The Bradley Affray

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





As so often when evidence survives, it is in the records of the law. In the autumn of 1589, Marlowe and Watson became involved in a fight with Watson’s enemy, a thug named William Bradley, who was out for Watson’s blood. Watson had gone to the aid of his brother-in-law, Hugh Swift, a lawyer engaged by the innkeeper, John Allen, to recover an outstanding debt of £14 from Bradley. [It should be noted that, although they spelled their names differently, John Allen was the brother of Edward Alleyn, the actor who worked closely with Christopher Marlowe for he played all of Marlowe’s leading characters: Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, and Barabas, the Jew of Malta]. Bradley had a record for brawling, and he now called in a pal of his with similar tastes, called George Orrell, a young man of truculent spirit described as one who ‘held his neck awry’ in that stance that commonly trumpets a challenge to all comers. Orrell visited Hugh Swift and threatened him with a beating up if he dared to take his friend Bradley to court. Swift thereupon lodged an appeal with the Queen’s Bench for sureties of the peace against George Orrell ‘being in fear of death & c.’


At this stage Tom Watson, it seems, joined forces with Swift and Allen to add the force of numbers in counter-threatening Bradley – who now lodged an appeal for sureties of the peace against Swift, Allen and Watson. Marlowe’s name is nowhere mentioned in all this. Whether Watson, who was noted for his witty repartee, had said something that had made Bradley smart with hatred of him, the upshot was that Bradley decided to attack Watson alone, and he was found lurking in Hog Lane, not far from Watson’s and Marlowe’s lodgings. When Marlowe passed that way in the early afternoon of 18th September, probably on his way to Burbage’s Theatre, Bradley either accosted him, or Marlowe, suspicious, may have asked him what he was doing there. Soon swords were drawn and they were locked in a duel. Attracted by the clash of steel a crowd assembled, and Watson himself appeared.


As soon s he saw Watson, Bradley turned to him with the shout: ‘Art thou now come, then I will have a bout with thee’, [This implies it was likely Bradley who instigated the fight with Marlowe] whereupon he ‘did leap upon Watson, clearly showing with whom his quarrel lay. Marlowe withdrew leaving the two to fight it out.

Bradley injured Watson, drawing blood. Watson was evidently an expert swordsman for he slew Bradley piercing him neatly through the heart. Watson knew the law, of course, and they waited by the dead man until the constables arrived to arrest him, when he pleaded homicide in self-defense (he had a wound to show for it) which would gain him the Queen’s pardon in due course under Elizabethan law. Both friends were taken to Newgate Gaol thereto make their statements and be lodged. Marlowe remained for thirteen days, and then was released on his recognizance of forty pounds, obtained from a lawyer of Clifford’s Inn and a horner of East Smithfield known to him.


When the case came up at the next Sessions on 3rd December, Sir Roger Manwood, who was probably Marlowe’s boyhood patron for his early education at the King’s School, was one of the judges on the Queen’s Bench. Sir Roger must have been gratified to hear that Marlowe’s part in this affair had been only peripheral and evidently innocent, for Bradley was obviously spoiling for a fight. He had come to Hog Lane with intent to do Watson an injury, if not to slay him, for he had craftily involved George Orrell, so that his, Bradley’s name, was in the clear, and then taken out sureties of the peace against Swift, Allen and Watson in his own name. he was probably aiming to do for Watson exactly what Weston did for him, and then intended to claim immunity by pleading homicide in self-defense. Hoisted by his own petard! Marlowe might have remarked, as was The Jew of Malta – the play he was probably then writing.


Watson’s plea of slaying in self-defense was accepted, and he finally obtained his release from Newgate with the Queen’s pardon on 12th February 1589/90 – a weary five months after the duel.