Archive:The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

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Nicholl, Charles, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

pages 35-37

Chapter 4

Widow Bull

Although Frizer, skeres and Pley were the only people present when Marlowe was killed, there is one other figure in the immediate landscape of his death: Mrs. Eleanor Bull of Deptford, the owner of the house where he died.

It is often said that Marlowe died in a tavern, but there is no evidence for this. It is an interpolation from the fact that there was a bill or 'reckoning' over which Frizer and Marlowe allegedly argued, there was no lack of taverns in naval Deptford, but there is nothing to link Mrs. Bull with any of them, and if her house had been known by a sign it is likely that the inquest would have said so.

More probably she ran a lodging-house or victualling-house, a private establishment which offered accommodation and food, rather than a public 'place of resort'. It was common for home-owners to have their house licensed for this purpose. Marlowe's own father did just that in Canterbury in 1604, and was licensed to 'keep common victualling in his now dwelling-house'. The will of a London widow living near Fleet Street speaks of her receiving money from certain gentleman 'for their commons', and of her 'allowing to the said gentleman meat for their said money'. This is more like Widow Bull at Deptford Strand, and the four gentlemen who lunched and dined at her house, and passed the day in 'quiet mood', and were expected to pay a 'sum of pence' for what they had consumed.

Precisely where her house was is impossible to say. Deptford Strand covered an area which ran up along the river from Sayes Court to Deptford Creek, and inland from the river as far as the through-road from Greenwich to Rotherhithe (now called Evelyn Street, after the diarist John Evelyn, who lived at Sayes Court in the seventeenth century). It is not a big area, perhaps a quarter of a square mile, much of that taken up with the shipyards and storehouses, and the great swathe of the 'Common Green'.

In a map of Deptford Strand drawn in 1623 (Plate 3), the houses are clearly marked, about a hundred dwellings all told, straggling along the dirt road that led up from the riverside and looped around the Green. Most of the buildings looking on to the Green are substantial, detached houses. Elsewhere, especially in the dock-side alley between Middle and Lower Watergate, there are close-packed little tenements. Virtually all the houses give on to open ground of some sort, so the fact that Mrs Bull's property had a garden does not help to identify it.

We can guess, at least, that it was one of the bigger houses, because Eleanor Bull was a woman of substance, well-born and well-connected, not at all the shabby old ale-house keeper she is often portrayed as.

She was born Elanor Whitney, a member of an ancient border-country family whose seat was at Whitney-on-Wye, near Hereford. The Whitneys' history can be traced back to the thirteenth century. They provided generations of county knights, MPs and sheriffs. A generation before Elanor, James Whitney held minor court office as a Server of the Chamber to Henry VIII.

The Whitneys were related to another prominent local family, the Parrys of Bacton. In her will of 1589, Blanche Parry, Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber and long-time confidante of Queen Elizabeth, made several bequests to the Whitneys, including her god-daughter, Blanche Whitney, and her 'cousin' Eleanor nee Whitney, now Mrs. Bull of Deptford. Eleanor's legacy was a handsome 100 pounds, though it took the inconvenient form of a debt recoverable from a third party, a Mr. Montague. This was probably James Montague, who later became Dean of the Chapel Royal, and lived just downriver at Greenwich.

'Cousin' is a loose term, but an important one. In the extended tribalism of Elizabeth society it means something that Eleanor Bull could call a courtly lady like Blanche Parry her 'cousin'. Anorther of Blanche Parry's cousins was the great Elizabethen magus and mathematician, Dr John Dee: she was godmother to his son Arthur, as she was to one of the Whitney girls. Yet another who called her 'cousin' was the great Lord Burghley. He was, like Eleanor, a beneficiary of Blanche's will: there is a draft of it, still extant, in his own handwriting.

There is a point at which family connections grow tenuous, but technically speaking Eleanor Bull was related to Lord Burghley, the Lord Treasurer of England and still, in his last ailing years, the Queen's chief political adviser.

Like most well-breeched country families the Whitneys had London connections. Eleanor's uncle, John Whitney, lived at Lambeth, and she herself was married in London, her husband was Richard Bull. They were married at the church of St. Mary-le-Bow, on 14 October 1571. The next that is heard of them, they are in Deptford. There Richard Bull held the post of sub-bailiff at Sayes Court, the manor-house at Deptford. His immediate boss, the bailiff, was Sir George Howard, probably a kisman of the Lord Admiral who lived across the way on Deptford Green. As a local manor-official, Richard Bull would have been well-known to some of the jurors at the Marlowe inquest. To Henry Anger, for instance, who leased his house from Sayes Court; or to Robert Baldwin, the local miller, who supplied the manor-house bakery. They, and other jurors, would have known his widow, Eleanor Bull.

Richard Bull died in Deptford in the spring of 1590. He was buried on 9 April at St Nicholas's, where Marlowe would be buried in 1593. In the parish register, the vicar styles him 'gentleman'. Less than three years after the Marlowe affair, Eleanor herself died. She was buried, in the same little churchyard, on 19 March 1596. If she and her husband had any children they did not survive her. The beneficiary of her estate was George Bull, a yeoman of Harlow, Essex, who is described as her next-of-kin. He cannot have been her son. Any child of her marriage to Richard would have been less than twenty-five years old in 1596, and could not have had - as George Bull did - a married daughter. He may have been her step-son, or else some close family relation of her husband's. George Bull's bondsmen in his claim on Eleanor's estate were two London tradesmen, a clothworker and an ironmonger.

The truth about Eleanor Bull - what little we know of it - helps us reconstruct something of the tone of that day in Deptford. It takes us beyond the blandness of the official story, beyond the obscuring mythology. Marlowe died not in a tavern or bawdy-house, but in the house of a local official's widow. His hostess was a woman of standing, both by birth and marriage. She was some-one who could call on court connections if she needed, someone who might serve court connections if they needed.

Transcribed by Adrian Benjamin Burke, Esq.

Copyright © 2008, Adrian Benjamin Burke, Esq., and the Whitney Research Group.