Nicholas Brembre 6
One of his first journeys into the presence of royalty came in the reign of the old king Edward when, in summer heat made worse by civic strife, William Walworth and he were sent out by the city to convey its offer that the common council be elected from the guilds. This was a major issue for London and had been for many years. It was established that the representatives of the citizenry should be elected, but the issue of who should do the electing was not entirely settled. Should it be the guilds or the wards that made the choice as to who should run the city? There were those who had been arguing this question on the streets and such unrest had been generated that the king threatened to intervene.
They approached Hadleigh castle with rumbling in their guts. It was an honour to be chosen to approach the king but no-one could be certain how the message would be received. If badly, would they be respected nonetheless, as Arthur respected the envoys of the French king when others wished to set them alight? Or might they be treated as members of an errant body and be subject to symbolic punishment, or taken hostage against future actions of the city?
It turned out that Edward was little concerned with the politics of city elections, of whether the common council was determined by the crafts or the wards. He was scared by disorder, and here he was in tune with the aldermen. Agreement was quickly reached and William and Nicholas were on their horses and back to London with a letter to that effect.
At first they were delighted that they had not been dismembered. Then they had time to reflect on the change for the city. William was well aware of the implications of election from the crafts. The wards had at their heads men of sense who could guide the election. This was not the case in the lesser guilds, who would now have their say in the composition of the council. By their nature they were in the control of inferior men, who understood only their own interest, and that not well. The likes of John de Northampton, who looked to stir the ambitions of these half-boiled brains, could bring ruin to all. Every soul in the city depended on the structure it provided, which had built up over the years as the best way to maintain peace between them. Nicholas nodded in agreement that was full but streaked by coarser light.
Back in the heavy space of the White Tower Nicholas scanned the bodies of the servants ranged around the room. Could you tell by their faces or by their figures that they were born to be mean? Did lords look different if you took off their clothes? His eye caught on the shape of a young woman. She was short but not yet wide. She would broaden in time, if it were given her, but for now there was a muscularity about her. Her contours did not grant her beauty, but rather a sense of contention, which certainly had its attractions. She appeared to know this. Her smile was far from servile and there was a wicked reality in the darting of her eyes. Like Nichol she had been born in a certain place but could see there were ways beyond it. For a moment he wished it was he she saw as her way ahead. But he was far down the list and thankful of it on reflection.
As he was dropping his servant-specimen into his bag of ranks, Nicholas spotted something new approaching the king. This was a servant, but not the holding-gathering-cleaning sort, not the sort who might target loose lords while waiting for the next cup or cloak to finger. This was a serious man whose half-hidden haste showed that his task was uncommon. This was John Bacon, secretary to the king, keeper of his jewels, and chamberlain of the exchequer – although which, if any, of these roles made him a likely messenger under threat of doom was a puzzle to Nicholas.
‘Sir, a knight in the company of rebels has been sighted on the far shore of the Thames. It does seem that they are looking for a parley.’
A boat was crossing the river. Nicholas felt the effort of the oars before he heard their splash. Beside him William was straining to see the figures in the vessel. The knight was seated in the prow. The boat was heading for the Tower, although the rowers misjudged the tide and let him off downstream. Nicholas damned the traitor with silent curses, but as the knight came nearer, puffing as he was, he looked hard-pressed and embarrassed rather than defiant. Nicholas wondered what mix of chance and design had brought him here.
‘Sir John Newtoun,’ he said as he reached them. ‘Constable of the castle at Rochester and captain of that town. I undertake this mission under terrible threat. These people have smashed and burned their way from Canterbury to Rochester and from Dartford to Blackheath, where they are now quartered. They say they are armed for the king and commons of England.’
Nicholas studied the ripples running back across the Thames. What might follow now that the knight had led the way? The entire population of Kent perhaps, farm animals included? What would they do to the city if they crossed? Loot, murder and trample under foot? How many Londoners would support them? What would happen to his wife and child? Would they be protected in Middlesex? Could he protect himself? In the city he had many properties gathered over the years, by hard work as well as good fortune. How could it be that a collection of dull-heads might walk in from the fields and destroy them?
The mayor of London and his men surrounded the knight and led him to the fortress. Nicholas followed past the Develin Tower at the farthest corner of the city and along to St Thomas’s, hung over the deathly water of the moat, until finally they reached Lion Gate and began a fresh approach to the White Tower.
The king was seated in his apartment with his mother, brothers and other watchers. The shapes were familiar: the earls of Salisbury, Warwick and Suffolk, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Sir Roberts Hales and de Namur – none of them with a word to say. They loitered or circled and occasionally coughed up a knot of nothing. Some of Nichol’s sheep walked in circles and some of them stood and chewed. Maybe Idonia was not so daft in disputing the distance between man and beast.
Sir John Newton did homage to the king and begged for a satisfactory reply to the rebels since they held his children hostage. His tormentors declared loyalty to the king and wanted a meeting with him alone so that they could tell him of the ills in his realm that needed redress. The child king was pleased that his people sought to separate him from his elders but angry that they had bidden him come to them like an apprentice. He picked up a fan from his lap and began to work at his face. One of the earls signalled for a servant to take over but no-one offered comment on the revolt.
William Walworth stepped into the silence, offering reassurance to his liege: ‘These dogs howling in their packs may seem to cover the world, my lord; but in truth they are freaks, while the realm is filled with good creatures quietly praising God and their king.’
Any division, however, acknowledges both parties. Beyond the Tower the sums were difficult to settle and it was not only at Blackheath but in the city itself that rebels were likely to be found. There was always discontent, like a crust of boils waiting to burst.
Nicholas had become familiar with royalty since the journey to Hadleigh Castle. The crown turned to merchants when it needed money and he had negotiated a number of loans, some of which were still outstanding. It was of value to him to serve in this way but there was no guarantee of the outcome either personally or on behalf of the city. Kings were unreliable. Their words became generous in need. But, if refused, they occupied their full indignant majesty. The city had lost its freedom before now because it had not been exercised as one or other monarch wished.
The grey head of the mayor of London bobbed and bowed before his leader. Richard stroked his chin where only the phantom of a beard yet grew. His brow was bright but his eyes were tracing the troubles of the world. Eventually he leaned to the mewling of his familiars and a decision was made to avoid conflict. Rather than rouse the militia, loose Sir Robert Knowles and his men, allow the soldiers in the Tower to prove their worth, the king would go down river in a boat and parley with the peasants. But before that happened, he would seek spiritual protection.
In chapel of St John at the corner of the White Tower, Nicholas Brembre watched the king and the archbishop at their devotions. Simon of Sudbury relished the cool touch of his crozier and the helmet-like cover of his mitre, but the face beneath was cold as a corpse. Had he not been killed already in Canterbury, but for his luck in being at court? He knew how many rebel lips were vibrating to the sound of his name. They blamed him for the tax: the poll tax that had been repeated once too often and at too many pennies per head. The head of Simon of Sudbury was richly endowed, both temporarily and spiritually, and he knew his peril. All around him the beautiful Caen stone crumbled like cheese.
The king, too, was pale, but the shadow of mortality was thrown by his bright, downy face. He knew that he was beautiful and born to it, and that, whatever else, his errant folk had not blamed him for their troubles.
Those present were given communion and perhaps took strength from it. The skin on their faces softened to the touch of the holy air. Treasurer Robert Hales took the long steady breath of a singer at the end of his verse, who finds he is pleased by his performance. The great lords looked indifferent. They took their portion of the body of Christ but rolled it in their mouths as if considering its worth. Their eyes turned to heaven but failed to catch it as it bounced between the pillars. Or so it seemed to Nicholas. Were they distracted by their fear or by their eagerness to don their armour as rank demanded?
William Walworth knelt beside him, a solid shape, silent, still, complete in concentration. Nicholas felt the flicker of the eyes behind the lids and the murmur of the lips as the mayor prayed. They were hardly present on the surface of the world.
Nicholas finished his own prayer and his eye returned him to earthly peril. There had been disorder in the city on many occasions in the past. Barely seven months since there had been riots among the crafts and the king had sought assurance from the mayor that things could be brought under control, lest he intervene himself. Promises were made, but Nicholas knew the fidelity of Londoners was to their freedom rather than to the truth, or any other casual inconvenience.
The royal party – the Duke of Lancaster in particular – did not like London to make any noise. That being the case they – he – might have considered the weight of their taxes on men without crowns. But the odd thing was that there was a connection between last year’s riot and John de Northampton. Nichol shuffled on his knees and took a sudden, deep breath as he contemplated the man he most despised in the city. John de Northampton, the draper who hoped to be mayor, who could not be patient but must cause endless trouble to get his desire at once, was somehow behind the riots. No proof of it. But his mate Nicholas Twyford had been quick to offer bail to those arrested. There was one step from Nicholas Twyford to John de Northampton and one more to John of Gaunt. Odd indeed.
Nichol had gone that November to inspect a property in Bishopsgate and, on returning, found his way blocked by dark figures wielding staffs and daggers. He measured the hard, dull lines of the staffs against the brighter, messier threat of the blades. He had only Peter and Gombert with him – not sufficient to secure his authority. They circled the incident and went for support, hoping that the riot would disperse before their return. Not quite so.
‘A grocer in cloth of gold has come to tell us how to live in our rags!’ shouted a greasy sack brimming over with beer.
‘How you live is as much a mystery to me,’ replied Nicholas. ‘God knows why He clothes us as He does.’ The militia men panted behind him like hunting dogs. The riot was fraying at the edges and loose threads were blowing away down alleys, although a fresh knot was catching by the church.
A new sack stepped forward, sloshing less liqueur than the first: ‘I have been in Kent and have heard a priest there who asks why God’s children should be slaves when they have honoured Him with their work and prayer, while others reap the benefits of that labour without merit. Rich folk have no favour from God in the Bible and yet they take our pennies even after they have filled their chests with gold.’ Six months on now and the priest’s challenge still sought a reply.
In the White Tower communion was over. The king turned to adventure, peering through the deep windows of the chapel to the expectant city beyond.