Peter Farey


   In my article Was Marlowe's Inquest Void?, I explained how by officiating on his own rather than combining with one of the county coroners the Coroner of The Queen's Household, William Danby, had apparently rendered Marlowe's inquest null and void. More recent research, however, has shown that there could have been a valid reason for his having run the inquest on his own, although his having failed to explain this in his report of the inquest - the inquisition - means that it would have still been invalid.

   While examining the Middlesex inquests of the time, I had been looking for examples of inquests run by Danby, and therefore concerned myself only with those occurring from 1589 on, when I understood him to have taken over as Coroner of The Queen's Household.(1) Had I looked earlier, however, I would have found at least seven occasions when his predecessor in that role, Richard Vale, had also run inquests apparently unaccompanied by anyone else.

   How could this be? The answer came to my attention in The Reports of Edward Coke, Knt. [1572-1617] Cases of Appeals and Indictments. Part IV, pp.45-7.(2)

   In my earlier article, I mentioned one of the inquests I had found where William Danby had officiated with a county coroner. It concerned an affray in 1590 at Shepperton, Middlesex, as a result of which a certain Robert Wroote had been mortally wounded. What I did not know was that his widow Catherine was later to bring a charge of murder against Thomas Wigges, the man apparently responsible, and that the question of the legality of the inquest would become an important part of the cases presented. Furthermore, during this court case reference was made to an inquest held on his own by the above-mentioned Queen's coroner Richard Vale where, according to Coke, it had been resolved that:

... that indictment was well taken, and within the stat[ute] of articuli super chartas ... by which it is enacted, that in the case of the death of a man within the verge, it shall be commanded to the coroner of the county that he with the coroner of the King's household,(3) shall do as belongeth to his office. And although it was objected, that the statute requires two persons, sc., two coroners to do the office which appertains in this case; and in the case at bar there was but one person, although he had two several offices, sc. coroner of the household, and one of the coroners of the county, and when the law gives authority to two persons, one only cannot exercise it... yet in this case of several authorities, it was resolved that the indictment was well taken, for the intent and meaning of the act was performed, and the mischief recited in the act avoided as well when one person is coroner of the household, and of the county also, as if there should be two several persons.

   So there was no problem with the Coroner of The Queen's Household holding an inquest within the verge, but outside a royal palace, on his own, provided that - as was the case with Richard Vale - he was also one of the county coroners whose responsibility it would otherwise have been to officiate jointly with him.

   My first suspicions about the legality of Marlowe's inquest arose as the result of a debate on the internet, in a newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Some "Princess Diana's death" conspiracy theorists had heard that the current Coroner of The Queen's Household was to take that inquest, and having found that title mentioned in our archives - because of Marlowe - they wanted to find out whether we knew anything about the role which might be relevant to their concerns. It was during this discussion that I first learned of the articuli super chartas statute and its apparent requirement for two coroners to have been involved in Marlowe's case.

   Having done some research of my own, I wrote up the results in the form of my earlier article and, wanting someone with relevant knowledge to look at it, sent it to the secretary of the Coroner's Society, asking for help. Much to my surprise, he in fact turned out to be Michael Burgess, current holder of the office of Coroner of The Queen's Household. These are not his only roles, however, since he is coroner for the county of Surrey too.(4)

   I assumed that his covering more than one post had something to do with the reduction of the 'household' coroner's work resulting from the Coroner's Act of 1887. But this was before I read about Richard Vale, who was Danby's predecessor and who also combined the royal role with a county one. With hindsight this seems obvious - of course it makes sense for the Queen's household coroner to be someone who is a practising coroner already. And given that Danby is thought to have lived in Woolwich, Kent, that would seem to be the most likely county for him to have represented.(5)

   As the county for which Vale was also a coroner was Middlesex, we are fortunate in having several of his inquisitions available for examination in the London Archive. Unfortunately, the records for Kent have not fared so well, and the only original inquest papers they have from the late 16th and early 17th centuries are some survivals in three boroughs - Faversham, New Romney and Canterbury - for their respective borough coroners. It nevertheless seems quite possible that the reason for Danby to have officiated on his own, and for him to have been the first to hear of Marlowe's death, was that he was also one of the coroners for Kent.

   This is not quite enough, however. If we go back to the Robert Wroote case referred to earlier, for which William Danby was one of the two coroners, Coke tells us:

It was resolved, that the indictment was insufficient, for by the said indictment taken before the coroner of the household, and the coroner of the county, it appears that the stroke and the death were at Shepperton in com' Midd' and it doth not appear in the indictment that Shepperton was within the verge ... and although in truth it was within the verge, yet the indictment being veredictum, i.e. dictum veritas, and matter of record, ought to impart all the truth which is requisite by law ... and every part of the indictment material ought to be found by the oath of the indictors, and cannot be supplied by bare saying or averment of the party; and because it doth not appear within the indictment that Shepperton was within the verge, for this cause, the indictment taken before the coroner of the household and the coroner of the county was insufficient.

   It is therefore hardly surprising that when Danby came to write up the inquisition for the Marlowe killing, which doubles as an indictment, he stated no fewer than four times that it was within the verge. Where according to this he would still have got it wrong, however - if he was indeed a coroner of Kent too - is that nowhere in the inquisition does he actually say that he is. And this would in exactly the same way have rendered the inquest, and therefore the indictment of Ingram Frizer, just as erroneous.

   Assuming that Danby was the county coroner too does of course explain why he was asked to supply a copy (tenor) of the inquisition, which would have been enrolled in the Kent records by the county coroner - i.e. Danby himself - and why the loss of the Kent inquisitions meant that we would know nothing of the inquest until Hotson(6) discovered a copy (Inquisicio indentata) rather than a much more easily locatable original document.

   In my articles Marlowe's Sudden and Fearful End and Hoffman and the Authorship I argue that the most likely reason for the four people to have met at Deptford on 30th May 1593 was to fake Marlowe's death. In them I point out a list of anomalies surrounding the event, for which the only single explanation would be such a deception, and one of the more significant was that Danby was on his own for the inquest.

   More than one opponent has argued that it would be really foolish for such a deception to depend upon a situation that someone, such as a jury member, might well know to be illegal. The possibility that Danby was not acting illegally after all at least removes that complaint, but does also remove his doing so as one of the anomalies. That he failed to say that he was a coroner for Kent - if that was indeed the case - might have been just a simple oversight on his part, just as several of the Richard Vale inquests mentioned above fail to mention that the death was within the verge.

   On the other hand, if we take the scenario suggested in those articles, but assume that Danby was also a coroner for Kent, it is interesting to work out where the very best place would have been to enact such a faked death, ignoring whether or not any suitable facilities - such as Eleanor Bull's - were available there.

In the whole of England there was only one location which met all of these requirements. It was - as you have no doubt guessed - Deptford Strand.

© Peter Farey, 2008


1 William Urry, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (1988), p.92.

2 This can be found on-line at http://tinyurl.com/3dkzxl.

3 Coke spells this 'houshold' throughout, but I found it too distracting to repeat this spelling every time.

4 I gather that Michael Burgess's predecessor as Queen's coroner, John Burton, was in addition to his royal duties coroner for West London.

5 Urry, op. cit., p.92.

6 J. Leslie Hotson, The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925).

7 In fact there was no actual Lord Steward in 1593, and the role seems to have been covered mainly by the Treasurer Sir Francis Knollys, under the overall supervision of Lord Burghley.

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