Wraight Dismantles the Corkyn v. Marlowe Myth

A.D. Wraight from The Story That The Sonnets Tell


We must now consider the case of Corkyn v. Marlowe, which is the most important documentary evidence on Marlowe to have been discovered in recent years. It finally scotches all the spurious tales of his alleged violent nature in an unquestionably valid, impartial, legal record of the man as he really was, testifying to the way he actually behaved in his life. It is a revelation!


The Rose of Reconciliation


On what was probably his last visit home to Canterbury in September 1592, the City’s legal archives, researched by Dr William Urry, have disclosed Marlowe’s involvement in an incident which throws a unique and fascinating light on his temperament, wherein we recognize ‘that pure elementall wit, Chr. Marlow’, as Thorpe called him, who was also the Poet of the Sonnets – a delightful young man with a wonderfully forgiving nature.

The documents relate an interesting civil case of a breach of the peace in the City’s Westgate Ward involving Christopher Marlowe and the tailor, William Corkyn, who was also a chorister of the Cathedral. We do not learn what their quarrel was about, but it is testified that on 10th September Corkyn had assaulted Marlowe and ‘did there and then beat, wound and maltreat, and other atrocities [enormia] did then and there inflict upon the said Cristopher Marlowe’; which injuries the said Christopher Marlowe revenged on 15th September, inflicting ‘loss’, but (be it noted) he did not wound Corkyn in return. Corkyn thereupon promptly filed a suit against Marlowe for ‘damages to the extent of £5’. What these ‘damages’ were we are not told, but at a guess it was to Corkyn’s clothing. Marlowe thereupon turned the tables by filing his counter-suit for Corkyn’s previous assault on him.


Dr Urry, who discovered these documents (they are resented in his posthumously published Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury, 1988) has argued that both suits filed by the protagonists, Corkyn v. Marlowe, and Marlowe v. Corkyn, refer to the same incident, although the legal records clearly state two different dates – that Corkyn beat up Marlowe on ‘decimo die Septembris’, and that Marlowe returned the compliment on ‘quinto decimo die Septembris’.  Dr Urry should be the last to suggest that they are incorrect, for he subscribes emphatically to the view that a legal document constitutes ‘unassailable’ evidence, and if this all occurred on one date how is it that Marlowe, armed with ‘staff and dagger’ was the wounded party? And what would he be doing going around armed in this manner anyway? Whereas on the later date it had a purpose – he was out to pay Corkyn back, but as it turns out, in a surprising way!


From the legal depositions it is possible to reconstruct a pretty clear picture of what had happened on the 10th and 15th September. It was, I suggest, the following: On 10th September the two men, Marlowe the poet and Corkyn the musical tailor, who were old friends and had probably been choirboys together, were walking near the West-gate when what was obviously a heated argument broke out, and Corkyn, perhaps getting the worst of the argument in words resorted to physically belabouring Marlowe, as the deposition informs us.


City of Canterbury

The Grand Jury present for Our Lady the Queen that William Corkyn of the City of Canterbury ‘taylor’, on the tenth day of September in the thirty-fourth year of  Our Lady Elizabeth by the Grace of God, of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, here in the City of Canterbury aforesaid, in the parish of St Andrew and in the Ward of Westgate in the aforesaid city, did make an assault upon a certain Christopher Marlowe, gentleman, and the same Christopher Marlowe did there and then beat, wound and maltreat, and other atrocities [enormia] did there and then inflict upon the said Christopher Marlowe, to the grave damage of the aforesaid Christopher and against the Peace of Our present Lady the Queen, etc.


The wounded and maltreated Marlowe presumably went limping home to nurse his injuries, but he did not lodge a complaint for assault then. Instead he decided to teach his bellicose friend a lesson (perhaps Corkyn had always been a bully?) to show him he was no longer willing to put up with his bullying attacks and atrocities (verbal ones?) So five days later on 15th September he met Corkyn at the same spot, but this time armed with ‘staff and dagger’. However, it is clear the he appeared thus with intent to give Corkyn a fright, for he did not injure him physically in any way,; as Corkyn had done to him, as is unquestionably established by Corkyn’s suit which makes no mention of physical hurt.


City of Canterbury


William Corkyn sues Christopher Marlowe, gentleman, on plea of transgression. And pledges to prosecute viz. John Doo and Richard Roo. And the plaintiff by Giles Winston his attorney makes plaint that the said defendant on the fifteenth day of September, in the thirty-fourth year of the reign of Our Lady Elizabeth by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith here in the City of Canterbury aforesaid, in the Parish of St Andrew, and in the Ward of Westgate of the aforesaid city., did by force of arms  [vi et armis], viz., with staff and dagger, make an assault upon the aforesaid plaintiff, and against the Peace of the said Lady the Queen. Wherefore the said plaintiff says he has suffered loss, and has incurred damages to the extent of £5, and hence produces his suit.


If there had been physical injury sustained this would have been mentioned without question. The claim of £5 is damage to property, and in this instance presumably refers to clothing. Did Marlowe use his dagger to cut off Corkyn’s buttons? (As does the Cutpurse in The Massacre at Paris who cuts off the buttons from Mugeroun’s cloak). A suitable punishment for a tailor! Just such reflections of real life in Canterbury woven into his plays have been discovered by Urry. There appears to have been some element of Marlowe’s typical humorous wit in this tit-for-tat, as is implied by the surprising outcome of this case.


Damage to property tends to rate above mere physical injury in the law, and Marlowe’s hurts were doubtless mended by the time the case came to court on 25th and 26th September, when the tailor’s suit for damages was preferred, and Marlowe’s counter-suit for injuries was thrown out. But happily, when the civil case Corkine v. Marlowe came up for its final hearing on 9th October, the two protagonists had already mended their quarrel and had once more become good friends. By mutual agreement, then and there, the case was dropped, and the two men, reconciled in friendship, left the court. Probably it had all been schoolboy stuff really!


William Corkyn’s son, also named William, was a lutenist and composer of songs. He set Marlowe’s ‘Come Live with Me and be my Love’ to music, and this delightful air was published in 1612. A common interest in music united the Corkyns and Marlowe, and if they did once get into an argument that led to a court case, it was soon mended.


Ironically and sadly, for I knew him as one who loved Marlowe, it is William Urry who has misinterpreted this fascinating find and deeply misunderstood its implications. Under the weight of academic pressures the distorted image of Marlowe as a man of violence has bedeviled his brilliant research, and Urry’s biographical work presents the most fierce distortion to date of Canterbury’s greatest son as a man of violent temperament.