Nicholas Brembre 10
The servants settled down to their places in the yard, in the garden and in the narrow spaces along the boundaries. The night came on but it was warm and there was less complaint than Nicholas expected. He himself felt no desire to toss in his bed, uncertain as to whether the house had been set alight or cut-throats entered the yard ready to swarm indoors. Across the city few souls would sleep soundly tonight.
Nicholas made the main gate his mission. The planks had been nailed back in place and he hoped they would hold against a good battering. On the other hand, they would need to remove themselves quickly if escape were required. He sat on the ground with his back against the gate, having never seen his property from this angle before. It was bigger from below, a huge grey hulk with walls that repelled. How was it that he was thinking of it this way? How had he arrived at this position on this strange night in June?
Shouting and screaming intertwined in the street. Nicholas imagined a band of Kentish men tightening around lawyers or clerics in poor disguise. But it could just as well be cutlers extorting pennies from peasants, or family foes reeking revenge. Eventually the shouting and the screaming ceased and only whimpering remained. Agnes looked across at him from her post by the buckets but he flicked away her concerns in a gesture of wise practicality. They could not open the gate for every unknown sniveller. There would be plenty more.
If London had been allowed to manage itself it would not have turned upside down. There was always trouble in London, since so many moved within the walls and had their contrary lives to live. Survival meant competition, competition meant conflict. Not everyone could do as well as the best and not everyone would make do with what was left. But city men knew how to manage city matters. It was interference that blew the balance – not forgetting mismanagement of the realm beyond. So much anger had spilled from so many simmering pots. The government had taxed and taxed until the peasants could not pay. Then they had sunk the money in the channel in failed attempts to protect it from marauders. John Philipot had had more success against pirates with one trip at his own (and Nichol’s) expense. But on his own he could not cover the entire coast of England.
Then there had been a string of other military failures, some of which had no obvious reason beyond the vanity of those who lead them. Thomas of Woodstock tore up taxes in France, while his brother of Lancaster was itching to take off for Castile to waste even more of the nation’s hard-earned coin in pursuit of this dull and distant crown. Nicholas and his colleagues has stopped offering loans for the present because the money went to such hopeless causes, and if not these, then to excessive expense in the royal household.
Meanwhile, people were angry at the clerics who cheated them and the lawyers who tied them up in writing. They were angry at the number of aliens in their midst, taking work from them, increasing prices, breaking customs, making parts of London sound like foreign cities. And now this move of the Italians to take their business through Southampton instead! Nicholas could be ruined as a result.
In the morning he left Jankin in charge and took Peter and Guy with him to the Guildhall, where he took part in a many-headed reckoning of what had occurred overnight. Most had fared worse than he. A number had lost property – a warehouse, a dwelling, a servant – although sometimes in unexpected ways. Two grocers had been deprived of their houses, not by fire, but by being forced to hand over their leases. Others had lost servants, not to violence, but desertion to the cause of freedom. At least one had lost a boat from its mooring, untied by drunken peasants who appeared to have fallen off and drowned in the night. The boat was stuck in the mud down stream but the peasants remained unidentified among the many foul things that float in the Thames.
Nicholas asked of the king and his entourage. It was then that he heard the fate of the treasurer and of the chancellor. Hiding in the Tower had not saved them. While Richard had been at Mile End, the mob had rushed into the fortress and attacked the archbishop at the altar. He, the treasurer and others of the royal party had been dragged out and murdered on Tower Hill. Nicholas recalled Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales as they prayed in the chapel of the White Tower two days before. Those pale faces were now paler still and stuck on pikes on London bridge.
But what had happened to the king? There was no clarity on the subject. Some thought he had gone by boat to the Wardrobe, but others said it was only his mother who took the trip. (She had been molested by peasants before her belated rescue). Some thought the king had been taken further, perhaps to Windsor. A number were unable to see how he could have escaped the city without news reaching its citizens. Could he be lost somewhere or, worse still, hidden in death?
‘The king is marching to Smithfield,’ shouted William Walworth as he entered the hall. ‘I need all the forces we have assembled to be ready for the signal. Nicholas and John, please organise your men and come to me beyond the wall. We will hold the main force back until we know what may occur.’
Nicholas headed across Smithfield, struck by the strange convexity of the city walls. From here England stretched away into mediocrity. Roads trailed through muddy villages, drying to crusts over generations of blank and unfamiliar faces. Those still moving had hardly more effect. Women with fraying edges and dull jewels; men in the hoods of king Edward’s day with grime on their boots; children begotten behind haystacks, and perhaps born there too, since they still had straw in their hair.
Back at Smithfield the corpses made more struggle. Cart loads of plague-infested bodies lay buried side by side and on top of each other, straining to catch the stamping of the horses and the voices of those upon them who are yet to rot. The priest at St Antonin said that souls were beautiful even while the bodies that housed them shuddered and stank. Shit and vomit would stain the orifices of their escape, yet a soul could fly spotless from a corpse. But when the effluent is in such excess, it is hard to glimpse the ghost. At times he struggled to share the vision of his spiritual betters. What was it that God promised for this world?
Many men were on the field and there was much movement. A thunder of boots and hooves broke above the graves. Nichol’s eye, like lightening, sought the height of the event. A sword flashed on a hip and voices cut into the heat. The crowd parted grudgingly and his mount followed through. A peasant and one of the king’s men were hacking at each other with words of contempt. The twisted country vowels were seeking hold on the richer rendering of the court. The peasant was demanding to be served drink: first water, then ale. The country vowels turned to filth and, while the king sat silent, his esquire lost himself in accusation: he knew Wat Tyler to be a thief, the biggest thief in Kent. There was a scuffle – both looked like children now – but there was a grown-up dagger in the void between them.
The king was right there beside them. But so was William Walworth. Nicholas shared the hot, pulsing desire to protect the king. But William was nearer. William was master of the moment. In crisis he relied on routine: he stepped forward to arrest the villein. Nicholas heard from his friend’s mouth the words they had so often used on the night watch over the years. The tiler, however, was not inclined to comply just because the mayor of London had puffed out his expensive clothes and assumed the stage. There was light on metal and Nicholas heard the slice of a blade through the air, slowing suddenly like revelation as it met solid matter. Did he want to see what had caused the roar and the hush? Fear flowed like pain through his throat and limbs.
The king was aghast, no blood in his smooth face. Around him were figures frozen from motion, holding arms, shields and weapons across his shape like tree branches around a naked girl.
William Walworth had been run through and yet – was rising to his feet! Wat Tyler was shaking his blade arm as if it were broken by the blow he had inflicted. Now William’s sword was at work and the tiler was reeling from a cut to the neck. He left a dark trail as he slouched back across the field on his tiny horse.
Nicholas’ mount was soaked through with sweat. He could feel its fibre tense as a spring between his legs. It knew it should be still but its hooves cut shifting patterns in the dirt. Nicholas could hardly hold the animal. The tiler, meanwhile had fallen from his. Was he dead? No, he seemed to mimic the movements of the horse, though Nicholas sensed that this had become the limit of his competence. A ragged collection of peasants shuffled out of the mob and carried the groaning bundle back into their midst.
Everything else in the world seized up, as if it had become ink in a book, while men on both sides contemplated glorious action or sensible restraint. But the seizure was quick to unwind and the frozen anger was finding its voice. The peasant lungs of England were working up a hell-storm. ‘They’ve killed our captain,’ they wailed. ‘We will kill them!’
Into the noise rode the king. His men fell behind. None followed him further than the need to escape would recommend. But Richard rode right to the centre, where the image of Wat Tyler was printed in the dirt. Richard was stretching upright, looking for the first time big enough for his mount. His body was strung like a harp, a shape strong, fair and resonant. His voice was true and all who were on Smithfield heard what he said: ‘You have no captain but me. I am your king and you are my people. Behave you peaceably!’
The king’s voice sang around the field and faded into the summer light. One by one the rebels became quiet as if his gracious authority was a tonic that had eased their mood. They bowed their heads and murmured as if in penitence.
William was close to Nicholas and whacking hot breath into his ear. ‘We need to rally the city. This thing is poised on a precipice. We cannot let it fall.’
‘Are you hurt? Or dead perhaps?’
‘He has torn my cloak but not the armour underneath!’ William laughed like a drum and turned his horse toward Newgate.
Back across the corpses they rode, through the gate into the real world. But what a reminder of fortune’s chances, for the city was in chaos. Nicholas had dreamed for a moment that there had been no invasion, no riot. But his thoughts untangled around the trumpets’ sound. Why be so surprised at the incarnation of fears they had sustained for so long?
William Walworth and John Philipot turned left and right leaving Nicholas the centre path. It was not a difficult task to muster the forces. The men of the watches, not to the mention the armed groups assembled by the likes of Sir Robert Knolles and Sir Perducat d’Albret, were waiting for the summons and it took little work to round them up and point them at Smithfield.
But what might have happened while they were away? The world might have turned over and the rebels be swinging like a monkeys from the arms of the throne. Richard’s gold and ermine might be trampled into the dust. They should not have left him.
‘Thank God!’ shouted William Walworth as he and the levies flowed over the field. Then: ‘Where is he in the name of the Lord?’
Nicholas followed the sequence of observations: the king was on his horse but the tiler had disappeared. There was a gathering at the door to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Many faces were turned that way, almost as many as were turned on the king. William was drifting towards the hospital but Nicholas was pulled as if by rope towards the king. He reigned in his horse and bowed his head but, even as he paid homage, he felt compelled to raise his eyes. A shining image was before him where he had expected to see flesh. What that noble prince Edward of Wales had achieved on foreign fields, his son now matched in his stand against his countrymen.
There were eruptions from the hospital. William Walworth burst forth dragging what looked like a sack of beetroot but was just recognisable as Wat Tyler. The sack was groaning loudly but made no resistance other than its weight. William dumped it in the centre of space.
The audience was sharp with metal and blunt with wood. The peasants swayed and sighed yet held their line. The king’s men gripped their swords and ground their teeth but Richard did not move.
Meanwhile, William was at work. He straightened the sack and cut off a corner. Then the beetroot came tumbling out.
The peasants could not believe what had happened. Had they thought that the tiler would leap up again and lead them to glory? Instead he was lounging on the ground while mayor William waved his sword and something sickly was dripping from the blade. Nicholas stopped in shock, forcing his brain to comprehend. Why was the prone man so short? Why was William set in pride? Why did the king show both alarm and gratitude? The answers were to be found on the field, where the body of Wat Tyler lay abandoned, and his head, at a distance of several feet, looked up to the sky with nothing more to say in this world.
‘Let us leave this sullied site and meet on the cleaner ground of Clerkenwell!’ The king did not wait for agreement but turned his horse away from the sun. His dignity in youth was like a benediction. It soothed and it compelled. ‘I will see you all there by the next office.’ A strange sense of hope through God descended on the masses and they gathered their small things for the move.
The king’s men, meanwhile, formed up and followed out. There was no confusion for them about whom to revere. Routine or the weight of a coin, if nothing deeper, would suffice to pull them in the right direction, regardless of their preference for slaughter.
Once in an Italian town two cartloads of wine jostled by the river and the barrels tipped over the edge. Here, where the stream divided, the barrels crashed down their separate routes, running together and yet apart until they met again at the weir. How curious to become an object in a memory of a distant place, to understand the experience of a barrel through this gush of human folly. But there it is: the two streams of barrels crashed through the dust of Middlesex and no-one knew what would happen, except that they would meet again at Clerkenwell.
St James looked down on the green and before long he was looking down on the strangest collection of Englishmen that had ever sought his shadow.
Nearby the Priory of the Hospitallers was broken and smoking still. It seemed that nothing of Sir Robert Hales or his business had been spared by the rebels.
A servant brought water for the king from the clerks’ well. Richard washed his face and his hands and the men of the rising watched while he did so. They were fewer than they had been at Smithfield. Not all the barrels had ridden the stream.
‘The death of the tiler has sapped their strength,’ said Nicholas Brembre to William Walworth.
Overhearing, Sir Robert Knolles pushed his way through. ‘So it should have been before.’ He paused to catch William’s agreement. ‘We should have slapped them two days ago and not allowed this parley nonsense. Then we would still have an archbishop and treasurer and no-one would have put hands on the princess.’
Maybe so; maybe not. Nicholas had felt the same from the vantage of the Tower when the rabble were rolling round all the bends of the city. But at Smithfield they were one shape: 30,000 men filled with hatred for their lot in life and ready to follow their chance. Had the tiler had the wit to stay on his horse, who can say where the crown might now be? There is no fate unless it is God’s will, and that gives it the lie. We mortals have no more gift of what must happen than we have true understanding of God’s mercy. But the day has fallen our way.
‘We would still have too many lawyers,’ said William Walworth.