Nicholas Brembre 5
The inner walls of the western chamber of the White Tower are eight feet thick, thirteen the outer, yet Nicholas feared they would not hold the multitude that gathered there in the morning, nor the floor bear the weight of its self-regard. When the emperor Lucius met Arthur at Langres, sixty thousand standards waved with the wind and sixty thousand trumpets blew. Could little Richard lead this army in silk?
Voices clashed like swords until the king spoke. His flute blew through the thundering brass. He thanked the company for coming to his aid. He needed to know the views of others before settling his own. The question was how to defend the realm, and the city in particular.
Nicholas saw seated near the king his friends and advisers. His uncles were all away, but his brothers and cousin Henry of Bolingbroke put up a show of youthful expectation. Older men framed them: the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, the archbishop of Canterbury, who was also chancellor, and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. Their expectations were less lustily drawn. Their faces were stretched and their knuckles hard atop their fists.
Elsewhere Nicholas marked a sad level of sartorial distraction. Lesser men were compensating in their dress for lack of closeness to the king, not to mention the uncertainty of the situation outside. A new fashion was emerging: a loose garment, the houppelande, was worn over the cotehardie. Tight at the neck and belted at the waist, it otherwise affected flaps and bulges like a cock chasing a hen. Close by Nicholas a garment in blue silk had cut itself so high at the hip that it barely escaped the circle of the pearl-ridden belt to cover what was necessary. Nearer the front of the chamber another houppelande had let itself out so far towards the floor that sensible people were taking care not to trip on it. Nichol’s eye, pursuing the line of this peril, found itself sunk to a level yet more vexatious. Down below the silken hose strutted the final abominations: jewel-encrusted with six inch points, like tails growing from toes. How could they place such items on the floor of the great chamber, and at a mustering of forces to defend against the masses at the gates? How could they fight for their king if they had fallen on their faces over their own shoes?
Many voices sounded, raised in flattery of the king, urging his strength and righteousness as guarantee of success against the rebellion. Some added God as contributor to these virtues. But had God sent a sign as to which side he favoured? Nicholas Brembre rolled this question around in his head as he attempted to move the meeting from flattery to fight: ‘My lord! Please consider that things may not happen as we expect. We do not know how many rebels there are or from how many directions they may come.’
The Earl of Warwick nodded and turned his head, smoothing the sleeve of his jacket. ‘It is as I have said…’ But he failed to say more.
‘If we do nothing we will languish in a trap, as this great tower will become,’ warned Nichol’s companion.
‘What must we do then mayor William?’
‘We must gather all the forces that London offers. Then we must draw out the rebels to their fate. This is a boil to be lanced, but precision is the key.’
‘We will consider your suggestion,’ granted Simon of Sudbury.
Nicholas felt there was some annoyance in the glance that the king gave his chancellor now. Richard was desperate to be told what to do, while these old men were sneaking around him in their slippers as if they could recover their own childhoods through touching him.
‘We need to get to their leaders,’ Nichol whispered to William.
‘A problem indeed,’ replied the mayor. ‘Most people know nothing but to panic.
Our side and theirs. You and I can lead in the city, we rose to it through our toil. But we cannot take over the country. For that you must be born in the right bed.’
‘What can these people want?’ cried the king. But no-one answered him.
The treasurer coughed politely and looked at the king. ‘I hear, my lord, that there is a priest in Kent who states that all men are equal and should share the riches of the world. He has been in prison, of course, but sadly someone let him out again. He preaches that nobles should be put to death. I do not understand how so many others can hold this belief.’
‘It seems incredible,’ agreed the king.
‘I am surprised they have the wit to hold their leggings up!’
Nicholas noticed a very young man sitting close to the king. They were of an age, neither tall enough nor rough enough to hold their place without their birth. Robert de Vere was the second child, shorter if anything than the king, but Earl of Oxford nonetheless. He acknowledged the mirth of the crowd as if he had earned it with a quality of wit he denied the rebels.
At this point archbishop Simon stood and spoke, though he appeared loathe to do so: ‘My lord the king has insufficient men to meet this rabble sword to pitchfork. I would suggest a parley as a means to show his dignity and gather knowledge of the enemy. There are those among the rebels that have said they mean him no harm; and, while we may be incredulous that they boast of taking such a position, it can be seen as encouraging so far as it goes. I would counsel, therefore, that we wait for an opportunity to talk. I think this will not be long, now that they are so close to us.’