On St. Valentine’s day 1551 a grizzly site was found in the grounds of Faversham abbey - the landowner Thomas Arden lay dead in the snow, his wife’s affair with the tailor Mosby having taken a murderous turn. The 1570s saw the rise in popularity of true crime narratives in print, and in c. 1590 the Arden murder was turned into a play.

Arden of Faversham follows the affair of Alice Arden and Mosby, one which her husband is grieved by, but knows not how to prevent, even inviting Mosby into his home believing it would end neighbourly suspicion. Alice’s thoughts turn to murder; however, she is not the only one seeking Arden’s demise. Mosby acquires poison from a local painter in return for his sister’s hand in marriage, however Alice’s cooking efforts fail to kill Arden, and her subsequent chance encounter with Greene who Arden has stripped of land, results in a murderous arrangement.

Soon two assassins have been hired (Shakebag and Black Will), and Arden’s manservant is drawn into the plot (also with the promise of Mosby’s sister). After several murder attempts fail, they eventually manage to lure Arden into a trap set in his own house, before killing him, and dragging his body into the grounds. It is not long before neighbourhood suspicion arises, and the poorly hidden evidence points the authorities in the direction of Alice and her fellow assassins, who are executed for the deed. Numerous speculations and rigorous scholarly studies have attempted to attribute the play to various playwrights – the main three put forward being William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd.

Recent computer analysis by Kinney has found evidence that the play is partly by Shakespeare, with little indication of contribution from Marlowe or Kyd. However, Freebury-Jones argues that to attribute the play to Shakespeare is to ignore the numerous studies which have provided strong evidence for Kyd. The play’s authorship remains up for debate. One argument put forward in favour of Shakespeare, is the play’s ambiguity’ – the play certainly covers a variety of controversial debates of the age, without making any solid judgements and instead leaves the audience to take their own stance on matters.

It is one of the first known plays of its genre, the domestic tragedy, which represented the ordinary domestic matters of the ordinary man and woman, making these plays more relatable to a wider audience, and bringing the themes they dealt with closer to home. The most obvious topic that the play handles is that of marriage, which was a matter of intense dispute at the time the play was written. Debates on divorce followed the Reformation, some (usually those of a puritan stance) arguing strongly in its favour, others feeling that it could potentially lead to social chaos. The play represents both of these viewpoints, portraying the breakdown of social order that comes when a woman challenges her marriage, whilst also leaving audiences potentially questioning whether the ending would have been so grim if Alice had had the option of divorce, indeed she even proclaims ‘Love is god, and marriage is but words…’, and the murder was used in a 1652 text arguing ‘That a man may not only put away his Wife for her Adultery, but also marry another.’ Furthermore, although Alice’s actions are condemned in the play, the blame is not solely put on her. As Richardson and Sullivan Jr have pointed out, Arden’s poor household management skills are also bought up for questioning, as from an early modern point of view, both his greed and oversights allowed for a man of lower rank to acquire his status by means of sleeping with his wife – women as possessions being part of the acquisition process of acquiring another man’s property.

There are no clear villains or heroes in the play, the characters are each analysed in both disapproval and sympathy, and Mosby for instance is represented as simultaneously under Alice’s charms (there are quotes in the play which almost portray Alice as a witch), and consciously using her to gain Arden’s fortune (there are equally quotes which associate Mosby with witchcraft).

The real Arden was a disliked man who had caused much local offense for purchasing the lands of Faversham Abbey, which were dissolved in the dissolution of the monasteries, and was found dead in the fair which he had contrived to ensure was held solely on his land, preventing the community from receiving any profits. This is represented in the play, and as Sullivan Jr. has discussed the ending of the play detailing how the print of Arden’s body remained in the land for years (and in real life this print initially became somewhat of a tourist attraction after the murder), provides a powerful message that his misuse of the land, his greed and his move away from social to economic landlordism, had led to his demise. If Shakespeare could be put forward as author for ambiguity, then Marlowe could certainly be put forward for regional knowledge, having been born in local Canterbury, where Alice had been burnt alive for the murder. The author has ensured that the play remains true to its setting, mostly using the real locations and people accounted in the Holinshed Chronicle, such as the Flower-de-Luce inn on Preston Street where Mosby was found by authorities, and whose resident Adam Fowle had delivered a pair of fateful silver dice from Alice to Mosby during their affair.

The Flower-de-Luce building is now the Fleur-de-Lis Heritage Centre, a museum and archive of Faversham heritage. Other scenes of local interest include Arden unloading goods at Faversham Quay and later taking a ferry to the Isle of Sheppey to visit Lord Cheney, the attempted murder on Rainham Downs – ‘A place well-fitting for such a stratagem’, and Alice’s execution in Canterbury, Greene’s in Ospringe. The story continued to remain a popular local tradition, seeing resurges of local performance in the eighteenth century, and again in the late twentieth. Performances took on many forms, including puppet shows and staging’s in the house itself. It continues to remain a much-studied source of both theatrical and historic interest.

This article was published: 1 November 2020.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Adams, John Henry, ‘Agentive Objects and Protestant Idolatry in Arden of Faversham, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 57, Issue 2 (2007), pp. 231-251.

Arden of Faversham, with introduction by Tom Lockwood, Text Edited by Martin White (London; New York: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 1982 – revised edition 2007)
Belsey, Catherine, Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Routledge, 1993, 1st Published 1985).

Cust, C.V.O., Lionel, ‘Arden of Feversham’, Archaeologia Cantiana, Vol. 34 (1920), pp. 101-138, accessed from Kent Archaeological Trust (accessed 17th April 2020) https://kentarchaeology.org.uk/arch-cant/vol/34/arden-faversham-appendix-i-text-indenture-3-august-1545-appendix-11-topographical.

Freebury-Jones, Darren, ‘In Defence of Kyd: Evaluating the Claim for Shakespeare’s Part Authorship of Arden of Faversham’, Authorship, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2018), 1-14. Holbrook, Peter, English Renaissance Tragedy – Ideas of Freedom (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2015).

Holinshed, Raphael, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (second edition, 1587), from Arden of Faversham, with introduction by Tom Lockwood, Text Edited by Martin White (London; New York: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 1982 – revised edition 2007).

Hyde, Patricia, ‘Thomas Arden (c. 1508-1551), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published 23 Sep. 2004, revised 28 May 2015 (accessed 15/04/2020) https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-54606.

(The) Judgement of the Reformed Churches that a man may lawfully not only put away his vvife for her adultery, but also marry another, (London, Printed for Andrew Crook at the Green Dragon in Pauls Churchyard. 1652), accessed from Early English Books Online (Accessed 17/04/2020).

Kinney, Arthur F., Authoring Arden of Faversham, from Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney, Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)78-99.

Lockwood, Tom, Introduction from Arden of Faversham, with introduction by Tom Lockwood, Text Edited by Martin White (London; New York: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 1982 – revised edition 2007).

O’Brien, Emily, ‘The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham, True Crime, and the Literary Marketplace of the 1580s’, Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 45 (2017)113-120.
Richardson, Catherine, Domestic Life and Domestic Tragedy in Early Modern England – The Material Life of the Household (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).

–. ‘ “Scene of the Murder” Arden of Faversham and Local Performance Cultures’, Early Modern Literary Studies, special issue 28, (2019), 1-27.

Sturgess, Keith, Three Elizabethan Domestic Tragedies, edited with an introduction by Keith Strurgess (Harmondsworth: Penguin Book, 1985, 1st published 1969).

Sullivan Jr., Garrett A., Arden of Faversham and the Early Modern Household, in Early Modern English Drama – A Critical Companion, edited by Garrett A. Sullivan Jr., Patrick Cheney and Andrew Hadfield (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Valerie-Lucas, R. Puritan Preaching and the Politics of the Family, in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print – Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne H. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky (Amherst; Mass.; London: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990).

Wall, Wendy, Staging Domesticity – Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, reprinted 2006).