Nicholas Brembre 7
The king’s barge was draped in banners. Lions stretched along the sides, thistles pricked the roof, a white hart was curled amidst their protection. Oars patted the tiny waves on the Thames and progress was picturesque like the vessel itself. From the north bank, Nicholas could see that the king was arguing with his advisers. From point to point an exclamation broke free before being captured and subdued. Richard’s voice did not carry but his body was stiff like cooling metal. He stood in the bow, raised above the height of his courtiers, refusing to turn his head from the rebel expanse on the far shore. Any one of them could shoot him down, thought Nicholas, who found he had pulled two gold buttons from his sleeve.
The barge turned in toward Rotherhithe. Where on most days the fields were covered in weeds and long grasses, today these had grown to be men: men in loose boots and straw gaiters, clutching blades and farm tools, with mouths open to spray the world with their foul pollen. Even across the stretch of the river, Nicholas felt the noise as if it were a blast from Armageddon. But as the king was sighted mouths shut and the din abated. To Nicholas it seemed as if a giant rake had ordered the weeds into rows, all bending slightly forward to hear what the king had to say.
Did the king glance back at his companions on the water – or did he speak without prompting? ‘You are all my people. You have left your homes and your work to come here. What is it that you have to say?’ His high-pitched question was clear as a reed across the still air.
‘Come ashore, beloved king!’ ‘Come among us!’ ‘It will be easier to speak!’ ‘We will not harm you!’ ‘We are your loyal subjects!’ Hideous voices clambered one on another before collapsing in a heap.
The barge steered nearer to the bank but the king did not alight. The parley progressed but the voices were lower now and the details did not carry. Nicholas imagined the parade of complaints about the poll tax, serfdom, wars, the clergy. The indignation rose like fog and wafted across the Thames. Only the king seemed clear of it. His slight body leant out towards the rebels. The weeds were pulling themselves almost from their roots. They would kill themselves by trying to smother him. But he remained untouched. No-one tried to cross the water, no-one tried to pitch a hoe at the barge.
It was impossible that there could be agreement between peasants and the king. Who would imagine that these people could have anything to say, or that the king would listen to it even if they had? What kind of council would that be?
The peasants were shouting now and the king pulled back into the boat. The peasants were calling out names, a string of them, and as the volume rose yet more they alighted on one in particular, a single syllable, which they repeated like a drum: Gaunt! Gaunt! Gaunt!
The barge swung in the stream and headed back towards the north bank. This time the oars worked for their meat. There was sense of urgency that clashed with the tide. The barge floundered for a while in the middle of the Thames. Then it gained a grip on the water and began to lever back to the Tower.
In the evening the treasurer’s spies rowed back across the river with news of the rebels’ advance. Southwark was on fire. They had started on religious houses and had now turned to the law. Lawyers were fleeing their burning homes in the direction already taken by the monks. Indeed it was possible to catch some sense of it from the upper windows of the tower: smudges of smoke on the rooftops occasionally coloured from beneath by flashes of flame.
‘They’ve broken into the Marshalsea prison!’ The rumour did its rounds alongside the joke about going in the wrong direction.
‘So now the prisoners will swell the numbers of the peasants like rats among mad sheep.’
‘What will be the end of this?’
‘Watch the rabble! Their brains have been boiled but their legs are still running, without any idea where to go.’
‘See what happens when man defies God’s order.’
‘Let Southwark burn. The bridge is closed.’
‘You think they will stand on the south bank until they get bored and go home? They will find a way into the city, and then they will be angrier than ever.’
‘If the bridge fails we will be surrounded.’
‘The bridge has failed. Look at the progress of the torches: they are in the city. But they are not coming here.’
‘Where are they going?’
‘Mostly to the west.’
It was not easy to see. The angle was too low to clear the bulk of the churches. William and Nicholas gave up and went back to the hall in search of a response to the devilry.
Wrapped in ermine, Richard had taken in addition something of the face of the animal. His eyes were narrow, turned away from warmth. His lips were pressed together in a feral pout. His skin was pale and sleek like fur. Crown and collar framed this beast and brought it back to manhood, with colours not to be found in the undergrowth. Yellow, red, blue. Flower, berry, beetle may imitate perhaps, but nature cannot cut its treasures in the way that a jeweller does, spilling fireworks in the light of a candle.
This is a hard test, thought Nicholas. At fourteen I was apprentice to a master grocer. I shared a bed with others in a narrow room and opened the warehouse early in the morning to sweep it out before the older men arrived. But I did not have to instruct them in crisis when I knew so little of the world. My master understood what was needed and he passed it on to me. There was enough to learn without worrying about lords and peasants, wars and treachery, taxes and subsidies.
William Walworth pushed forward: ‘My lords, the citizens of London can settle this tonight. We have armed men lodged in our houses and throughout the city. In the middle of the night we could catch the rebels in their exhaustion.’
The earl of Warwick turned away, but the king looked at William as if he saw the noble prince Edward brought back to life.
‘Father, what should I do?’
The archbishop stepped closer. A face like a pumpkin grown in on itself, soft shoulders barely holding his robes, feet which gripped their ground, Simon Sudbury made a surprising match for William Walworth. ‘All options should be considered, my lord. The mayor of London has put forward a creditable plan.’
‘Oh, do you think so?’ Warwick interposed. ‘Do you know how many pigs are out there? Even if some of them are rolling in their troughs, there will be other, leaner breeds who will wipe out your London men and then they will come here.’
‘Perhaps they will stay away if we do not pursue them. They have done enough damage already to satisfy a plague of locusts.’ The earl of Salisbury agreed with his peer.
‘Many of them have gone west as if they have some purpose there. Maybe they will not return,’ said treasurer Hale, but his hope was like a red rash on a cadaver.
‘Maybe they will become lost in the maze of the city. They are used to mud tracks and huts,’ laughed Henry Bolingbroke who was sitting up against his cousin the king.
Nicholas looked at this laughing son of Lancaster, who seemed unconcerned by the special mention of his father at Rotherhithe. John of Gaunt was fortunate enough to be busy in the north, but Henry was here in the cauldron. And there were others who had been named. Did they mean to sit until stewed? He decided to speak: ‘My lords, there are city men among the peasants – artisans, labourers, I am sure of it. They will lead them wherever they want to go. We do not know what they intend, but they have the strength to attempt a great deal. Should we wait until they have resumed their diabolical mischief in the morning, or act tonight while we have the advantage as William suggests?’
‘You are very confident, Nicholas Brembre, that you can strike these rebels down. I believe there are too many of them. If you sting them they will rise like a bear that had been half asleep. You fear the destruction of your beloved city but there is more at stake. When the king is threatened, so is the realm and everybody in it. The order of society designed for us by God is in danger of collapse. We must preserve that structure whatever else we do. If lives are lost and buildings burn, there will be plenty more to replace them, but they must be part of the true kingdom of England.’
Nicholas listened to the earl of Warwick, who had attacked him in this way. Thomas de Beauchamp showed ability to think beyond the immediate terror but his lesson wandered conveniently around the fact that it was not the king that the rebels opposed but his advisers.
‘Nothing matters but that these people disperse,’ said archbishop Sudbury. ‘Let us see if they can be encouraged to do so with as little force as can be managed. My lord, more and more rebels are gathering outside the Tower. I suggest a further parley to draw them out of the city.’
The king looked up from his sleeve as if surprised to be included in the conversation. He counted the faces of his counsellors and returned to Sudbury in agreement. ‘I am grateful. Please find a place that will suit us and I will speak with my people there.’