Christopher Marlowe was born to Canterbury shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Katherine, daughter of William Arthur of Dover. He was baptised on 26 February 1564 at St. George's Church, Canterbury. Marlowe's birth was likely to have been a few days before, making him about two months older than William Shakespeare, who was baptised on 26 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon.
By age 14, Marlowe attended The King's School, Canterbury on scholarship[nb 5] and two years later Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he also studied on scholarship and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584. In 1587, the university hesitated to award his Master of Arts degree because of a rumour that he intended to go to the English seminary at Rheims in northern France, presumably to prepare for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. If true, such an action on his part would have been a direct violation of royal edict issued by Queen Elizabeth I in 1585 criminalising any attempt by an English citizen to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.
Largescale violence between Protestants and Catholics on the European continent has been cited by scholars as the impetus for the Protestant English Queen's defensive anti-Catholic laws issued from 1581 until her death in 1603. Despite the dire implications for Marlowe, his degree was awarded on schedule when the Privy Council intervened on his behalf, commending him for his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the Queen. The nature of Marlowe's service was not specified by the Council, but its letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked much speculation by modern scholars, notably the theory that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent for Privy Council member Sir Francis Walsingham. The only surviving evidence of the Privy Council's correspondence is found in their minutes, the letter being lost. There is no mention of espionage in the minutes, but its summation of the lost Privy Council letter is vague in meaning, stating that "it was not Her Majesties pleasure" that persons employed as Marlowe had been "in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those who are ignorant in th'affaires he went about." Scholars agree the vague wording was typically used to protect government agents, but they continue to debate what the "matters touching the benefit of his country" actually were in Marlowe's case and how they affected the 23-year-old writer as he launched his literary career in 1587.