess and Arbella were in London for Court.

Christopher Marlowe, the "scholar," as Sir Robert Sidney called him, was in Utrecht early in 1592 or at nearly same time another of these same names was there involved on matters touching on Lady Arbella's proposed match to Rainutio, son of the Duke of Parma.  So the likelihood here is both Morleys were the same man, involved on affairs touching on Arbella.

In addition Arbella's letters quote from Lucan's Civil Wars of Rome, which Marlowe translated, and his Edward II contains an ahistorical scene based on the unexpected termination of a "reader" to the King's "niece," which had damaged the young scholar's hopes, "Then hope I by her means to be preferred, Having read unto her since she was a child."  (II.i.29-30)  His friend Spenser (~ Spencer) who fears the worse councils "Then Balduck (~Baldock), you must cast the scholar off, And learn to court it like a Gentleman." (31-2)

So regardless of how the Poet's life must be rethought and how much of Nicholl's proprietary account rejected, he proves "attendant" and "reader" to Arbella between 1588/9 and late summer 1592. The DNB, in allowing Nicholl his opinion here, one which failed to cite these new discoveries years after they had been published and discussed in the community, has concealed these now well established facts and will, for generations to come, compound the problem of sorting out Marlowe's and Arbella's lives.  

Luckily  am I not the only one to see around this balderdash.  I notice, for example, a new biography of Arbella and a longer study of Hamlet have both gotten it right.  So perhaps the DNB will simply be marginalized?  Myself I'd rather see it corrected.

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