Nicholas Brembre 13
Three months remained of Sir William Walworth’s mayoralty and in this time he grabbed the city by its ragged roots and attempted to shake out of it every rebel that remained. He pursued, interrogated and sat in judgment over them. Nicholas had never seen him so full of blood. The power and the imperative came from the king, who had been quick to appoint commissioners to deal with the insurrection and thought of William first. Execution and mutilation were encouraged – if necessary without recourse to the courts – and a strategy was demanded to protect the city from further attack. But William did not need prompting. He fulfilled each precept almost before the royal tongue had flexed. He ordered the aldermen to prepare lists, firstly of suspects, then of hostel keepers. He required the citizens of the wards to take oaths of fealty to the king and to ensure that the watch was kept and the gates guarded day and night. He toured the courts, the prisons and the alleys in pursuit of filth to launder. He seemed to be everywhere at the same time, a presence beyond its own possibility.
In the early days, as tales arrived from Norfolk of the bloody reckoning inflicted there by Henry le Despenser, mayor William took similar advantage of the terms of his commission and separated bodies from their limbs or from their souls. Among those who appeared to welcome this treatment was a man named John Starling, who was known for hanging naked blades from his neck and who boasted of beheading the archbishop of Canterbury. Another, Jack Straw, claimed he would have been king of Essex had the rebellion not been betrayed, that the boy Richard would have been killed, along with all the clergy, and London burned to the ground. William amused his friends with this fantasy for far longer than it could be enjoyed by its author.
Sir Nicholas Brembre was not an alderman. The notorious charter of Edward II, long ignored, had lately been enforced, such that aldermen could not serve for consecutive years. This did great damage to London by depriving it of experience and continuity. It was frustrating to stand aside while virgins fumbled with the flailing body of the city. There was relief in escaping the daily effort to master the beast, as Idonia pointed out, but in truth the frustration was the stronger force.
Nicholas was used to sitting on civic bodies: wardmotes, hustings, the mayor’s or aldermen’s courts and many more besides. Theft, fraud and violence; unsafe walls, leaking privies, noisy brothels; orphans, widows and paupers; false chequer boards, light bread, putrid pigeons, tight nets. Of such cases few stood out as worthy of the effort, and yet the effort had to be made. He did enjoy the story of the ‘mute beggars’ who made false tongues of leather to convince subscribers they had been torn from them by thieves. Instead he mimes themselves were thieves, defrauding the community of its charity. They made noise enough when they were dragged to the pillory and afterwards to Newgate Gaol.
What most quickened his spirit was dealing with disorder. There had been plenty of this, without need to stretch to recent events. Four years ago members of the goldsmiths’ guild had been summoned to court to explain a riot. They blamed the grocers. Nicholas Brembre, grocer, sat in the mayoral seat and laughed at them. He laughed because what they said was impossible. ‘I was there,’ he said.
The goldsmiths shrugged and widened their eyes. ‘God sees all,’ said one. ‘I swear by the Lord we intended no harm,’ said another.
Nicholas felt the elevation of the argument but kept his eye at mortal height. ‘I recall a man with a stick, who stooped until he had to run. He was dressed well but used fowl language. He insulted Hugh Fastolf for no reason and then began whacking him with the stick. What were his intentions?’ However hard they called on God, no answer came to that.
Nicholas had been missing such entertainment, but now he was appointed commissioner alongside William and could come to life again. Each morning as he left his house in La Riole his feet felt firmer on the ground and his body stiff against the breeze.
There were other commissioners: John Philipot and Robert Launde, newly knighted alongside Nicholas; Sir Robert Knolles who had ridden with them on Smithfield; chief justice Sir Robert Bealknap and recorder William Cheyne. Each had been marked out by the king to deal with insurgents from London and from the surrounding counties. The language of the commission fizzed with anger: ‘great crowds of labourers and others have killed many of the king’s lieges, and burned many houses, entered the city of London, and burned the house of the king’s uncle John, duke of Lancaster, called the Sauvoye, and the priory in Clerkenwell of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England, and killed Simon, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor, and Robert de Hales, prior of the said Hospital.’ *
When Nicholas repeated the king’s words, he felt the fury pass into him, where it burned off the confusion that had corrupted him during the revolt. He and his fellow commissioners would rush to put right the horrible wrongs the king had suffered, and so would all the honest men in the realm, each according to his ability.
Within a short time the main insurgents had been removed from the soil they had polluted. Jack Straw, king of Essex, was beheaded in the capital; archbishop John Ball hung, drawn and quartered in St Albans; and Geoffrey Litster, crowned in Norwich Castle, was fatally deposed at North Walsham in his (and Nichol’s) native Norfolk.
As a commissioner, Nicholas attended a number of executions, including that of king Jack. Idonia sat sewing as he described the traitors’ final shudders. But when he spoke of the king’s proclamations rescinding the promises he had made at Mile End, she looked up in disapproval. A deputation of Essex men had sought out their sovereign to hold him to his word, but he dismissed them: ‘Villeins you are and villeins you shall remain.’
Nicholas suspected that his wife had been speaking to sister Margaret, who had in turn been listening to John. John Philipot – Sir John – was true as an oak but sometimes a little wormy inside. ‘Those were no promises, since they were made under horrible threat. The king used words as he would a shield to protect the innocent.’
‘Words defeat themselves that way. If we feign sincerity in need there is nothing to mark our words as genuine thereafter.’
The grey eyes reached him across the solar. Simplicity was Idonia’s virtue, as it should be for a woman. But must he withhold his own standards for her sake? ‘The country was nearly lost and all good people murdered or enslaved. In such peril, choice goes to success and nothing less. Only a ruthless response secures the realm.’
Time, however, cooled the ecstasy of the reinstated and it became apparent that the king would be be merciful. As the remaining rebels made their way between the dark, dank chambers of justice, they found that the final door led back into the sun. Pardon became the favourite response to treason and eventually a general amnesty was issued, with the exception of a paltry list of individuals and of Bury St Edmunds.
The life of the commission was played out on a sliding stage. This man, for example, was named Thomas, the servant of Robert Dyngele, and was accused of threatening to lay in ruins the house of Bartholomew Attelburgh, chaplain, unless he paid him sixty shillings. Two weeks ago he would have been hung; one week ago he would probably still have been hung; this week they were under orders to send cases such as his to the King’s Bench, where he would be pardoned so that he could slide back into the undergrowth. Nicholas sat on the bench behind the long oak table. Robert Knolles was beside him. A sorry succession of barely human beingsslid into view before them: John Bosevyll, squire, Thomas Wombe, taverner, Robert Kene, corsour, and John his brother, Thomas Pynnok, Robert Broke, web, Walter West, smith. They had seen so many he wondered if any creature was left in the world who had not been before the commission.
Robert Knolles was as impatient now to slaughter the insurgents as he had been when they were on Smithfield. He was given to growling when he disapproved of anything, and that was often. The growl began low as if a chesty cough but failed to produce phlegm. Instead it stretched itself, retaining pitch and volume but gaining in intensity. If an animal growls because it is aggressive or afraid, neither applied to Robert’s imitation. Nichol’s suspicion was that the growl was an expression of enjoyment – enjoyment of the folly of man – and that he used it in the court room because he was not supposed to laugh.
Sir Robert Bealknap was similar in skin to his name-sake. Middle height, strong frame, dark hair, pale face. Bealknap had the larger nose and the wider eyes. Between them the two Sir Roberts sported a spectacular collection of blemishes: boils, moles and pock-marks. Knolles displayed a fat purple scar below one cheek, Bealknap a carbuncular growth beside his ear, both items bursting with black hairs. But they were not the same. Sir Robert Bealknap, at the long table in the Guildhall or at any of the other venues they employed around the south of England, talked more, sounded more reasonable, condemned more men. He had a reputation to defend as one of the fifteen names whose erasure was demanded by the peasants when they marched on London. Nicholas felt less easy with him, though there had been no reason to oppose his severity while it still had royal sanction.
And now another Thomas, Thomas of Farndon, appeared before them. Nicholas had last seen him running away from Tower Hill after accosting the king. He would be happy to drag him back there but it was now in the victim’s hands. Thomas had not given up on his florid complaint against Sir Robert Hales but had returned to join those who broke into the Tower when the king was at Mile End. No-one said that he had killed the treasurer or the archbishop, but it seemed he was there when they were seized. Thomas was quiet now. He scanned the room around him but kept his head low, so that his vision trailed up through his eyebrows. His body sagged like an old cow and his movements were fantastically slow, sustaining an idyll of indifference to what might happen to him. He had given up his grip on the world and there was no sense that he could resume the life of a citizen with its privileges and responsibilities. Sense there was, however, that whatever his life had become it would be allowed to continue.
‘What can you say for yourself?’ demanded Robert Bealknap accompanied by the Knolles growl.
‘Where am I?’ asked Thomas.
‘Concentrate on where you were during the insurrection. That is the point.’
‘Insurrection? Who calls it that?’
‘You were seen in the Tower…’
‘We came back home to rest after our day’s work.’
The Roberts looked at each other in agreement to withdraw, but Nicholas held to Thomas’s territory: ‘How did you rest with what was going on around you?’
‘Each man must determine his work to do. I am content to sit and see.’
‘Even when murder is done?’
‘Murder has always been done. You see something as new that appears to me as old as the world.’
As expected, the commission passed Thomas Farndon to the King’s Bench. The judgment to which he seemed indifferent would be spun out in its making over the months while he, the former goldsmith, fashioned dull dreams from prison dust.
*Calendar of Patent Rolls, 4 Richard II.— PartIII June 15. London