Nicholas Brembre 19

by socalledstories

Nicholas had fewer books than William Walworth but he had enough to give that sense of space and weight that settled the soul when he looked at them. They were displayed in a case that showed their spines and he had paid for glass in a hinged frame to be fitted for their protection. A servant cleaned the glass but only Nicholas laid a hand on the books.

He was aware that Idonia had her own little collection. She had a couple of books of hours and some romances. John Stodeye had allowed his daughters to learn to read and write. Sometimes it is easier to rest with an old man’s judgment than to puzzle out the question anew. Personally he preferred to read to her from his history books than to think of her alone with the lives of saints or the millinery adventures of bored girls.

Books were a miracle, a prize of wealth. The church had possessed them for many ages through the privilege of scholarship. But they had kept them in Latin and they had kept them for themselves. Now there was a change and books were being written – copied and composed – for the laity. Parchment was being replaced by paper, like gold yielding to tin. But only those with money could buy them yet. It was not as with wine, that there was that which was bad enough for any pocket. Or bread that came in coarsening colours ’til the poor must eat black. What, in any case, would be the point of a peasant possessing a book? Who would read it to him? So it is that a library is a wonder possessed by few, and in the past fewer still.

‘What will happen, Nichol, if all stories are put in books?’

‘I didn’t know you were there, Idonia. Sneaking up with feet of feathers!’

‘You were enjoying yourself and I didn’t want to bring an end to it.’

‘I do not understand your question.’

‘Yes, you do. You know that most stories are told and not read. They live in people’s heads and are always changing. So what happens when the ink catches them?’

‘They are just stories…’

‘What about the Brut? Just stories?’

‘The Brut has always been written down.’


‘Well what about the life of Christ? What about the old testament?’

Idonia shuddered and pulled away. Nicholas felt he had won his point. He turned his body back towards his books. But the image of his wife’s face fixed itself at a moment’s delay and he had to look again. The pain in her eyes infected him.

‘I came to tell you that the members of the meeting have arrived.’ She spoke to him without ire but her voice had gone dull and polite like a servant’s, as if the radical spark that had prompted her to take on Peter’s task had been smothered before it could make light.

The merchants of the victualling guilds settled themselves around the hall in La Riole and began rubbing at the great itches and cramps of the moment. Problems ranged from the common to the bizarre. Solutions ranged still wider, but there was even less agreement over these. One merchant was convinced that John de Northampton planned to send teams into Southwark to tear down all the stews. Another worried that his wife’s mother was concocting spells to boost his business. She was famous for her inaccuracy and he believed that a rival was gaining the benefit at his expense. A third had caught a glimpse of the new queen and hoped her pink cheeks might signal a royal child. The party present should be first to congratulate the king in order to gain the advantage. A clearer-headed commentator attempted to recover purpose by suggesting parliament as an opportunity to fight back against mayor John. Complaints could be made about the policies imposed against trade. Perhaps the king would understand what was happening.

Nicholas thought parliament a good focus for the discussion, although with the Duke of Lancaster still more powerful that the king it was a risky place to go.

‘Thomas Goodlake, that ambitious young man who is a little too young and much too ambitious,’ pronounced William Walworth, as the name was flung up from this mess of a meeting. ‘You brothers-in-law have set him up with house and business and now he wants to taint your generosity by making his own decisions. On the eve of fatherhood he makes a will that reveals a dangerous determination and asks you to execute it.’

It was odd to hear Sir William oppose both this own nature and Nicholas’ judgment of a family member. William was known as a man to take a positive view of a situation. For that matter, Nicholas’ sympathetic view was equally irregular, albeit he had the excuse of his thorough knowledge of the subject. At the start of an acquaintance it was better to be prepared for the worst since chance delivered rotten eyes even in that which had been sound. Every harvest had its problems and would only bring good yield if it were scrutinised severely from the start. It was only after a while that you could ease back and let it grow. Nicholas had felt confident of Thomas because he had observed him over time – but was there something that William had seen, despite his shorter view, that qualified him better as a judge? After all, Nicholas had been expressing his own doubts recently, albeit these had tended in the opposite direction, that his brother-in-law was too virtuous.

The meeting continued. But was it a meeting? It looked like a meeting and it behaved like a meeting, but it had no shape, no place in the city calendar. This was how things now were. There had been plenty of non-meetings before but they had been preparations for real meetings. Real meetings would not work if non-meetings did not sort out the business ahead of them. Nowadays they – the grocers, the fishmongers and their friends (sometimes named the victuallers for simplicity) – were not in charge of the real meetings and so the non-meetings fell apart and wandered into each other’s business.

‘Mayor John wants to speak to us,’ said John Philipot, who had been quiet until then.


‘The aldermen, I suppose. He does not need to speak to the common councilmen since they agree with him already,’ continued John in his sonorous and level voice.

‘What does he want us to do?’ asked Henry Vanner.

‘Clean our brothels, loosen our nets, speak respectfully,’ said Nicholas Exton.

‘Raise a loan for Lancaster,’ said William Walworth.

‘Does he think we would do it?’ asked Henry?

‘He is deluded much of the time…’ said Nicholas.

‘No, he is not deluded. His schemes are bad ones that men of sense would not support. But he knows this and he looks for other means to gain his ends.’ John spoke with reason, as a man who understands deception though he does not practise it. But why was it John who knew of the mayor’s desire, who had brought this message to the meeting?

Nicholas disliked holding meetings in his own house. He looked around the hall at the tapestries, the rushes, the expensive cushions and the plates of fine food. A man’s home should be like his clothes: familiar, comfortable and chosen by himself. There should be no sharp pieces of other people and their daft choices.

‘John is a draper,’ John Philipot was explaining, ‘but he does not stand for all drapers. He is rich but he does not favour those as rich as he. He courts the discontented, the drapers who are still drapers, who have not become merchants. And among the other guilds it is the same. He seeks the support of artisans, small men: armourers, pinners and tailors. From them it is easy to create an opposition.’

‘This is a dangerous man.’

‘So he likes to think.’

‘But he stands against his fellow merchants…’

‘Is that so strange an idea? Do not merchants oppose each other all the time, except when each decides, separately, it is better to work as a team?’ John opened his hand in a gesture that demanded acceptance from the unwilling.

‘But the way in which the city is governed – the wardmoots, the common council, the aldermen and mayor – all these show how merchants work together. These offices are voluntary and they are expensive. Why would men take them if they did not see a common cause?’

‘You do not contradict me, Henry. How would it be without this collaboration? Would it be good for business?’

‘Some might say that the state of the city shows not that order comes naturally, but that a desperate effort has achieved but minimal protection against chaos.’

‘And so we pull together despite our urge to tear each other apart.’

Far below the beams of the huge wooden roof bright figures squirmed in the dust. John Pyel and John de Chichester were fighting over the meaning of Richard Norberry’s new hat while the rest were listing ordinances before and after the arrival of John de Northampton. The fire in the centre of the hall was doing its best to match them with its flames flailing while its smoke rose, tedious and diffuse, to its escape at the highest point of the roof. At intervals the new apprentice appeared with more wood, sometimes only just in time to recover the flames, showing his resentment of a task that should have been taken by a servant. Gombert had laid claim to a dying mother.

Nicholas’ concentration was as bad as a brewer’s tonight. His thoughts left the dominant topic and went back to the Goodlake will. Thomas sought to bequeath a number of assets that were, if you thought about it, not really his to lose. Nicholas’ eye was drawn to one in particular. In practical terms the property was Thomas’. It had come to him with Joan from her mother, also Joan, who had brought it from the Gisors grocers to her marriage with John Stodeye. It consisted of a house and grounds at Homerton where Joan had been born and her mother later died. The site was not well favoured, sitting just above the marshes and not immune to its humours. It did not flood but was sometimes surrounded, and this was why, Nicholas assumed, Thomas sought to discard it. But some things scorn worldly calculation and make their claims on other grounds. This was one such, a place of significance to the family and of strange beauty, something to be kept for its own sake in defiance of the ambitions of youth.

‘I know what he wants to do, by God!‘ Nicholas lurched back from the marsh and thrust his hands towards the fire in La Riole.

‘He wants to march on against thousands of years of tradition, which have served our city well,’ said Henry as if completing Nichol’s boast and in a good copy of his voice.

‘So it seems,’ said the real thing, recognising the return of the vexed topic of the election changes. ‘It is true that history goes with election by the wards, but the ban on aldermen serving continuous terms is written in the record. It dates back to an ordinance of king Edward II but has been ignored as long as I can remember.’

‘Never mind what you remember, are you sure about the ordinance?’

‘You are aware, surely, that there is a chamber in the Guildhall that holds the rolls, on which the clerks record the business of the city. See for yourself.’

‘This is a strange hobby of yours Nicholas, rubbing your nose in old ink when you could have the foul air of the future in your face.’

‘Strange hobby, mad old man; but I am not the only one. When I went to the chamber before the changes were made – or reimposed in the case of aldermen – I found that John, or one of his men, had been there before me: the books were out of line and the parchment was roughed at the edges.’

‘Well, they have achieved their object in regaining election from the guilds. They have won the mayoralty that way and hope to keep it. What we have to think of is how to reverse the process.’

‘We will need to win on their terms before we can get back to election by the wards. Who will put himself up against John?’

‘William Walworth? John Philipot? Nicholas Brembre?’

‘It makes no sense to chose now when we do not know how things will lie in the autumn. We are struggling to survive at present. The fishmongers are losing money as if the waters of the world had drained away.

‘Autumn will soon be here and tariffs lower ever,’ said Nicholas Exton, a sense of desperation escaping with his words. The price of fish had resumed its rightful place at the centre of the world.

Having gradually broken down to the state of rubble, the meeting reformed as a party in the ruins with the arrival of the wives. The city itself was under discussion and wine was washing its banks.

‘This city of London goes back almost to the time of Troy.‘ said Nicholas waving his glass to catch its red in the glow from the pure white candles.

‘Yes, I’ve heard that before. But I don’t remember the story.’ John Philipot was a little too encouraging and Margaret touched him knowingly on the arm. Nevertheless Nicholas could not resist the opportunity.

‘London was founded by Brutus, who was the grandson of Aeneas. He was told by the goddess Diana to seek the land of Albion. He came here and triumphed over the giants. There were no men then. You have heard of Gogmagog?’

‘Certainly. You told me about him.’

‘I sense mockery in your voice.’

‘I sense sadness in your telling of old glories.’

‘Look at the world today and you wonder if it might have been better even under the giants.’

‘I have difficulty with the giants. Do you believe they were real?’

‘Many years have passed since then. There is nothing to tell us such creatures did not exist. How would you show otherwise? I have spoken to men who have seen stranger things in their travels – and in our own times!’

‘So, Brutus rid our land of the giants and none have returned to fill their place, or to settle our argument.’

‘It’s in the book.’

Roman de Brut…’ explained Idonia.

‘Why would anyone go to the effort of copying so many pages of falsehood? What I say to you, you may twist and stretch when you pass it to another. But what is scribed on vellum will not change. It will hold its truth from year to year and on beyond our lifetime.’

‘So. Hundreds of years from now, people will know about the giants, though they have forgotten Nicholas Brembre.’

‘That is right. And they, like I, will know how old our city really is.’

Nicholas was not happy with London tonight and kept revisiting his pain. ‘Who are all these people piled up around the place?’

John Philipot looked up and down and sideways. ‘The same people who are always piled up around the place. I presume you mean the people outside rather than the people in this room.’

‘The same as in our youth?’

‘Well, Nicholas, I don’t think they are the same people if you mean do they have the same names, the same faces, the same flesh.’

‘You’re being clever, John. You play with words like a true politician. But were there so many bags of filth blocking our streets making us fearful and irritated, spoiling the look of the place?’

‘If you’re going right back to our youth, Nicholas, then remember there were more of them – until the plague came.’

‘But the plague killed the good with the bad. It had no plan.’

‘You said that stoutly, as if you can improve on the pestilence.’

‘Improve on the pestilence? What, no pox, no people either? No I can’t manage that, for all my money.’

‘My husband is afraid that he cannot bring order to this chaos. He knows what shape God’s world should be. He knows he can move hearts, or bodies at least. But this draper – John – wraps him in his cloak. He cannot move. He cannot…’

‘Of course I can move! What do you mean?’

‘Idonia means that your powers are reduced without office. You know that. Your influence is still wide through trade and through the customs. And through your ties to the king.’

Explain your own wife’s ramblings, thought Nicholas. I can understand Idonia’s well enough.

Margaret began tracing the comedy of her younger son’s attempts to stay on a horse.

‘I wonder if he will ever learn to ride,’ laughed John Philipot of his stepson. ‘But he’s very good at hitting the ground with a roll!’

The other son was not so amusing. He had entered his late father’s trade – John Berlingham had been a mercer – but did not like it. Nicholas was surprised that any notice was taken of this. What boy had ever been given a choice in this matter? Does a man chose to be born? We are flung from our mothers’ shame to screams of regret. God decides where we land. He asks no man, nor woman, what they might prefer: to be born to better parents, better prospects – not to be born at all.

How would it be not to be? To float in a fog of possibilities? Nonsense, of course! Even to think about it is folly: soft curiosity that seeks to open a chest of snakes. Weakness whines that a man could be constrained by God’s choice for him. But that is what the church teaches: that man is weak, that man must be humbled and content.

We had no choice in what we did,’ said Idonia.

‘But we were not burdened with work,’ argued sister Margaret. ‘We toiled to fill our time with rising and dressing, eating, standing in poses so that our complexion caught the light. And projecting our finer points through velvet and silk.’

John contrived a critical expression but Margaret laughed out loud.

Idonia did not laugh. Her face tightened a little and she placed her hand on her throat, fingers spread. Was she being demur or was this disapproval of what her sister had said? ‘You are right in your way, Margaret. Our duties were leisurely. Their burden was rather in their weightlessness.’

Again, this idea!

‘You see us as a dish to be chosen, or a beautiful object in a shop, a sparkly box or a silver statuette.’ Margaret was shining her eyes at John, who was laughing and nodding. ‘Not now, of course. So much time has passed…’

‘Even now,’ laughed John, ‘you are the most beautiful object in the shop!’

‘Why am I angry with you when you tell the truth?’ Idonia put down her prayer book and walked across the room. She tugged at a tapestry which had caught on itself at the bottom, the tapestry of the battle against the Romans.

I don’t know why you are angry,’ said Nicholas. ‘You are just about the richest woman in London and you have done barely a stroke of work to earn it.’

Why did chance contrive those moments when everyone stopped speaking at once? Margaret was half-risen from her seat, frozen under the coronation feast at Caerleon. She was still shiny from her domination of the conversation, but now her mouth was open without effect and she looked to sister Margery for rescue.

Margery’s mouth was shut, it which state it had spent most of the evening, but feeling the Stodeye call it began to flex a little at the corners while the eyes surveyed the room. ‘What I want to know is…’

Nicholas felt suddenly heavy in the stomach as he recalled that Margery’s comments could be as indigestible as they were rare. But he had nothing to fear on this occasion.

‘…why is everyone called John?’


‘She’s right!’ exclaimed husband Henry. ‘Most people are called John, and if not John then William.’

‘What about women?’

‘Women?’ Henry looked alarmed. ‘I wasn’t thinking about women – although I’m always willing to do so. Joan or Johanna are as common as John. But what would be a female imitation of William? Williama? Williamine?’

‘The names of the ladies present are familiar enough: Margaret, Alice, Idonia and so on; but there does seem to be more variety in the names you hear given to girls than to boys.” John Pyel smiled beyond the merits of his observation. Nicholas saw that his cup was empty again.

‘Naming a child is a task, is it not?’ offered Margaret, wife of Walter Sibil.

‘How to honour God and family and be left with something you would actually like to hear on your lips every day?’ posed John Chichester’s wife Alice.

‘I have no wonder there are so many Johns. It is a name that falls in with all the requirements, and since no-one would be so bold as to choose the name of God’s son for their own, John is as close as a parent can get to heaven.’ So said Idonia, though John was not a name she had chosen for any of her children.

‘Yes, the choice of John signals righteous intent,’ said Margery. ‘But we are not so good as God at knowing what comes after, and the name will cling to its possessor whether he walks through darkness or light. How do we tell the difference?’

‘Is it so hard?’ asked William Walworth.

‘John Philipot, saviour of the seas,’ said Walter Sibil.

‘John de Northampton, enemy of prosperity,’ snarled Nicholas Exton.

‘John Stodeye, father of beautiful wives,’ laughed Henry Vanner.

‘John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster,’ sighed Nicholas Brembre. ‘What do we do about him?’