Nicholas Brembre 2
What did the bridge mean to London, and she to it? What a strange union of antagonists! The bridge denied the city by leading away from it. It was not in the city but beyond it and the city pushed it away. But, as likely as anything, it was the bridge that made the city. There was settlement here because the river could be crossed. There was firm ground between the marshes and a tradition of crossing by boat or fording at low tide. But London came to life because the stream was spanned, because the existence of a bridge made this the best way to travel between north and south.
Today’s bridge was the successor in stone to a line of hoary wooden forefathers. It was less than two hundred years old, a mere snatch of breath since the time of the Brutus. It had had its dramas nonetheless: fires, floods and structural collapses; suicides and drunken drops; violence, robbery and political confrontation. It was here that the raising of the drawbridge prevented Simon de Montford entering the city against Henry III. It was here that William Wallace’s head was put on a pole at the head of the bridge, and where the lesson was repeated with gruesome gongs from countless later felons. Here queen Eleanor, passing under the bridge in a barge, was pelted with mud, stones and fowl words because her son had seized valuables from the city in lieu of the loan the merchants had refused. Nicholas himself had witnessed the crossing of prince Edward and the captive king of France after Poitiers. That was a glorious occasion and nothing had occurred recently to honour the bridge so well. Instead the current plans were focused on building a new latrine.
The bridge itself was not the elegant structure Nicholas would have wished for, tyrannised as it was, by shops and houses, not to mention people with nowhere better to go. Pilgrims had to push their way past overladen pack horses and drunken brawls on their way to the holy shrines at Canterbury, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, even Jerusalem. What a place to start! But many wanted the blessing of St Thomas á Becket before they went and his chapel stood right in the middle of the bridge. The buildings on either side leant out so far across the Thames that Nicholas feared they would pull the bridge apart. Meanwhile the river swarmed through the nineteen arches, rising up against the starlings like banks of mud at the edge of graves. All that movement, that rush of matter, to produce a form that changed barely more than bones and clay.
As a young man he had stolen away to the bridge to see the power of the water and the strength of the stone to resist it. The sullenness of the stone held his attention. It was bloodless, mindless stuff doing what a thousand men could not. But neither could the stone hold against the waters of the Thames without the shape those men had given it. The power of understanding can tame the mighty mindless forces of the world.
At the bridge the party met a crowd which seemed to have sprung from alleys and ditches even as they approached. William Walworth pushed forward and gained a vantage point, although he could not reach the bridge itself.
Nicholas studied the crowd. He saw an unholy bag of muck: labourers, beggars, aliens, musicians, basket women, prostitutes, dirty children. Maybe they had come, not from alleys and ditches after all, but from the filth of the Thames at low tide.
William shouted to the constable on the bridge, but the man had not seen the mayoral party arrive, or had found it better not to do so.
‘Shut the gate!’ shouted William and his companions joined in.
The constable clutched at his sword but did not turn his head.
‘How are we to get on our way to Kent?’ called a poorly-clad woman, who had had no trouble hearing the mayor’s words. She looked to have been selling strawberries – no doubt on an illegal site – and hoped to return home for the night. She could have been from one of Nichol’s own farms at Mereworth or Kingsdown.
‘They’re going to shut the bridge!’ shouted someone near to her. Nicholas watched with fascination as the message spread. William’s order had became physical in the surge of bodies that carried it and Nicholas saw the waves of knowledge pass through the crowd. What was not heard by the gatekeeper came to meet him in the flesh.
William flung his mouth still wider but the noise of the mass was insurmountable. He started to mime the shutting of the gate. Nicholas was stopped still by sight of his theatricality. He remembered the mystery plays that he had enjoyed in his youth, sneaking from under his father’s censure to run breathless with excitement into the town at Corpus Christi. Others were similarly impressed and quiet began to infect the masses. But, now that he could be heard, William gaped like a fish, his flapping fins coming to rest in the stale air. He knew, as Nicholas knew, that the gatekeeper could not shut the bridge against the will of the crowd: ‘What do you want?’
‘Don’t shut the bridge!’
‘We don’t live here!’
‘We trade on the other side!’
‘My wife is sick!’
‘Don’t let the rebels burn the city!’
‘They are our like. They want good rule!’
‘They want to save the king!’
‘They want to slit our throats!’
Nicholas listened in alarm as cold gripped his chest. What would follow this cascade of common wit? The gatekeeper turned and began to move down the bridge toward the gate, but the body surged after him. The mayor’s men pushed into the crowd, blades drawn, but William signalled that they be sheathed. He was back to mime, palms open to the people.
An aldermen was speaking, shouting, closer at hand: ‘If we shut the gate it will not stop the rebels for long and they will be angrier when they arrive.’
‘You cannot close the bridge with these peasants pressing on the inside. Neither will it be force enough to hold back a greater mass of men from the outside, shouted another.’
On the far side of the crowd – how did he get there? – Nicholas saw the figure of a merchant. His hood was half across his face but Nicholas sensed he was shouting at those around him. Everyone in the world was shouting. The noise was painful like a beating about the head. Nicholas recoiled from the assault, but even more from the vanity of this one man and his expectation that he would be heard above all others. He looked again and it seemed that there was more than one hooded man. Were they together? Were they trying to reach the bridge? Who were they and what were they attempting?
William was signalling withdrawal. Nicholas doubted this tactic, but he was relieved nonetheless. He turned his horse and pulled away from the crowd. Those on the ground began to shuffle in their preferred directions. Satisfaction grew on most of their faces, but not all. Some put hands to mouths or pulled distractedly at pieces of their clothing. They are as scared as I, he thought.