Nicholas Brembre 8
As a pearl fallen from its gorgeous shell into the sludge of the river bed, milky-skinned and smooth-voiced, the king held the centre of the party as they pushed out into the filth of the city. Nicholas watched Richard’s arms on the reins. His hands were yet small and he made some effort to check the pull. Bright colours flashed from his fingers. Each time he risked pointing his way or acknowledging homage, Nicholas behind him gripped his own reins harder. Did he need to protect his protector?
Around the king were some of the most illustrious men in the land. There were his two brothers, the sons of the princess before she was princess, before she was wooed by Edward of Wales. The widow herself began the journey, although quickly turning back to the Tower, which the chancellor-archbishop and the treasurer-prior had not even attempted to leave. But the earls of Warwick and Oxford and Sir Thomas Percy rode out, as did many of their retainers a good party from the city. Aubrey de Vere, chamberlain of the royal household, bore the sword of state before the king..
The quality of the procession was matched by the size of the crowd. People had been moving back to the east since it had been agreed that the king would ride out to Mile End. It was difficult to follow the mix of motives. There were peasants here and city rebels. There were pick-pockets and burglars, although the latter distinguished themselves from the former by sloping off as soon as they identified a target. There were ordinary folk too, out for the spectacle, although risking far more than they usually did to relieve their boredom. They showed open faces, pushing hoods back as they cheered the king. They were like children innocently expecting something – instruction, sustenance, chastisement? But behind the smiling surface, the dark things lurked.
‘A peacock is caught by its tail and cannot enter heaven.’ The words were spoken close to his ear yet Nicholas could not see the mouth that made them. He reached for his sword but there were little point in swinging it. A crowd is a beast of many heads. Strike off one, it takes no hurt.
By Tower Hill a single figure stepped forward: ‘Avenge me, king Richard, on that false traitor the prior! Give me back my tenements!’
Nicholas recognised him. The man was named Thomas, a goldsmith. He had consulted him about a collection of rare stones he had acquired in Florence, which might have led to a deal if Thomas had wanted to set them. Of course a servant had attended to the business up to a point, but Nicholas had become involved directly after Thomas was evasive about the return of a sample. There was always distrust between grocers and goldsmiths. Nicholas suspected then that there had been no good intentions from the start and that the jewel was lost. But it was returned in a beautiful setting.
The goldsmith – it was Thomas of Farndon of course – had now thrust himself forward against the king’s horse and was attempting to stop its passage while continuing to plead his cause. There was some dispute between Thomas and the prior of St John of Jerusalem, Sir Robert Hales, which Nicholas did not remember in detail. Could this be sufficient to cause a man to to accost the king? Thomas was wild like an animal, his worthy forebears would not know him thus with spittle on his chin.
The king’s men closed in on Thomas and he was side-stepped towards the yard of All Hallows Barking. The king did not look back but Nicholas caught the rear of the goldsmith as it disappeared down Tower Street, posse in pursuit.
He was still pondering the outcome of the race when a shape rushed in from his right and became a shouting man. It seemed that it was Nichol’s turn for street justice. The man was pulling hard on the bridle while railing about the ruin of his trade. ‘You Nicholas Brembre, most fowl mayor of London! You put us all in the stocks so that you could take our business! Devil mayor! The rules are to protect good men, not to make money for the followers of Satan!’
Nicholas made no sense of this except as a detail in the misrule that was all around him. He did not recognise his accuser and no-one came to drag the wretch off to All Hallows or any other churchyard. Nicholas saw that discussion was unlikely to persuade the man to depart. He raised his foot, placed it in the other’s chest and pushed him back into the crowd.
The procession passed near to the hospital of St Katherine outside wall, around which tenements had been built up by aliens, sailors and other half-made beasts. Nicholas imagined they had all turned out for the rebels today and would be waiting at Mile End. As the prospect opened out beyond the city, he looked towards the mud flats of Wapping in the Woze, where pirates were hung and left to soak for three tides. Man had devised ways of dealing with the ills of the mortal world but the ills were never ending. However many were hung and soaked, still more were spawned on the sea, or in the alleys or the haystacks, or in the palaces for that matter.
Sir Thomas Holland and the earl of Kent stopped short of the mile and trailed back towards the city in the direction taken by their mother. It was not to protect her that they did so, since the time for that was passed, and dishonourably so. How had they calculated so ill that first they abandoned their mother and then their brother, missing the chance to withdraw as escorts, then proceeding to a point where no excuse could hide their pink bellies like those of squealing pigs? Nicholas and the city men satisfied themselves by exchanging grim glances. Then they followed their king into the distance.
The distance was not really distant: they were nearly there. The backs of horses multiplied at Mile End and the tails swished in warning to slow down and not to bump. They were lucky to find themselves on raised ground. Nicholas looked out across the royal party to those beyond.
Thousands of ragged men, who should have been back home in their towns and villages, or the city, or else under hedges, were instead fowling these fields, which were used by good men for sport in the summer. Though their pattern was mean, among them were men of rank dressed in decent armour without rust. How and why they should come to salt this festering pile of flesh Nicholas could not understand.
Then he saw the oddest thing of all: they were kneeling. All were kneeling. Some were shouting:
‘Welcome to our lord king!’
‘Noble king Richard!
‘We will have no king but you!’
A man stood one pace ahead of the others. Ugly and thin, yet he held the field at Mile End as if it were his fief.
‘What is your name?’ asked Aubrey de Vere, as spokesman for the king.
Every rebel laughed.
‘Wat is my name!’
‘Wat Tyler!’ shouted those close to him. They seemed now to be impatient with the joke.
‘Do you speak for all?’
Wat Tyler turned to the body behind him, which roared like all of England.
The chamberlain conferred with the king and returned with a new question: ‘What is it that you want?’
‘We want to speak with the king.’
The chamberlain looked confused. His eyes bounced between the king and the tiler. The tiler grinned a grin that threatened to separate the top and bottom of his head. The king understood. He did not need these uncles and tutors and servants to speak for him, and his people did not want to hear them either.
‘Give me your demands,’ he ordered with only the slightest trace of drollery to mark the misrule.
‘No more bondage!
‘All should be equal!’
‘We want you to make us free!’
And from Wat Tyler: ‘I pray you would suffer us to take and deal with all the traitors against you and the law’
‘Sirs, I will do so. Make your way from this place, back to your homes and I will send written proof under my seal that you are no more to be serfs.’
‘How will we be sure…?’
‘I am your king. Do you doubt me? Leave a few of you behind and they will have the letters by the end of this day.’
Wat the tiler stood on a clump of earth which raised him clear of the king. The world was surely on its head when the great oaks of England stood among blades of grass and agreed to do their bidding. Nicholas was hit by wonder, but this wonder itself flipped upside down. How was it that for so long the many had submitted to the few? Was this now the end of the trick? Which way up was the world supposed to be?
Another blade of grass was beating at the trees and a ferocious rant was emitting from this thin and sickly reed. Hundreds of years of anger and resentment vomited forth and stank upon the field, salted by the rough language of the common Englishman.
The king’s horse shuffled and shook its head. Richard checked it with the least possible movement, while maintaining his own trunk-like pose. But which was the better account of his desire: this scared-stiff attention to duty, or the bored and fearful scratching in the dust that imagined the gallop home?
The tiler was also bored. He raised his hand and, when this failed, walked over to the ranter and pushed him into a pile of rabbit dung. There was sniggering on the king’s side and full-lung laughter on the other.
This foolery, this extravagance, was like a plum dropped in vinegar, souring the liquor further through contrast to the sweet. It was difficult to stand silently through this fantasy of how the world might be if the sticks had fallen otherwise.
God must be curious, if not despairing, as to man’s purpose in this posturing. Does He regret the freedom He has bestowed on us? Might He intervene here at Mile End? Or is this His punishment for earlier error?
Thank God, whatever his motivation, the players are now on the move. The royal party is pulling back towards the city while the king’s scribes scratch away the bonds of the common man. Nicholas, William, Henry and John with their brethren hold the centre ground, watching for both sides to disperse. A good number of the rebels trail away, looking pleased with the outcome, still happier that they are going back to where there may be food for them. Now that he has seen a large body of peasants revolting in a field, Nicholas appreciates the management difficulties involved. They have brought little from their villages to sustain them, perhaps expecting a day’s absence at most, or not thinking of what might happen beyond the shouting and the stamping. They have looted in the city, but the city has its own mouths to feed. Today they have been sitting in the earth for many hours waiting for the king to arrive and for the parley to end. The day is hot and water is scarce. Many of them are glad to go home. Many but not all.
‘Look over there, John: knights in the crowd!’ Nicholas Brembre shouted across to John Philipot, his brother-in-law. ‘How can they be there among the fowl things? What do they want that the tiler can give them? Can it increase their purse? Settle their disputes? Win them wives?’
‘My imagination fails in detail, but it is possible that they warm to causes other than their own.’ John stepped his horse closer to Nichol’s so that they could hear each other, or perhaps so that others could not.
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Perhaps they believe things are not done well in this world and that a shake of the errant body by the shoulders will have some good effect. Perhaps they even believe what their leaders tell them, that we should all be equal under God.’
‘No sense can be made of such a doctrine,’ said Henry Vanner as he joined them. He too was a brother-in-law.
‘Why would God allow what he does not approve? There have been lords and serfs since the world was young,’ inserted William Walworth.
‘But not since the very beginning. Not quite,’ said John.
‘I just kicked a peasant who wasn’t a peasant at all,’ said Henry brightly.
‘What was he?’
‘A journeyman from Canterbury, a boot-maker. He was sitting in the mud refusing to move so I kicked him. He held up his hand and demanded that I let him finish his task. He was mending the shoe of a fellow townsman and taking money for it. In the midst of rebellion business thrives!’
Nicholas moved still nearer to John: ‘I have heard there was an English friar who stated that the world could be any way God wanted, because God’s power would be diminished if it were not so. Is this the world he prefers? Is this a sign that it should be as it is?’
‘Indeed, I could believe it today,’ said John.
‘How will all this end?’ Henry’s lament was like laughter. ‘The king’s advisers seem unmanned. Those that have stayed in the Tower – the chancellor and the treasurer – will they have conjured a better plan?’
‘If they stayed there I fear they may be beyond saving themselves, never mind us,’ said John.
‘Can we put aside fears of the world’s end until after the peasants have gone?’ asked William by way of an order.
‘I don’t think they’re going – not all of them. Are we to stay here ’til we fall off our horses?’
William whispered to his mount, which shook its head. ‘We should stay until vespers. That will allow us back into the city before curfew. Anyone who wants to gather after that may do so at the Guildhall.’