John Penry was a key figure in the religious tensions during Elizabeth I’s reign. One of the lesser known stories about John Penry is that to some he is linked with one of the greatest mysteries of the time, the death of Christopher Marlowe. The mystery would make a fascinating novel.
Penry entered Cambridge University’s Peterhouse College in 1580. In Cambridge he came under the influence of Puritanism. At the time, The Archbishop of Canterbury Whitgift introduced significant prohibitions on preaching and publishing to discourage Puritan ideas spreading throughout the country. Penry published a series of pamphlets using concealed printing presses criticising Whitgift and the Anglican church.
By doing this, Penry endangered his life. He published critical essays: in 1587 his A Treatise Containing the Aequity of a Humble Supplication was a serious critique of the critical spiritual condition of Wales. Such a dangerous attack led to an attempt to seize every one of the 500 copies of the work. As a result, the Archbishop imprisoned him for a month.
Undeterred, in 1588 Penry published An Exhortation and his Defence. In them, Penry asks for a better calibre of priests for Wales and complains about the delay in translating the Bible into Welsh, perhaps unaware of William Morgan’s efforts during 1587 and 1588 to translate the Bible. Penry held highly dangerous opinions in this turbulent period, given the threats from Spain, Catholics and Puritans.
Whitgift also searched for the authors and printing press of another critical piece of the government: the Martin Marprelate treatises, a piece highly critical of the government. It was suspected that Penry was behind them at the time. When the press was discovered, Penry and his family fled to Scotland in 1589 but secretly returned to London in 1592. He was identified by the Vicar of Stepney and Penry was arrested on 22 March 1593 and imprisoned in Poultry Compter prison. Other priests pleaded with him to return to compliance, but Penry refused.
He was sent to court on 21 May; he was accused of saying that the Queen had turned against Christ and that her Ministers of State were conspirators against God.
Penry appealed to William Cecil, the Lord Burleigh, appealing to his Welsh heritage to release him from the sentence of death by imploring him to remember his love for his fellow Welshmen. Cecil ignored the appeal. Penry was sentenced to death on 25 May 1593, but the execution was postponed until the 29th. On the afternoon of the execution, the sheriff entered Penry’s room in haste and escorted him directly to the gallows, without even informing his wife.
Penry died at five o’clock and had no opportunity – as was the custom – to give a brief address to bid farewell to the world. He died near St Thomas and Watering on the Old Kent Road and Penry Street in Southwark is named after him. The location of Penry’s grave is unknown.
Penry is thought by many historians to be a man ahead of his time. There have also been recent studies which promote the theory that his body was used in place of the well-known Tudor playwright Christopher Marlowe, allowing the author to flee after his ‘murder’. Peter Farey suggests that there was a conspiracy among the Elizabethan’s state’s most powerful people to protect him.
Marlowe was born in 1564 and educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge from 1580. He was one of Penry’s contemporaries. In 1587, the College refused to award him an M.A. because of his long absences and perhaps out of suspicion that he was following Catholicism. The College received a mysterious letter from the Privy Council informing them that Marlowe was absent due to his work on matters of importance to his country. One of the authors was Thomas Walsingham, a man with links to espionage. It raises serious questions about whether Marlowe was involved in this field.
Marlowe was one of England’s most prolific playwrights, famous for writing The Tragicall History of Dr Faustus. He was an equally gifted satirist, and these traits flow through the seditious Martin Marprelate’s essays. Some of the works were signed in the name of Martin Senior and Martin Junior suggesting that the work was in the hands of more than one. Dr Jean Jofen names Marlowe while scholar Lelan Carlson names Penry and Job Throckmorton as co-writers. It is possible that there may have been a connection between Penry and Marlowe.
On 20 May 1593, Marlowe was arrested and charged with heresy, the punishment for this being burning at the stake. Despite this serious accusation, Marlowe was released on condition that he report daily to an officer of the court. This was highly unusual; his friend Thomas Kyd was tortured for a confession.
On 30 May, after a day’s drinking at Eleanor Bull’s in Deptford, a heated debate arose between Marlowe and Ingram Frizer over who should pay the bill or ‘le recknynge’. Frizer took a knife and plunged the blade into Marlowe’s forehead. With them on the day were Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley.
Some historians argue that if Marlowe had fled he would have been a refugee for the rest of his life. The best solution would be to fake his death and adopt a new name. As mentioned before there is a suggestion that Marlowe had spied for his country. Marlowe was in the company of three men who had spied for the government. There was a plague in London and within 48 hours Marlowe’s body was buried in an anonymous grave. Strangely, within a month Frizer was pardoned and went to work for Marlowe’s old friend, Thomas Walsingham.
Penry was executed two miles away from Deptford. Due to its location, the inquest was conducted by a coroner for the Queen’s family: William Danby, a friend of William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. Burleigh was one of the signatories of a letter in support of Marlowe’s application for an M.A. Some argue that delaying Penry’s sentence and the sudden execution of the Welshman four days later provided an opportunity to ensure that the coroner witnessed Penry’s body and not Marlowe. Burleigh and the Earl of Essex had received a letter from Penry and knew of the Welshman’s sentence. One of the Essex men was Nicholas Skeres, who was present on the day of Marlowe’s murder and, according to the theory, it would have been easy for him to take Penry’s body and move the corpse to Deptford at night. When Marlowe’s body was examined on 1 June, the body was clothed with only the head visible. The body was examined by sixteen jurors. Some say it was easy to add a wound to Penry’s forehead. Coroners were also able to authorise the disposal of the bodies of executed criminals without their family having received or viewed the body.
The implication here is that there was ample opportunity to pretend that Marlowe was Penry’s body, allowing the playwright to flee to Europe and continue writing. One of the most extreme theories is that he is the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet the courage and conviction of John Penry cannot be doubted at such a turbulent time in our history.
Farey, P. (2012) Getting the Body to Deptford, The Marlow-Shakespeare Connection. Available at: https://marlowe-shakespeare.blogspot.com/2012/07/getting-body-to-deptford-by-peter-farey.html (Accessed: 8 March 2021).
Michell, J. (1996) Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Thames and Hudson.
More, D. A. (1996) Over Whose Dead Body – Drunken Sailor or Imprisoned Writer?, Marlowe Lives! Available at: https://www.marlovian.com/essays/penry.html (Accessed: 8 March 2021).
Nicholl, C. (2002) The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. London: Vintage.
- Featured image credit: Alison Courtney