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To Kate, with thanks

Neat Marlow bathed in the Thespian springs

Had in him those braue translunary things,

That the first Poets had, his raptures were,

All ayre, and fire, which made his verses cleere,

For that fine madnes still he did retaine,

Which rightly should possesse a Poets braine.

MICHAEL DRAYTON, ‘Of Poets & Poesie’


This novel draws on historical characters and events, principally on records of the death of Christopher Marlowe, on records of Sir Francis Walsingham’s secret service and on the life of Thomas Phelippes, Walsingham’s gifted decipherer. So far as is known, Phelippes and Marlowe never met; their relationship as described here and all the interactions between them are invented. The interrogation of Phelippes and the postscript are also invented, although much of what he describes happened and most of the people he mentions existed. There is no record of Marlowe having been involved in secret service to the extent portrayed, although there is documentary evidence and evidence by association that he engaged in some sort of confidential government work. Incidents such as fights he was involved in, his attempted coining and remarks made about him by contemporaries are, however, mostly based on record.

Authoritative and comprehensive accounts of the world of the Elizabethan secret service and of Marlowe himself may be found in Stephen Alford’s The Watchers and Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning.





Very well, sir, I hereby solemnly promise that I, Thomas Phelippes, under oath, will tell all I know of the man.

But he has been dead these thirty years and I cannot be far from my own end. Nor is my memory what it was. And I am still amazed, sir, that you come to my cell with ale and provisions and kind words, saying that the King, King James himself, commands that I tell you all I knew of him, everything. Yet you do not tell me why His Majesty enquires after a forgotten poet and play-maker. Almost forgotten. I do not know what he wants to know. All I can offer is whatever scraps of memory are left and pray they will be fit for the royal table.

However, I am grateful, sir, for what you bring and for your company. Hearing yesterday of the Court’s interest in me prompted the governor here to move me to these more comfortable quarters, with more coals and candles, as you see, as well as fresh paper, quills and ink. Which is no less than I need anyway when I have to labour at work which the government that imprisons me still demands. God knows how it pains my head and wearies my sight, yet I confess it gives some pleasure. My only pleasure here. Along with my wife, Mary – whom God preserve – mathematic has ever been my love, you see. Although I no longer decipher with that swift facility I once commanded, it is still my delight to puzzle out men’s hidden meanings.

Yet I cannot promise to decipher Christopher Marlowe for you. He was a man I knew only in part. He never opened his heart to me, nor perhaps to any, but I now think he may have shown more of it than I had eyes to see or ears to hear in those days of our youth. Although often in company and with wide acquaintance, he was also a cat that walked alone, always with something withheld. I can think of no man who would have known him fully.

And so I beg you assure His Majesty that, though I shall do my best, he must treat whatever I say as at once true and false. False not because Christopher did not spy for my master, Mr Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, nor because he did not die by the knife near the end of May 1593 in the old Queen’s reign, at the age of twenty-nine. No, the falsehood comes from that concentration on him which inevitably puts him at the centre of the story, which he never was. To ourselves, of course, we are always the heart of our own stories, but viewed from without our stories are but parts of other men’s stories, themselves but the suburbs of greater stories. If we are lucky – as I was then – we may have dwelt on the fringes of epics. But as individuals we are clods of mud dropped from the wheel of Fate, which carries us we know not where and leaves us where it pleases.

That is as true of me, of course, as of him. And even of you, sir, if I may hazard, however exalted your position at Court, however much you now bask in the King’s favour. Although in my world, which Christopher briefly shared, I was close to the heart of affairs, it could all have happened without me. Sir Francis would have found some other man to decipher codes and assist him as I did, and events would still have fallen out as God ordained. Not that Christopher Marlowe would have agreed with that, having little time for God’s ordinances. In his world, the world of playhouses, players and poets, I had no part, of course. I thought it ungodly and unruly and, in any case, numbers, not words, were always my passion. You might discover more about him if you could find another player still living. But they never last long.

I could begin with our first meeting when he was a callow scholar of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, aged about seventeen. Except that Christopher was never callow; he

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