Sunday 9 June 2013

Christopher Marlowe's family and the birth of Modern English midwifery in Elizabethan Canterbury.

This is a speech that I delivered to the Marlowe Society in Canterbury on 8 June 2013:
                                                   An early Jacobean swaddled baby
A very important birth took place in Canterbury in the 1560s. It was that of modern English midwifery. Three years after the first son of John and Katherine Marlowe arrived in the parish of St. George the Martyr, the ancient profession finally received recognition and regulation. In the chapter house of Canterbury Cathedral, Archbishop Matthew Parker administered the first English oath of its kind to a woman named Eleanor Pead. The content of this oath, recorded in Strype’s Annals of the Reformation, illuminates the nature of childbirth in the period that Katherine bore her family, particularly post-Reformation concerns regarding the customs and superstitions of the lying-in room. It raises questions of baptism, witchcraft, violence, deception, illegitimacy and poverty in Christopher Marlowe’s city, which will form the basis of this talk. By 1567, Eleanor was an established practitioner: she may have been the midwife recorded as living near the Marlowes in their house on the corner of St George’s Street and St George’s Lane, or an associate of hers. There is even a chance that her experienced hands helped bring Christopher and his siblings into the world.
                                          This portrait is reputed to be of Christopher Marlowe

Katherine’s childbearing record is typical of its times. Over a period of fourteen years, she bore nine children. Five of them reached adulthood. The average interval between the birth of one and conception of another was thirteen months, suggesting that she was breastfeeding for the recommended period of a year, although these intervals did vary. For example, after Christopher’s birth, her next recorded conception, with her daughter Margaret, did not occur for over two years, whereas, after the deliveries of both Jane and the first boy called Thomas, she fell pregnant again in only three months. This was a fairly punishing physical regime, with each additional child increasing her risk of mortality, taking a further toll on her body and adding to her domestic workload. In enduring this, as well as the general contemporary perils to health and the virulent outbreaks of bubonic plague that decimated the Marlowe’s parish by a third in 1564 and again, by a half in 1575, Katherine proved herself to be a survivor. Others in her immediate circle of family and friends were not so fortunate.

The twenty year old John Marlowe arrived in Canterbury in 1556, having grown up in nearby Ospringe. Three years later he was apprenticed to shoemaker Gerard Richardson and two years after that, on May 22 1561, he was married to Katherine Arthur of Dover. Their first child was conceived three months later. This again, was typical. My analysis of the parish records of a number of Essex towns and villages indicates that around one in five brides were already in their first trimester at the time of marriage, a further one in eight conceived around the time of the ceremony, giving birth almost exactly nine months later, whilst a quarter, like Katherine, fell pregnant in the first three months. Medical texts of the era did describe the act of love, giving clues about the way performance and ritual could influence conception but I prefer to let John and Katherine’s son draw a more poetic veil over the occasion. So, taken from his translation of Ovid’s fifth elegy:

“Stark naked as she stood before myne eye

Not one wen in her body could I spy.

What arms and shoulders did I touch and see

How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!

How smooth a belly under her waist saw I

How large a leg and what a lusty thigh.

To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,

I clinged her naked body, down she fell.”

                                    The Marlowes' house, destroyed by bombing in 1942.

There were no over-the-counter pregnancy tests in Katherine’s day. Doctors may have diagnosed her condition by examining her urine, with one text of 1552 describing that of a pregnant woman as a “clear pale lemon colour leaning towards off-white, having a cloud on its surface.” The practise of mixing wine with urine may actually have produced reliable results, as alcohol does actually react with some elements of urine. Other sources recommended observing a needle left to rust or a nettle turning black when placed in the liquid. Without reliable diagnostic tools, Katherine would have begun to wonder if she was expecting in the summer of 1561 yet she could not be absolutely certain until her quickening, at around five months, that October. Some women mistook the signs altogether. As recently as 1555 and 1557, Queen Mary had undergone two phantom pregnancies, sadly, producing no child from her swollen belly even though the first reputed birth was reported and celebrated in London. The Marlowe’s daughter, Mary, arrived a year after their wedding and was christened in the church of St George the Martyr on 21 May 1562, the day before their first anniversary.

All that remains of the church of St George the Martyr, where the Marlowe children were baptised

 Almost exactly a year later, Katherine conceived for a second time. This interval is highly suggestive. Setting aside the more complex questions of fertility, abstinence and rudimentary birth control, it implies that like most women outside the aristocracy, Katherine Marlowe breastfed her baby. Royalty and noblewomen usually hired wet nurses to allow them to resume their duties earlier and for their fertility to more quickly return. Breastfeeding was convenient, safe and reliable for infants of the Marlowe’s class and, in theory, its contraceptive benefits could protect the recovering mother from conceiving again too quickly. In Christopher Marlowe’s plays, the breast is often synonymous with life. In Tamburlaine, “life and soul hover” in the breast, and it is frequently offered as a place which will accommodate a weapon or death-wound, resulting in the loss of life. Dido claims that Aeneas was suckled by “tigers of Hercynia,” echoing the belief that babies could imbibe the characteristics of the creature that suckled them, in this case, a fierce cruelty. More mundanely, Elizabethan advice warned the suckling mother to avoid harsh flavours such as garlic and spices and not to drink strong alcohol.

Katherine may also have used some of the folklore remedies from this time to assist her milk flow, such as wearing a gold or steel chain between her breasts or following the strange ritual of sipping milk taken from a cow of a single colour and spitting it out into a stream. Equally she may have used common herbs such as mallow, mint and even bitter wormwood to soothe sore breasts or lain cabbage leaves on them. Baby girls were traditionally suckled for less time than boys, as they were considered to be more independent. Their brothers often continued at the breast for up to two years, so it is interesting to note that after Christopher’s birth in February 1564, Katherine is not recorded as having conceived again for twenty-five months. She fell pregnant with their third child, Margaret, in March 1566.

For Katherine, six more children would follow. Of them, the next three would be lost before reaching adulthood; two sons born in October 1568 and the summer of 1570 would die soon after birth. Within weeks of the first loss, Katherine had conceived her daughter Jane, who arrived between these two, on August 20, 1569. This new baby survived the process of delivery, and the dangerous years of childhood, only to die at the age of thirteen: I will be returning to her fate later. Other mothers in Canterbury and the surrounding areas experienced similar patterns of conception to Katherine. The wife of Harry Finch, also resident in the parish of St George the Martyr, delivered six surviving children in nine years, with an average interval of a year between each one. Anne Finch of nearby Faversham conceived more quickly after delivery, at around ten months on average, whilst Dorothee Finch, also of Faversham, had a longer average conception interval of fourteen months. These records though, do not include the losses that women sustained when pregnancies did not reach full term or resulted in stillbirth.

Infant mortality rates during the Elizabethan period were shockingly high. A regular feature of parish registers is the record of an infant’s birth and death taking place on the same day, when circumstances necessitated christening by the midwife at home. Part of Canterbury midwife Eleanor Pead’s oath required her to swear to use the phrase, “I christen thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” rather than using “profane words” and to perform the baptism with plain water, instead of than the more fashionable rose or damask perfumed water. Otherwise, like Christopher, the Marlowe’s later children were baptised in the thirteenth century octagonal font in the nearby church of St George the Martyr.
                             An early Jacobean baby, William Larkin, dressed in his finery

The Marlowes were more lucky with their final children, Anne, Dorothy and Thomas number two, who were born in 1571, 1573 and 1576 and all lived to adulthood. In fact, the family’s rate of infant mortality, losing one in three as children and a further daughter in her teens, was better than many. The gap of three years between the final two children could perhaps indicate the dwindling of Katherine’s fertility, as a similar pattern can be seen in other women’s childbearing records, such as Anne Finch of Faversham, whose final baby came almost four years after her penultimate one. Perhaps the Marlowes assumed there would be no more children and were caught out. There is also the possibility that other pregnancies occurred during this time but were not carried to term and would not therefore, be recorded, or that the pair deliberately practised some form of birth control or abstinence. This period did coincide with a virulent outbreak of the plague in the city, so survival rather than reproduction may have been the priority. In the previous outbreak, John Marlowe had seen his friend Harman Verson’s entire family wiped out.


What was the process of delivery like for an Elizabethan mother like Katherine ? She would have borne her children at home, which was not as routine as it sounds. Some young wives chose to labour in the homes of their parents but Katherine’s Dover roots, although not prohibitive, made a Canterbury birth easier. She probably lay in a four poster bed, with its flock mattress and curtains hanging from rods, an example of which is listed in a 1605 inventory of her goods. In the days leading up to her confinement, she would have waddled across to St George’s church to take communion, the blessing of which would extend to her unborn child during the approaching period of danger. And it was a very real danger, which mother and baby would be lucky to survive.

Even though she knew what to expect by the 1570s, Katherine’s chances of injury, infection and death increased with each child she bore, and mindful of the danger, she may have turned to some of the birthing talismen or charms of the day. Women typically used a variety of items such as gem stones, pieces of tin, cheese or butter engraved with charms, belts hung with cowrie shells, as well as potions including such strange ingredients as powdered ants’ eggs. As there was no pain relief in the modern sense, these may have acted as a panacea by giving a woman some limited degree of control or sense of ownership over a frightening and painful ordeal. Anything that helped the mother to relax, as far as possible, could have contributed to an easier labour.

Also used as birthing aids were girdles, of a real or symbolic nature. Mephistopheles makes Dr Faustus invisible by the use of a magic girdle, which was the traditional item that English queens used to wear to assist labour before the Reformation. Elizabeth of York and Catherine of Aragon wore the Westminster girdle of Our Lady but the destruction of relics and icons in the 1530s and 40s substituted their reputed healing power with something more sinister, which Marlowe exploits in the play.
                                                            Dr Faustus and the Devil

According to custom, John would have been excluded from the birth room and Katherine would have put herself in the capable hands of a midwife and several attending women, or gossips. So long as the child presented itself head first and everything else was relatively straight-forward, her labour would have progressed well. If the baby was breech, or an arm or leg showed first, then her chances of survival began to decrease. As part of her oath, Eleanor Pead swore that she would “be ready to help poor as well as rich women in labour” and that she would not “dismember, destroy or pull off” the limb of any child during the process. Sometimes, when a son was desired, the baby was stillborn or a live child was born with what was considered some form of defect, it was substituted for another. The bizarre case of Agnes Bowker, in 1569, saw her and her midwife claiming that she had delivered the skinned body of a dead cat, in circumstances and for motives that are still unclear. Two years earlier, Eleanor had sworn not to “suffer any other body’s child to be brought to the place of a natural child.”

Labouring mothers were also thought to be vulnerable to supernatural influences as they hovering on the margin of life and death and in the eyes of the church, midwives were uniquely placed to exploit this. Clergymen worried about the use of charms and old practises associated with witchcraft, magic and Pagan rites, suspecting them of making extra money by supplying witches with items for their cauldrons.
                                              Shakespeare's witches from Macbeth

Eleanor’s oath forbade her from retaining such items as the caul, placenta and umbilical cord, even body parts, like Shakespeare’s “finger of birth-strangled babe,” delivered in a ditch. There was a particular traffic in cauls, as these were believed to have powers to protect the bearer from drowning, so they were much sought after by sailors.  We also have Faustus at one stage proposing to build an altar and a church to Beelzebub and offer him “lukewarm blood of new born babes.” Many of the herbs associated with childbirth, which were used by midwives came with associated rituals, such as being picked in moonlight or at midnight whilst a charm was muttered. Thus, the midwife, who was usually a woman of experienced years, also a repository of women’s secrets and skills, could easily attract an accusation of witchcraft. In 1566, when the future James I was born in Scotland, an attendant to his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, is reputed to have used sorcery to attempt to divert her labour pains to another woman.

In Elegy eight, Marlowe depicts a matchmaker called Dipsas, a medical woman or witch, whom he calls a “trot,” after the twelfth century female doctor Trotula, also Chaucer’s Dame Trot:

“She magic arts and Thessale charms doth know

And makes large streams back to their fountains flow.

She knows with grass, with threads on wrong wheels spun

And what, with mares’ rank humour may be done.

When she will, clouds the darken’d heaven obscure,

When she will, day shines everywhere most pure.”

When Christopher was seven years old, a Mother Hudson, of the parish of St Mary’s, near the Donjeon, not too far removed from the Marlowe’s home, was presented before a Grand Jury under suspicion of witchcraft. No doubt such a case would have been the subject of local gossip. Later, the playwright would depict Faustus being seduced by the concealed arts, which he considers enticing, challenging and superior; “both law and physic are for petty wits, ‘tis magic, magic, that ravished me,” and he feeds or “surfeits upon necromancy.” The elegy’s trot, Dispas, “with long charms the solid earth divides” and can “draw chaste women to incontinence.” Midwife Eleanor swore “I will not use any kind of sorcery or incantations in the time of travail of any woman.”

Returning to births in the Marlowe family, it transpired that Katherine’s daughter Jane, born in 1569 was less fortunate than her mother. She married young, at just twelve and died in childbirth the following year. While such an experience feels horrific to a modern audience, it was not uncommon at the time, being determined by the onset of puberty in the girl concerned, in line with the contemporary age of consent.

Jane Marlowe’s age, or perhaps her correlative size, could well have been factors in her death. Equally though, she could have been the victim of circumstances or the imperfect contemporary understanding of hygiene. Roger Schofield’s essay “Did the Mothers Really Die?” estimates that just under one per cent of Elizabethan mothers died in childbed, although in cities, such as London’s densely packed Aldgate, other studies indicate the figure was more like 2.35 per cent. Ian Mortimer, author of the popular Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, places it at two per cent, or one in fifty. Having lost siblings, Christopher was aware of the fragility of life, a common Elizabethan motif that finds its way into the literature of the times; perhaps most apt is Tamburlaine’s comment “our life is frail and we may die today.”  When it came to saving the lives of mother and child, a midwife’s interventions in such cases could range from the minimal to the downright harmful. The Elizabethans believed that illness and infection were transmitted through smell, hence the use of elaborate nosegays and pomanders as well as the beaks of later plague doctors, yet there was little understanding of the need to wash hands and prevent cross-contamination. The dirty hands of midwives must have cost many maternal lives.


One of the reasons for the introduction of Eleanor Pead’s oath was illegitimacy. Her vows were drafted in tandem with the new phase of Elizabethan Poor Laws and were part of a wider attempt to track down the fathers of such children and make them accept social and financial responsibility. Illegitimate children would have been cared for at the expense of the parish in which they were born, so the church was keen to ensure that parents were held accountable. Eleanor’s oath is placed between the 1563 law to categorised the different types of poor, and the 1574 imposition of compulsory taxes to support those in need. Illegitimacy was a problem in Elizabethan England; not necessarily of epic proportions but it was a culture that was very conscious of an individual’s origins.

                                             Contemporary image of an Elizabethan beggar

When Christopher Marlowe uses the words “born” and “birth” in his plays, it is primarily to identify a person’s social rank, indicating when upstarts are attempting to overreach their station. The next most common occurrence is when a character is described as base-born, of lowly birth and, as a result, of a crude and vulgar disposition. In some cases in his works, individuals identify the correlation between the positions of the stars in the heavens and the moment of their birth, inferring some greater destiny, beyond their mean origins. In Marlowe’s time, baseness and illegitimacy were considered key indicators of a person’s worth. In the Baines Note, the Harley Manuscript testimony of Richard Baines, which reputedly contained “the opinion of one Christopher Marley concerning his damnable judgement of religion and scorn of the word of God,” perhaps the worst blasphemy of all, is the assertion that, (and I quote) “Christ was a bastard.”

The midwife could be a figure of dread to an unmarried mother, playing an increasingly central role in court paternity examinations and the report of illegitimate births, such as the 1573 labour of spinster Agnes Hollway in Canterbury, which was reported to the ecclesiastical court. One of the key duties of the new profession was the attribution of paternity in cases of babies born to unmarried mothers. The midwife was expected to take advantage of the woman’s debility and fear, in the most extreme moments of labour, to cross-question her and ascertain the father’s identity. For the labouring mother, afraid and often deserted by the father, it meant that the one person on whom she was most hoping to rely, was also the one she could least trust. The court rolls include phrases from examinations such as  “when she was in peril of her life and to her thinking more likely to die than to live” and “being in very grievous pain and great peril of death before the midwife until her deliverance.”

Cases in East Kent indicate that illegitimate births were not uncommon. In the parish of Rolvenden, in the Kent countryside but still in the Canterbury diocese, Margery Deedes, a midwife and four other women who had attended the delivery of Anne Jones were summoned to the local court to answer concerning the child’s paternity. Another baptismal record there, of 1570, contains the additional note “the mother has confessed before the midwife and other honest women at the very birth of the child.” One Canterbury man, a baker from the Westgate area, called John Davison, was summoned to appear and answer concerning being the reputed father of a bastard child born to Annis Ferriman, a spinster of Chartham. The punishments could be severe, with fathers being required to make weekly payments until the child reached a certain age, sometimes thirteen, or whenever they could earn their own living. The parents could expect to be stripped to the waist and flogged in the streets, often in front of the church or market place after evening or Sunday prayers. One grisly ruling required that both were whipped “until the blood shall flow”.

In Canterbury, women considered to have been living wanton lives were publicly shamed. In 1537, the wife of John Tyler, was presented before the Grand Jury for “living viciously… for the which her husband hath forsaken her and the Jury desire she may be banished by the feast of St James next, under the pain of open punishment in the ducking stool.” The year after the Marlowes were married, the jury were presented with “the wife of Stephen Colyer, for that she is not of good name, nor fame, but liveth viciously; for the which she hath been divers times banished, out of one ward into another, and in conclusion banished by all the Council of the Shire of Canterbury; and that, notwithstanding, she is abiding in the city, viciously and idly using herself.” It is interesting that neither woman is identified by their given name, instead being called “the wife of,” as their behaviour was reprehensible for the shame it cast upon their husband and the institute of marriage.

Christopher Marlowe’s fourth elegy depicts an adulterous relationship, through the eyes of a male protagonist lusting after a married woman:

“Thy husband to a banquet goes with me

Pray God it may his latest supper be

Shall I sit gazing as a bashful guest

While others touch the damsel I love best?”

“Mingle not thighs nor to his leg join thine

Nor thy soft foot with his hard foot combine.”

Clearly there was a fair bit of thigh mingling going on among the bachelors and spinsters of Canterbury. Whilst mothers who produced illegitimate children could not deny the fact, men who were judged to have fathered illegitimate offspring could be fined and jailed if they refused to comply. Another of the many inequalities in the expectations of male and female behaviour governed the question of rape. Women were thought only to be able to conceive if they had experienced pleasure during intercourse, so if a woman fell pregnant as a result of a forced encounter, her allegation was considered invalid. It is not surprising then, that some resorted to desperate measures, attempting to bring about a self-inflicted abortion by the use of certain herbs, which might have no effect at all or sometimes result in the death of the mother herself. Sadly, there were also cases of abandonment and infanticide in the city, prompted by social pressure or misunderstood post natal depression. If proven by witnesses, these could result in the sentence of death being passed on the perpetrator, who was usually the mother.

To explore the childbearing record of Katherine Marlowe, in the context of the oath sworn by Eleanor Pead, is to open an Elizabethan dialogue of paradoxes. It evokes the nature of pregnancy and birth as characterised by questions of life and death, frailty and survival, suffering and rejoicing. During delivery, women experienced real and inescapable fears about their own survival, which, for unmarried mothers translated as an uneasy relationship with their midwife, of dependency, denial and exploitation, legitimacy and illegitimacy, acceptance and rejection, nurture and abandonment. In attempting to gain some degree of ownership over their labouring bodies, women like Katherine may have employed some of the old superstitious methods, against which the church reacted in a battle of religion against magic. In the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral, with the potential abuses of midwifery considered worthy of legislation, Christopher Marlowe and his siblings arrived in the world at a significant moment.


  1. Worth a retweet. Like that you mentioned Jane Marlowe.

  2. Thanks very much Larry, glad you enjoyed it. Not many people do seem to know about Jane- a tragic story but sadly, not untypical of the times.

  3. A fascinating and extensively researched post.


  4. Hi Judith, thank you very much for that. Canterbury is my hometown and my in-laws used to run a bookshop in a building that used to be Marlowe's uncle's grocers shop!

  5. Thanks for the interesting post. However, I am wondering about birthing in bed. Were birthing stools often in use in Marlowe's time?

  6. This was so helpful for my English project. Thanks so much. You're so dope.

  7. Excellent! Thank you. I came looking for insight into whether anyone alive today could provide DNA to prove the remains of a body belonged to Christopher Marlowe. I am a Marlovian. According to my theory, Marlowe likely died and was buried at Jamestown, Virginia Colony, shortly after the Indian uprising of March 22, 1622. A project called Jamestown Rediscovery (of which I am not affiliated) has been active since the 1990s diigging in and around Jamestown for artifacts and remains of the earliest colonists. Many surprising and mysterious discoveries have been made. For example, a Catholic reliquary box found at a gravesite next to skeletal remains. The little box was made of pure silver of Continental origin with a big letter M (for Marlowe?) scratched on top. So, what do you think? If someone wanted to analyze the DNA of some skeleton, could a living member of the Marlowe lineage provide DNA for comparison. It was done successfully for King Richard III when his remains were uncovered a few years ago beneath a parking lot in England. For more info about my Marlovian theory, google "The Malta Theory" along with Marlowe or Shakespeare. Thank you.

    1. Hello. Thank you for your comment. I’m afraid l don’t buy it, though. I’m sure you’re aware of the existence of the Queen’s coroner’s report discovered in 1925, and the record of Marlowe’s burial. That’s more convincing to me than the fact that one person in the colony had the initial M and someone (as many were) was Catholic. Far more compelling, though, is the internal evidence from Shakespeare’s plays that the author was present in England during their composition. They are clearly time- sensitive products of the unfolding English culture in content, such as Macbeth as a response to James I’s specific fears and in practicality, such as the necessity of regularly entering every new play in the official register. With the best will and skills, the infrequency of Transatlantic travel wouldn’t have allowed a transatlantic author to represent post 1590s England in the way that this clearly Anglo-centric playwright did.