In 1925, Leslie Hotson's splendid detective work led to his discovering the report, or 'inquisition', of the inquest upon Christopher Marlowe's death on 30 May 1593. (1) It was felt initially that the discovery cleared up 'for good and all' the mystery of Marlowe's end, and this is still probably the most popular view among literary historians. Indeed, the author of a recent biography was at pains to emphasize her support for this story, which she argues as being perfectly plausible.(2) But, back in 1925, Hotson's findings had not long been public before doubts were being expressed over the truth of the official account, and such doubts have kept on surfacing ever since. The latest book on the subject, by a professor of English at Stanford University, California, concludes that the Queen herself had Marlowe assassinated.(3)
Several factors have contributed to this uncertainty. The only people to have seen the incident, for example, were three men who appear to have made a living by deceiving others, one of them even on record as saying that he would readily perjure himself in certain circumstances.(4) There was also the question of Marlowe's unorthodox, even dangerous, opinions, and those of the people whose company he was said to keep. The possibility of his having been employed in some undercover work for the Privy Council has also played its part, as has his supposed sexual orientation. All sorts of conspiracies have been suggested, with a variety of individuals and groups accused of having been responsible for setting up the 'alleged accident'. There are even those who maintain that the body might not have been that of Christopher Marlowe at all, but of someone else, substituted to allow Marlowe to escape probable torture, trial and execution.
This has meant, naturally, that the details as recorded in the inquisition have been looked at very critically indeed, and many of its statements challenged by one sceptic or another. What has escaped this scrutiny so far, however, is the legality of the inquest itself, and the issue of exactly who should have officiated at it. This paper therefore considers these questions for the first time, and arrives at a conclusion which is likely to find more favour among those who think that a conspiracy was being concealed by it than those who accept the story at face value.
The inquisition, of which there is more than the one version, is in Latin, and the opening words of the original translate as follows:
"Kent / Inquisition, in duplicate, taken at Deptford Strand in the aforesaid county of Kent, within the verge, on the first day of June in the thirty-fifth year of the reign of Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc., before William Danby, gentleman, Coroner of the Household of our said Lady the Queen, upon view of the body of Christopher Marlowe [here spelt 'Morley'], there lying dead and slain."The 'verge' referred to is an imaginary circle of twelve miles radius surrounding the Court, within which certain special legal provisions applied. One of these, as we see here, is that it was necessary for the Coroner of The Queen's Household to officiate at inquests within that area. The Court did not stay in one place, however, but moved with the monarch's 'progress', so that a place could be within the verge one day, and no longer within it a day or two later.
Marlowe's biographers seem, not unreasonably, to have taken Danby's words that Deptford Strand was within the verge on trust. William Urry in fact thought that the Court was at Greenwich at the time,(5) which would certainly have meant that Deptford was within it, and several other authors appear to have followed him. How Urry arrived at this conclusion is unclear, however, although - perhaps relevant - the Court had indeed been at Greenwich exactly one year earlier, to the day.
It was William Honey who first pointed out that Urry was wrong, however, and also showed the relevance to this question of the Declared Accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber.(6) One of the witnesses to the killing, Robert Poley, was paid for work culminating in his delivery of letters "to the Court at Nonsuch the 8th of June, 1593". Similar records exist for deliveries by other couriers, and these show the Court to have been at Croydon up until 14th May, but four days later - in fact on the day the Privy Council gave an order for Marlowe to be arrested - there is the record of a payment to "Romano Cavaliere: upon a warrant signed by the Lord Treasurer dated at the Court the 18th day of May 1593, for bringing [note the word, i.e. not 'taking'] of letters in post ... to the Court at Nonsuch".
The delivery must have been during this visit, as the Queen's progress since the previous October had covered Hampton Court, Somerset House, St. James's and Whitehall, and there had been no other stay at Nonsuch for the past nine months, since August 1592 in fact. Another warrant was signed on the 18th May for a Thomas Evistead having brought letters "to the Court at Nonsuch", and the last such 'Nonsuch' record was a month later, on 19th June, as the following payment, on 27th June, was made at Oatlands Palace, in Weybridge, Surrey.
Given that the Privy Council also met "at the Courte at Nonsuch, the last of May 1593",(7) we may claim with certainty that it was here, and not Greenwich, that the Court was located on the evening of the 30th. Honey also noted that this was nearly thirteen miles from Deptford Strand.
The site of Nonsuch Palace, around which the imaginary circle of the verge would have been described, is near Cheam, in Surrey, at Ordnance Survey map reference TQ 229631. We do not know precisely where in Deptford Strand the killing took place, other than its being at the house of Eleanor Bull, widow. The point in Deptford Strand furthest to the south-west, and thus nearest to Nonsuch, however, was its manor house, Sayes Court, and we can locate that precisely, at map reference TQ 371780. (8) Map references are accurate to within 100 metres, so the difference between the 'easting' numbers of two positions (in this case 229 and 371), divided by ten, gives the distance in kilometres east/west, and the difference between the two 'northing' numbers (631 and 780) gives the north/south distance in the same way. Using the Pythagorean theorem, therefore: the east/west difference is (371-229)/10 = 14.2 kms; the north/south difference is (780-631)/10 = 14.9 kms; and the distance between the two points (the hypotenuse) will thus be 20.58 kilometres (i.e. 12.79 miles). Every other point in Deptford Strand must have been further away than this, so - contrary to what is said in the coroner's report - it would appear that Widow Bull's house, if in Deptford Strand, cannot have been legally within the verge.
However, these measurements relate only to the statute mile, which was not defined until the same year in which these events occurred, and which did not come into regular use until much later. At that time, according to contemporary maps, the "mile" was some 20-30% longer than ours. So, according to such maps, Deptford Strand would have been considered to be within the verge.
We have noted that it was necessary for the Coroner of The Queen's Household to officiate at inquests within the verge, so Danby's presence on this occasion appears to have been correct. It is not quite as simple as this, however.
Writing of mediæval coroners, R. F. Hunnisett tells us:
"Another privileged area was peripatetic. This was the verge, which extended for twelve miles around the king's court. It had its own coroner, called the coroner of the king's household, coroner of the Marshalsea, or coroner of the verge… During the thirteenth century, no other coroner was allowed to act within the verge, with the result that many felonies were not presented to the justices in eyre after the king's court had moved on. This was remedied in 1300 by the Articuli Super Cartas, which provided that the county coroner should sit with the coroner of the household at all inquests held within the verge and enrol them. This provision was confirmed by the Ordinances of 1311…" (9)R. Henslowe Wellington described the result of the statute thus:
"By this statute (the whole of which is repealed by Coroner's Act, 1887), the Coroner of the county had to join with the Coroner of the Verge; but, without the assistance of the latter officer, the Coroner of the county could not act within the Verge. So neither could the Coroner of the Verge act in such cases, unless he be associated with the Coroner of the county; and this had to appear upon the inquisition, or otherwise it would be erroneous and void." (10)With the benefit of several centuries' hindsight, it is fairly clear that this was using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, since the number of times that the Court would have moved on after the possible felony but before the inquest must have been relatively small. Yet the statutes apparently remained on the books. An Act for Murder and Malicious Bloodshed within the Court (33 Henry VIII, c.12), concerning deaths within the precincts of the Court itself, indicated that they must have still applied in 1541-1542, when this Act was passed, or there would have been no point to refining the legislation in this way.
"…And that all inquisitions upon the view of persons slain or hereafter to be slain within any of the King's said Palaces or houses or other house or houses aforesaid, shall be by authority of this Act had and taken hereafter for ever by the Coroner for the time being of the household of our Sovereign Lord the King or his heirs without any adjoining or assisting of another Coroner of any Shire within this Realm…"(11)As an example of an inquest being held jointly when the Court had changed location (although only within the verge) an affray occurred in Shepperton, Middlesex, on 3 September 1589, in which a Robert Wroote was mortally wounded, the Court being only a couple of miles away, at Oatlands, Weybridge. He did not die until 24th September, however, and the inquest was held on 4th October, by which time the Court had moved to Richmond, nine miles away, but still within the verge. The inquest was - presumably for this reason, although there is no actual explanation - held jointly by the Coroner of The Queen's Household, William Danby, and a Middlesex coroner, Iuone Chalkhill.(12)
There is also a case of it happening a year and a half later, however, when the Court had not moved, as the Middlesex records have details of an "Inquisition taken at Limehouse, in Stepney, Middlesex, in the presence of William Danby, Coroner of The Queen's Household, and Richard Sheppard, a Coroner of the said County, on view of the body of Edward Glasse…" on 14 April 1591, the Court being again only two miles away, at Greenwich.(13) On this occasion the affray was only the day before, and the Court was there from 15th February until 9th May.
It would therefore appear that, as Marlowe's inquest was held by the Coroner of The Queen's Household on his own, and without the presence of a County Coroner, it was strictly speaking, as R. Henslowe Wellington put it, "erroneous and void".
INQUESTS IN PRACTICE
There were, however, several occasions at around this time - the late 16th century - when, despite the death occurring well within the verge, the Coroner of The Queen's Household was not involved. A quick look at the Middlesex records for 1589-1592, for example, reveals at least six such occasions. So there does appear to have been a gradual recognition that the duplication was usually unnecessary, and the statutory requirement ignored. By 1756, in fact, coroners were being advised that:
"The Coroner of the King's Household hath an exempt Jurisdiction within the Verge, and the Coroner of the County cannot intermeddle with it; as the Coroner of the King's House may not intermeddle with the County out of the Verge. But if a murder be committed within the Verge, and [my emphasis] the King removes before an Inquisition taken by the Coroner of the King's Household, the Coroner of the County and the Coroner of the King's House shall inquire of the same." (14)The interpretation by now seems to be that the joint jurisdiction should, quite sensibly, apply only when the Court has removed. This would also presumably appear to make it less likely for the County Coroner to act within the verge at other times, but the taking over of the County Coroner in these cases seems nevertheless to have increased, as by 1812 the following could be written:
"The duty of the coroner of the verge is, though I believe now wholly disregarded, in deaths happening within the verge to sit jointly with the coroner of the county to take the inquisitions, as directed by the afore-mentioned statute of articuli super chartas. …In this opinion I am confirmed by Sir Matthew Hale, who, in commenting on this statute … uses the expression: "But yet in case of death within the verge, the coroner of the county cannot take an inquisition without the coroner of the verge; and, if he doth, it is void". I should apprehend, therefore, that all inquests, as they are now, I believe, taken by the coroner of the county singly, when the question should be discussed, will be held to be bad." (15)It was this situation, among other things, which the Coroner's Act of 1887 presumably sought to regularize.
Clearly, then, at the time of Christopher Marlowe's inquest (1593), while it was still a statutory requirement for inquests within the verge to be held jointly, it was possible in practice for the County Coroner to get away with holding it on his own without questions being asked and, in this one case at least, for the Coroner of The Queen's Household to do so too. This trend, together with the actual wording of the statute ("it shall be commanded to the Coroner of the County, that he, with the Coroner of the (Queen's) House, shall do as belongeth to his office and inroll it"), and his needing always to be involved while the Queen's Coroner joined in only occasionally, clearly indicates that it was the County Coroner who was invariably informed about it, and who brought in the Coroner of The Queen's Household only if he thought it was appropriate - or unavoidable?
This example of Danby holding an inquest on his own is the only one to have been pointed out so far, which is not in itself surprising, given how few examples of his inquests seem to have survived in all. What makes it surprising, however, is that the norm must have been for him to have found out about inquests within the verge - other than those at Court - only when told about them by the County Coroner. In such a situation one would therefore have expected the County Coroner to have been there too, as in the Shepperton and Limehouse cases mentioned earlier.
In these circumstances, with the Court about sixeen statute miles by road away at Nonsuch, it is therefore very hard to see how the Coroner of The Queen's Household can have become involved on his own, since - with or without him - it would have been the statutory requirement for a County Coroner to have officiated at the inquest, whether or not it really was within the verge and whether or not the Court had actually moved.
In other words, unless it had been pre-arranged in some way, how does one explain William Danby's holding this particular inquest without his having been automatically joined by the County Coroner who must have invited him? Those who say that the whole thing was a conspiracy, and that the inquisition itself does not accurately reflect the facts, may well find that this apparent anomaly does nothing at all to allay their suspicions.
© Peter Farey, 2002-4
1 J. Leslie Hotson, The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925), p.26 et seq.
2 Constance Brown Kuriyama, Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life (2002)
3 David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004)
4 Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992), p.33
5 William Urry (ed. Andrew Butcher), Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (1988), p.92
6 William Honey, The Life, Loves and Achievements of Christopher Marlowe, Alias Shakespeare (1982), p. 347-8
7 Public Records Office, Privy Council Registers PC2 / 20 / 393
8 Charles Nicholl, op. cit. between pp. 194 & 195. A map drawn by the diarist John Evelyn, who lived there some 30 years later.
9 R. F. Hunnisett, The Medieval Coroner (1961) p.148
10 R. Henslowe Wellington, The King's Coroner (1905) p.27
11 Ibid, . p.74
12 London Metropolitan Archives, Middlesex Session Rolls, MJ/SR 0286/7
13 Ibid. , MJ/SR 0298/42
14 Anon., The Coroner's Guide; or The Office and Duty of a Coroner (1756) p.2
15 Anon., An Essay Towards an History of the Ancient Jurisdiction of Marshalsea of the King's House (1812)
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