Nicholas Brembre 15
William Walworth looked to serve another term as mayor – his third in all – but deeper thought and discussion with his friends took him in a surprising direction. He suggested an irritating choice: that they make their rival their master.
‘John de Northampton – is he not that pile of ordure who keeps stirring up the cutlers and the cordwainers?’ asked John de Chichester.
‘That is he, as you know very well.’
‘You want to encourage him to do more?’ asked John Pyel.
‘If he were mayor he would not need to.’
‘That’s your reason?’ asked Nicholas Brembre.
‘Not the main one. The duke of Lancaster is the main one.’ So said William Walworth and his friends gathered close.
The duke of Lancaster had avoided the worst perils of the revolt, notwithstanding the loss of his palace and of his confessor, William Appleton, who had been dragged out of the Tower with archbishop Sudbury and Sir Robert Hales. Despite his absence in the realm’s need, the duke arrived back in the south stronger than ever. While he was in Knaresborough everything in and around London had fallen apart, leaving him the obvious man to put it together again. He had always hated London and its citizens, who had no birth to recommend them yet held power over the king through their ill-gotten wealth and their ability to loan it to him.
The duke had sought to control the city through whatever means were available. In the twilight of his father Edward III, with his brother Edward near death and nephew Richard a helpless child, he had the kingdom in his hands. But London was still a force against him – that is, much of London was against him, but not the faction of John de Northampton. Duke John needed his whore in the city and John the mercer was coquettish. The union of the Johns became discernible in shadow over the course of two or three years. It is hard to date the beginning of a romance, but Nicholas was proud of his political nose and the so-called ‘good’ parliament stank of roses.
During this parliament, the longest of king Edward and almost his last, London had come under an attack that was enabled by its own citizens. There were accusations against three merchants: Richard Lyons, vintner, of abusing his control of the wool subsidy; John Pecche, fishmonger, of creating a monopoly in sweet wine; and Adam de Bury, skinner, of some mysterious deceit on the king as mayor of Calais. There may have been some artfulness their behaviour, but in the main what was done was in line with business as it is conducted in the modern world. Parliament made practicality sound like villainy – that was the danger of it. And on the back of this were forced through the changes to city elections that John de Northampton supported – and that was the worst of it.
On the long-awaited completion of this parliament, an assembly was convened in the Guildhall of the mayor, recorder, sheriffs, aldermen and commons to effect the changes that had been agreed and to degrade the errant merchants. John de Northampton was neither mayor nor sheriff but he was powerful in this body with the duke behind him. The question for his rivals was whether to attend the meeting. And this, of course, necessitated another meeting, which would not be at the Guildhall and would not be announced to the generality.
They met at William’s house in Thames Street, that place where four years later Nicholas would find himself deep in drama again on the eve of the insurrection.
William Walworth was always reasonable. He seemed at a different height to everyone else, as if floating a little above the ground. He was less troubled by the waves and currents of public life. He had a trick of waiting before making a reply, which felt as if he had forgotten the question. But when the answer came it was full and true, demanding homage to the power of reflection. The pause that came now, when they must decide whether to support their fellow merchants, was the longest Nicholas had endured. Nor had he counted its like since that time. William was silent, William was still. Other members of the group twitched and shuffled and smothered their words as they struggled for life. Reasonable William took breath at last and said no.
‘John Pecche claimed in parliament that we all agreed to the levy on sweet wines, for which he had been condemned. What use would it be for us to confirm this? It will not save him now. It would not have saved him then. More of our party would have been put on trial to the detriment of the city. What kind of disorder would follow were we all to be arraigned? Business requires stability and it requires a light touch from the king, who would likely intervene if there were trouble.’
John Philipot followed: ‘All three claimed agreement at the top level of the city. And they were not lying. We cannot deny complicity, only that there was real offence in the first place, on which point parliament has already spoken. And so we cannot fight election by mistery either, and this will weaken us in the future. We cannot do anything that will right the situation, we can only lie quiet in order to avoid further harm.’
Old John Stodeye was one of the party. He snorted when the verdict came. William ignored him with determination. But Nicholas enjoyed the spectacle of the old man silently shaking with mirth. He no longer cared to hide completely his personal satire on the painted world. He laughed but he let be. The decision stood. John, with the others, stayed away from the meeting of the council. He did not go against his fellows, though clearly he thought them to be in the wrong. Within a year he was dead. Nicholas kept safe the image of the shaking man. It was brighter in his memory than the great merchant he had approached for the hand of his daughter.
John Stodeye had four daughters. He stood them round him like banners, beautifully dressed in gold and red, sea blue and grass green, dripping jewellery. The stones on them were so big the daughters seemed merely the settings for them. Nicholas needed some of those stones and so did other young men seeking their fortunes.
Idonia, Margaret, Margery and Joan. Their faces took on the colour of their clothes. They shone in the light of many candles and their smiles curved from the comfort of their maiden lives. Who had the fairest face? He thought about it only now. Can he have been so ambitious as a young man that he did not even notice? Margaret had the fairest face. He knew it then indeed, but he put aside this detail because Idonia was the one he was offered. To be true, none of the daughters would be beautiful standing in a shift. Take away the clothes, the jewels and the candlelight, you would probably not try hard for a second look.
Idonia was his prize, his future. He was pleased with her and grateful to old John, who thought him worthy of her. She stood in the church gate on the arm of her father, waiting to pass to her husband. The face that was not beautiful but was his was suddenly tense, fearful, touched with grief. He remembered it now, though he had been too bloated to want to see it at the time. Was it true that she gripped her father’s hand and did not want to let go? But there she was a moment later, taking his own with light fingers, reflecting her husband in her eyes.
It was a revelation for them both, this ceremony of reduction, this nonsense of becoming one flesh. Their childhoods were apart, their parents quite unalike, they were separated by work and domesticity. They only guessed at each other’s opinions and philosophies. They found that they were wrong in many cases. It was a month before Idonia let him lie beside her. He did not press her though he felt some alarm. Once she had understood the basics she was keen to broaden her knowledge. She said she was pleased to be married to him. From that phrase and from the relief in her face, he gained some sense of her task in following the wishes of her father.