Baines Note

The most enigmatic and controversial record of Christopher Marlowe is the so-called Baines note. Whether written himself or merely dictated, Richard Baines, the unsuccessful spy from the English College and Flushing, put down on paper A note containing the opinion of on Christopher Marly concerning his damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of Godes word.1 The title here is programme: Marlowe would have said that Moses was a trickster, religion only serves to oppress the people, Jesus was the son of a dishonourable mother and bedfellow of John, that he himself could invent a better religion, and so on. Besides, he, Christopher Marlowe, would have the same right to mint coins as the Queen of England. All this should not really be a secret, since Marlowe tried to convert everyone he met to atheism. Nevertheless, none other than Richard Baines, of all people, had found the time to inform the authorities.

It is now impossible to trace when the Baines note was written, who received it and whether it was passed on to anyone. To make matters worse, there are two versions. The first version is undated, even though one repeatedly reads that it dates from 6 June 1593. The second version is entitled A note delivered on whitsun eve last of the most horrible blasphemes and Damnable opinions uttered by Xpofer Marly who w[i]thin iii d[a]yes after came to a sudden & fearfull end of his life.2 According to this, this document was handed over on Whitsun Saturday. That was 11 June in England in 1593. Marlowe did not die three days later, however, but two days earlier. It is also noteworthy that in this version all passages that had nothing to do with Marlowe’s supposed views on religion were removed. The same happened to the marginal reference to Walter Raleigh and Thomas Harriot. Furthermore, another handwriting noted "Copye of Marlowes blasphemyes as sent to her H." Whether it actually behaved in this way is questionable. The manuscript is not a fair copy, but looks more like a memo that was hardly sent to the Queen in this form. Moreover, both versions of the Baines Note are not in the Queen’s papers, but in those of the Lord Privy Seal John Puckering.3

Did Baines write the allegations before or after Marlowe’s death? Do the statements really all come from Marlowe? Why did Baines put them on record in the first place? If one takes into account the (few) facts that are available and considers the circumstances in Elizabethan England in the 1590s, certain probabilities can be identified, but no satisfactory answers can be given.

Although England, unlike Spain, for example, was considered quite liberal, it was neither the right time nor the right place to give free rein to one’s thoughts.4 From today’s perspective, ridiculous remarks could quickly get one into life-threatening trouble. Compared to the Baines note, the Dutch Church Libel or the copy from The Fall of the Late Arrian found at Thomas Kyd are downright harmless. Nevertheless, Kyd was arrested, possibly tortured5 , dropped by his aristocratic patron and found no new employment until his death. Had the Privy Council or any other authoritative body been aware of the contents of the Baines Note during Marlowe’s lifetime, or been convinced of its credibility, it seems highly unlikely that no action would have been taken against Marlowe, or that he would have been released only on the condition that he report daily.

Whoever the creator of the Baines note was, he was not particularly imaginative. Marlowe’s alleged statements about atheism and homosexuality are surprisingly reminiscent of the accusations made by Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundell against Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford in 1580.6 These ultimately proved to be completely baseless. As Alec Ryrie explains more fully in Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, you didn’t have to invent such statements, you could read them. Put simply, there were atheist stereotypes that could be deployed as needed.7 This would also explain numerous other parallels. Thomas Kyd wrote two letters after his arrest, and almost certainly after Marlowe’s death, in which he describes Marlowe in a strikingly similar way as Richard Baines. Yet, as already mentioned, these statements are not very original. Roy Kendall compared the two confessions of Baines from Rheims with his information about Marlowe and discovered numerous similarities. The fact that Baines swore an oath that he had written down only the truth about Marlowe and attested to this with his signature is not worth much when one considers that ten years earlier he confirmed in exactly the same way that he would renounce all Lutheran as well as Calvinist heresies in order to return to the bosom of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.8 Both Baines and Kyd stressed that Marlowe had made his vile views known everywhere and to everyone. If Marlowe had really proclaimed all this loudly everywhere, one has to wonder how such a dangerous subject could have remained unmolested for so long. According to his own statements, Kyd had known Marlowe for at least two years and since Flushing he was no stranger to Baines either. Nevertheless, it did not occur to either of them – independently of each other, or not – to inform the authorities about him until June 1593.

"But that Marlowe said all of these things, and that he said them to 'almost all men with whom he hath conversed', is surely too good – or rather too bad – to be true. This document, which has perplexed and scandalised Marlowe’s biographers for centuries, tells us nothing for certain except that Richard Baines wished to accuse Marlowe of heresy."9

The truth of the Baines note may be doubted, perhaps not entirely, but to a large extent. Until more details about the life of Baines became known in the second half of the 20th century, it was assumed, with few exceptions, that the Baines note was the "[…] master key to the mind of Marlowe. "10 This is no longer the case. Nevertheless, the document enjoys great popularity. In October 1980, a performance of Doctor Faustus at Jesus College, Cambridge, began in earnest with the reading of the Baines Note.11 As if anything could be found in it for the better understanding of the play! What does the Baines note tell us about Christopher Marlowe? Perhaps it tells us a little about Marlowe’s character and views, but one can assume that at most a minimum of the statements, if any, were actually made by Marlowe in this form. But more importantly, the Baines note tells us absolutely nothing about Marlowe’s work.

Bray, Alan. 1990. “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England.” History Workshop Journal 29 (1): 1–19.
Meissner, Paul. 1952. England im Zeitalter von Humanismus, Renaissance und Reformation. Heidelberg: Kerle.
Ryrie, Alec. 2019. Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. London: William Collins.

  1. BL Harley MS.6848 f.185r-186r↩︎
  2. BL Harley MS.6853 f.307-8↩︎
  3. Downie (2007)↩︎
  4. Meissner (1952)↩︎
  5. Owens (2006)↩︎
  6. Bray (1990)↩︎
  7. Ryrie (2019)↩︎
  8. Kendall (1994)↩︎
  9. Nicholl (2002), 323↩︎
  10. Kocher (1946), 33↩︎
  11. Potter (2000)↩︎

Aktualisiert am 23.05.2024

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