Secret History of the Sword: Dead Poets Society—Rencontre in Hog Lane, 1589

Despite their distinct dislike for things Catholic and South European, Elizabethans were suckers for Italian fencing techniques and concepts of honor and dueling.

Some of the most prominent figures of the cultural elite of the period engaged in Italian-style swordplay. Among them was the poet Christopher Marlowe, whom we’re catching on an Indian summer afternoon on the outskirts of London, sword in hand, and ready to engage in moderate mayhem…

—by Mark Eccles (1)

On the afternoon of September 28, 1589, between two and three o’clock, William Bradley and “Christoferus Morley” of London, gentleman, were fighting together in Hog Lane.

Thus abruptly does the framer of the indictment at the coroner’s inquest the next day begin his tale. He says nothing about how the combat began, whether it was Marlowe or Bradley who gave the provocation, or whether the two men were enemies who fought on sight. Leaving all such matters to the imagination, he plunges, as Marlowe’s companion was to do, into the midst of the fray.

The people in the street, seeing swords flashing, raised a clamor. Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet (I.i.80), gives us the cry of the citizens at such a time:

“Clubs, bills, and partisans! Strike! Beat them down!”

Thomas Watson of London, gentleman, was evidently close at hand. He drew his sword, like Romeo, to separate the men and keep the Queen’s peace. Such, at least, is the pacific motive with which the coroner’s jury credits him. But Marlowe was more wary than Mercutio, or perhaps only more weary by now and ready to welcome a rest. Instead of risking a wound under his friend’s arm, he drew back and ceased from fighting.

Bradley, however, was in no mood to stop. He saw Watson, with drawn sword, coming between him and his opponent, and instantly turned to meet his new enemy.

“Art thou now come?” he called out. “Then I will have a bout with thee.”

These, except for proper names, are the only English words in the record. They suggest that the quarrel was more than a moment’s standing: that the new enemy was also an old one.

At once Bradley flung himself on Watson and attacked him not only with his sword in one hand, but also with a dagger in the other.

With these weapons Bradley succeeded in cutting and wounding Watson so severely that his life was despaired of. Watson protected himself as best as he could with his sword. To save himself, he even retreated as far as a certain ditch in Hog Lane; but beyond this limit he could not flee without the peril of his life.

Bradley, following up his advantage, pursued his adversary to continue the assault. Watson had no way of escape; and thereupon, for the saving of his own life, he struck Bradley a mortal blow. The sword entered the right breast near the nipple, making a wound an inch in breadth and six inches deep.

Of this mortal blow, at Finsbury in the county of Middlesex, William Bradley instantly died.

On September 28, 1589, Watson and Marlowe were arrested for the murder of William Bradley and committed to Newgate prison. The next day, the coroner held an inquest upon Bradley’s death. The jury determined that Watson had acted in self-defense. Marlowe was admitted to bail on October 1 and freed on signing a recognizance in the sum of forty pounds. Watson was incarcerated to await the Queen’s mercy.

He was pardoned on February 12, 1590, and died two and a half years later. Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer—a property speculator, commodities broker, and confidence man—at an inn at Deptford on May 30, 1593—yet another great Elizabethan murder mystery.

(I included this snapshot of Elizabethan reality in The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Art, Burbank: Multi-Media, 1998.)

Endnotes: 

1—Eccles, Mark    Christopher Marlowe in London, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934; p. 9f. Albeit scholarly to the core, this book is a highly readable piece of detective work with fascinating insights into both the origins of the incident, the personalities involved, and the legal system of Tudor London.

2—According to the author’s research, this particular road was in the vicinity of Finbury Fields, “frequented by duelists as well as by archers.” Eccles reasons: “Since Marlowe and Bradley met in a place so convenient for dueling, their coming together in Hog Lane may not have been entirely premeditated. (..) Since Bradley had already sought sureties of the peace against Watson and his friends, the chances are that he had either challenged or been challenged by Marlowe or Watson to settle their quarrel in the fields.” (p. 121).

3—The poet of A Passionate Century of Love and friend of Marlowe’s.

4—Rapier and dagger are, of course, the weapons of choice used by fashionable gentleman in Elizabethan London. It is interesting to note, however, that Watson does not have a dagger—the lack thereof could shed some doubt on the author’s insinuation that the incident was a premeditated but unregulated duel, rather than an spontaneously combusting rencontre between two old enemies.

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