William Danby (coroner)

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William Danby (fl. 1542–1593) was a sixteenth-century lawyer and Coroner of the Queen's Household towards the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He is particularly noted for having presided over the inquest into the controversial death at Deptford in 1593 of the poet/dramatist Christopher Marlowe.

Lincoln's Inn[edit]

Although the date of Danby's birth is unknown, he is most probably the William Danby who entered Lincoln's Inn on 1 August 1542.[1] If so, his exact contemporary there was the father of Marlowe's friend and patron Thomas Walsingham, another Thomas, who was born in 1526.[2] Danby was therefore probably in his late sixties at the time of Marlowe's inquest.

Coroner of The Queen's Household[edit]

In 1589 Danby apparently took over the role of Coroner of The Queen's Household from Richard Vale. The first time Danby's name appears in this capacity (in the Middlesex records held at the London Metropolitan Archives) was for an inquest held in October 1589—in Shepperton, Middlesex—when he presided together with a county coroner, John Chalkhill, at the inquest on one Robert Wrote. Unfortunately for Danby, this case was later declared "insufficient"[3] because Chalkhill had not said in his report that Shepperton was within the verge, which was legally required to explain Danby's presence there.

We know that Danby's predecessor as the Royal coroner, Richard Vale, was also one of the coroners for Middlesex[4] Unfortunately only a very few (and irrelevant) Kentish inquests survive from that time to provide direct evidence that Danby similarly combined his royal responsibilities with those of a county coroner, and if he had been, it should have been noted in his report of Marlowe's inquest, which it did not.[5]

On the other hand, two other pieces of evidence suggest that he may have nevertheless also been a coroner for Kent. The first is that it would have been illegal for him to have presided on his own over the Marlowe inquest, as he did, unless he was also a coroner for Kent, as Deptford was both in Kent and, at the time, within the verge.[6] The other is that Leslie Hotson said that he had found a William Danby in Woolwich (in Kent, four or five miles east of Deptford) at that time,[7] and, although Hotson gave no reference for this claim, William Urry was prepared to acknowledge it as quite likely.[8]

The Marlowe inquest[edit]

Had there been no doubts about Danby's report of the inquest jury's verdict on Marlowe's death, the name of William Danby would have probably disappeared by now. Some biographers still accept the story told at the inquest as a true account,[9] but the majority of the more recent ones find the verdict of a killing in self-defence difficult to accept, and think that it must have been a deliberate murder, even though there is no agreement as to who was behind it or just what their motive might have been for arranging it.[10] The Marlovian theory even argues that the most logical reason for those people to have been there at that time was to fake Marlowe's death, allowing him to escape almost certain trial and execution for his seditious atheism.

The date of Danby's death is unknown, but there is no record of his having presided over any other inquest after this date, so the last we hear of him is when he obeys the command to send a copy of the Marlowe inquisition to the Court of Chancery on 15 June 1593.


  1. ^ Discovered by William Urry (Urry 1988, p. 92) and supported by Charles Nicholl (Nicholl 2002, p. 20) and Park Honan (Honan 2005, p. 354).
  2. ^ The Records of the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn. The Black Books, Vol. I, 1422–1586 (London, 1897). A William Danby is also mentioned in the Black Books as having, on 8 May 1553, agreed with Thomas Hardwick "to be responsible for the debts of Miles Sticke, late Steward."
  3. ^ See The Reports of Edward Coke, knt. (1572–1617) Part.IV pp.45–47.
  4. ^ From the item above, "...an inquisition taken before R. Vale, then coroner of the Queen's houshold and one of the coroners com. Midd. (of the county of Middlesex)". Similarly, Michael Burgess, the holder of that position today, is also the coroner for Surrey, and his predecessor, Sir John Burton, was coroner for West London. See an item in The Independent newspaper of 13 March 1994.
  5. ^ See Hotson 1925, pp. 28–34 and the extract from Sir Edward Coke cited above (p.47).
  6. ^ Honan 2005, p. 354
  7. ^ Hotson 1925, p. 38
  8. ^ Urry 1988, p. 92
  9. ^ For example Kuriyama 2002, p. 140 and Downie 2000, pp. 26–7
  10. ^ See, for example, Breight 1996, p. 114, Hammer 1996, pp. 225–242, Trow 2001, p. 250, Nicholl 2002, pp. 415–7, Kendall 2003, pp. 272–9, Haynes 2004, pp. 119–120, Riggs 2004, p. 334 and Honan 2005, p. 354 – all of whom offer different explanations.


  • Downie, J.A. (2000). "Marlowe, facts and fictions". In Downie, J.A.; Parnell, J.T. Constructing Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge University Press. pp. 26–7. ISBN 978-0-521-57255-2.
  • Breight, Curtis C. (1996). Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era.
  • Hammer, Paul E.J. (1996). "A Reckoning Reframed: the "Murder" of Christopher Marlowe Revisited". English Literary Renaissance: 225–242.
  • Haynes, Alan (2004). The Elizabethan Secret Services. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-4006-9.
  • Honan, Park (2005). Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-818695-3.
  • Hotson, Leslie (1925). The Death of Christopher Marlowe. New York: Haskell House.
  • Kendall, Roy (2003). Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines: Journeys through the Elizabethan Underground. London: Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8386-3974-7.
  • Kuriyama, Constance Brown (2002). Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3978-7.
  • Nicholl, Charles (2002). The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (2nd edition). London: Vintage. ISBN 0-09-943747-3.
  • Trow, M.J. (2001). Who Killed Kit Marlowe? A contract to murder in Elizabethan England. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-2689-9.
  • Urry, William (1988). Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-14566-3.