| Over Whose Dead Body--
Drunken Sailor or Imprisoned Writer?
© 1996 David A More
In 1955, Calvin Hoffman advanced his famous Murder of the Man who was Shakespeare scenario in which the corpse of a murdered sailor was substituted for Christopher Marlowe at the inquiry into the poet's sudden end on May 30, 1593. Hoffman was apparently unaware that on the previous evening a man of Marlowe's own age and status was suddenly and secretly executed only four miles away from Deptford, where Kit's own life is alleged to have ended on the following day.
The dead man's name was John Penry. He attended Cambridge with Marlowe in the early 1580's, and later Oxford where he proceeded M.A. After graduation, he preached and wrote about the need for a learned ministery in Wales, his native land. John Penry was a true evangelist and is still considered a martyr by Welsh people who remember 'the day before yesterday'.
Penry's protest (1587)
Penry apparently got the attention of Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift on February 28, 1587, with a protest to Parliament against episcopalianism in the Church of England. The "idolatry and superstition" in Wales is blamed on the absence of learned ministers. "Dumb ministers" they were called because their ministry was restricted to reading approved prayers and homilies from the Book of Common Prayer.
Although the essay addressed specific problems in his home country, The Aequity was seen as "a covert attack on episcopalianism [in] the Church of England...for the author condemns the practices of permitting nonresident pastors (nonresidence) or even laymen (impropriate living) to receive the income from church lands" (McGinn, 51). Penry was not the first reformer to protest the bishops and their unlearned ministers taking church land without living on it.
Whitgift seized about 500 already-printed copies of Penry's treatise. The twenty-four year old writer was arrested and questioned closely by the bishops of the Court of High Commission, presided over by the Archbishop himself who repeatedly addressed him as "lewd boy," and ranted and raved against the young divine. John Whitgift was in charge of establishing the doctrinal and practical base of the new religion. He was a great favorite of the queen as Sir Izaac Walton tells us:
After his ordeal with the queen's favorite prelate, John Penry
was placed in the Gatehouse Prison for one month, an unusually short
time. McGinn believes "he had won support in high places" (51),
possibly Bacon or Essex, since he
had graduated from --and preached at --both Oxford and Cambridge.
Penry's was not the only voice to protest the ecclesiastical polity and ignorant ministers of the Church of England- men like Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood, John Udall, and Job Throgmorton complained and protested as well. Christopher Marlowe was also interested in religious matters. He mocked Rev. Richard Harvey's sermons as being "fit for the iron age."
The voice heard loudest during the years 1588 & 1589 was called "Martin Marprelate," one of the great satirists of English prose. In his day, he had the respect and attention of bishops and privy councilors alike.
The first of the Martinist tracts, printed in September, 1588, is known as "The Epistle," and was announced as a preliminary onslaught on the long and elaborate "Defense of the Church of England" which Dr. John Bridges, dean of Salisbury, had published the year before. Students of theology like Penry and Marlowe knew of Dr. Bridges work and Martin's rebuttal.
For the next two years a series of tracts and counter-tracts were issued with Martin (or one of his "sons") offering five more blasts.
Although he jested and scolded, Martin's purpose was straightforward: NO MORE LORD BISHOPS, from the individual to the global, no exceptions.
Those that are petty popes and petty Anti-christs ought not to be maintained in any Christian commonwealth and every lord bishop in England, as for example, John of Canterbury, John of London, John Exeter, John Rochester, Thomas of Winchester, the Bishop of Lincoln, of Worcester, of Peterboro, and to be brief, all the Bishops of England, Wales, and Ireland are petty popes and petty Anti-christs. Therefore, no lord bishop is to be tolerated in any Christian commonwealth.
Martin lacks all respect for Whitgift and mocks him: "Is
seven-score horse nothing, thinkest thou, to be in train of an English
priest?" He calls him "Beelzebub of Canterbury," "Canterbury Caiphas,"
anti-Christ," "bloody tyrant." -and most often, mockingly, as "His
Having been "martinized", Whitgift first issued a formal episcopal response, which backfired in the hands of a deft satirist like Martin. Whitgift then retained some professional writers. Thomas Nash took the name "Pasquill." John Lily and super-hack , Anthony Munday (both in the employ of the Earl of Oxford), were also induced to write against Martin.
While the hired pens held up his end of the name-calling, Whitgift pushed the powers of the high commission to extreme limits in order to obtain evidence against suspected "libelers," and punish them.
To avoid capture, the suspects carted up their aptly named Pilgrim Press to other locations. While at Fawsley, Penry went around disguised like a gallant, wearing a light-colored hat, a sword at his side, and a "long sky-colored cloak," edged with gold and silver and silk lace.
On Jan 29, 1589 an officer of the Archbishop searched John Penry's house at Northampton, ransacked his study, and took away with him some printed books and written papers. The mayor was directed to apprehend him as a traitor, but Penry successfully kept in hiding, and eventually managed to escape to Scotland.
Before leaving for Edinburgh, he issued a parting shot, the
defiant "Exhortation of John Penry unto the High court of Parliament"
concerning "the bad and injurious dealing of the Archbishop of
Canterbury and other of his colleagues of the high commission."
Marprelate authorship mystery
Diligent pursuit by Whitgift's agents, failed to discover the identity of "Martin Mar-prelate." Penry was a chief suspect because of his track record of dissent and the testimony of a printer, who said John proofread a manuscript. "Pasquill" named Penry as the culprit in one of his broadsides. But John Penry's style is humorless, warning readers of God's sure judgment against them if they don't laugh at his jokes. Martin's style, while serious in matter, is witty and conversational. The two bodies of work could not have been written by the same man over the same period of time, any more than Bacon could have written Shakespeare. Penry himself denied being "Martin." He disapproved of Martin's tactics. In the end, no accusation was drawn up against him on this charge. A modern scholar (Leland Carlson) shows that Job Throckmorton was the main culprit behind the Marpletate tracts.
Since two of the tracts are signed Martin Senior and Martin Junior, the series was a group effort involving Throkmorton, Penry (the business manager, according to Carlson) and, if Prof. Jean Jofen is correct --Christopher Marlowe.
Marprelate is a master prose satirist in the tradition of
Swift and Twain. Despite claims to the contrary, satire is one of
Marlowe's strong suits. A vein mordant wit runs like comedic gold from
his first play through his last, Doctor Faustus. A disrepectful view of
"machiavellian" religious leaders is also apparent in Marlowe, in his
plays and conversation. He reportedly
said that [English] Protestants are hypocrites, and that religion is a
device of policy remarks in the spirit of Martin Marprelate.
Marlowe was "Martin" or not, the dramatist had said enough in his own
to be on Archbishop Whitgift's bad side by 1593. Before long, he, too,
would be in John Canterbury's net.
Penry's return to London and arrest
Following his escape at the end of 1589, John Penry remained in Scotland for about two years. Queen Elizabeth had requested his banishment and King James issued an order of compliance. James told the English ambassador that Penry had left Scotland in December 1590. In fact, John did not re-enter England until September 1592. He and his family remained in safety through the aid of Scottish clergy. Their fourth daughter (in four years!) was born in Scotland and named Safety.
In London, John joined with a congregation of Separatists, the congregation of the imprisoned pair Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, who would soon be executed. He remained undetected among them for several months, but was eventually recognized by the vicar of Stepney, and on March 22, 1593 he was arrested and committed to the Poultry Compter prison, where orthodox clergymen tried arguing him into conformity. citing Wycliffe and Luther as his authorities, John stuck to his guns, restating his objections to Bishops and unlearned ministers, and to the discipline of the established church in general,. His request for a disputation with his examiners in the presence of the Queen and Council was denied.
On May 21, 1593 (two days after Marlowe's arrest) John Penry was put on trial before the court of Queen's bench on the charge of having "feloniously devised and written certain words with intent to excite rebellion and insurrection in England." The fact that his book, Reformation, No Enemy was written and published Scotland made no difference.
There were two separate indictments against John Penry. In the first, he is quoted from his private papers that the queen had turned against Christ, by preventing her subjects from serving God according to His word. The second indictment collected a number of expressions attributed to Penry, in which the ministers of state and of religion were denounced as conspirators against God-a troop of bloody soul-murderers, and sacrilegious church robbers, while the council is said to have "delighted in persecuting God's true saints and ministers." Bitter words of one who had seen many friends and colleagues arrested, tortured and kept in the most inhumane prison conditions imaginable.
The writings used against John Penry were taken from manuscript notes found in his house at the time of his arrest (as private papers in the possession of Thomas Kyd were used against him and Marlowe).
Despite "the insufficiency of evidence as set forth in these
indictments," the Welshman was found guilty of treason and sentenced to
death. He was remanded to the King's Bench prison, where he wrote
letters to wife, to Lord Burghley, and to the Earl of Essex, protesting
his loyalty (DNB).
On the 25th of May, sentence of death was formally pronounced. Family and friends showed up at the place of execution, but for some reason it was delayed, giving them hope, perhaps, that his sentence might be commuted or reversed. Her husband's banishment to Scotland would be like heaven to Eleanor Penry and her four small girls. But on May 29, Whitgift entered the council chamber with the Sirs John (Puckering and Popham, the Lord Keeper and Lord Chief Justice) to sign the warrant. "John Cant."signed first.
According to Penry's first biographer "the instrument was sent immediately to the sheriff, who proceeded on the same day to erect the gallows at St. Thomas a Watering." This place of execution for the county of Surrey was situated close to the second milestone on the Kent road, and near a brook dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket. Canterbury pilgrims stopped to rest there according to Chaucer (Wadd., 203-204).
After four days of waiting, John Penry might well have hoped his letters to Burghley or Essex would alter his impending fate. Someday he wanted to return to his beloved Wales, but it was not to be. The Dictionary of National Biography relates that "while at dinner on May 29, John Penry was suddenly ordered to prepare for execution," and at five o'clock in the afternoon he was carted off to the gallows.
Pierce offers some imaginative detail:
The official version of Penry's sad end was given by the chaplain of King Charles in the heyday of the Stuart restoration. "Penry was executed with a very thin company attending on him, for fear the fellow might have raised some tumult either in going to the gallows, or upon the ladder" (quoted in Pierce, 480).
"Penry would have spoken," says Waddington, "but the sheriff
insisted, that neither in protestation of his loyalty, nor in the
avowal of his innocence, should he utter a word. His life was taken,
and the people were dispersed. The place of his burial is unknown"
Whose dead body?
Did Coroner Danby view John Penry's body on June 1 instead of Christopher Marlowe's? Burghley and Essex knew of the Welshman's impending fate; he had written to both of them from prison protesting his loyalty and innocence. Essex's man, Skeres, along with Poley and Frizer, could take care of removal and transportation to Deptford, a few miles away, under cover of darkness.
In The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl concludes that the Earl of Essex conspired to kill Marlowe, as part of a strategy aimed at Sir Walter Raleigh. Nicholl is partly correct. The Earl most likely did conspire to kill Marlowe—at least on paper--to save him from certain execution. The sentence of banishment-to-death might have been proposed at the suggestion of Essex’s chief advisor Francis Bacon, (was it merely clerical error in the burial register that reads "Marlowe slain by 'Francis' Frizer."?) Whatever deals were cut behind the scenes, the Earl’s well-known idealism, and enthusiasm for literature, would more likely have spurred him to be the orchestrator of Kit’s rescue, than his murder. Within a fortnight of Christopher Marlowe’s infamous "reckoning" at Depford, a poem containing many echoes of the poet’s famous Hero & Leander was published with a dedication to Essex's protegé, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, like Marlowe a Cambridge M.A., in which Henry is promised a future "graver labor" (knowing the author, the dark pun was intended.)
Modern coroners claim that the body would be well preserved in
England's cool weather, though Coroner Danby would not have performed a
complete autopsy. The body would be clothed and the head wound clearly
visible. There would be no reason to doubt the witnesses' story, or
suspect a switch. John Penry was an exact contemporary of Marlowe's at
Cambridge and also a "Gentlemen." If Marlowe and Penry did collaborate
on the Marprelate Tracts, then their macabre reunion on May 30, 1593
would be fraught with Dickensian irony. But, if neither had anything to
do with "Martin," Penry's corpse would still have served well for
This article originally appeared in The Marlovian newsletter,
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