My Christopher Marlowe studies have led me to Durham House, a regular and illustrious hangout for the poet in the late 1580s and early 1590s.
Durham House was a medieval palace gifted to Sir Walter Raleigh by Queen Elizabeth. It became his London townhouse from 1883 until the death of Elizabeth 20 years later. He spent a lot of money refurbishing it and had many fascinating visitors to admire the premises.
Raleigh, like Marlowe, came from humble origins. His piratical exploits at sea and colonial conquest of Ireland and Virginia made him one of the outstanding figures of his era. He had admirers from all fields of human activity. However, as Raleigh was also an accomplished poet and writer, he would have felt a special affinity with the young Canterbury poet who had rocked London with Tamburlaine the Great, a poetic tragedy in two parts.
Sir Walter clearly took the brilliant writer under his wing, and invited him to meetings of one of the most enigmatic salons in English history, The School of Night, also known as The School of Atheism. Next to nothing is known about the membership. Its presiding genius was arguably Thomas Harriot, scientist and writer. Henry Percy, the Wizard Earl of Northumberland, and occult poet George Chapman are among the other suspected members of a high-achieving Renaissance cabal who were disillusioned with the sectarianism of Reformation vs. Counter-Reformation and whose solution was atheism.
In a political theocracy like Elizabeth’s, this was a dangerous heresy. Renouncing the church meant renouncing the head of the church i.e. the monarch herself.
Marlowe’s visits to Durham House would entail his walking from Norton Folgate to the Charing Cross end of Strand where the front door and gatehouse were located. He may also have arrived by skiff as the house looked out onto the Thames.
In his unpublished play Killing Kit, poet Heathcote Williams imagines the interior of Raleigh’s study – with a little help from John Aubrey – as:
The room is filled with candles and has a magical quality: celestial mechanical devices; astrolabes; maps (Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum); marine charts; astronomical diagrams; chemical apparatus, and stuffed animals from Raleigh’s travels in the New World. A coat-of-arms with a bas-relief likeness of Raleigh is captioned ‘Dominus & Gubernator Virginiae’.
According to an informer, Richard Cholmeley, Marlowe is also thought to have “read the Atheist Lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others”. If this really happened, it was surely at Durham House.
Another snoop, Robert Baines, compiled a list of Christopher Marlowe’s alleged sayings which was shown as evidence to the Privy Council, almost certainly precipitating his murder shortly afterwards. http://www.rey.prestel.co.uk/baines1.htm
The property is long gone. Today the main clue to where the house used to stand is a street named after it. The RSA is cleverly tapping into the magical residue of the former ‘school’.
There is a modern house with the same name, but it’s not worth photographing.
I’m doing a walk for the wonderful Society Club on Saturday 18 February, but Durham House will fall outside the Shoreditch perimeters of that divagation.
Further experiments and explorations are being conducted under the auspices of another mysterious ensemble known as Walkative. You have been warned.