One of the servants heard first, even before the mayor sent for Nicholas. She had word from her aunt, who was a brewer Greenwich. The mob had come from Kent and camped on Blackheath. They wanted to kill the King. No-one in London was safe. There was murder on the streets and the city would burn.
Nicholas told her God would protect them and not to let her tongue flap like a dog’s. He ordered her back to the buttery where there was plenty of work to occupy her. He stood thinking for several beats of the heart before pulling at the sleeves of his cotehardie and taking the stairs to the bedchamber. Two beds were occupied. The small child was snoring in the corner, while the woman was silent in the centre of the room. He could not tell her colour by the light of the tiny window, but her limbs were slack as if deserted by will, and her skin was scored across the once soft features. The last baby was dead in its glory and its mother was almost spent.
Nicholas went back down to the hall. He could hear Pieryne in the buttery moving pans and sobbing quietly. He would not worry until word came from a sounder source. But there had been plenty of news in the last week of riot in Kent and in Essex. The devil moves among the many. He had seen it on his own lands in Kent: peasants who looked out of the corner of the eye, who held their breath a moment too long before jumping to.
By sext he knew more. As he listened to the blossoming of the bells, St Martin’s Le Grand in the lead, a man arrived from the mayor bidding him make for the Guildhall. Nicholas called his household together and put them in order. Peter and Guy to come with him. John to gather others from his houses and cellars elsewhere in the city. The apprentices to stay behind and not to slacken. Nicholas ordered Gombert to fetch his armour. He chose the lighter items to avoid delay. It was not permitted to carry a sword in London unless you were a knight. He chose a knife.
He saw nothing very strange as he began his journey. Shops were open as usual, people were afoot with baskets and barrows going to the market. Illegal traders were folded into corners or making an infuriating noise in the middle of the street. The streets themselves were fowl in places and he stepped his way around effluent of every kind. Livestock made itself known through grunt, bellow or song.
As he approached the Guildhall, Nicholas began to hear the voices of men above those of the beasts. There was a roar that no animal could deliver. And when he burst from St Lawrence Lane he saw numbers assembled such as would terrify any creation of God. He could not see the entrance to the Guildhall because of the ragbag of human life in front of the it. The skewed mass of St Lawrence Jewry looked down upon them and long Cat Street where the skinners and leather workers plied unwholesome trades. His servants pushed a way through for him and he crossed the threshold of the fabulous site.
Nicholas swept into the gate house, glad of its age as it closed around him. For a hundred years or more it had held its shape against the noise and stench of the city, where once had stood the palace of Brutus, its founder. Stories could outrun themselves, of course. It was told that Brutus had fought with giants to secure the site and had chained them to the gates of the palace. Here, where Nicholas had fought a mere mob for entrance, the weight of giants had fallen. This was all bilge water, of course. He knew from the Roman de Brut that the great giant Gogmagog had been slain by Corineus at Totnes and that only afterwards had Brutus, his lord, founded the city on the Thames that he called New Troy.
The yard was almost as full as the street. Servants were bustling around aldermen just arrived, while others hung from long faces as if they might hoisted higher still if caught waiting for their masters by the mob. Nicholas was impatient with the obstacle they presented. The Caen stone face of the hall was pulsing, demanding his speed, as if the drums of Brutus were calling him to enter his palace with sword and shield. The gravel splashed behind him as he strode on.
Once inside he pretended not to hurry, though desperate to reach the east wing and the stairs to the Upper Chamber. The pink tiles of the corridor seemed spiritless today, like veal nearly drained. He pushed into the Common Council room hoping for greater strength from the company of his peers.
The meeting had begun but he doubted very much that it had been opened correctly. Instead it seemed that a shadow-moot had conjured itself from a litter of spells and that all the witches were now screeching to be heard above the rest of the coven. Gradually they resumed a semblance of their regular forms and he began make out what was being said.
There had been word of bad deeds over the year. A priest imprisoned in Kent had stirred the masses by calling on them to loot the rich. Discontent had spread. No more than two days before sheriff Walter Doget had heard from an associate, who had come from Canterbury to buy wine, that there was uncommon movement among the peasantry and that folk were running here and there with messages. People said that the cathedral had been attacked and the archbishop killed, though others said father Simon had escaped. The world was unsettled indeed and the natural order of things was under threat. Word was that the commoners of Ghent and Flanders had lately rebelled against their lords, as had those in Paris.
William Walworth was at the head of the discussion. His cote was caught up in his belt in token of his haste, but he had on the very finest cloth, with buttons and badges like stars on sleeve and breast. They spoke his rank and his connections, which might all needed in the coming days. There was the thickness of panic in the room, but William knew how to stir this to his purpose.
‘No-one knows how many of these dogs approach us, but we will be ready for them.’
‘I have heard there are twenty thousand of them from Kent alone.’
‘Do not be taken in by claims grown large by the desires of those that make them.’
‘We have strength in our walls and our great river. But we must hold the gates and the bridge.’
‘What of those within the walls who would join the rebels?’
William Walworth listened to all but held to the thoughts he had brought with him to the hall:
‘However many they are, it is to the bridge that most are headed. They follow Wat Tyler, who joined them in Kent, and they pursue the archbishop whom they missed in Canterbury, since he was not there. For us the first task is to hold the bridge.’
‘The bridge. Yes!’ The shout was taken up across the hall. Men were leaping up, grasping their daggers as if desperate for battle there and then.
Nicholas thought of past strife and struggle in the city. Alfred and the Vikings; Edmund Ironside against Cnut; Ansgar the Staller and William the Bastard; Stephen against Matilda; William of the Beard and his followers in the reign of the Lionheart; and the goldsmiths against the pepperers not three years since. He was ready to seek order in the chaos, although the thought of it rattled his tooth and squeezed his stomach.
But there was more talk to be had. Some were unconvinced of the necessity of arms, or of the priority of the defence of the bridge. One or two were moved to deny there was unrest. Others were sure the squall would blow itself out on the far side of the Thames.
William had no sympathy with such optimism. Better look foolish barring an empty bridge than look foolish with a pitchfork in the back. He laid down a plan, which included a party to visit the bridge as soon as the meeting was over, while the rest were to attend to the gates and to ensure that the watch was kept. Nicholas admired the practicality of the mayor’s approach. But there were two names that had been left out of the calculations. The first was habitually cited as both protector and protected, yet was granted no agency, since no-one knew what he would do.
King Richard II was fourteen years old. It was short years since the death of the old king, his grandfather, whose grip on the realm had loosened in his dotage. It was difficult with so young a king to sit him in his proper place. He was a future thing, an expectation. Nicholas wanted to follow him with all his heart, but his banner was not yet unfurled. Its emblems were obscure.
‘The king!’ shouted Walworth, as if he had read both the reverence and the doubt in Nichol’s face.
‘The king!’ shouted the assembly.
There was someone else who needed to be named, someone whom they can hardly have forgotten because He was always in their thoughts, on their breath, in their bones.
‘May God be with us!’
‘Aye, Nicholas Brembre! May God be with you and with the rest of us. Follow me to the bridge!’
Out they burst from the palace. Did Brutus feel this way when he left for battle, his feet rushing this same ground? Did he feel this mix of fear and thunder? The excitement of the quest against the uncertainty about what it might turn out to be? London, New Troy, was in danger from the hordes and Nicholas Brembre offered his flesh and blood to defend it. But what might that mean in detail? What flesh? How much blood?
Nicholas sent his servants for horses and they rode to the bridge. The city seemed smaller than itself. He caught sight of the wall across the roofs of Bassishaw. It was too close and too forlorn. Could it do what was expected of it? Or would it indeed turn traitor, trapping those who were overrun? The rabble on the streets might keep to their places or or they might embrace the rebels in their inequity.
Down Jewry onto fat Poultry, where the pale odour of the bird gave quickly onto the more beastly stink of the Stocks Market. On, passed St Edmund’s in Lombard Street, tribute to the East Anglian king martyred by the Danes. Then St Benet’s’ in Grass Street: the father of monks facing the hay market. Down Fish Street, with a fresh assault on the nostrils, and across Thames Street, with its row of merchant houses backed onto the river. Rich merchants these, though few as rich as he.
Towards Ebgate Nicholas could see Fishmongers’ Hall, haunt of William Walworth and a mainstay of his power. Meanwhile St Magnus was right here by the bridge, offering the weirdness of Viking comfort in the heart of England. The church looked a little battered and this was no surprise. It stood where so many passed, pushing and shoving against its walls, and where others sought relief from travel, refreshing their souls or merely resting their legs for a while. Inside and out it was buffeted by the inconvenient lives of human beings, not to mention their carts, their children and their animals.