He appears to have studied at Cambridge but left without taking a degree. This was not unusual especially for a Catholic and would have given him credence. By 1583 he was married with a child but was becoming drawn to the Earl of Leicester’s and Sir Francis Walsingham’s murky world of conspiracy. His credentials as an ex-Catholic would have made him ideal material but before beginning his career as a spy he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for a year – perhaps an incentive to remain loyal to his paymasters or a reminder of what might happen if he tried to double cross the State. During this time he refused to see his wife but entertained other women. His gaoler proclaimed that Poley could beguile you of your wife or your life.
Upon gaining his freedom he moved into the orbit of the Earl of Leicester and then was placed in household of Francis Walsingham’s daughter who was married to Sir Philip Sydney. Anthony Babington asked him to obtain a passport from Walsingham to travel for between three to five years. Babington trusted him implicitly but others were more suspicious. Babington retained his faith in Poley even when he found him copying documents and later when he was taken to the Tower. Afterall, Poley was there as well as a conspirator rather than a loyal servant of the crown.
In fact Poley remained in the Tower until 1588. An Irish Catholic Bishop called Richard Creagh died during this time. Robert Southwell, a Jesuit, wrote that Poley had poisoned the unfortunate bishop with a piece of cheese.
Unable to resume his career undercover he became a more formal member of Walsingham’s staff and later Sir Robert Cecil’s going on official journeys overseas. He is recorded as having his own cyphers. It is somewhat surprising therefore that he was involved in the tavern brawl that saw Christopher Marlowe killed with a dagger. Even more surprising that in the aftermath of Marlowe’s death Poley appears to disappear from the radar for a week or more before resurfacing with secret information of some description for the Privy Council.
There are many theories as to why and how Christopher Marlowe died or perhaps didn’t. Poley’s involvement implies a cover up of some description. One suggestion is that the men involved with the death of Marlowe were faking his demise in order to allow him to avoid charges relating to being an atheist. It has also been suggested that Scotland was a safer place for Marlowe and who better to escort him there than a man who could get in and out of the country undetected. Alternatively Marlowe who’d carried letters into Scotland himself may have become a dangerous inconvenience who needed to be removed from the scene before Poley’s network of agents working for Cecil to improve links with James VI of Scotland was exposed. After all, Marlowe had been hauled up in front of the Star Chamber and was in Deptford on bail pending further investigations.
Poley wasn’t finished with playwrights. He returned to the Marshalsea to spy in Ben Johnson who later wrote a poem entitled “Inviting a Friend to Dinner” Poley gets a mention. It isn’t complimentary.
Stephen Alford records that Cecil kept Poley on the payroll until 1601. Alford also records that Poley wasn’t entirely as secretive as he should have been. He seduced his landlady with tales of spying and probably infuriated Walsingham by suggesting that his urinary infection was contracted from a French prostitute – so a man who didn’t always know how to win friends and influence people.
History doesn’t record what happened to him. I wonder if it involved a dark night and a dark alley somewhere?