I’d started writing about soliloquies in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus….” That reminded me of film noir and the Gunpowder Plot.
So today I’ll be discussing Christopher Marlowe, but mostly his era: Elizabethan England. Along with European politics and whatever else comes to mind.
I’ve talked about some of this before. Quickly recapping, in part to keep me from repeating myself overmuch — I see Marlowe’s “Dr Faustus…” as a tale based on folklore inspired by Johann Georg Faust, a German Renaissance con man.
I don’t think that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. Oddly enough, I haven’t run across the notion that Marlowe was Shakespeare’s ‘Mr. Hyde’ nom de plume, for when the Bard of Avon wanted to cut loose.
And I’ve mentioned story archetypes, which arguably help explain why stories about Dionysus and Pentheus, Pwyll and Rhiannon — and Faust — keep getting retold.
Enough prologue. Here’s how I see:
- Renaissance Reflections
- Perceptions and Politics
- Propaganda and Weaponized Pietism
- Plots, Real and Imagined
- Four Centuries Later and Still Learning
I see Europe’s shift from lots of little warlords to a few big warlords as starting at least by the 14th century. Maybe the ‘long Renaissance’ idea is catching on, maybe not.
Either way, the odds are good that your textbooks talked about a Renaissance that happened in the 15th and 16th centuries. And was a time when Europe rediscovered Greco-Roman literature and lore.
Then, after a dismal and dreary Dark Age, Galileo restored light to the land and — well, you get the idea.
It makes a good story, but doesn’t quite match what happened. Pop versions of Gibbon’s 1776-1789 epic “…Decline and Fall…” notwithstanding, the Roman Empire didn’t so much fall as crumble. And that’s another topic. (March 31, 2020; January 6, 2019)
The “Dark Ages” moniker dates back to around 1600, when ecclesiastical historian Cardinal Caesar Baronius called the time between 888 and 1050, give or take a bit, the Saeculum obscurum. (July 15, 2016)
He had a point. The Church hit a rough patch in the ninth to 11th centuries.
I won’t insist on this, but we seem to have a habit of letting issues accumulate.
And then doing a major overhaul every five centuries or so.
That’s what was happening around 1500, as I see it.
Roman-era trade routes had been reopening, with southern Europe’s rulers getting most of the wealth. Northern rulers, understandably, wanted a piece of the action.1 That’s a vast oversimplification.
The point I’m making is that European rulers had their hands full in the 16th century. Their problems weren’t exactly like today’s issues, but they weren’t all that different.
Potentially available, that is.
I see readily-available information as a good thing. But I’m not a monarch trying to keep my subjects from getting ‘wrong’ ideas.
“…It could not be long before a censorship of the Press was established. In 1526 the printing of books against the Catholic Faith was prohibited. Later on, that of books defending the Catholic Faith was in turn prohibited.
“It was in 1557 that the very singular powers were conferred upon the Company of Stationers of suppressing and prohibiting books either seditious or heretical. … Why the Company of 246 Stationers was entrusted with powers which belonged to the Bishop of London and the Ecclesiastical Courts does not appear. However, the Company exercised this authority for two years, when Queen Elizabeth ordered that no book should be printed without a license being first obtained….
“…The Elizabethan age was rich in every form and branch of literature; it had books of chivalry, as ‘The Seven Champions;’ story books, as ‘The Gesta Romanorum;’ jest books, as Skogan’s, Tarleton’s, Skelton’s, Peele’s; pastoral romances….”
(“London in the Time of the Tudors,” Chapter 3, Walter Besant (1904) via gutenberg.org)
There’s a lot going on in that excerpt: English and London political economics, or maybe economic politics; censorship; and religion.
I could compose a polemic against Catholic censorship or Protestant censorship.
Or I could adopt the relevance of my youth, declaring that religion is a tool of the oppressors and censorship is among its weapons.
Instead, I’ll skip lightly over efforts to enforce a dress code.
Also politics and economics, propaganda and perceptions.
I very strongly suspect that my counterpart in the year 2400, give or take a few decades, might be just as curious about uber-rich of the late 1900s and 2000s owning houses they didn’t actually need. And occasionally islands.
And pleasure boats with up to 24 guest cabins, two swimming pools and a disco hall. I am not making that last item up. It’s Roman Abramovich’s yacht, the Eclipse.
But now, let us return to Elizabethan England — A veritable golden age! When Good Queen Bess, Britannia personified, ruled wisely and well — or a time when England was going to Hell in a handbasket.
Having grown up in an English-speaking culture, and living some four centuries plus change after the Spanish Armada sank, I see the decades around 1600 in England as good times. Except for the parts that weren’t.
Now that I think of it, Roman Abramovich’s Eclipse — that’s the boat with two swimming pools and a disco hall — may be more than a rich man’s toy.
His Eclipse is available for charter.2
I’m not even sure whether that would have been legal. And that gets me back to Elizabethan England, actors and the end of civilization as the Lord Mayor knew it.
I’m guessing that London’s tight-collar set yearned for their “Merry England”— a term which probably started with Henry of Huntingdon’s “Anglia plena jocisyou” — or “full of fun” in my English dialect.
More or less. My Latin’s less than fluent.
Anyway, back in the Elizabethan era’s ‘good old days,’ a person’s clothing accurately reflected that person’s place in the pecking order.
England’s aristocracy wore aristocratic outfits.
Gentry dressed like the gentry.
And commoners couldn’t afford high-end wardrobes.
Then, like I said, old trade routes reopened. Merchants had access to global markets, foreign goods threatened English industry and the Black Death probably didn’t kill more than two out of three Englishmen.3
But I haven’t seen the pandemic blamed on that Act of Parliament.
That wouldn’t make sense, except maybe in an election campaign. And I don’t want to go there just now.
More to the point, the 1337 legislation apparently had two intended outcomes.
First, protecting English clothmakers from foreign competition.
And second, protecting England’s upper crust from commoners wearing affordable finery.
The Cloth Act 1337 wasn’t the first sumptuary law. Not by about two millennia. At least. The earliest effort to legislate who can wear what — the earliest I know of — was the Locrian code.
A few centuries and assorted Acts of Parliament after 1337, English sumptuary laws were getting lax. From the London Lord Mayor’s viewpoint.
Actors, common-born actors, could legally wear noble costume. On stage.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, actors occasionally walked London’s streets in their inappropriate finery: threatening the very foundation of civilized society.4
Or acting like actors. From another viewpoint.
I’ve read that Christopher Marlowe was a closet Catholic and/or homosexual, spy, magician, and atheist.
But, oddly enough, I haven’t found learned arguments that he’s a shape-shifting, space-alien lizard-man. Maybe some notions are too cockeyed even for 2oth century academia, and that’s yet another topic.
Until evidence — other than Elizabethan-era rumor and wishful thinking — emerges, I’ll assume that Christopher Marlowe was human, an Englishman, and wrote plays like “Doctor Faustus….”
And maybe he really was a closet Catholic.
Marlowe studied at The King’s School, Canterbury, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
There here are gaps in his academic records. Maybe those gaps inspired rumors of his clandestine effort to become a Catholic priest. Or maybe that’s when he was an Elizabethan ’00 Agent’ — Marlowe, Christopher Marlowe.
Then again, maybe those gaps are when he was on world-class binges. I don’t know.
His literary career is easier to verify. The odds are good that he wrote “Doctor Faustus…” after “Dido…” and before “The Massacre at Paris: With the Death of the Duke of Guise.”
“The Massacre…” may have been the last play Marlowe wrote. It’s a very English version of what we call the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre: assassinations and riots with body count estimates ranging from four to five figures.
The trouble had started shortly after humanity’s day one.5 But I’ll pick up this particular SNAFU in 1559.
Catherine de’ Medici’s three sons became kings of France. Sequentially.
That wasn’t the problem.
Henry’s House of Valois had been the French royal house since 1328. Another Valois king would have been more of the same.
But the House of Guise said that they were Charlemagne’s heirs. And that as such their boy should be king.
Now that was a problem.
Catherine de’ Medici didn’t agree with the House of Guise. Neither did her sons, and so civil war ensued.
The House of Montmorency tried getting a piece of the action, but failed. Or maybe they got smart and quit.
There was a winner of sorts in 1598, France eventually recovered — and then the French Revolution happened.6
If England’s Mary I hadn’t died in 1558.
But she did.
Then — this takes explaining.
But living and occasionally being executed in an era of religious whiplash would have affected Marlowe’s audience, and Marlowe, so I’ll keep writing.
England’s House of Tudor goes back to 1485, when Henry Tudor made himself king Henry VII.
Henry’s son, Arthur, would have been England’s next king. He was a healthy young man. Until he and his wife got sick. He died, his wife didn’t, and we still don’t know what killed him.
Then Arthur’s younger brother became England’s Henry VIII. These days, he’s probably most famous for his six wives. Or three, depending on who’s keeping score.
Here’s how it started. Henry VIII said he’d never really married Catherine of Aragon. The Pope didn’t back him up. Oversimplifying a rat’s nest of law, politics, personalities and religious trends — Henry VIII said that the Pope was wrong and set up his own national church.
Which, according to Henry, made England’s churches, chapels, monasteries, convents, cloisters and abbeys his property.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Henry VIII. Folks he put in charge of his home-brew church only annulled three of his marriages.
Then Henry VIII died, one of his sons became king and died, which left Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s daughter in charge: Mary I. AKA Mary Tudor, and Bloody Mary.
I’m leaving someone out. Just a minute. Let me think. Right. Lady Jane Grey.
English nobles who liked Henry VIII’s style said that she was England’s queen. Which she was. For nine days. My English-language history texts say she was brilliant and well-educated: among the most learned women of her era. She was also Protestant.7
Which were told by Protestants. Who objected to her using what passed for legal procedures in 16th century England in her effort to sort out the mess Henry VIII left.
Mary Stuart might have been England’s Mary I. But she wasn’t, and this narrative is convoluted enough already.
Mary Tudor/Mary I/Bloody Mary tried giving confiscated property back to English churches, monasteries and so forth. Maybe because she was Catholic, and thought it was the right thing to do.
Or maybe not.
Whatever her motives, Mary Tudor died. England’s next queen, Elizabeth I, promptly took back Henry VIII’s loot and led England into a golden age. According to my culture’s version of history, as told maybe a century back.
We still see Elizabeth I’s reign, 1558-1603, as good times for England.
And that gets me back to a French fracas that started in 1559. The Houses Valois and Guise were both mostly Catholic. There’s a Valois-Tudor connection I’ll mention later. But I gather that England’s rulers didn’t get involved in the power grab. Not much, anyway.
Huguenots, French Calvinist Protestants, were also involved: both in active roles and as collateral damage.
We’re not sure where the “Huguenot” name comes from. I gather that it started as an epithet.8 Sort of like my era’s “commie,” “racist” and “fascist.”
Somewhere along the line we started calling the de Guise – de’ Medici conflict the “French Wars of Religion.”
My culture’s label for a 1562-1598 series of French turf wars isn’t entirely accurate. Not the way I see it. Although there was a religious angle.
Back in those days, European aristocratic houses formed alliances along lines defined by loyalty either to southern or northern Europe’s major players.
Those players, in turn, used slogans and sympathies tapping into what we call the Protestant Reformation.
I’ll grant that folks — mostly Catholic — in the Houses of Valois, Guise and Montmorency, some of them at least, may have been sincerely convinced that God was on their side. Some may even have tried being on God’s side, which isn’t the same thing.
I figure that the same was true for Huguenots.
But I don’t see a ‘God agrees with me’ feeling as an excuse for killing folks who want their big shot on the throne — instead of my pick.
By the time the Houses of Valois and Guise ran out of cannon fodder, they’d scored a body count record that stood until the Thirty Year’s War. Which was, in my view, another turf war with religion-themed propaganda.
Small wonder we got the Enlightenment.
Or, in my time, the Sixties.9
By the time they were over, I was tired of Cold War politics, “presidents” and “dictators.”
And more than tired of venom-spitting radio preachers denouncing communism and Catholicism.10 To their credit, they fervently upheld the American ideal of freedom — for anyone who agreed with them.
On the ‘up’ side, keeping track of who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys were was easier in my youth. “Presidents” were, officially, the good guys. “Dictators” were the bad guys.
Which was which depended, it seemed, on who was giving the current ruler weapons and cash. That month.
The situation wasn’t nearly that simple. And some threats were real.
I think workers kept trying to escape the ‘worker’s paradise’ for good reasons. And I think America wasn’t nearly as bad as the craziest reformers said it was. But I would rather have had my country’s decision-makers display more sense and less paranoia.
That was then, this is now. Reforms happened. Some were long overdue. Some haven’t worked out as well as I’d hoped.
And America’s Establishment has changed. A little. They’ve got new preferred realities and new slogans. But today’s lot, from what I can see, remain steadfastly dedicated to freedom of expression. For everyone who agrees with them.
Today’s news agencies and social media services spread opinions and the occasional fact faster than yesteryear’s broadside ballads and chapbooks.
Alehouses, taverns and inns could only serve folks living nearby; and those who were passing through.
But chapbooks and blogs strike me as more of the same: providing opportunities for serving the common good. Or for hurting our neighbors. Tech, our tools, make what we do easier. What we do? That’s up to us. (January 6, 2021)
Doomscrolling is a bad idea and I shouldn’t do it.
But, as I keep saying, we don’t live in an ideal world.
I don’t mind looking at something besides a blank wall.
Which isn’t even close to worshiping my desk lamp.
I also like living in a time and place where smashing another person’s statues is seen as vandalism:
- “Vandals steal and behead Catholic statue, cause other damage at Fort Worth church”
DomingoRamirez Jr., Fort Worth Star-Telegram (March 2, 2021)
- “Vandals Target St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church”
Jennifer McRae, 4 CBS Denver (February 16, 2021)
That’s a big step up from Beeldenstorm/Bildersturm: faith-based statue-smashing street parties, popular in 16th century Europe.
I suspect it’s because emotional appeals keep followers from thinking too much.
And maybe because folks in charge, who should know better — sometimes don’t.
One more thing.
The “pietism” I had in mind is extreme, exaggerated religious ideas and practices.11
Meanwhile, back in Elizabethan England, home-grown assassination plots and an undeclared war with Spain encouraged public vigilance.12 Some of the plots were real.
Sir Francis Throckmorton, for example, planned on killing Queen Elizabeth I, starting an English revolution and cooperating with a Spanish-backed invasion of England — with the goal of making Mary Stuart England’s queen.
None of which was the craziest part of his plan: marrying Mary Stuart to the French Duke of Guise.
That was a daft idea.
Henry I, Duke of Guise, was sincerely and fervently hated by English Protestants.
Their consensus was that he had ordered the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre: an incident they saw as proof that Catholicism kills people and breeds treason.
The royal French version of the St. Bartholomew’s Day incident was that their Charles IX ordered the assassination. And that it was a preemptive strike, protecting the French royal family from a Huguenot plot.
I don’t know how or why Sir Throckmorton saw a Mary Stuart / Duke of Guise match as anything other than public relations blunder of epic proportions. But he did.
He also waved metaphorical red flags. Elizabeth’s people put him under surveillance when he got back from France. He confessed, after interviews conducted with the rack.
And then he was executed.13
That wasn’t the only ‘let’s assassinate the queen’ plan.
He was in Paris when his associates were caught, so he survived. And eventually moved back to Florence.
Anthony Babington and company weren’t quite so daft. But they were caught, accused, found guilty and executed. So was John Ballard, a known Jesuit and the Babington affair’s alleged mastermind.
Maybe he really was guilty. What’s more certain is that he and the other alleged plotters were hung, drawn and quartered.
Then there was Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s physician-in-chief.
Until he embarrassed the Earl of Essex. Who accused him of trying to poison the queen. A charge he denied. After which he was hung, drawn and quartered.
That was England’s legal penalty for treason, and had been since 1351. It was an unpleasant way to die. Particularly with perfunctory hangings, followed by vivisection.
A fair number of scholars now think Roderigo Lopez was guilty of incurring an Earl’s wrath, but that he wasn’t trying to kill the English queen.14
The Gunpowder plot, in contrast, was quite real. The idea was to blow up England’s House of Lords with the Lords and King James I inside.
If that sounds familiar, maybe you’re remembering news from late February and early March, 2021:
- “Capitol Police officials say intel on possible March 4 plot being taken ‘seriously’”
Jack Date, Luke Barr, Morgan Winsor; ABC News (March 2, 2021)
- “Capitol Police chief warns militia groups want to ‘blow up the Capitol’ when Biden addresses Congress”
Zachary Cohen, Marshall Cohen, Whitney Wild; CNN (February 25, 2021)
Sound, fury and perceptions in today’s America being what they are, maybe I’d better say how I see the Gunpowder Plot. And American politics.
The Gunpowder Plot was a bad idea in 1605. It would be a bad idea today. The same goes for trying a similar stunt in Washington.
Sometimes leaders make laws and give orders that are violations of natural law.
But a leader acting badly doesn’t make wrong behavior by others okay.
Armed resistance to an oppressive authority is an option. But only if that’s the only option left. And success is likely. And if there really isn’t any other option. (Catechism, 2243)
America’s current political mess embarrasses me. And I think our laws need changing.
That’s not even close to believing that storming the castle is a good idea. Or blowing up the House of Lords. Or, these days, blasting the Capitol Building.
Now, getting back to the Gunpowder Plot.
Evidence that’s plausible by today’s standards says that assorted English Midlanders planned to blow up The House of Lords, killing the Lords and King James I.
They apparently figured a Midlands revolt would follow. After which their preferred monarch would rule England: Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia.
The plan failed.
Some English Jesuits may have been involved. Or maybe not. What seemed obvious to English officials in 1606 doesn’t quite resonate with some contemporary scholars.15
At first glance, ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ may not seem so unpleasant. Apart from the process ending in death. The subject, after all, dies early in the process.
True enough, assuming that judicial hangings used today’s methods.
Turns out that snapping the prisoner’s neck with a long drop didn’t catch on until around 1850. Before that, death by strangulation was the norm. And still is, I understand, for informal lynchings.
But whether it’s sudden or slow death, hanging is often lethal.
Which brings me to Sir Everard Digby, English Protestant turned Catholic. Sir Digby was convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
I don’t know why Sir Digby received special treatment.
Maybe it was because he’d tried explaining why he thought James I should have kept his promise of toleration for Catholics. Or maybe because he said Robert Catesby’s plan wasn’t a Jesuit plot. Or maybe something completely different.
In any case, Sir Digby was briefly suspended by a rope, hurt his forehead after being cut down, and was conscious when officials started vivisecting him. Then he died.16
But all that happened after Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus…” first opened.
The 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre — I knew I was forgetting something — was like the Gunpowder Plot. Except for how it wasn’t.
The assassinations and riots killed key Huguenots, leaving the houses of Guise and Valois comparatively free to fight each other.
Following the cui bono, who profits, principle, folks have blamed the French queen. Or the House of Guise.
For all I know, someone’s fingered the House of Montmorency. Which sort of makes sense, since François, Duke of Montmorency and governor of Paris couldn’t stop the bloodshed.
Which reminds me of claims and counter-claims during America’s recent election. And that’s yet again another topic.
England’s House of Tudor wasn’t directly affected by massacre.
But there were French connections. Catherine of Valois had married England’s Henry V and Owen Tudor. Not simultaneously.
The Owen Tudor-Valois connection led to a Tudor Henry becoming England’s Henry VII.
Let’s see, what else? Francis, Duke of Guise. Right.
He grabbed the last Tudor land in France. In 1558, during Mary I of England’s reign. And got blamed for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
More to the point, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre became Protestant Europe’s symbol for Catholicism as the religion of death and treason.17
And Renaissance Anglo-French relations were pretty much the opposite of simple. Yes, religion was involved: certainly as a marketing theme; arguably as a motive in some cases.
But I also see interdynastic rivalry and greed, with a generous sprinkling of xenophobia.
That was Christopher Marlowe’s world. And the world of London’s theater-going public.
Elizabethan England wasn’t just like today’s America.
They had alehouses and inns. We have virtual hangouts like Twitter and Facebook.
They had hot button issues regarding politics, religion and which side should be in charge.
We have — pretty much the same hot button issues, actually.
But I think we’ve learned a little over the last four centuries.
We’ve even applied some of our hard-won lessons. Like letting ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ penalties quietly fade away.
Now it’s time for me to (finally!) wrap up this look at Marlowe’s world. And add the usual somewhat-related links:
- “Another Saint, a Riot and Mark 7:15”
(February 10, 2021)
- “Pentheus, Pwyll and Pan Twardowski: Fairly Faustian”
(February 8, 2021)
- “Rereading Christopher Marlow’s ‘Doctor Faustus’”
(January 6, 2021)
- “Election-Year Weirdness: An American Tradition”
(October 21, 2020)
- “Floyd, Signs and Statues”
(June 28, 2020)
- Eclipse Yacht Charter Details, Blohm & Voss
CHARTERWORLD Luxury Superyachts
- The rise and fall of sumptuary laws: Rules for dressing in Shakespeare’s England
Karen Lyon, Early Modern Life, Shakespeare and Beyond, Folger Shakespeare Library (September 8, 2017)
- Elizabethan Dress, Costume and Controversy
Exploratory Shakespeare | English 15 Summer 2015, Journeys at Dartmouth, Dartmouth College
- “Elizabethan Fashion”
History 446 – British Isles; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (October 20, 2015)
- Something’s wrong with humanity, but it’s not a design flaw
- “A Portrait of Power: The Importance of Marguerite de Valois in Sixteenth Century French Royal Politics”
Karin M. Armour, A senior Thesis Submitted to the Eastern Michigan University Honors Program In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for Graduation with Honors in Social Science, (Approved at Ypsilanti, Michigan, on April 21, 2004)
- My counter-cultural view, in part
- Capital punishment — legal, yes; justified, maybe not