That Old Time Religion: Was 16th-Century Writer Christopher Marlowe an Atheist — and Was He Murdered For It?

This month, the Marlowe Theater in Canterbury, England, marks the 450th birthday of the man it was named after: playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of William Shakespeare. The theater will put on some of Marlowe’s greatest works, including Faustus and the Jew Of Malta.

Marlowe was probably a government spy before he turned to writing, and all his life he enjoyed hanging out with characters of ill repute, including brawlers and swindlers. He was once arrested on suspicion of having tried to counterfeit coins, a capital offense, but nothing came of the accusation.

According to this account,

Marlowe became known as something of a rebel, continuing to have brushes with the law. In early May 1593, a poem mocking immigrant Protestants was posted on the wall of a London church. Suggestions within the text pointed to Marlowe. The following day Marlowe’s fellow writer Thomas Kyd was arrested and his home searched. The authorities found heretical documents denouncing God in his room and Kyd was tortured. He eventually gave up Marlowe as an atheist.

On May 18, a warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was made by the Privy Council and two days later the playwright handed himself in, though the Privy Council never addressed him.

Marlowe was quietly ordered to keep himself at the Council’s disposal until the royal advisers could deal with him.

Ten days later, he died in a tavern stabbing that still occupies the minds of scholarly whodunnit fans.

His death was a cloak-and-dagger mystery worthy of Philip Marlowe, and it was arguably the Kennedy assassination of its day, a society murder that spawned theory upon theory about who’d had reason to order the playwright’s death, with the truth soon impossible to establish.

One theory suggests Marlowe was killed at the behest of several members of the Privy Council, who feared he might reveal them to be atheists too. Another speculates Queen Elizabeth I ordered his assassination because of his subversively atheistic behavior, while others believe he was stabbed by Frizer [Ingram Frizer, his murderer] during a simple fight over money.

It’s also possible that

He was killed on the orders of father and son Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil, who thought that his plays contained Catholic propaganda.

It didn’t help Marlowe’s standing among the pious that he was allegedly gay, working a spate of references to alluring young men into his plays. One snitch claimed that he had heard the playwright say, “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools.”

If his atheism had anything to do with his death, one people-pleasing speculation is that Marlowe faked his own death to avoid being tortured and executed for being a non-believer. The most ardent of these conspiracy enthusiasts say that he restarted his writing career under a nom de plume that would forever eclipse his real name: William Shakespeare. Supporting this “Marlovian Theory” is the fact that there are multiple references to Marlowe in Shakespeare’s stanzas.

On the topic of Marlowe’s godlessness, an informant, a man named Richard Baines, gave the atheist-hunters of the day a lot to think about.

Baines attributes to Marlowe a total of eighteen items which “scoff at the pretensions of the Old and New Testament” such as, “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest [unchaste], “the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly,” and, “St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom” (cf. John 13:23–25), and, “that he used him as the sinners of Sodom.”

Baines alleged that Marlowe was a hothead heathen who knew no greater joy than sparking others’ skepticism:

“Almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheisme, willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both God and His ministers.”

There’s also a document that provides further evidence of the playwright’s sharp mind and tongue:

Marlowe is able to showe more sounde reasons for Atheisme then any devine in Englande is able to geve to prove devinitie.”

Sounds like my kind of guy.

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(This is another installment of “That Old Time Religion,” an infrequent Friendly Atheist series that looks at history’s God-besotted wackjobs, zealots, and mountebanks. Previous episode here. If you have a topic you’d like me to cover, please leave your suggestion in the comments, preceded by #TOTR.)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.