For three short years as a child, I lived in Cambridge. The bustle of the market in the city centre, the honeyed stone of the university’s ancient colleges and the peaceful flow of the River Cam were mine only until the age of eight, but they are the backdrop to some very happy childhood memories.
I wonder how happy Christopher Marlowe’s memories of his six years at Cambridge were? He arrived at Cambridge University in 1580, a scholarship boy supported by a bequest from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. As with all the Parker scholars, he attended Corpus Christi College (founded 1352), which had also received Archbishop Parker’s amazing library, containing priceless treasures from the ransacked monasteries of England.
Marlowe might have been acutely aware of his social status and restricted budget, compared to the sons of the nobility who were his fellow students. Perhaps that was what motivated him when, a couple of years later, he was recruited by Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, reporting to spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. It seems that Cambridge has a long, long history with spying. In addition to his studies and other activities, it’s likely Marlowe wrote his first play, Dido Queen of Carthage, during his student years.
I revisited Cambridge a couple of years ago, entering Corpus Christi College on a lovely September day, when the library was open to the public. My visit wasn’t just prompted by curiosity; I was researching a scene where the two heroes of Unlawful Things visit the Parker Library on the trail of Marlowe’s lost manuscript. I marvelled at the library’s incredible collection, including the sixth century Gospels of Augustine (see left), brought to England by Saint Augustine when he arrived to convert the heathen British to Christianity.
I enjoyed wandering around the lovely Old Court, the humble buildings hidden away behind the impressive Victorian frontage, where the college buildings that Marlowe would have known are preserved. All the time, I tried to see the place through the eyes of my fictional characters, Helen and Richard. They would have loved this, I thought.
Perhaps my early fondness for Cambridge found its way into the novel. I can’t help noticing that the Cambridge section of Unlawful Things is probably the happiest time that I allow Helen and Richard together. A hiatus, a sunny day and a scholarly moment to enjoy the beauty, before it all starts to go so very, very wrong…