Nicholas Brembre 22
The fishmongers did badly and even Sir William Walworth had to sell property to maintain his household. He could be seen ranging between his remaining London assets like an old bear, and polishing his beloved astrolabe to check it was real and not gone to pay a debt. The band of servants who surrounded him reduced with each sighting but the carriage of the man at the centre remained stiff and true.
Other fishmongers had less wealth to bolster them and appeared slowly to sag under the weight of the measures that mayor John introduced against their customary manner of trade. In June he prohibited the resale of fish brought to the city by aliens or strangers, claiming that the free fishmongers were guilty of seizing such goods and providing inadequate payment in return. The likes of eel, herring, or lamprey could be bought for resale, but only after they had lain exposed in the market for three days. He ordered that the baskets called dorsers in which the fish had always been measured be seized and burned, on the basis that there were undersized. He made outrageous claims of violence on the part of the fishmongers and attacked their long-established right of transferring fish-related matters from hustings to their own court, the halimoot, thereby preventing fair examination, said he.
So there was to be freedom of trade in fish and all the privileges of the guild of fishmongers were lost. John claimed the authority of ancient ordinances, which he was merely reimposing, but he set established practice at no value and by so doing risked the collapse of a system that had worked very well as it was. And it was not fish alone that came under such unwarranted meddling. John waged the war of the farthing. He fixed the price of bread at a farthing the piece and ordered ale to be sold by a farthing measure, to be collected from the Guildhall sealed with letter F. The farthing was also was set as maximum payment for mass at vigils for dead, by which he implied that vicars refused change for a halfpenny. There was something in that. With regard to other occasions he was more generous: 40d at a baptism or half a mark a marriage, unless a close relation.
You had to wonder why he felt the need, the right, or even sufficient interest, to grapple with the church in this way, but he went further still in transferring cases of adultery and immorality to the mayor’s court. Prostitution became a topic of particular interest to him. He sent out parties in search of stews and dragged their occupants through the mayor’s court to the stocks. He stipulated that common harlots (or any women seeming to be such) were to wear hoods of ray only – perhaps so that the stripes would remind you of punishment, either theirs or Christ’s in his efforts to redeem them.
Once John’s diligence had stepped beyond the price of things it started to glare and giggle and sound hysterical. What else did he think he could control? The city had always pretended that it could keep brothels beyond its walls – there were enough in Southwark to convince of this – and lewd women might be better avoided if they could be identified. But really it was an effort hardly worth making against a force that even God was inclined to let burn.
Nicholas kissed his wife and spoke some nonsense to Robert but he must get back to his history. From the first reek of the rebels to their cleansing from Clerkenwell, his witness must be secured. Too often his memory had failed him in the past. There had been much examination of these events in council and court, the prisons had been filled and many had hung, and now those left behind were beginning a second, less formal round of speculation. His record was an extension of his memory but it would be fixed now while it was still true, before it was stretched too far by the circling of the sun, by strong wine or restless nights, or by jostling with the many small things that crowd our lives. He waved the complainants away, vaguely noting the rise of Idonia’s hands to heaven.
Nicholas set down what happened at London bridge but, even as he wrote, gaps appeared between the words. When had he seen the hooded man? How many others were there? Three? Four? Who could they have been? How did he describe his sense of their wrongness? Then he found he was confused by his later knowledge of William Walworth’s switch. He did not want to fix William’s failure to close the bridge after None, when he knew it to be a pretence that would be righted after Vespers.
He wrote down a name, and the bone-like letters shaped his suspicion. John de Northampton. The first hooded face belonged to John de Northampton.
‘Call Jankin,’ he shouted and there was a scrabbling like a bird surprised in a thicket, followed by a whoosh down the corridor that told him someone (Peter) was following his will.
Jankin appeared, still frozen like a peak in July.
‘I want to know who was at the bridge on the day before the riot.’
Jankin nodded. Nowadays his first instinct was to avoid speech. He did not depart as desired but stood there in silence squeezing his eyes as if hoping see more than was offered. Nicholas directed his own eyes at the door.
Eventually Jankin spoke: ‘You were there, Sir Nicholas, and Sir William Walworth…’
‘I want to know who was there that I don’t know about. There were men of money among the idiots. They were wearing hoods and they were directing the others. Find out who they were.’
Jankin swung out into the corridor straight into the figure of Peter on the way back. Their chests stopped inches from each other as if invisible armour kept them apart.
‘Peter is here,’ said Jankin, breathing frost through the unnecessary message. Peter stepped into the room as if only he and his master were present. Nicholas was used to Peter. Peter was like a curtain. He wore matching colours and stood back against the wall, in a corner if he could, and he rustled. When Nicholas was especially irritated by him he reminded himself of his qualities as a servant: his competence, his respectfulness, his lack of odour, and his apparent content. The curtain would hang in the corner for a little while longer – and then Nicholas would scream at it to draw out of the room.
Peter was born into the family, the son of John Brembre’s steward. He was a few years younger than Nicholas, who could remember the wailing of his own mother that her maid had been taken away, and her cursing of the gross shape of woman and her lot in God’s plan – and couldn’t He design a better way for children to come into the world? That was Peter: he was born but his mother died, and later his father left in pursuit of something more exciting than fatherhood. But Peter stayed. He stayed through the death of Nicholas’s mother – to the plague rather than the bad design of women – and came with them to London, where he learned to be a city servant. Many such as he put aside their pennies to marry at a proper age and leave the household to make their own way. But Peter stayed.
‘I am to help you get ready, Sir Nicholas,’ said Peter and the higher pitch of Idonia’s complaint wrapped around his bass submission. He had been sent to fetch the master, since wife and son had failed to move him. There was family duty to be done.
Baby Thomasine had been born and, Saint Margaret be praised, her mother lived to welcome her back from her baptism, and indeed continued to grow stronger daily in defiance of her husband’s predictions. Joan was ferociously pleased to present her achievement to her sisters as they arrived for the purification, or churching ceremony one month after the birth. As she knelt at the altar among the candles she had dedicated to our Lady she seemed less purified that exalted. The little flames drew away from the Virgin’s upturned eyes and lit instead the fever of fecundity in Joan’s yellowish orbs. As the party moved from church to house it was refreshed by regular reminders of the baby’s name and virtues, like trumpet calls across the march of an army that might possibly have forgotten why it was dragging its boots in France. Nicholas took to sotto voce speculation on the chances that such another creature as Thomasine had been produced in the history of the world.
The house was full of silver. Some of it was Stodeye silver, some of it came from Thomas’s father, but there were pieces that Nicholas had seen only once or twice, and several that he was sure had not be present at his last visit. What did Thomas know about silver, and how was he affording so much of it at a time of world shortage? What was the state of Joan’s dower?
The aunts had brought their husbands with them, for which reason Nicholas was prepared to tolerate the duty. He looked for John and, having seen him, continued watching for a while. He was standing just behind Margaret, who was peering into the crib. John was smiling too and the light that missed the veiled child was full in his face.
Nicholas had always said, God be witness, that John Philipot’s face was clear as new glass. Look into it and you saw his purpose. What a barrier this should be to success – in commerce, at the Guildhall, by the fireside! And yet it was not. Why not? Because his purpose was always good and this was shocking enough to win the trust he needed.
‘Nicholas Brembre! Why can I never read your thoughts?’
‘Maybe I have none.’
‘And that is why your eyes always circle and your teeth tap, and your ears fold over when the conversation dulls: because you have no thoughts! Yours is the head, of all the heads I know, that looks least likely to be empty.’
‘What a good man you are, John. That is what I was thinking.’
‘John de Northampton has been burning more baskets,’ said Thomas as he marched across his hall.
‘Yes, he likes that almost as much as harassing harlots,’ said Nicholas.
‘He is like a sparrow shitting on one tree after another,’ said Thomas. ‘He tries once, twice, three times before he can achieve satisfaction. Why he can’t make it work the first time we may never know. It was so with the ordinances on fish. First it must not be sold retail in the city; then it must not be forestalled at the coast, nor unloaded at Southwark; then he must come back a third time to make clear that all fish come under this attention, however they arrive, by road or by water. Ordinance after ordinance after ordinance. What evil have any of these poor fish intended that he should squirt so much ink at them?’ Thomas seemed taller than he had done, and older. There was something about fatherhood that made that change but it was hardly an unusual achievement. Man faced no great struggle to decide on the deed, nor usually to accomplish it. The difficult bit was paying for everything: setting up a house to convince a father-in-law of your promise, and then to keep the cash coming in to fill the accumulating stomachs.
As if to prove his worth another way, Thomas blazed on against the foe: ‘And when he thought he’d fixed the fish he started on the fishmongers: William Brampton discharged as bailiff of Southwark because they said he kept fish there; John Pecche, Richard Stile and all those other men whose baskets of fish have been seized from them and burned. Henry White’s dossiers were the property of St Mary Overy, but still they seized them. And the rest of the victuallers are to be given the same treatment: their trading rights attacked, their probity challenged and none to hold office, as if all were traitors and thieves. And now he wants to fix the future as well: his rules to apply forever after. This is near to blasphemy and, if not, it is surely against the spirit of the city.’
‘By God, Thomas, you speak without taking the breath required by a regular mortal!’
‘The last is somehow the worst,’ said John: ‘that he wants to force us to swear to uphold his ordinances even after he is no longer mayor. Nicholas is snorting. He does not agree…’
‘It is not worse than the ruination of the freedom, or our friends starving, but it does show how desperate he is. None of us has said that our rulings should never be changed. We are men not gods. Men are puny things that shift as often as they sneeze. You can try to hold them down for a while, but they will wriggle free…’
‘Nicholas Exton, Nicholas Exton!’ The name beat out like a drum from behind the curtain that screened the outside door. It was followed a furious flapping sound as Henry Vanner attempted to enter the hall.
‘What about Nicholas Exton?’ demanded Nicholas Brembre.
‘Insulting John de Northampton! He’s has been arrested!’
‘John de Northampton’s been arrested? Henry wants to insult him?’
‘Don’t make a joke of this, Nicholas.’
‘What did he say?’ asked John.
‘I don’t know precisely. He spoke about the fishmongers, or perhaps about everything. They are charging him with opprobrious words against the mayor.’
‘Have they taken him to the Tower?’
‘No, I don’t think so. I think he is bailed.’
No-one matched Henry’s level of surprise at the charge, but there was discussion about whether assistance should be offered to the accused. Nicholas noted that there was female interest on this issue. The aunts gathered round and whichever held the baby at that point pushed it forward as a banner. The strange little creature conveyed without words, opprobrious or otherwise, the views of the congregation on absence from the main event. The discussion continued in baritone but lost rhythm and line and in the end Thomas sent two of his servants to the Guildhall for clarification.
Once defeat had been inflicted, the conversation came into the possession of the conquering party.
‘What a fairy face. She has bright blue eyes.’ Of course it was Margery holding the baby.
‘Like Thomas,’ said Joan.
‘Like a saint in a stained glass window. Does she cry?’ asked Margery.
‘Yes, of course she cries.’
‘Saint Ursula never cried.’
‘Saint Ursula becomes more miraculous at each citing,’ said Margaret.
‘I don’t think my baby is going to be a saint,’ said Joan. ‘I suppose she will be the wife of a merchant like me.’
‘She could be a nun.’
‘She could, but I would not chose that for an eldest child.’
‘Like me,’ said Idonia. ‘I am eldest. But perhaps even so I should have been a nun.’
‘Why so?’ Nicholas’s question shot like an arrow through the thick and frivolous air, but when it landed at Margery’s feet he was forced to look up at her burden and then at the ghost of it in the copy-cradle of Idonia’s arms.
‘How are the fishmongers to survive?’ said she, letting her arms drop to her sides.
‘By luck or bad deeds, and we may need to follow them. John de Northampton is the champion of the mean man and he wants to convert us all. God’s glory will not shine in the city, there will be only mud and peeling paint. We will all be fighting for the scraps that are left when there are no great men to manage trade.’
‘There is something odd about this vision,’ ventured Idonia. ‘True though it may be in the world of men, it does not sit easily with the poverty of our Lord.’
‘Then tell me who will aid those who are already poor, if the rest of us become so too?’
‘How something as huge as a city is run is beyond my care, but I know that each of us stands alone before God to make account and He listens to our hearts, not to arguments about what our power over others makes us to do.’
‘Listen to this,’ laughed Nicholas. ‘I married a woman who can use the matter in her head. Pity she does it to bring me down!’ There was sudden quiet in the hall. Nicholas felt that he had had a happy revelation and its novelty inflated his body as if it were sixteen and understanding life for the first, flawed time. But no-one else seemed glad. Idonia looked astonished; but, as he continued to smile at her and at the rest of the company, her face relaxed into a reflection of his and other people took up the mood. He offered her his arm and they walked together along the south side of the hall, where it was harder from a distance to make out the depictions when the sun was strong.
Decorations from the birth of the baby were still hanging around the hall. Joan, it seems, would not let the servants take them down. Nicholas saw jewels among the largest and even the little ones were made of fine stuff. It was a lot of money to spend on celebration that, given the fragility of man, could easily outlive its object. Better to take them down while they were still symbols of joy. Thomasine was pink and lively at present but Nicholas saw her father eye the trinkets, and from time to time a shiny object disappear into his sleeve.
A tapestry of our Lord entering Jerusalem on a donkey was circled by silk flowers. Another showing the descent from the cross was stitched with precious stones. Idonia’s eyes flickered. Nicholas knew her thoughts. Christ was born among beasts of burden, who warmed him with fowl breath. And shepherds were first to honour him and make him gifts of their paltry possessions. Only afterwards did the kings come with their riches. And never did Christ seek to match their wealth or see shame in his humble background.
‘Would we have had a better life had we been poor?’
‘Yes, Nicholas. These things are vanity. We have them only because they have blown to us on the wind.’
‘Have I not worked hard and used skill to build my business?’
‘Yes, of course. You have given me comfort even greater than my father bought. And I have done little to deserve it. But we have only a short time to enjoy our indulgences.’
‘You speak like any poor priest preaching by the road side.’ He was suddenly bored with the speech he had so recently applauded. ‘If wealth is not important why does it matter if you have it or you do not?’
The sun snatched away from the windows as it turned the corner of the house and Thomas shouted at the servants for candles to be lit. His guests reappeared in low yellow circles, where previously God’s clean light had bounced off their heads.
‘How are they complaining of covens and congregations when they operate by that way themselves?’ shouted someone from the other end of the hall.
‘There is great fear of covens since the insurrection.’
‘Yes, and before, but particularly since. False men meet in covens where others are denied. What would they make but bad plans in such a setting? And this must be how the peasants and the artisans met together to plan the revolt.’
‘What is a coven? What makes a group of people a coven?’ asked Margaret. ‘Is this a coven?’
John, her husband, smiled at her and then at Nicholas. ‘The Stodeye sisters ask the questions no man wants to answer.’
‘What was it John Stodeye did to his daughters that other fathers shirked?’ asked Henry.
‘Maybe it was what he did not do,’ said Margaret: ‘He did not produce sons. Maybe when there are no brothers, the sisters have more space to show themselves.’
Thomas’s men came back from the Guildhall with news of Nicholas Exton. They confirmed that he was charged but not incarcerated. Indeed he was standing in the yard under the shadow of St Lawrence looking quite the opposite of cowed, his servants attempting to subdue and drag him home for fear that his bail might be withdrawn. Nicholas Exton was always full of drama. You knew it would be he who stood up and spoke what others kept behind their tongues. Sometimes this was a problem, sometimes reckless words gladly swept the crust away to reveal the meat of the matter. For this reason alone, he deserved encouragement. But the instinct to jump to action sometimes played false. Nicholas thought of men he knew who sat back in the face of crisis and waited until its shape was clearer and its energy reduced. Ten years since he might have rushed off to the Guildhall with his wife shouting after him, but today he had chosen to stay.
Perhaps the women were right, in any case, to stick to the matter in hand. Was family less important than guild or corporation, or even the king? Not really. The city existed through all these threads, and more, winding in and out of each other. The city was like a piece of cloth that had not yet been fulled: the constituents of the weave were all essential yet not quite fused together.
The women were discussing the arrival of Queen Anne from Bohemia in the winter. The city rode out to Blackheath to meet her and accompany her over the bridge and along Chepe, where the guilds were massed in full regalia, wine flowed from the Conduit and shields were displayed bearing the arms of her father the emperor and her soon to be husband king Richard.
‘How would you like to be married to the king?’ asked Idonia.
‘I should like to be queen, said Joan.
‘The king is still a boy. But he is a very beautiful at that. I would be prepared to be patient with him,’ said Margaret.
‘Some of us are perhaps a little old for him. But the queen is just right. And she is very fortunate. Not only has she been given a young and handsome king but he is here rather than in Bohemia,’ said Joan.
‘Are you sure she recognises this advantage? People can be stubborn in their attachment to their origins,’ said Margery.
‘I expect she recognises she has no choice regarding any of it and had better enjoy whatever she can,’ said Margaret.
‘How many children will she have?’ asked Joan.
‘As many as God grants her,’ said Idonia.