Thursday, 12 March 2009

Unredeemed shores

Just one more look at New World related books on my shelves. There are the two volumes of documents about to the colony published as The Roanoke Voyages by Dover. These are real documents related to the enterprise - letters, reports etc - and absolutely fascinating if you like that kind of thing. And I do.

Lee Miller's Roanoke and Giles Milton's Big Chief Elizabeth both tell the Roanoke story in different ways, Milton's being the more readable probably, and it obviously makes an appearance (albeit brief) in both biographies of the flawed, complex and charismatic Sir Walter Raleigh (he was a very busy man). Raleigh - contrary to common belief - never personally set foot in North America. And it should actually be spelled Ralegh and pronounced Rawley. No, really.

Incidentally Elizabeth called Raleigh Water, as a comment both on his buccaneering spirit and because that was what his name sounded like when imitating his thick Devon accent. New Worlds, Lost Worlds by Susan Brigden and Unredeemed Shores by Michael Foss also cover Elizabethan attempts to colonise the Americas.

The Elizabethan secret service plays a big role in my New World book, as does Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster and both are subjects of books by Alan Haynes. John Bossy's Giardano Bruno and the Embassy Affair and Under the Molehill are both really interesting books about 16th century espionage.

But the best book on this subject by far and a candidate for the best book on my shelves is Charles Nicholls' The Reckoning, about the events leading up to the death of Christopher Marlowe in a pub in Deptford. It is an absolutely gripping book. Nicholls also wrote the excellent The Creature in the Map about Raleigh and the his ill-fated search for gold in South America, just visible on the right.


  1. Dear Chris, The Reckoning is indeed a fascinating book, but was it written to reveal the truth of events on that day, or to hide it?

    The book was commissioned to come out on the 400th anniversary of Marlowe's death, and perhaps put paid to silly ideas that he might not have died that day after all

    When I interviewed Charles Nichol round about 2000 for my film, Much ado about Something, he became very flustered when I put it to him that he should also have considered the possibility that the day was a piece of theatre, designed to allow Marlowe to escape the clutches of Whitgift and the Star chamber.

    That perhaps another body went into the plague pit a few days later, and a very much alive Marlowe was already down the river on the tide, on his way to life time exile in Europe.

    Why was Charles so flustered by this possibility? He claimed to have explored every option, why not the one of escape?

    Marlowe was a very well connected, very valuable, man. On previous occasions friends in high places quickly plucked him out of trouble, for example when he was supposedly caught coining in Flushing.

    We know that the three other men present on Elanor Bull's safe house were people who could have been helpful. They, like Marlowe in the spy world. Poley had been a major player in setting up the sting of the Babbington plot.

    Squeres worked for Essex, and it was in Essex's spy cohort that Marlowe had most probably been working. Most telling of all, Frizer was was the servant of Marlowe's patron, Tom Walsingham (there is no evidence of a falling out).

    Strangely, this Fizer is back in Walsingham's employ not long after he's supposedly killed Marlowe, Tom's great friend, in self defense.

    Nichol concedes the coroner's report is a cover up. Given those present, why not a cover up of an escape, surely as plausible as some botched killing as Nichol would have us believe.

    Why his categorical refusal, caught on film, to even discuss this idea?

    Of course a book to mark the 400 anniversary of Marlowe's death might have trouble with it's sponsors if it came to the quite logical conclusion that he did not die at all, not then at least.

    See the film, and note Nichol's discomfort. (Much ado About Something) See too Jonathan Bate's unease, his frustrated stabbing at the earth of his winter garden, as he finds he can't logically argue against the possibility that Marlowe escaped..

    What concern do these two have in common which so constrains them? It's very simple, its the same fear that broke out in scholarly fury when the Marlowe society, gaining at last a memorial pane in Westminster abbey for their poet, had the audacity to put a question mark next to Marlowe's date of death.

    Boldly put, if Marlowe did not die at 29, he very probably the hidden hand behind the Bard, the real author behind front man, theatre pofessional, businessman, William Shakespeare.

    If you like a tables turning mystery, have a look at the website of Peter Farey who very carefully explores this other possibility and it's implications.

    Or go to Carlo Dinota's blog, the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection.


    Mike Rubbo

  2. Well that is officially the longest comment I've ever received! There are too many points to address here without writing a book myself and I'm not qualified in any case. I would make the point though that if Charles Nicholls had come up with convincing evidence that Marlowe had not died in Deptford after all, I think his publishers (I assume that's who you mean by 'sponsors') Picador would have been overjoyed. Controversy sells books.

    And I'm not convinced that someone's inability to argue against a position they feel to be utterly wrong is a sign that they are hiding something.

    The thing about conspiracy theories (and let's face it - Nicholls book is also a conspiracy theory) is that they rely so heavily on the 'it's not impossible' argument. In the hands of the believer, 'it's not impossible' turns into 'more than likely'.

    Is there a single fact (a proper hold up in a court of law kind of fact) showing that Marlowe escaped? Is there a letter to or from him after that date? A recorded sighting? I would imagine not. It is a strange paradox that it is actually harder to argue logically against something of which there is seemingly no evidence. Conspiracy theories have their own logic.

    But I'm not sure that means that people are acting in bad faith or trying to cover something up. Just because it is 'possible' that Marlowe might have faked his own death and gone on to be the secret hand behind Shakespeare does not mean that anyone is duty bound to disprove it.