Baines Note
Baines' own confession of Atheism

Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
When most impeached stands least in thy control.

Sonnet 125

Wraight Explores the Credibility of Baines' Note

from The Story That The Sonnets Tell



An entire thesis could be written on Marlowe’s alleged brush with Atheism, which, like the term ‘heresy’, was used to connote any questioning of orthodox religious tenets. The Socinian treaties discovered among Kyd’s papers was an account of a theological debate conducted half a century earlier, based on the beliefs of a Unitarian heretic (tentatively identified as John Assheton) who was asked to write down his views when arrested under Archbishop Cranmer, and did so using the name Arrian. John Proctour replied to Arrian refuting this heresy from the standpoint of the orthodox Trinitarian.


Presumably Marlowe would have used the treatise as a basis for serious discussion, point by point, with the members of Raleigh’s circle. We learn from the informer’s indictment of another contemporary named Richard Cholmeley, who was unfortunate enough to have attracted the attention of the heresy hunters and was also apprehended about this time, ‘that Marloe tolde him that hee hath read the Atheist lecture to Sr Walter Raliegh & others’. We have a record of a discussion on the nature of the soul which was reported to the Cerne Abbas inquiry into the atheistic opinions of Raleigh and his friends in 1594, which reflects the interest of these intellectuals in such speculative debates. From this Raleigh emerges as a philosophical investigator into spiritual matters whose interest was to discover what the essence of the spirit is and how it can be understood by man. Bakeless tells us that, ‘In June 1594 Raleigh spent a whole night discussing religion with the Jesuit, John Cornelius . . . then under arrest at Wolverton.’ This was a courageous act. Raleigh, Hariot, and his close friend Marlowe, were all men whose minds were ‘stirred by the Renaissance speculative impulse . . . to prove all things [and] to test by stringent dialectic the most sacred conceptions. The ‘Atheist lecture’ read by Marlowe to Raleigh was thus probably a closely reasoned discussion in scholastic form of first principles’, declares Dr Boas.


These are the considered opinions of Marlowe’s greatest biographers. Such a serious interest in debating theological concepts does not square with the obscene rubbish claimed to represent Marlowe’s ‘Atheist opinions’ contained in the infamous Note compiled by the informer Richard Baines, which is mainly a scurrilous libel. On the other hand, that Marlowe was a proselytizer of his ideas on religious tolerance and against religious bigotry and superstition, willing men ‘not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins’, we can well believe of him. That he ardently hated hypocrisy in a religious guise and sought to expose the cynical political manipulation of the devoutly religious populace by power-seeking, ambitious men to gain popular support for their factions, is reflected in his works. Raleigh observed this at first hand when fighting in the religious civil wars in France. Doubtless Marlowe noted it whilst working as an agent on the Continent where religious wars continually erupted. His perceptive eye for the motives underlying the actions and attitudes of men, seeing beneath the surface of outward appearances, is what made him such a brilliant dramatist. There can have been little that escaped him.


Marlowe’s friend the mathematician Hariot, is said to have calculated that there is error inherent in the Biblical time-scale concerning Adam. This idea is stated in Richard Baines’ Note enumerating Marlowe’s ‘Damnable judgement of Religion and scorn of God’s word’, which begins with the statement of his opinion: ‘That the Indians and many authors of antiquity have assuredly written above 16 thousand years whereas Adam is proved to have lived within 6 thousand years’. A natural observation for a man of an advanced scientific turn of mind, and in a totally different key from the blasphemous scurrilities which Baines otherwise lists as examples of Marlowe’s alleged opinions. It has, however, been taken totally seriously – crediting every statement made by Baines as emanating from Marlowe and actually representing his serious thoughts on religion, by Paul Kocher in his Christopher Marlowe: A Study of his Thought, Learning and Character. Kocher claims that when Baines was compiling his Note he was, in fact, ‘transcribing Marlowe with minutest accuracy’. If the word ‘transcribing’ means anything then Kocher is alleging that Baines prepared his Note by coping from a paper or treatise writtenby Marlowe – though Kocher does not divulge how Baines got hold of this hypothetical document. If he had had such a document, then he would not have needed to write his Note for Marlowe’s manuscript would have provided all the damning evidence he could have wished for. This does not seem to have occurred to Kocher, who returns insistently to the existence of this hypothetical manuscript. This is based solely on contemporary rumor that arose, I suggest, from the hearsay that ‘a paper’ belonging to Marlowe had been discovered in Kyd’s room which turned out to be heretical, and since Marlowe was a writer and a scholar it was assumed that he had written it. Gossip eventually exaggerated it into a ‘book’.


Pursuing the existence of this hypothetical manuscript, however, and as his ‘evidence’ that Baines is actually reporting Marlowe’s opinions with ‘minutes accuracy’ –obscenities and all – Kocher produces a mass of quotations from contemporary and ancient writers, both historians and ecclesiastical authors, who express very similar ideas to those that Baines quotes in his Note as Marlowe’s opinions. Kocher thereby demonstrates that these ideas were certainly not original to Marlowe, but he takes this as ‘proof’ that Marlowe had read widely in the anti-Christian literature available, which was quoted by these ecclesiastical and historical writers, and these works had ‘all left their mark on him.’


For instance, Kocher quotes from the ‘respectable divine’, the Reverend Henry Smith, who wrote a defamation of the Prophet Mohammed revealing a mind producing parallel statements of an obscene nature applied to Christ in the Baines Note.


‘Mahomet himselfe was such a fleshly fellow, as though modest eares are loth to heare, yet because the filthinesse of this Prophet may not be concealed, I must utter it: He committed buggerie with an Asse, Vonfinius writeth it. Againe, he committed adulterie with another mans wife . . As Mahomets religion is degended by force of sword and fraude . . so likewise did it begin  . . and was established through wiles, deceit, subtiltie, and lies. For first hee hauing the falling sicknes, perswaded his wife and others, that it was  the power of God, and the presence of the Angel Bavriel that caused him to falldowne. Sergius the hereticall Monk was at hand, and barefalso witnesse to the same (sait Zonaras) . . He had three companions all of a confederacie to deuise and face out his lies with him. When hee perceiued that men gaue eare to him, hee fained that the Angell Gavriel had carried him to Jerusalem, and thence to haue lifted him up to heauen, and there to haue learned his law . . ’


Thus, quoting chapter and verse from such ecclesiastical historians as Bonfinius and Zonaras, the Reverend Henry Smith makes his points. One begins to see why Marlowe turned his back on joining the fraternity of reverend churchmen! These are such people as he would have called ‘religious caterpillars’. But this is not how Mr Kocher sees it. He argues that it was this kind of ‘edifying’ literature that influence Marlowe: ‘Into these ideas he breathed the living reality of his convictions, and dared to utter them abroad at the risk of his career and his life that other men might share the truth.’ (My italics).


Here are items from Baines’ Note, transcribed with “minutest accuracy’ from Marlowe’s hypothetical treatise – according to Kocher – declaring the ‘truth’ for which he claims Marlowe was prepared to risk his life!


The Items Attributed To Marlowe In Baines’ Note:


That Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest.

That the woman of Samaria & her sister were whores & that Christ knew them dishonestly.

That St John the Euangelist was bedfellow to C[hrist] and leaned always in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.

That the Angel Gavriell was baud to the holy ghost, because he brought the salutation to Mary.

That he was the sonne of a Carpenter, and that if the Jewes among whome he was borne did crucify him they best knew him and whence he came..

That Christ deserued better to dy then Barrabas and that the Jewes made a good choise, tough Barrabas were both a thief and murtherer.


Kocher makes much of the evidence of a good working knowledge of the different editions of the Bible revealed in the last two items, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible and the Vulgate, and he generously concedes: ‘Marlowe seems entitled to whatever credit for originality there may be in the elaboration of these particular points and the use of these particular texts, but the volume of similar abuse of Jesus among the pagan classics and the Jews is immense. It is so much like what was suffered by Moses and Mohammed that only a few representative examples need be offered. Celsus, for one, said that Christ lived ‘a most infamous life’ and ‘was punished by the Jews for his crimes;. (My italics). Compare this with Baines’ Note.


Kocher proves by numerous quotations from contemporary sources that the abuse of Jesus available in print was “immense”. But the conclusion he draws from this fact is not only fallacious, it is ridiculous, and contradicts all we know about Marlowe, who was never an imitator but essentially a highly original thinker. Bakeless, Marlowe’s definitive biographer, sees originality as Marlowe’s hallmark. He was the innovator of new forms in our literature, a man who set fashion, not a follower of other men’s fashions. Kocher’s claim to have made a study of Marlowe’s ‘Thought, Learning and Character’ is thrown into doubt.


I suggest that it was not Marlowe, pace Mr Kocher, but Baines who had been reading this libelous clerical literature to extract anything suitably obscene and morally shocking with which to lard his indictment of Marlowe, and it is these items that he is intent on fastening onto the free-thinking poet-dramatist whom he sees as a vile ‘Atheist’. Baines’ Note is not some rarity as Kocher implies. He calls it ‘unique’! It is a typical informer’s indictment. Libelous accusation has been the favoured method used down the ages to blacken the reputations of those whom the authorities saw as a threat to their own security and power, and to aid their dominance of the minds of the people in matters religious and philosophical. We have only to look back at Socrates to see it at work. Kocher himself cites evidence of the practice of character assassination from ancient times, but he fails to draw the logical conclusion.


‘How badly fared the reputations of heresiarchs and apostates in the first centuries of the Christian era can be read in the pages of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, or Hippolytus’ Philosophumena . . . Coming down to more recent times, everyone remembers what the Catholics thought of Luther, what stories the Protestants circulated about the witchcraft and abominations of the popes, and what filth a bishop like John Bale could write about the Catholic saints. Later on, the leaders of the more bizarre Puritan sects became victims of the same tradition.’


The destruction of reputation by false reports is still used in totalitarian states to convict those whom the authorities wish to silence. The Nazis used libel to defame courageous, liberal-minded people, especially if they were Jews when these would be specifically obscene. Under Stalin the KGB labeled their victims in the self-same tradition. The more ‘shocking’ the libel that could be concocted and made to stick, the more ‘efficient’ the prosecutor appeared in the eyes of the state he served.


Baines was obviously out to prove himself an efficient prosecutor in Marlowe’s case whom he recognized as a quarry of some importance. He had himself also been a student of Divinity in the Seminary at Rheims (a fact that Kocher totally ignores) hence the ‘fidelity with which the Baines note preserves the Biblical language’ which Kocher finds so ‘striking’ is equally traceable to Baines’ hand, as to Marlowe’s. but to Kocher, ‘The inference is unmistakable that Baines is really transmitting the words of Marlowe, if not with absolute accuracy, then at least with substantial accuracy.’ Kocher does not believe that Baines, or some other ‘fabricator’, would have been ‘clever enough to piece together the . . . texts into a damaging Scriptural argument and then diabolical enough to father it on Marlowe.’


O, sweet innocence! Presumably Mr. Kocher has been living in an ivory tower and does not recognize the face of oppression, but even the most meager acquaintance with the outside world testifies that vicious persecution of the innocent accompanied by torture and unbelievable cruelty is still flourishing. Amnesty International affords the horrifying evidence from many quarters of the world of politically motivated police brutality. Many of these innocent people have survived to tell the tale of preposterous libels and obscenities that have been invented by the secret police of corrupt modern states (not sixteenth century, but twentieth century members of Baines’ tribe) who have been ‘diabolical enough to father’ vile accusations onto their hapless victims. The Elizabethan informers cannot be credited with such scruples as Kocher asserts they possessed, with Baines seen as a decent chap who is reporting Marlowe’s opinions honestly. Nor is it necessary to credit Baines with any extraordinary degree of cleverness (and we may take it he was cunning, as evidenced by the plot he devised at Rheims to kill off the entire community of the Catholic Seminary by poisoning the well where they drew their water) since the texts that Kocher has researched detailing Biblical and anti-religious blasphemies were equally available to Baines as they would have been to Marlowe, had he been interested to read them – which is doubtful, for to him they would have been beneath contempt. But they would have proved most interesting and satisfying reading to Baines, providing him with just the very thing he needed for his nefarious profession: yet in truth I most delited in prophane writers and the worst sort of them, such as ether wrot against the truth or had least taste of religion,)


The unwitting contribution to the rehabilitation of Marlowe’s reputation that Charles Nicholl’s book, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe has made is to a reassessment of the significance of Baines’ Note by the evidence he has assembled revealing ‘a glimpse into the mind of Richard Baines.’ This cites Baines’ confession made when he was a prisoner of Cardinal Allen at Rheims Seminary in 1583, where he had been apprehended the previous year after his poison plot had been discovered. In his confession Baines describes the methods he used to suborne young Catholics (very similar to those cited concerning Marlowe and Cholmeley below) and his own descent into apostasy when he found his studies of divinity and ‘holy writers . . . began daily to wax more and more tedious and loathsome’. He confessed:


‘I most delighted in profane writers, and the worst sort of them, such as either wrote against the truth, or had least taste of religion. . . I had a delight rather to fill my mouth and the auditor’s ears with dainty, delicate, nice, and ridiculous terms and phrases, than with wholesome, sound and sacred doctrine.’


He indulged in ‘jesting and contempt, against the seminary and against the Catholic faith’, and spoke ‘wicked words’, scoffing at divine service, and ‘began to mock at the lesser points of religion’. Progressing from there to ‘utter divers horrible vlasphemies in plain terms against the principle points of religion’ he reached outright ‘atheism and no belief at all’, declaring this to be ‘the highway to heresy, infidelity & atheism, as to my great danger I have experience in mine own case.’


Compare this with Baines’ Note on Marlowe. Is there any need to comment further? Clearly this man had personal experience to draw on for his damning Note. He seems miraculously to have escaped from Rheims having (as I suspect) made a deal with Cardinal Allen to pursue the downfall of Walsingham’s best secret agents by giving false evidence against them to the Privy Council to incriminate any who became vulnerable. This is, of course, precisely what he achieved in the case of Marlowe. I cannot prove it. No one can. But, given all we know about Marlowe and the circumstances of his tragedy, together with what we know about Baines, the inference is soundly based. This, I suggest, is the true explanation of the Baines Note that has brought such odium on the name of Marlowe to this day.


What Kocher’s research has proved, which is of considerable value, is that not one of the obscene opinions accredited to Marlowe in Baines’ Note is original to Marlowe. Every single one of these specifically scurrilous anti-Christian statements has been lifted from some clerical authority. And not only were they available in print, but several of them were widely known and are even quoted in Elizabethan secular literature – always adding the appropriate expression of horror in quoting them so as to dissociate the writer from the blasphemous statement, e.g. ‘my heart trembleth to thinke them.’


What is much to the point is that several of the self-same ‘opinions’ crop up with only minor variations in the indictment against Richard Cholmeley prepared by an anonymous informer, who was presumably from the same stable as Baines, who tacks these accusations onto the end of his report, almost as an after-thought, or as if he had been told to do this – perhaps by Baines who was his superior? Identically Cholmeley is accused of making –


‘a Jester of the Scripture with these fearull horrible & damnable speeches, that Jhesus Christe was a bastarde. St Mary a shore & the Anngell Gabriell a Bawde to the holy ghoste & that Christe was justly persecuted by the Jewes for his owne foolishness that  Moyses was a Jugler & Aaron a Cosoner the one for his miracles to Pharao to prove there was a god, & the other for takinge the Earerings of the children of Israell to make a golden calfe with many other blasphemous speeches of the deuine essence of god which I feare to rehearse.’


In the above we have evidence of the professional informer’s stock-in-trade abuses based on the texts so readily available, as Kocher has clearly demonstrated Such standard indictments can be found in use by all repressive agencies, varied according to whether it is a Marxist or an extreme right-wing dictatorship that is using these instruments of state suppression. That Baines whose profession was to trap heretics and so-called ‘Atheists’ and free-thinkers, and who had had a theological training, would relish poring over this clerical literature to research the juiciest obscenities with which to incriminate his victims is not to be doubted. His previous activities at Rheims testify to his sly and ruthless nature, and on the evidence of his Note he was a religious bigot. The Elizabethan informer’s mentality is typified in the labeling of the scholarly Arrian treatise found amongst Kyd’s papers as ‘vile hereticall Conceiptes’.

It is likely that Baines had been present at Kyd’s torture as the interrogator in charge, and when Marlowe’s name was disclosed he would immediately have recognized him as of far more importance as a potential victim than the miserable Kyd, who was soon released. His aim was undoubtedly to make an efficient job of nailing his indictment on this important free-thinker and gratifying his master, the Archbishop, and he would have no incentive to harbour any scruples as to how he achieved this.

Commenting on the clerical texts he has researched, Kocher points out: ‘One must emphasize again that the men who wrote such abuse were reputable, excellent authors, most of them churchmen’, and he seeks to equate Marlowe with these religious bigots. He adds: ‘It seems a little hard on Marlowe to require him to have more charity in his soul than did the ministers of God in his own century.’

A perverted kind of generosity to Marlowe, for it is the imputation to him of the scurrilous opinions in the informer’s dossier based on the commentaries of these ‘reputable’ churchmen that is ‘a little hard’. What Kocher has conveniently forgotten is that Marlowe was not a churchman, but had turned away from a profession tainted with religious fanaticism, pedantry and hypocrisy, and, one might add, with lewdness. Nor was Marlowe a mere ‘reputable, excellent author’. He was a genius! His aspiring mind soared as far above the minds of these men with their obscene religious clap-trap as the mind of Socrates, or Giordano Bruno, or Dante Alighieri – or Sir Walter Raleigh and Northumberland and their brave fellow free-thinkers.

Kocher follows the fashion among scholars to pretend that the circle of free-thinkers led by Raleigh was just a figment of gossip. It is perfectly in order to credit any unsubstantiated gossipy recorded note on Marlowe’s ‘Atheism’ – as in Henry Oxinden’s commonplace book that he ‘was an atheist & had write a booke against Scripture’. (which becomes Kocher’s hypothetical manuscript on which Baines allegedly based his Note) but those same scholars who credit this recorded gossip, dismiss with skepticism the recorded gossip concerning Raleigh’s ‘little academie’ as a dubious myth. There is an astonishing reluctance to believe that it existed at all. Yet the organization of the free-thinkers was necessarily esoteric and secret, which it would have been highly unsafe to advertise, and more than reported rumour can hardly be expected. But that does not cast doubts on the reality of the circle. It rather testifies to the fact that such a club of intellectuals had to be secret, not open, and this accurately reflects the climate of the times. The late sixteenth century was marked by terrible exhibitions of religious intolerance with the active suppression of free thought and scientific questioning.

We are told that Raleigh and Northumberland held their meetings behind closed doors. Inevitably curious servants noted it, and pricked up their ears, and prying, ignorant, fearful minds commented. Something leaked out, and was exaggerated, distorted. Rumour spread that they met secretly for evil practices, such as raising the devil learning to spell GOD backwards! In conditions of secrecy superstition ran riot.

These same conditions vulgarized and distorted the truth about Marlowe’s opinions, which the informer Baines took full advantage of in collecting his damning indictment against the poet-dramatist. Raleigh and his circle of ‘heroicall spirits’ were a rare breed of courageous free-thinkers who represented the essence and core of the late English Renaissance. They were generally accused by their contemporaries of the sin of ‘pride’ – for daring to think freely – and stigmatized as ‘Atheists’, which was particularly flung at Raleigh. Northumberland, Hariot and Marlowe. This implies that Marlowe was a leading light in the circle. The particular form of their heretical thinking was allegedly the denial of the Holly Trinity. Speculative debate on this taboo subject was probably the theme of the ‘Atheist lecture’ that Marlowe is reputed to have read to Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle.

Kocher’s firm belief that Marlowe had written a serious polemic based on the ubiquitous obscenities against Christianity in the Baines, Note, and had then read this nonsense to the noble-minded Northumberland and Raleigh and his ‘deepe-brain’d’ friends is an incredible concoction. He even conjures up a picture of the attentive Baines listening to Marlowe’s lecture and taking down his notes verbatim. –though where this lecture is supposed to have taken place we are not told by Kocher, nor yet how the informer could have managed to insinuate himself into the secret meeting of the ‘School of Night’. Or was he listening at the key-hole? But then, Kocher does not seem to believe that this free-thinkers’ club actually existed although the references to it are as well documented as those to Marlowe’s alleged Atheist book,, which Kocher finds no difficulty in accepting as gospel.


As evidence of the existence of this ‘book’ he cites what he calls ‘the “That” clause’ in Baines’ Note:


‘On minute examination it appears that the statements attributed to Marlowe, even as they stand, reveal la progress and transition of ideas which strongly suggest that they form parts of an organized dissertation against Christianity . . . Particularly interesting is the “that” clause into which each statement is cast, (e.g. “That the first beginning Religioun was only to keep men in awe”) resembling the typical section or chapter heading of the renaissance treatise on theology. Thus the list as a whole has all the air of a series of formal propositions, each capable of support by a section of detailed argument, and all articulated into a single overarching design.’


How, then, does Kocher account for the fact that the informer’s note indicting Richard Cholmeley of Atheism is couched in exactly the same format? Each statement in this informer’s document also begins with a ‘That’ clause!


‘That hee saieth hee doeth entirely hate the Lord Chamberleyn & hath good cause to so doe.

‘That he saieth & verily believeth that one Marlowe is able to showe more sounde reasons for Atheisme then any devine in Englande is able to geve to prove devinitie & that Marloe tolde him that hee hath read the Atheist lecture to Sr Walter Raliegh & others.

‘That he saieth that hee hath certen men corrupted by his p[er]suasions who wilbee ready at all tymes & for all causes to sweare whatsoever seemeth good to him, Amonge whom is one Henry younge & Iasp[er] Borage& others.

‘That hee so highly esteemeth his owne witt & Iudgment that hee saieth that noman are sooner devyned and abused then the Council themselves.

‘That hee can goe beyonde & Cosen them as hee liste . . . “


There are twelve ‘That’ clauses in the this informer’s [Drury’s] report called: Remembrances of wordes & matters against Ric. Cholmeley. (B.L. Harl. MS. 6848 F. 190 recto and verso). Kocher is obviously ignorant of this document, although it belongs to the same Harleian manuscript collection as the Baines’ Note. His thesis is exposed as based on limited, narrow research directed by his prejudice approach. He has jumped to false conclusions based on gossip and bigotry in Marlowe’s day. These are the very things that almost destroyed this greatest genius of our dramatic literature.