May 30 is my favourite day in the entire historical calendar. Today in 1445 Margaret of Anjou, my very favourite historical figure ever, was crowned at Westminster Abbey. And today in 1593 Christopher Marlowe – playwright, atheist, spy, Queen’s man, man’s man, man about town – was stabbed in the eye in a pub fight in Deptford.
Of course we mostly see both of them through the lens of Shakespeare. Margaret is the biggest character Shakespeare ever wrote – she spans four plays, the three Henry VIs and Richard III, from age 14 to age ghost. She flirts, schemes, stabs people, suffers, triumphs and mourns. And Marlowe is Shakespeare’s sexy ne’er-do-well older brother. Marlowe picks theological fights, mocks Jesus, spies for the Queen and has bumsex with male students. Shakespeare sits around speculating in grain, dreaming of the upper middle class and a nice coat of arms. (It’s so tempting to want Shakespeare to have a cracking sexy backstory like Marlowe’s. I’m convinced this is the entire reason behind the ‘Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’ authorship hypothesis – it involves the Gay Atheist Spy faking his own death to write the works of Shakespeare and wouldn’t that be just so cool?!?!)
They were both very young when their May 30 event happened – Margaret had just turned 15, and Marlowe was 29.
Margaret was on the ascendant. She had married Henry VI of England by proxy in France and travelled to England in the style of a Queen of England, where she married Henry in person in April 1445. In May she travelled to London for her coronation, and at every stop, she was entertained with pageants and shows on the theme of peace. Margaret’s marriage and queenship represented peace between England and France, and she took her rights and responsibilities extremely seriously. (Her focus on the Lancastrian right would be something of a theme of the Wars of the Roses.)
Marlowe was coming down. He had been an excellent student at Cambridge (he would), was a popular playwright, had intriguing connections with the secret service and had travelled in both the glittering and the seedy parts of northern Europe. But Marlowe was also a bit of a smart mouth about religion, which was bad news as England was becoming increasingly tense about both Protestant refugees from Europe and potential Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth. He was arrested for heresy on May 20 (and released). He spent May 30 in an inn with three other intelligence agent types, who probably murdered him.
What’s attractive about both of them to me is something very modern. Margaret of Anjou and Christopher Marlowe basically go ‘fuck you, I’m right’ to the world. They’re both half legendary, and that legend is incredibly appealing: confident, self-assured, sexually assertive and satisfied, lively and active. And on May 30 their legends are at the height – Margaret celebrating the absolute right of Lancastrian queenship, and Marlowe in a scruffy dramatic bar brawl with spies.
There are other iconoclasts in medieval and early modern English history, but I don’t think there are any with such powerful myths as these two. So happy Coronation Stabbed-in-the-Eye Day! They’re both pretty great, but maybe try to celebrate it Margaret-style rather than Marlowe-style.